Rich Hill is a must-see documentary that shines a light on a harrowing way of living in rural America. The titular city is located in Missouri and ravaged by widespread poverty. Families move from home to home in search of jobs while others are trapped economically and socially. It’s one of the more harrowing, depressing features in 2014 due to the likability of only one character on screen. The poster child, Andrew, is the kindest kid of the bunch, while Appachey is a smoking, angry 12-year old kid that lives in a fractured home with no father figure and a horrible upbringing. Harley is the oldest, in high school living with his grandmother after his mother went to jail for attempting to kill a man that ruined their life. Directors Palermo and Tragos attempt to employ cinematic techniques behind their filmmaking and distance the storytelling from documentary realism. Only as we realize the situation on screen does the film create a long-lasting, brilliant impact. 
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)

Rich Hill is a must-see documentary that shines a light on a harrowing way of living in rural America. The titular city is located in Missouri and ravaged by widespread poverty. Families move from home to home in search of jobs while others are trapped economically and socially. It’s one of the more harrowing, depressing features in 2014 due to the likability of only one character on screen. The poster child, Andrew, is the kindest kid of the bunch, while Appachey is a smoking, angry 12-year old kid that lives in a fractured home with no father figure and a horrible upbringing. Harley is the oldest, in high school living with his grandmother after his mother went to jail for attempting to kill a man that ruined their life. Directors Palermo and Tragos attempt to employ cinematic techniques behind their filmmaking and distance the storytelling from documentary realism. Only as we realize the situation on screen does the film create a long-lasting, brilliant impact. 

Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
I often insist that found footage horror films serve no justifiable purpose in the cinematic landscape. They are generic, plodding, dull, jump scare-heavy features that have derivative characters doing nonsensical things. As Above, So Below follows that familiar formula but delivers on atmosphere and balls-to-the-wall craziness that so few horror films aim for nowadays. The characters even serve a purpose within the convolutedly plotted story as it aims to be more than base-level scares! The horror. But a far too packed conclusion with too many loose ends alongside a soft message for its protagonists leaves the film with a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. The story opens with Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an adventurous, intelligent girl sneaking into Iran to navigate caves that are about to be collapsed underneath the city’s infrastructure. There, she discovers a supposedly lost language map that can lead her to a magical stone that will act as a supreme source of power through alchemy and medical wonder. 
Her journey needs some guidance, though, so she draws upon her old friend, George (Ben Feldman), to decipher where exactly these maps lead. Sure enough, they belong to a place in the Paris catacombs, a 200-mile stretch that holds over six million deceased citizens underneath the city itself. Various parts of the catacombs have collapsed and some areas have secret tunnels that no one has ever discovered. Until now, since they know exactly where to look. A young local, Papillon (François Civil), guides these rambunctious fellows through the catacombs and leads them through various rough spots, only for things to go south quickly. Inner demons emerge as characters begin to battle claustrophobia, the troubles of their past, and the growing unrest as they continue to go lower and lower. They see what has haunted them all of these years as they sift through caverns and ever-increasing holes. It’s as if they are descending into Hell. 
The film deserves credit where credit is due. The story, however convoluted and contrived it becomes in the final act, remains engaging and entertainingly confusing during its course. Loose ends feel like they are constantly being addressed and the lore is dense and sprawling. The problem remains within the premise of the filmmaking itself: why, oh why, does the film need to be in found footage format? What does it possibly add? The first thirty minutes are hackneyed, awful filmmaking in terms of its direction and look. The film is inappropriately framed and doesn’t rely on any cinematic stylings, nor does it feel more personal due to its connection with the characters. Instead, it feels like the shoddy, cheap way to go when making a horror film in today’s age. While films like The Descent have handled this kind of narrative more thrillingly and not relied on the gimmicks of the filmmaking style, here the presentation feels insincere to the audience and like a knock-off rather than an original idea. 
Claustrophobia does play an important part in the film’s effectiveness. Most characters have cameras pinned to their headlights except for Benji (Edwin Hodge), who carries a handheld that he usually places in front of him when navigating through spaces. A brilliantly staged scene has him being the last of the pack going through a tight spot and getting stuck; instead of shifting the camera, director John Erick Dowdle lingers and lets the uncomfortable sense of hopelessness grow. The film truly creates an unnerving feeling with an emphasis on closed walls and other visually demonstrative cues of unrest. Yet the story itself becomes incomprehensible and overblown in its explanations. The narrative doesn’t make much sense with too much mixed Egyptian/Parisian/personal mythology to prevent thematic coherence or narrative sense from occurring. As Above, So Below is exciting when it avoids horror conventions, but more often than not it falls on those crutches and never walks on its own. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

I often insist that found footage horror films serve no justifiable purpose in the cinematic landscape. They are generic, plodding, dull, jump scare-heavy features that have derivative characters doing nonsensical things. As Above, So Below follows that familiar formula but delivers on atmosphere and balls-to-the-wall craziness that so few horror films aim for nowadays. The characters even serve a purpose within the convolutedly plotted story as it aims to be more than base-level scares! The horror. But a far too packed conclusion with too many loose ends alongside a soft message for its protagonists leaves the film with a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. The story opens with Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an adventurous, intelligent girl sneaking into Iran to navigate caves that are about to be collapsed underneath the city’s infrastructure. There, she discovers a supposedly lost language map that can lead her to a magical stone that will act as a supreme source of power through alchemy and medical wonder. 

Her journey needs some guidance, though, so she draws upon her old friend, George (Ben Feldman), to decipher where exactly these maps lead. Sure enough, they belong to a place in the Paris catacombs, a 200-mile stretch that holds over six million deceased citizens underneath the city itself. Various parts of the catacombs have collapsed and some areas have secret tunnels that no one has ever discovered. Until now, since they know exactly where to look. A young local, Papillon (François Civil), guides these rambunctious fellows through the catacombs and leads them through various rough spots, only for things to go south quickly. Inner demons emerge as characters begin to battle claustrophobia, the troubles of their past, and the growing unrest as they continue to go lower and lower. They see what has haunted them all of these years as they sift through caverns and ever-increasing holes. It’s as if they are descending into Hell. 

The film deserves credit where credit is due. The story, however convoluted and contrived it becomes in the final act, remains engaging and entertainingly confusing during its course. Loose ends feel like they are constantly being addressed and the lore is dense and sprawling. The problem remains within the premise of the filmmaking itself: why, oh why, does the film need to be in found footage format? What does it possibly add? The first thirty minutes are hackneyed, awful filmmaking in terms of its direction and look. The film is inappropriately framed and doesn’t rely on any cinematic stylings, nor does it feel more personal due to its connection with the characters. Instead, it feels like the shoddy, cheap way to go when making a horror film in today’s age. While films like The Descent have handled this kind of narrative more thrillingly and not relied on the gimmicks of the filmmaking style, here the presentation feels insincere to the audience and like a knock-off rather than an original idea. 

Claustrophobia does play an important part in the film’s effectiveness. Most characters have cameras pinned to their headlights except for Benji (Edwin Hodge), who carries a handheld that he usually places in front of him when navigating through spaces. A brilliantly staged scene has him being the last of the pack going through a tight spot and getting stuck; instead of shifting the camera, director John Erick Dowdle lingers and lets the uncomfortable sense of hopelessness grow. The film truly creates an unnerving feeling with an emphasis on closed walls and other visually demonstrative cues of unrest. Yet the story itself becomes incomprehensible and overblown in its explanations. The narrative doesn’t make much sense with too much mixed Egyptian/Parisian/personal mythology to prevent thematic coherence or narrative sense from occurring. As Above, So Below is exciting when it avoids horror conventions, but more often than not it falls on those crutches and never walks on its own. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Trip to Italy is a more incisive, spontaneous film than the first entry from 2011. Much like its predecessor, the film was cut from a series of episodes from the British television show into a feature-length theatrical release. Both films feel episodic and highly improvised due to the nature of the filmmaking itself and the terrific comedic actors on screen, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They elevate this sequel to more sweeping, personal heights. The comedy feels more ripe since it is less reliant on immature conversations but rather allegories about the characters’ lives and the acceptance of growing up past their sophomoric, babbling comedy. The comedy doesn’t always work, as is inherent with improvisational humor in a structured setting, but the final half hour adds a level of poignancy and artistry to the storytelling that makes the comedy tragically insightful. These are flawed characters who use their comedy to escape their depressing personal struggles. 
The story is simple: two men, Steve and Rob (playing versions of themselves), travel to Italy for six meals in six different places. They visit restaurants in Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, and Capri, along with side adventures to the ruins of Pompeii and the Roman catacombs. What’s striking about the film is that the premise should rely heavily on the food itself, yet the characters always put that on the back burner. The structure is similar to the first in that the scenes show the chefs preparing the food while cutting between the conversation in the dining room, and there’s a a certain twist on those elements from the first time around. The Trip established Steve as a promiscuous, rambunctious sort that didn’t have the level of success and recognition as Rob, making him a more bitter and inherently more lonely man. This narrative, however, focuses on Rob’s utter inability to sustain his marriage and using his impressions to escape the sad state of his own reality. The story allows harkens back to his personal turmoil and uses that to fuel conversations at lunch. 
Buddy comedies don’t usually frame themselves as character studies but rather narratives filled with eccentric characters butting heads with one another. The Trip to Italy shatters that with its independent storytelling leanings, opening and closing with shots of the same character each capturing a transformation. Steve feels like the center of the story due to those bookends despite his career not progressing as rapidly as Rob’s. The latter gets the opportunity to audition for a role in a Michael Mann film over in the States; he constantly describes it as the lead despite knowing that he dies halfway through and acts as the mob’s accountant. But hey, he can brag about it if he wants. Nonetheless, this fuels Steve’s jealousy alongside Rob’s supposedly successful, happy marriage. My, how things have changed from the first film, with Rob now struggling to maintain a connection with his wife long-distance while she is busy taking care of the kids. He also cheats on her with a young woman that finds him hilarious, so naturally things are a little rough. 
Impressions remain the focal point of the comedy and both actors bring their best voices. The dueling Michael Caines return, where the characters now talk about his work in The Dark Knight Rises and constantly argue that the other simply isn’t doing it right. There are also little glimpses of Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Christian Bale, and Tom Hardy (as Bane, of course). While those are the main attractions for laughs, the film shines when it allows the characters to make observational humor, like a genius interaction at Pompeii discussing a man trapped in a glass box. In those tiny moments the film feels like a strangely brilliant beast. Coogan and Brydon bring a conversational nature to the film with their natural exchanges, reacting wholeheartedly to the other’s offbeat, unwritten jokes. These characters are sad and lonely for most of the film’s duration even if that never emerges at the surface. The final ten minutes are quietly, methodically biting, proving that The Trip to Italy is a comedy that feels light until it delivers a gut-punch of a conclusion. 
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Trip to Italy is a more incisive, spontaneous film than the first entry from 2011. Much like its predecessor, the film was cut from a series of episodes from the British television show into a feature-length theatrical release. Both films feel episodic and highly improvised due to the nature of the filmmaking itself and the terrific comedic actors on screen, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They elevate this sequel to more sweeping, personal heights. The comedy feels more ripe since it is less reliant on immature conversations but rather allegories about the characters’ lives and the acceptance of growing up past their sophomoric, babbling comedy. The comedy doesn’t always work, as is inherent with improvisational humor in a structured setting, but the final half hour adds a level of poignancy and artistry to the storytelling that makes the comedy tragically insightful. These are flawed characters who use their comedy to escape their depressing personal struggles. 

The story is simple: two men, Steve and Rob (playing versions of themselves), travel to Italy for six meals in six different places. They visit restaurants in Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, and Capri, along with side adventures to the ruins of Pompeii and the Roman catacombs. What’s striking about the film is that the premise should rely heavily on the food itself, yet the characters always put that on the back burner. The structure is similar to the first in that the scenes show the chefs preparing the food while cutting between the conversation in the dining room, and there’s a a certain twist on those elements from the first time around. The Trip established Steve as a promiscuous, rambunctious sort that didn’t have the level of success and recognition as Rob, making him a more bitter and inherently more lonely man. This narrative, however, focuses on Rob’s utter inability to sustain his marriage and using his impressions to escape the sad state of his own reality. The story allows harkens back to his personal turmoil and uses that to fuel conversations at lunch. 

Buddy comedies don’t usually frame themselves as character studies but rather narratives filled with eccentric characters butting heads with one another. The Trip to Italy shatters that with its independent storytelling leanings, opening and closing with shots of the same character each capturing a transformation. Steve feels like the center of the story due to those bookends despite his career not progressing as rapidly as Rob’s. The latter gets the opportunity to audition for a role in a Michael Mann film over in the States; he constantly describes it as the lead despite knowing that he dies halfway through and acts as the mob’s accountant. But hey, he can brag about it if he wants. Nonetheless, this fuels Steve’s jealousy alongside Rob’s supposedly successful, happy marriage. My, how things have changed from the first film, with Rob now struggling to maintain a connection with his wife long-distance while she is busy taking care of the kids. He also cheats on her with a young woman that finds him hilarious, so naturally things are a little rough. 

Impressions remain the focal point of the comedy and both actors bring their best voices. The dueling Michael Caines return, where the characters now talk about his work in The Dark Knight Rises and constantly argue that the other simply isn’t doing it right. There are also little glimpses of Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Christian Bale, and Tom Hardy (as Bane, of course). While those are the main attractions for laughs, the film shines when it allows the characters to make observational humor, like a genius interaction at Pompeii discussing a man trapped in a glass box. In those tiny moments the film feels like a strangely brilliant beast. Coogan and Brydon bring a conversational nature to the film with their natural exchanges, reacting wholeheartedly to the other’s offbeat, unwritten jokes. These characters are sad and lonely for most of the film’s duration even if that never emerges at the surface. The final ten minutes are quietly, methodically biting, proving that The Trip to Italy is a comedy that feels light until it delivers a gut-punch of a conclusion. 

Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Life After Beth attempts to breath life into the zombie genre but falls flat due to an inconsistent tone and sporadically affecting humor. The film often feels like a piece of sketch comedy that doesn’t have much substance past its initially amusing premise: a young man’s recently deceased girlfriend is mysteriously brought back from the dead, and she doesn’t seem like the same person. It’s admittedly compelling, but the film never takes advantage of providing commentary on the state of mourning or reflecting upon the nature of zombie storytelling. Instead, the story relies on being amusing and occasionally funny rather than delivering a full-fledged story. The performances are committed and engaging, particularly those by Aubrey Plaza and John C. Reilly, but too many open ends and strange musings leave the film feeling empty and lifeless like its title character. 
The story centers on Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan), a teenager that at the start of the film is seen mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza). Zach is close to Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), and he connects with their feeling of loss and hopelessness. They all wish they could have told Beth things before she died, and not have had their last conversation be so bad, but that’s always how mourners will feel after the loss of a loved one. Zach is depressed, his brother treats him terribly, and he needs to find a way to get past Beth. Then, one day when over at the Slocums’ house, he sees his ex-girlfriend through the window walking down the hallways. It can’t be. She’s dead. He saw the body buried, so he visits the graveyard and finds a hole right in front of her tombstone that points to her rising from the dead. Sure enough, after nagging the Slocums to let him see what’s happening, Beth comes back into Zach’s life and seems good as new. 
Of course everything is not what it seems. Jeff Baena is a first-time director here, having previously co-written I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. He has a knack for deriving comedy out of the characters themselves rather than the actions, which lends itself well to an offbeat zombie comedy. The first half hour is ripe for material to come from a strange father-in-law figure and an aggressively personal brother, but the story can only carry that momentum so far. Most of the film’s second act uses suspense as a means of driving narrative; there’s no surprise in the fact that Beth is a zombie because, obviously, she rose from the dead and we know that a snakebite killed her. Now if the story meanders and the comedy remains, that would mean something else entirely. But much of the middle is defined by Zach falling back in love with Beth and falling right back out of it as she goes crazy and wants to eat his brains. 
There’s commitment to the premise itself and from the actors, which keeps the film from being a bore. Plaza is solid in providing her character with an emotional tie, allowing the heart to shine through her strong desire for consuming human flesh. DeHaan is serviceable in the lead but doesn’t do much with the material due to his character being a thin protagonist. Reilly and Shannon are both terrific comedy actors who propel themselves wonderfully toward the absurdity of the concept. Yet despite all of this energy from the actors, they can’t make the material less trite or commonplace than it is. The story attempts to infuse heart into the final ten minutes but feels strangely distanced and off-putting. The lack of explanation for the dead rising, as they increasingly do throughout the film, leaves the audience with a supernatural take that never meshes with the narrative. Life After Beth is tonally odd and poorly executed, a solid idea stretched out far too much for comfort. 
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Life After Beth attempts to breath life into the zombie genre but falls flat due to an inconsistent tone and sporadically affecting humor. The film often feels like a piece of sketch comedy that doesn’t have much substance past its initially amusing premise: a young man’s recently deceased girlfriend is mysteriously brought back from the dead, and she doesn’t seem like the same person. It’s admittedly compelling, but the film never takes advantage of providing commentary on the state of mourning or reflecting upon the nature of zombie storytelling. Instead, the story relies on being amusing and occasionally funny rather than delivering a full-fledged story. The performances are committed and engaging, particularly those by Aubrey Plaza and John C. Reilly, but too many open ends and strange musings leave the film feeling empty and lifeless like its title character. 

The story centers on Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan), a teenager that at the start of the film is seen mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza). Zach is close to Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), and he connects with their feeling of loss and hopelessness. They all wish they could have told Beth things before she died, and not have had their last conversation be so bad, but that’s always how mourners will feel after the loss of a loved one. Zach is depressed, his brother treats him terribly, and he needs to find a way to get past Beth. Then, one day when over at the Slocums’ house, he sees his ex-girlfriend through the window walking down the hallways. It can’t be. She’s dead. He saw the body buried, so he visits the graveyard and finds a hole right in front of her tombstone that points to her rising from the dead. Sure enough, after nagging the Slocums to let him see what’s happening, Beth comes back into Zach’s life and seems good as new. 

Of course everything is not what it seems. Jeff Baena is a first-time director here, having previously co-written I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. He has a knack for deriving comedy out of the characters themselves rather than the actions, which lends itself well to an offbeat zombie comedy. The first half hour is ripe for material to come from a strange father-in-law figure and an aggressively personal brother, but the story can only carry that momentum so far. Most of the film’s second act uses suspense as a means of driving narrative; there’s no surprise in the fact that Beth is a zombie because, obviously, she rose from the dead and we know that a snakebite killed her. Now if the story meanders and the comedy remains, that would mean something else entirely. But much of the middle is defined by Zach falling back in love with Beth and falling right back out of it as she goes crazy and wants to eat his brains. 

There’s commitment to the premise itself and from the actors, which keeps the film from being a bore. Plaza is solid in providing her character with an emotional tie, allowing the heart to shine through her strong desire for consuming human flesh. DeHaan is serviceable in the lead but doesn’t do much with the material due to his character being a thin protagonist. Reilly and Shannon are both terrific comedy actors who propel themselves wonderfully toward the absurdity of the concept. Yet despite all of this energy from the actors, they can’t make the material less trite or commonplace than it is. The story attempts to infuse heart into the final ten minutes but feels strangely distanced and off-putting. The lack of explanation for the dead rising, as they increasingly do throughout the film, leaves the audience with a supernatural take that never meshes with the narrative. Life After Beth is tonally odd and poorly executed, a solid idea stretched out far too much for comfort. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
If I Stay is based on the best-selling novel by Gayle Forman, centering on a teenager that has an out-of-body experience after her family gets in a car accident and she enters a coma. The story feels ripe for cinematic storytelling and strong visualizations, but it ends up demonstrating that too many young adult romances nowadays have to look, feel, and sound exactly the same to appease fans. The story must focus on a romance defined by an inconvenient but far too powerful love and continuously demonstrate that the characters are deeply infatuated with each other but also concerned about what the future has in store. The performances are strong when the narrative lets them get into the quieter, more intimate moments of the story; Chloe Grace Moretz is always a pleasant force on screen, and when her character’s love of music shines through, the story feels like something more grand. More often than not, however, it wallows in the amped-up melodrama that defines a young-adult romance in the modern age. 
The film focuses on Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented cello player in high school that’s surrounded by a loving family heaped in music. Her father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), was in a punk band in the ’90s and played around the Portland area to local success. Her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), was a bonafide groupie that exposed her daughter to music early. A scene where Kat, with a pierced nose and dyed hair, holds Mia as a toddler at a concert with huge, construction-like headphones demonstrates the way music has influenced the family. Mia aims to get a full-ride scholarship backed by her talents, but those dreams are a bit complicated by Adam (Jamie Blackley), a talented guitarist/vocalist in an up-and-coming band. They quickly fall in love and soon realize that their future plans may not cross. This complicates things, and their relationship is on the rocks when Mia’s life is changed forever by that horrific accident. 
Most of the love story is told through flashbacks as Mia wanders around the hospital where she’s comatose. As their story becomes defined, however, the scenes mix together like a dreamy haze and feel interchangeable. Most are meet-cute expressions of young love that grow tired. There’s also inexplicably another example of a teenager losing her virginity in a place that the story deems symbolic but ends up feeling woefully unromantic and off-putting. But I am not the core audience of the film, particularly their niche demographic of cello-playing high schoolers that fall madly in love with young rockers. The story also creates an uncomfortably needy male interest in Blackley’s Adam, making him a self-centered character that gets angry at Mia not for hiding that she applied to a school out of state, but that it ruins their plans of being together. His parents neglected him as a child so he doesn’t want to lose her, but it feels like far more of a guilt trip on his part rather than an emotionally backed decision. 
The performances from Moretz and Enos elevate the film to a middle-of-the-road affair. Enos has acting talent, as evidenced by her excellent work on The Killing, and she brings life to some trite dialogue in important scenes. She calls true love a bitch and says that life is full of difficult decisions; the scene should be unwatchably cliché, but it remains tolerable because of her empathy. Moretz mostly acts concerned in the hospital scenes, but Mia’s love for music substantially drives her performance. Stacy Keach is also wonderful in the small role he’s allotted. But there’s a scene that defines the blandness of the film: as the characters walk out of their first date, a long tracking shot begins that follows them down a path after an establishing shot shows the scope of the scene. As the long take starts to make the scene feel naturalistic and poignant, the camera jumps to the pre-existing establishing shot and then to another angle that doesn’t add to the scene itself. If I Stay takes the easy road for much of its journey, becoming emotionally indistinguishable from the glut of young-adult romances in the marketplace. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

If I Stay is based on the best-selling novel by Gayle Forman, centering on a teenager that has an out-of-body experience after her family gets in a car accident and she enters a coma. The story feels ripe for cinematic storytelling and strong visualizations, but it ends up demonstrating that too many young adult romances nowadays have to look, feel, and sound exactly the same to appease fans. The story must focus on a romance defined by an inconvenient but far too powerful love and continuously demonstrate that the characters are deeply infatuated with each other but also concerned about what the future has in store. The performances are strong when the narrative lets them get into the quieter, more intimate moments of the story; Chloe Grace Moretz is always a pleasant force on screen, and when her character’s love of music shines through, the story feels like something more grand. More often than not, however, it wallows in the amped-up melodrama that defines a young-adult romance in the modern age. 

The film focuses on Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented cello player in high school that’s surrounded by a loving family heaped in music. Her father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), was in a punk band in the ’90s and played around the Portland area to local success. Her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), was a bonafide groupie that exposed her daughter to music early. A scene where Kat, with a pierced nose and dyed hair, holds Mia as a toddler at a concert with huge, construction-like headphones demonstrates the way music has influenced the family. Mia aims to get a full-ride scholarship backed by her talents, but those dreams are a bit complicated by Adam (Jamie Blackley), a talented guitarist/vocalist in an up-and-coming band. They quickly fall in love and soon realize that their future plans may not cross. This complicates things, and their relationship is on the rocks when Mia’s life is changed forever by that horrific accident. 

Most of the love story is told through flashbacks as Mia wanders around the hospital where she’s comatose. As their story becomes defined, however, the scenes mix together like a dreamy haze and feel interchangeable. Most are meet-cute expressions of young love that grow tired. There’s also inexplicably another example of a teenager losing her virginity in a place that the story deems symbolic but ends up feeling woefully unromantic and off-putting. But I am not the core audience of the film, particularly their niche demographic of cello-playing high schoolers that fall madly in love with young rockers. The story also creates an uncomfortably needy male interest in Blackley’s Adam, making him a self-centered character that gets angry at Mia not for hiding that she applied to a school out of state, but that it ruins their plans of being together. His parents neglected him as a child so he doesn’t want to lose her, but it feels like far more of a guilt trip on his part rather than an emotionally backed decision. 

The performances from Moretz and Enos elevate the film to a middle-of-the-road affair. Enos has acting talent, as evidenced by her excellent work on The Killing, and she brings life to some trite dialogue in important scenes. She calls true love a bitch and says that life is full of difficult decisions; the scene should be unwatchably cliché, but it remains tolerable because of her empathy. Moretz mostly acts concerned in the hospital scenes, but Mia’s love for music substantially drives her performance. Stacy Keach is also wonderful in the small role he’s allotted. But there’s a scene that defines the blandness of the film: as the characters walk out of their first date, a long tracking shot begins that follows them down a path after an establishing shot shows the scope of the scene. As the long take starts to make the scene feel naturalistic and poignant, the camera jumps to the pre-existing establishing shot and then to another angle that doesn’t add to the scene itself. If I Stay takes the easy road for much of its journey, becoming emotionally indistinguishable from the glut of young-adult romances in the marketplace. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The original Sin City was a defining mark of modern film noir, combining comic book stylings with a genre heaped in black-and-white cinematography and seedy individuals. The elements meshed perfectly and created one of the most visually stunning films of the past decade. Now, after a nine-year hiatus, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For enters the cinematic landscape as one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made, a convoluted, immature spoof of the original. Frank Miller picks up partial directing credit and writing credit for this entry, having written the graphic novels but also creating two new narratives for this feature: “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.” Due to these additions, the film features multiple storylines that are set in different time periods without warning the viewer, creating an off-putting sense of thematic inconsistency. The stories feel held together by expired glue and remind us that when an anticipated sequel arrives, it needs to deliver what it promises. 
The story has four central episodes, cut together to form a single narrative: “Just Another Saturday Night” follows Marv (Mickey Rourke) regaining consciousness on the side of the highway surrounded by dead bodies, wondering how he got there; “The Long Bad Night” focuses on Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a lucky gambler who beats Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) in a game of poker that changes his life forever; “A Dame to Kill For” looks at Dwight (Josh Brolin), a man struggling with keeping himself in order especially when his former lover, the titular Ava (Eva Green), returns; and “Nancy’s Last Dance” centers on Nancy (Jessica Alba) dealing with Hartigan’s (Bruce Willis) suicide and turning herself into an alcoholic, vengeful dame aiming to take out Roark once and for all. Returning characters include Gail (Rosario Dawson) on a visit to Old Town along with newcomer detectives Mort (Christopher Meloni) and Bob (Jeremy Piven). 
Sin City is full of jealousy, revenge, lust, love, and a whole lotta sex and violence. Ava is the dame the title refers to, acting as one of the most sexually charged characters I’ve seen on the big screen. She’s a character that never falls in love and manipulates men with her sex, whether that be Dwight or a married detective like Mort. She’s venomous and purely evil. When the camera moves over her naked body, it’s not signifying a lust for her so much as her raw sexuality acting as such a hypnotic force over the male characters. Most females in Sin City seem to embrace their sexuality and use it as a means of power. Men, on the other hand, use their brute force and occasional cunning to outmaneuver brutes, which creates an uncomfortably simple dichotomy. Everyone knows that Nancy strips and Marv will kill anyone with his bare hands, so does there have to be countless scenes that show those particulars happening over and over again? At a certain point, the storytelling grows lazy and monotonous rather than inventive and revelatory. 
Much like the first film, Robert Rodriguez not only directs but also edits and cinematographs this adventure. It makes for a rapid-fire, blazing whirlwind of comic frenzy. The first ten minutes are belligerently paced and never let up, confusing the audience by re-introducing a character thought dead (in Marv, who was seen executed in the first film). The problem with this idea is that the narrative never comes together cohesively; by having multiple stories that do not cross time-wise, many of them lose meaning and don’t provide context for the first film. Rather, they feel wholly unnecessary. The 3D is well framed and deliberately used, perfectly captured for a world as visually arresting as Sin City. The performances are committed all-around, but Eva Green proves that if a long-awaited sequel needs a powerful, sexualized woman (after her work earlier this year on 300: Rise of an Empire), she’s the one. Yet Sin City: A Dame to Kill For fails to make much sense in its relevance to the overall story, feeling like mish-mashed vignettes that aim to capture the spirit of the original but fall flat. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The original Sin City was a defining mark of modern film noir, combining comic book stylings with a genre heaped in black-and-white cinematography and seedy individuals. The elements meshed perfectly and created one of the most visually stunning films of the past decade. Now, after a nine-year hiatus, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For enters the cinematic landscape as one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made, a convoluted, immature spoof of the original. Frank Miller picks up partial directing credit and writing credit for this entry, having written the graphic novels but also creating two new narratives for this feature: “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.” Due to these additions, the film features multiple storylines that are set in different time periods without warning the viewer, creating an off-putting sense of thematic inconsistency. The stories feel held together by expired glue and remind us that when an anticipated sequel arrives, it needs to deliver what it promises. 

The story has four central episodes, cut together to form a single narrative: “Just Another Saturday Night” follows Marv (Mickey Rourke) regaining consciousness on the side of the highway surrounded by dead bodies, wondering how he got there; “The Long Bad Night” focuses on Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a lucky gambler who beats Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) in a game of poker that changes his life forever; “A Dame to Kill For” looks at Dwight (Josh Brolin), a man struggling with keeping himself in order especially when his former lover, the titular Ava (Eva Green), returns; and “Nancy’s Last Dance” centers on Nancy (Jessica Alba) dealing with Hartigan’s (Bruce Willis) suicide and turning herself into an alcoholic, vengeful dame aiming to take out Roark once and for all. Returning characters include Gail (Rosario Dawson) on a visit to Old Town along with newcomer detectives Mort (Christopher Meloni) and Bob (Jeremy Piven). 

Sin City is full of jealousy, revenge, lust, love, and a whole lotta sex and violence. Ava is the dame the title refers to, acting as one of the most sexually charged characters I’ve seen on the big screen. She’s a character that never falls in love and manipulates men with her sex, whether that be Dwight or a married detective like Mort. She’s venomous and purely evil. When the camera moves over her naked body, it’s not signifying a lust for her so much as her raw sexuality acting as such a hypnotic force over the male characters. Most females in Sin City seem to embrace their sexuality and use it as a means of power. Men, on the other hand, use their brute force and occasional cunning to outmaneuver brutes, which creates an uncomfortably simple dichotomy. Everyone knows that Nancy strips and Marv will kill anyone with his bare hands, so does there have to be countless scenes that show those particulars happening over and over again? At a certain point, the storytelling grows lazy and monotonous rather than inventive and revelatory. 

Much like the first film, Robert Rodriguez not only directs but also edits and cinematographs this adventure. It makes for a rapid-fire, blazing whirlwind of comic frenzy. The first ten minutes are belligerently paced and never let up, confusing the audience by re-introducing a character thought dead (in Marv, who was seen executed in the first film). The problem with this idea is that the narrative never comes together cohesively; by having multiple stories that do not cross time-wise, many of them lose meaning and don’t provide context for the first film. Rather, they feel wholly unnecessary. The 3D is well framed and deliberately used, perfectly captured for a world as visually arresting as Sin City. The performances are committed all-around, but Eva Green proves that if a long-awaited sequel needs a powerful, sexualized woman (after her work earlier this year on 300: Rise of an Empire), she’s the one. Yet Sin City: A Dame to Kill For fails to make much sense in its relevance to the overall story, feeling like mish-mashed vignettes that aim to capture the spirit of the original but fall flat. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
I’m a sucker for sports films. Seeing the way that a particular game can bring individuals together and create a sense of unity and pride is thrillingly unique, particularly on the big screen. Not all sports films are created equal, and that’s apparent in When the Game Stands Tall. It’s inconsistently moving fare, but also an impassioned cry for togetherness and maturity with sports as the defining catalyst. There’s something strange about how it’s presented on screen, surrounded by death, heartbreak, doubt, happiness, abuse, laughter, and pretty much any other cinematic element you can draw up in your mind. There are many loud moments, telling the audience that something big and emotional is happening! But the film works when it embraces the quietness of its endeavors, looking into the characters and letting them foster on screen. When the characters talk about ideas, the film strays; when they get into who they are as people, we care. 
The film tells the story of the De La Salle High School football team, who rose from obscurity due to an 151-game winning streak that stands as the longest winning streak in American sports history. Their coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), has received offers from many prestigious colleges to coach their teams, but he always refuses. He says that students in college don’t give him as much to teach them; he likes the idea of fostering these students into good, moral citizens. There’s something honorable about a man profoundly embracing his profession in education. He teaches discipline and family for the team, which a lot of time emphasizes religion and the importance of God upon their lives. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. After the team wins yet another state championship, they must prepare their juniors to lead the squad next year. That includes his son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), and star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig).
Danny feels disassociated from his father due to a strained coaching relationship and his father’s stern nature. Chris has to deal with a verbally and mentally abusive father, Mickey (Clancy Brown), who insists that his son break the state’s touchdown record and never lets him lose sight of the goal. The film focuses on many other subplots, including one involving the seniors that are heading off to college and getting accepted to great programs like Oregon. But there are endless hardships for everyone involved, particularly after their winning streak snaps with the new set of juniors. The story addresses that element early on, setting up the streak as an embattled part of their high school careers. Can they overcome such a heartbreaking, devastating loss? Or will they let this streak and its end define them? Thomas Carter’s film weaves all of these stories around the idea that their team is a family, one that must stick together and support one another through anything and everything. 
When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve; it’s all over the front and back of the jersey like large white numbers. The film is rocky tonally and conceptually, often falling flat on developing supporting characters and instead having them talk a lot about concepts and beliefs. There’s an abundance of stories with heavy moral values, an accepted truth of a film with religion as the underlying factor that ties together all of these narratives. Carter doesn’t just allow his film to preach religion, though, but allows it to act as a means of understanding these characters. The film shows doubt as a psychological struggle that some of the players face when one of their most talented players is murdered. Why would a just world let such an unjust act happen? There are too many exaggerated scenes that beg these kinds of questions for the film to coherently flow, but luckily the narrative depends on the game of football itself in the second half to infuse excitement and needed drama into the characters’ lives. It’s a faulty journey, but it’s a well-made sports drama that has a strong payoff.  
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

I’m a sucker for sports films. Seeing the way that a particular game can bring individuals together and create a sense of unity and pride is thrillingly unique, particularly on the big screen. Not all sports films are created equal, and that’s apparent in When the Game Stands Tall. It’s inconsistently moving fare, but also an impassioned cry for togetherness and maturity with sports as the defining catalyst. There’s something strange about how it’s presented on screen, surrounded by death, heartbreak, doubt, happiness, abuse, laughter, and pretty much any other cinematic element you can draw up in your mind. There are many loud moments, telling the audience that something big and emotional is happening! But the film works when it embraces the quietness of its endeavors, looking into the characters and letting them foster on screen. When the characters talk about ideas, the film strays; when they get into who they are as people, we care. 

The film tells the story of the De La Salle High School football team, who rose from obscurity due to an 151-game winning streak that stands as the longest winning streak in American sports history. Their coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), has received offers from many prestigious colleges to coach their teams, but he always refuses. He says that students in college don’t give him as much to teach them; he likes the idea of fostering these students into good, moral citizens. There’s something honorable about a man profoundly embracing his profession in education. He teaches discipline and family for the team, which a lot of time emphasizes religion and the importance of God upon their lives. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. After the team wins yet another state championship, they must prepare their juniors to lead the squad next year. That includes his son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), and star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig).

Danny feels disassociated from his father due to a strained coaching relationship and his father’s stern nature. Chris has to deal with a verbally and mentally abusive father, Mickey (Clancy Brown), who insists that his son break the state’s touchdown record and never lets him lose sight of the goal. The film focuses on many other subplots, including one involving the seniors that are heading off to college and getting accepted to great programs like Oregon. But there are endless hardships for everyone involved, particularly after their winning streak snaps with the new set of juniors. The story addresses that element early on, setting up the streak as an embattled part of their high school careers. Can they overcome such a heartbreaking, devastating loss? Or will they let this streak and its end define them? Thomas Carter’s film weaves all of these stories around the idea that their team is a family, one that must stick together and support one another through anything and everything. 

When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve; it’s all over the front and back of the jersey like large white numbers. The film is rocky tonally and conceptually, often falling flat on developing supporting characters and instead having them talk a lot about concepts and beliefs. There’s an abundance of stories with heavy moral values, an accepted truth of a film with religion as the underlying factor that ties together all of these narratives. Carter doesn’t just allow his film to preach religion, though, but allows it to act as a means of understanding these characters. The film shows doubt as a psychological struggle that some of the players face when one of their most talented players is murdered. Why would a just world let such an unjust act happen? There are too many exaggerated scenes that beg these kinds of questions for the film to coherently flow, but luckily the narrative depends on the game of football itself in the second half to infuse excitement and needed drama into the characters’ lives. It’s a faulty journey, but it’s a well-made sports drama that has a strong payoff.  

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Giver is an ambitious adaptation of Lois Lowry’s award-winning novel, but it’s rushed, muddled, and bogged down by its intentions of making a dystopia that appeases young viewers. The novel was celebrated upon its release in 1993, read in schools around the country but also surrounded by controversy about its message. The film, on the other hand, plays the story safe and uses many dystopia trappings that feel all too familiar in the wake of recent efforts like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Here, the rules are seemingly simple: the community formed is idyllic and tranquil, with all of the citizens healthy, self-sufficient, and productive. People are happy and there is no war, pain, or suffering. Yet in attempting to create a utopia, they ultimately produce a dystopia because the citizens do not know of any kind of art or wildlife, nor do they have any memories of the past world and what used to be on Earth. 
The story follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who fails to be chosen at an annual ceremony that determines a citizen’s place in their society. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) believes that Jonas has the potential to see beyond their reality, assigning him the position of “Receiver of Memory.” He will be learning from the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an old man who holds memories of the past that have gone from generation to generation. The Giver is a man who doesn’t have a filter and also doesn’t have to obey the laws of society, which include using precision of language (i.e., avoiding fluffy words like “love”), telling the truth, taking daily medication, and forgiving and apologizing for everything. Jonas has grown up with all of these rules and must learn that with these memories will come an understanding of their society. He is taught the ways of the past, both good and evil, but cannot understand how they can live in such a simple, empty way when denied life’s most precious gifts. 
The premise is compelling and crazily ambitious. Like most films of the sort, though, with great ambition comes great responsibility. The film grows increasingly faulty over its running time and seems to leave out important elements that would help illuminate the nature of the world. How exactly did this society form? That’s a nagging question that gets a roundabout response: well, the world was a bad, evil place, so this society had to be created in order to preserve humanity. But how did they come to exist on top of a rock formation above the clouds? Phillip Noyce’s film cares more about ideas than particulars, which I cannot necessarily fault. The ideas are lofty and epic in scope, with the society itself acting as a strange form of socialism that numbs the brain and eradicates all sense of emotion from the equation. The society must sustain itself and prosper; the will of the people does not matter as long as the society grows stronger. 
Color is an important element of the film, too, with much of the beginning taking place in black-and-white to signify the simplicity and emptiness of the citizens’ lives. Color only emerges when Jonas opens himself up to the past and sees what the world has to offer; his brain can be free and feel as much as it desires. Thwaites is a solid choice for the lead, providing some heft to the role by allowing subtleties to emerge when the script allows. The love story surrounding him and Fiona (Odeya Rush) is muddled and lifeless, with Rush proving unable to make the most of a mild, inconsequential character. Bridges and Streep are remarkable when on screen, particularly when they share the frame; they are dynamic and versatile, giving the story even more gravitas and meaning. Yet the film becomes muddled and far too absurd in its last half hour, using vague symbolism and an open-ended conclusion that asks more than elaborates. The Giver is a film with a heavy message but an unsure voice. 
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Giver is an ambitious adaptation of Lois Lowry’s award-winning novel, but it’s rushed, muddled, and bogged down by its intentions of making a dystopia that appeases young viewers. The novel was celebrated upon its release in 1993, read in schools around the country but also surrounded by controversy about its message. The film, on the other hand, plays the story safe and uses many dystopia trappings that feel all too familiar in the wake of recent efforts like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Here, the rules are seemingly simple: the community formed is idyllic and tranquil, with all of the citizens healthy, self-sufficient, and productive. People are happy and there is no war, pain, or suffering. Yet in attempting to create a utopia, they ultimately produce a dystopia because the citizens do not know of any kind of art or wildlife, nor do they have any memories of the past world and what used to be on Earth. 

The story follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who fails to be chosen at an annual ceremony that determines a citizen’s place in their society. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) believes that Jonas has the potential to see beyond their reality, assigning him the position of “Receiver of Memory.” He will be learning from the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an old man who holds memories of the past that have gone from generation to generation. The Giver is a man who doesn’t have a filter and also doesn’t have to obey the laws of society, which include using precision of language (i.e., avoiding fluffy words like “love”), telling the truth, taking daily medication, and forgiving and apologizing for everything. Jonas has grown up with all of these rules and must learn that with these memories will come an understanding of their society. He is taught the ways of the past, both good and evil, but cannot understand how they can live in such a simple, empty way when denied life’s most precious gifts. 

The premise is compelling and crazily ambitious. Like most films of the sort, though, with great ambition comes great responsibility. The film grows increasingly faulty over its running time and seems to leave out important elements that would help illuminate the nature of the world. How exactly did this society form? That’s a nagging question that gets a roundabout response: well, the world was a bad, evil place, so this society had to be created in order to preserve humanity. But how did they come to exist on top of a rock formation above the clouds? Phillip Noyce’s film cares more about ideas than particulars, which I cannot necessarily fault. The ideas are lofty and epic in scope, with the society itself acting as a strange form of socialism that numbs the brain and eradicates all sense of emotion from the equation. The society must sustain itself and prosper; the will of the people does not matter as long as the society grows stronger. 

Color is an important element of the film, too, with much of the beginning taking place in black-and-white to signify the simplicity and emptiness of the citizens’ lives. Color only emerges when Jonas opens himself up to the past and sees what the world has to offer; his brain can be free and feel as much as it desires. Thwaites is a solid choice for the lead, providing some heft to the role by allowing subtleties to emerge when the script allows. The love story surrounding him and Fiona (Odeya Rush) is muddled and lifeless, with Rush proving unable to make the most of a mild, inconsequential character. Bridges and Streep are remarkable when on screen, particularly when they share the frame; they are dynamic and versatile, giving the story even more gravitas and meaning. Yet the film becomes muddled and far too absurd in its last half hour, using vague symbolism and an open-ended conclusion that asks more than elaborates. The Giver is a film with a heavy message but an unsure voice. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Expendables franchise is defined by the self-aware nature of the title action actors, knowing that they are far too old for the work they are doing on screen. That allows for Sylvester Stallone to bring together all of his favorite stars to celebrate the old way of doing things and how grand it can be. His ultimate goal with these films seems to be the celebration of 80s actioners that showed characters kicking ass and fighting bad guys that wanted to destroy the world. Yet like his stars, these films have grown tired and worn out. The peak was the second film, an entertaining romp that capitalized on the absurdity of the franchise by amping up the action and supporting characters to a ridiculous level. Yet the latest entry undermines the excitement inherent with the series: the PG-13 rating makes the bloodless action feel inconsequential and the story involves young characters to make the older gentlemen feel outdated. Sure, the dialogue will always be awful and the acting atrocious, but at least there was some spontaneity in the others. 
The story this time around follows the usual suspects as they attempt to rescue an old pal and stop another one. Barney (Sylvester Stallone), Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and others break their friend Doc (Wesley Snipes) out of an armored train prison. Could you honestly say that your friends would do the same? As they head to Somalia to track down a nuclear weapons dealer, they run into an old member of their group: Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a ruthless madman that wanted to become the leader of his own pack. He broke off from the group and basically wanted to become evil. At least that’s what the film says. He’s also masterfully defined by his desire to buy works of art worth millions of dollars that he doesn’t really like. The Expendables hunt down Stonebanks with the guidance of Drummer (Harrison Ford), a character that effectively replaces Church because Bruce Willis wanted to be paid too much. Oh yeah, and Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, mostly appearing in Hawaiian shirts and looking like he’s confused about why he’s a recurring character. 
The Expendables 3 is defined by many of the same traits that dominate the previous entries in the franchise. Characters talk about things as if they are always cracking painfully obvious jokes or delivering one-liners. I’m not sure there’s ever a moment in the film when there isn’t a reminder that these are all actors from famous franchises, and hey, listen to Ah-nuld reference getting to the choppa! The addition of a female character named Luna, played by MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, is ambitious and a bridge being established for the planned Expendabelles film (a spin-off of females doing the same thing the men in these films do). Luna acts as a strong female force that wants to stand her own ground amidst all of the testosterone. She can kick some serious ass. She’s also one of many new additions that bog down the latest entry and add on an extra half hour to the running time; even Antonio Banderas, a wonderfully talented and charismatic actor, feels woefully out of place, being demoted to an annoying sidekick rather than becoming an actual character.
Yet the action is the shining star of these films, the beacon of hope that guides the viewer toward a satisfying viewing. It’s a disappointment, then, that the film undermines all of the action by taking away every element that made it distinguishable in the previous efforts. Here, the teen-friendly rating demonstrates a desire to appease younger viewers, but in doing so the action becomes woefully bland and lifeless. Outside of an exciting car chase in one of the film’s opening moments, every fighting sequence feels choreographed and mechanical. Characters never get wounded and nothing important happens to any of them when they are facing danger. As they are attacked by hundreds of men and have multiple tanks and helicopters shooting at them nonstop, you would think one character would get hit by a single bullet. Even Gibson’s character remarks that it shouldn’t be that difficult. But alas. These films meet the standard they have set: there’s high octane action, cheesy jokes, and too many characters to care about any particular one. In that regard, The Expendables 3 delivers. 
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Expendables franchise is defined by the self-aware nature of the title action actors, knowing that they are far too old for the work they are doing on screen. That allows for Sylvester Stallone to bring together all of his favorite stars to celebrate the old way of doing things and how grand it can be. His ultimate goal with these films seems to be the celebration of 80s actioners that showed characters kicking ass and fighting bad guys that wanted to destroy the world. Yet like his stars, these films have grown tired and worn out. The peak was the second film, an entertaining romp that capitalized on the absurdity of the franchise by amping up the action and supporting characters to a ridiculous level. Yet the latest entry undermines the excitement inherent with the series: the PG-13 rating makes the bloodless action feel inconsequential and the story involves young characters to make the older gentlemen feel outdated. Sure, the dialogue will always be awful and the acting atrocious, but at least there was some spontaneity in the others. 

The story this time around follows the usual suspects as they attempt to rescue an old pal and stop another one. Barney (Sylvester Stallone), Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and others break their friend Doc (Wesley Snipes) out of an armored train prison. Could you honestly say that your friends would do the same? As they head to Somalia to track down a nuclear weapons dealer, they run into an old member of their group: Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a ruthless madman that wanted to become the leader of his own pack. He broke off from the group and basically wanted to become evil. At least that’s what the film says. He’s also masterfully defined by his desire to buy works of art worth millions of dollars that he doesn’t really like. The Expendables hunt down Stonebanks with the guidance of Drummer (Harrison Ford), a character that effectively replaces Church because Bruce Willis wanted to be paid too much. Oh yeah, and Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, mostly appearing in Hawaiian shirts and looking like he’s confused about why he’s a recurring character. 

The Expendables 3 is defined by many of the same traits that dominate the previous entries in the franchise. Characters talk about things as if they are always cracking painfully obvious jokes or delivering one-liners. I’m not sure there’s ever a moment in the film when there isn’t a reminder that these are all actors from famous franchises, and hey, listen to Ah-nuld reference getting to the choppa! The addition of a female character named Luna, played by MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, is ambitious and a bridge being established for the planned Expendabelles film (a spin-off of females doing the same thing the men in these films do). Luna acts as a strong female force that wants to stand her own ground amidst all of the testosterone. She can kick some serious ass. She’s also one of many new additions that bog down the latest entry and add on an extra half hour to the running time; even Antonio Banderas, a wonderfully talented and charismatic actor, feels woefully out of place, being demoted to an annoying sidekick rather than becoming an actual character.

Yet the action is the shining star of these films, the beacon of hope that guides the viewer toward a satisfying viewing. It’s a disappointment, then, that the film undermines all of the action by taking away every element that made it distinguishable in the previous efforts. Here, the teen-friendly rating demonstrates a desire to appease younger viewers, but in doing so the action becomes woefully bland and lifeless. Outside of an exciting car chase in one of the film’s opening moments, every fighting sequence feels choreographed and mechanical. Characters never get wounded and nothing important happens to any of them when they are facing danger. As they are attacked by hundreds of men and have multiple tanks and helicopters shooting at them nonstop, you would think one character would get hit by a single bullet. Even Gibson’s character remarks that it shouldn’t be that difficult. But alas. These films meet the standard they have set: there’s high octane action, cheesy jokes, and too many characters to care about any particular one. In that regard, The Expendables 3 delivers. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles serves fans of the material but doesn’t get past the unnecessary nature of this story being told from the beginning once again. How many reiterations of the same origin story can an audience handle? These are admittedly fun characters that interact well together and have the ability to entertain when given the right comedic material. One of the central problems with this latest reboot, though, is its inability to balance the overly dramatic nature of its evildoers and the silly and comedic ways of the titular reptiles. In the middle of serious conversations, such one-liners as “Tonight, we dine on turtle soup,” and “Time to take a bite out of the Big Apple,” are delivered with no style. Having these lines delivered by villains who take themselves seriously often feels strange and tonally off, particularly with comedic talents like Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg providing solid humor alongside the main characters. 
The film opens with a rushed origin story of the turtles and how they came to be. According to this latest incarnation, the titular protagonists and a rat named Splinter were test subjects of a drug that supposedly had the ability to combat various diseases. The leader of this test trial, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), hoped to make the world a better place by using this to prevent the potentially widespread nature of various illnesses, but a fire led to the destruction of all of their work and the loss of every life except for his own. The animals and research were presumed to be lost in the mix. But the turtles are still alive, as Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael live in the sewers under New York City with the guidance of their father figure, Splinter. They are told to never move up to ground level for the world will not understand them, but the emergence of the Foot Clan and their theft of chemical weapons leads to their need to help the world.
The only person that knows of their existence, though, is April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a journalist who works with Vernon (Will Arnett), a goofy cameraman that aims to win her over one of these days if she’d just give him a chance. Their investigation of the clan leads them to the turtles, and they all band together to stop Shredder, the arch nemesis of the reptiles with a desire to destroy New York. The story is flimsy and ultimately familiar for those who have seen any other versions of the story. Minor changes occur for the human characters and there are surprising attempts to make a narrative out of those outlying stories. The problem lies within the fact that they don’t make a compelling narrative, and distract from what everyone wants to see: the talking, mutated, pizza-loving, karate-fighting turtles. The film understands the characters and their relationship with one another: Raphael failing to get along with the leadership position of Leonardo, Michelangelo constantly hitting on April and doing whatever he wants, and Donatello clearly being the smartest one in the group. 
Yet I accept that my viewing experience is something that will not affect those who want to see TMNT. Fans of the series will thoroughly enjoy the film. It delivers the requisite thrills, fun action scenes, and comic banter that people have grown to love from the series. But for me, it remains mostly empty entertainment that is certainly lifted by the updated humor and manically controlled action scenes. Will Arnett is delightful in a comic sidekick role that basically asks him to get away with his normal schtick in a family-oriented film. Visually the turtles are beautifully rendered with motion capture, but the 3D is rather horrid looking, either due to the presentation I saw or simply a disregard for crafting depth-filled frames. Jonathan Liebesman directs here, best known for making films that go “Kaboom!” often and loudly. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those films, paced haphazardly and tonally inconsistent but not as awful as it should be. It’s merely a forgettable end-of-summer extravaganza. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles serves fans of the material but doesn’t get past the unnecessary nature of this story being told from the beginning once again. How many reiterations of the same origin story can an audience handle? These are admittedly fun characters that interact well together and have the ability to entertain when given the right comedic material. One of the central problems with this latest reboot, though, is its inability to balance the overly dramatic nature of its evildoers and the silly and comedic ways of the titular reptiles. In the middle of serious conversations, such one-liners as “Tonight, we dine on turtle soup,” and “Time to take a bite out of the Big Apple,” are delivered with no style. Having these lines delivered by villains who take themselves seriously often feels strange and tonally off, particularly with comedic talents like Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg providing solid humor alongside the main characters. 

The film opens with a rushed origin story of the turtles and how they came to be. According to this latest incarnation, the titular protagonists and a rat named Splinter were test subjects of a drug that supposedly had the ability to combat various diseases. The leader of this test trial, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), hoped to make the world a better place by using this to prevent the potentially widespread nature of various illnesses, but a fire led to the destruction of all of their work and the loss of every life except for his own. The animals and research were presumed to be lost in the mix. But the turtles are still alive, as Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael live in the sewers under New York City with the guidance of their father figure, Splinter. They are told to never move up to ground level for the world will not understand them, but the emergence of the Foot Clan and their theft of chemical weapons leads to their need to help the world.

The only person that knows of their existence, though, is April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a journalist who works with Vernon (Will Arnett), a goofy cameraman that aims to win her over one of these days if she’d just give him a chance. Their investigation of the clan leads them to the turtles, and they all band together to stop Shredder, the arch nemesis of the reptiles with a desire to destroy New York. The story is flimsy and ultimately familiar for those who have seen any other versions of the story. Minor changes occur for the human characters and there are surprising attempts to make a narrative out of those outlying stories. The problem lies within the fact that they don’t make a compelling narrative, and distract from what everyone wants to see: the talking, mutated, pizza-loving, karate-fighting turtles. The film understands the characters and their relationship with one another: Raphael failing to get along with the leadership position of Leonardo, Michelangelo constantly hitting on April and doing whatever he wants, and Donatello clearly being the smartest one in the group. 

Yet I accept that my viewing experience is something that will not affect those who want to see TMNT. Fans of the series will thoroughly enjoy the film. It delivers the requisite thrills, fun action scenes, and comic banter that people have grown to love from the series. But for me, it remains mostly empty entertainment that is certainly lifted by the updated humor and manically controlled action scenes. Will Arnett is delightful in a comic sidekick role that basically asks him to get away with his normal schtick in a family-oriented film. Visually the turtles are beautifully rendered with motion capture, but the 3D is rather horrid looking, either due to the presentation I saw or simply a disregard for crafting depth-filled frames. Jonathan Liebesman directs here, best known for making films that go “Kaboom!” often and loudly. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those films, paced haphazardly and tonally inconsistent but not as awful as it should be. It’s merely a forgettable end-of-summer extravaganza. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Into the Storm is a middling film that uses its spectacular special effects and sound design to distract from its bland, predictable narrative. Tornadoes will always look extraordinary no matter how they are presented; their sheer force is something that undoubtedly inspires awe to an outside observer, even though their destruction can lead to death and destroyed homes and families. The elements are ripe for environmental commentary and family drama. Yet they are presented on screen with no care for subtlety or inspiration, instead relying on familiar character tropes and plot points that never elevate the story past its admittedly intriguing premise. The film follows a group of storm chasers led by Pete (Matt Walsh), a determined man whose ultimate goal is to lead Titus (his tank of a storm-tracking vehicle) into the eye of a tornado. He is working on a storm documentary alongside Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), a scientist who has spent three months away from her daughter and relies on numbers over instinct.
After four high school students die from a small tornado sweeping through Silverton, the documentarians decide to head to that town despite hearing about tornadoes potentially touching down in Riverside. A stormfront is approaching that looks ominous and ripe for the shots they need in their hunting. Allison’s insistence on Silverton having the meat of the action allows the story to connect with Donnie’s (Max Deacon). He’s a high school student who’s helping the vice principal/his father, Gary (Richard Armitage), shoot a time capsule documentary for the school. They are all preparing for graduation and Donnie has struggled to connect with his father after his mother died. He ends up skipping the graduation ceremony, electing for his brother (Nathan Kress) to shoot while Donnie runs off to help his crush, Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), on her project. Sure enough, she and Donnie get stuck while the storm blows through the area, disrupting the graduation and tearing apart the family once more. 
The story feels jumbled together and coincidental, which only becomes further enhanced by the introduction of two idiots that like to do stupid things for the Internet. For some reason, these comedic sidekicks pop up in a strange subplot that never really meshes with the narrative; they cross over from time to time, but most of their scenes involve moronic behavior and annoying traits. I suppose Into the Storm has that type of story that doesn’t particularly care about characters, though. That’s understandable. Every time the story wanders into melodrama, the filmmakers go for spectacle and aim big. They certainly succeed, since the tornadoes are impressively rendered and interact seamlessly with the characters on screen. There’s a sense of urgency and genuine stakes when they are presented in the background or coming straight toward the protagonists. The sound effects, particularly in Dolby ATMOS, are stunning and enveloping. 
Despite this desire to create a new-age disaster film, though, director Steven Quale never develops a singular voice behind the screen. The direction sporadically moves from cinematic lenses to handheld work, often insisting that the narrative feel more grounded in reality by providing teenagers or the film within the film’s camera crew following the action. The inherent problem with this is that cinematic views are far more engaging and pronounced. They can define a scene and give the viewer a sense of language and understanding for the full narrative. So why ruin that with shoddy camera work? The cast is well rounded, with Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies in particular taking advantage of their characters and providing the audience with some semblance of emotionally driven excitement. The story falls apart too quickly in its conclusion, though, attempting to sum up the perseverance of Americans in the face of danger. It’s a muddled message belonging in a far different film, preferably not one with a tornado on fire. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Into the Storm is a middling film that uses its spectacular special effects and sound design to distract from its bland, predictable narrative. Tornadoes will always look extraordinary no matter how they are presented; their sheer force is something that undoubtedly inspires awe to an outside observer, even though their destruction can lead to death and destroyed homes and families. The elements are ripe for environmental commentary and family drama. Yet they are presented on screen with no care for subtlety or inspiration, instead relying on familiar character tropes and plot points that never elevate the story past its admittedly intriguing premise. The film follows a group of storm chasers led by Pete (Matt Walsh), a determined man whose ultimate goal is to lead Titus (his tank of a storm-tracking vehicle) into the eye of a tornado. He is working on a storm documentary alongside Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), a scientist who has spent three months away from her daughter and relies on numbers over instinct.

After four high school students die from a small tornado sweeping through Silverton, the documentarians decide to head to that town despite hearing about tornadoes potentially touching down in Riverside. A stormfront is approaching that looks ominous and ripe for the shots they need in their hunting. Allison’s insistence on Silverton having the meat of the action allows the story to connect with Donnie’s (Max Deacon). He’s a high school student who’s helping the vice principal/his father, Gary (Richard Armitage), shoot a time capsule documentary for the school. They are all preparing for graduation and Donnie has struggled to connect with his father after his mother died. He ends up skipping the graduation ceremony, electing for his brother (Nathan Kress) to shoot while Donnie runs off to help his crush, Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), on her project. Sure enough, she and Donnie get stuck while the storm blows through the area, disrupting the graduation and tearing apart the family once more. 

The story feels jumbled together and coincidental, which only becomes further enhanced by the introduction of two idiots that like to do stupid things for the Internet. For some reason, these comedic sidekicks pop up in a strange subplot that never really meshes with the narrative; they cross over from time to time, but most of their scenes involve moronic behavior and annoying traits. I suppose Into the Storm has that type of story that doesn’t particularly care about characters, though. That’s understandable. Every time the story wanders into melodrama, the filmmakers go for spectacle and aim big. They certainly succeed, since the tornadoes are impressively rendered and interact seamlessly with the characters on screen. There’s a sense of urgency and genuine stakes when they are presented in the background or coming straight toward the protagonists. The sound effects, particularly in Dolby ATMOS, are stunning and enveloping. 

Despite this desire to create a new-age disaster film, though, director Steven Quale never develops a singular voice behind the screen. The direction sporadically moves from cinematic lenses to handheld work, often insisting that the narrative feel more grounded in reality by providing teenagers or the film within the film’s camera crew following the action. The inherent problem with this is that cinematic views are far more engaging and pronounced. They can define a scene and give the viewer a sense of language and understanding for the full narrative. So why ruin that with shoddy camera work? The cast is well rounded, with Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies in particular taking advantage of their characters and providing the audience with some semblance of emotionally driven excitement. The story falls apart too quickly in its conclusion, though, attempting to sum up the perseverance of Americans in the face of danger. It’s a muddled message belonging in a far different film, preferably not one with a tornado on fire. 

Grade: ½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Religion remains one of the most fundamentally difficult topics to tackle in cinema. Make a preachy film and the filmmakers isolate the skeptics and nonbelievers; make an aggressively pointed film and the religious audience grows divided over whether to support or condemn the picture. Calvary is one of those rare occurrences, however, where a film both celebrates and lambasts religion, creating an impressively detailed canvas of humanity and the crisis of faith at our core. The film focuses on Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a good man that turned to religion after his wife tragically died and his daughter lost herself in the midst of her family falling apart. Even though James was far from a perfect man, he inherently hopes for the best for everyone and seeks happiness and forgiveness for those that need it. Ironic, then, that the film opens with a man in confession telling the father that he will be killed the following Sunday to send a message to the world.  
The victim had been abused by the Catholic Church when he was younger. The film’s opening line is shocking: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” Here, the story shows a good man listening to the rape that this innocent man faced day after day in his younger years. He blames religion and all men of faith for what happened to him, saying that a good man must die in order to make a strong statement about what went wrong. If a bad priest dies, then no one will care because, hey, he deserved it. But a good man dying? That’ll get everyone’s attention. James’ daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), visits town after her father reels over the threat he just received. She recently attempted suicide and feels abandoned by James, who left to become a priest instead of loving his daughter when she needed it most. She refers to him as “father” once, coldly drawing a parallel between the distance she feels from him due to his fatherly status in the church. 
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh builds the narrative around a whodunit foundation, but the story navigates episodic scenes that are defined by the supporting characters. Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) is a butcher whose wife is cheating on him; she indulges in plenty of other men and some cocaine when given the chance. Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) is an atheistic surgeon that mostly believes his patients will die. He’s a pessimist at heart that brutally attacks and belittles religion for fun. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a wealthy, lonely man that cares more about artificial happiness than peace of mind. In one telling scene, he asks Father James if a painting he owns has any meaning. James asks, “Why does it have to have meaning?” Michael insists that everything has to have meaning in life or else, what’s the point? Fiona challenges that notion of meaning as well. In confession, James tells her that life has just as much meaning at 30 as it does at 60, but she thinks that’s all fluff without any substance.
Characters question the nature of religion and whether it is, indeed, a dying belief system. But Calvary isn’t a film that exists to tear apart religion at its seams; rather, it aims to introspectively look at a troubled protagonist that sees the doubt and hate in most people rather than the good. There’s a sense that humanity is inherently evil based on the narrative, a testament to Satanism more than any thread of Catholicism. Brendan Gleeson delivers one of the year’s best performances as James, providing him with a kindly invasive nature, using his religion as a means of exploring the tenets of being a good human being. McDonagh has managed to create a stunning feature marked by its challenge of religion as the ultimate punisher and judge. Characters remark that faith acts as a way for people to understand death, but if religion doesn’t mean more to the follower, then why believe in the first place? Calvary gravely voices that a religion’s dark past can overwhelm the present and make the most fervent believers question the foundation of their humanity. 
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Religion remains one of the most fundamentally difficult topics to tackle in cinema. Make a preachy film and the filmmakers isolate the skeptics and nonbelievers; make an aggressively pointed film and the religious audience grows divided over whether to support or condemn the picture. Calvary is one of those rare occurrences, however, where a film both celebrates and lambasts religion, creating an impressively detailed canvas of humanity and the crisis of faith at our core. The film focuses on Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a good man that turned to religion after his wife tragically died and his daughter lost herself in the midst of her family falling apart. Even though James was far from a perfect man, he inherently hopes for the best for everyone and seeks happiness and forgiveness for those that need it. Ironic, then, that the film opens with a man in confession telling the father that he will be killed the following Sunday to send a message to the world.  

The victim had been abused by the Catholic Church when he was younger. The film’s opening line is shocking: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” Here, the story shows a good man listening to the rape that this innocent man faced day after day in his younger years. He blames religion and all men of faith for what happened to him, saying that a good man must die in order to make a strong statement about what went wrong. If a bad priest dies, then no one will care because, hey, he deserved it. But a good man dying? That’ll get everyone’s attention. James’ daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), visits town after her father reels over the threat he just received. She recently attempted suicide and feels abandoned by James, who left to become a priest instead of loving his daughter when she needed it most. She refers to him as “father” once, coldly drawing a parallel between the distance she feels from him due to his fatherly status in the church. 

Writer-director John Michael McDonagh builds the narrative around a whodunit foundation, but the story navigates episodic scenes that are defined by the supporting characters. Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) is a butcher whose wife is cheating on him; she indulges in plenty of other men and some cocaine when given the chance. Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) is an atheistic surgeon that mostly believes his patients will die. He’s a pessimist at heart that brutally attacks and belittles religion for fun. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a wealthy, lonely man that cares more about artificial happiness than peace of mind. In one telling scene, he asks Father James if a painting he owns has any meaning. James asks, “Why does it have to have meaning?” Michael insists that everything has to have meaning in life or else, what’s the point? Fiona challenges that notion of meaning as well. In confession, James tells her that life has just as much meaning at 30 as it does at 60, but she thinks that’s all fluff without any substance.

Characters question the nature of religion and whether it is, indeed, a dying belief system. But Calvary isn’t a film that exists to tear apart religion at its seams; rather, it aims to introspectively look at a troubled protagonist that sees the doubt and hate in most people rather than the good. There’s a sense that humanity is inherently evil based on the narrative, a testament to Satanism more than any thread of Catholicism. Brendan Gleeson delivers one of the year’s best performances as James, providing him with a kindly invasive nature, using his religion as a means of exploring the tenets of being a good human being. McDonagh has managed to create a stunning feature marked by its challenge of religion as the ultimate punisher and judge. Characters remark that faith acts as a way for people to understand death, but if religion doesn’t mean more to the follower, then why believe in the first place? Calvary gravely voices that a religion’s dark past can overwhelm the present and make the most fervent believers question the foundation of their humanity. 

Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Hundred-Foot Journey has one of the strongest first halves of any film in 2014, filled with strong social commentary, developed characters, and an exquisitely articulated love for food. It’s a shame, then, that the second half falls into conventional, simplistic trappings and develops an aimless attitude for its final half hour. But the film is always marked by its charm and affable nature, using food as a means of culture and identity alongside terrifically defined lead characters. Helen Mirren is shown as the star of the film yet, while terrific, she is not the takeaway. Newcomers Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon are delightful and fall into their roles with ease, with the ever-talented Om Puri providing a dynamic and funny supporting turn. As the story opens, Papa (Om Puri) leads the Kadam family away from their previously disrupted life and moves them from India to France in hopes of starting anew. A fire destroyed their restaurant and killed their mother, so they aim to find happiness in starting again on the French countryside.
Their car breaks down and they are passed by a young French woman named Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). She offers to help them and bonds with Hassan (Manish Dayal), to whom she offers cooking books and other guides to help him learn about French cuisine. With their love of food propelling their decisions, Hassan and his father decide to buy an abandoned restaurant against the will of the rest of the family. The place needs a lot of upkeep and will certainly need to advertise plenty to get the attention of French eaters. After all, an Indian restaurant in the middle of the French landscape won’t exactly scream “appealing” to farmers and fine diners. To make matters worse, just one hundred feet across the road is a French restaurant with a Michelin Star, run with an iron fist by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). She ensures that everything goes her way and has one of the most certifiably telling palates in the country. 
The story eventually moves toward the Kadam family’s success and follows Hassan’s journey to becoming a chef in Madame Mallory’s kitchen. He’s one of the most talented cooks she’s seen, even if she refuses to admit it, and he knows how to win her over. Marguerite tells Hassan of how Madame tests cooks in only one way before deciding if they have the potential to be great: they must cook her an omelet and she will try one bite. In that bite, she can see their future as a chef. The narrative develops through these quirks and identifiers of character. Mirren makes Mallory a stone-faced enigma, borderline unreadable for the first half of the film, and it works perfectly for the narrative. As the story doles out more information on the inherent sadness behind her character, the story becomes stronger due to her character’s actions having more gravitas. Her pursuit of love in the film’s closing moments, however, fall flat in terms of impact because it takes an easier path for the character. Her pain drives her passion. 
What shines through the film’s late contrivances is its thematic consistency. These characters love food and aim to find a way to rekindle old feelings and tastes through their cooking; Hassan’s pursuit leads to a stark realization that that idea may not be as it seems. Director Lasse Hallström, who has had enjoyably light efforts like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen over the past few years, shows a marked improvement in how to visually tell a story. The first half is marked by sweeping cinematography and fully realized scenes; the camera moves dynamically across the frame and showcases depth-of-field and mise-en-scene remarkably. And his actors, Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon, are both strongly represented as equals in the food world that begin to fall in love over common interests. Yet the film meanders in the last half of its 122 minutes, taking easy paths and failing to challenge social stereotypes like it promises. Despite those inconsistencies, it still remains a pleasant, moving watch that excels due to its clear respect for the characters and their passions. 
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Hundred-Foot Journey has one of the strongest first halves of any film in 2014, filled with strong social commentary, developed characters, and an exquisitely articulated love for food. It’s a shame, then, that the second half falls into conventional, simplistic trappings and develops an aimless attitude for its final half hour. But the film is always marked by its charm and affable nature, using food as a means of culture and identity alongside terrifically defined lead characters. Helen Mirren is shown as the star of the film yet, while terrific, she is not the takeaway. Newcomers Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon are delightful and fall into their roles with ease, with the ever-talented Om Puri providing a dynamic and funny supporting turn. As the story opens, Papa (Om Puri) leads the Kadam family away from their previously disrupted life and moves them from India to France in hopes of starting anew. A fire destroyed their restaurant and killed their mother, so they aim to find happiness in starting again on the French countryside.

Their car breaks down and they are passed by a young French woman named Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). She offers to help them and bonds with Hassan (Manish Dayal), to whom she offers cooking books and other guides to help him learn about French cuisine. With their love of food propelling their decisions, Hassan and his father decide to buy an abandoned restaurant against the will of the rest of the family. The place needs a lot of upkeep and will certainly need to advertise plenty to get the attention of French eaters. After all, an Indian restaurant in the middle of the French landscape won’t exactly scream “appealing” to farmers and fine diners. To make matters worse, just one hundred feet across the road is a French restaurant with a Michelin Star, run with an iron fist by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). She ensures that everything goes her way and has one of the most certifiably telling palates in the country. 

The story eventually moves toward the Kadam family’s success and follows Hassan’s journey to becoming a chef in Madame Mallory’s kitchen. He’s one of the most talented cooks she’s seen, even if she refuses to admit it, and he knows how to win her over. Marguerite tells Hassan of how Madame tests cooks in only one way before deciding if they have the potential to be great: they must cook her an omelet and she will try one bite. In that bite, she can see their future as a chef. The narrative develops through these quirks and identifiers of character. Mirren makes Mallory a stone-faced enigma, borderline unreadable for the first half of the film, and it works perfectly for the narrative. As the story doles out more information on the inherent sadness behind her character, the story becomes stronger due to her character’s actions having more gravitas. Her pursuit of love in the film’s closing moments, however, fall flat in terms of impact because it takes an easier path for the character. Her pain drives her passion. 

What shines through the film’s late contrivances is its thematic consistency. These characters love food and aim to find a way to rekindle old feelings and tastes through their cooking; Hassan’s pursuit leads to a stark realization that that idea may not be as it seems. Director Lasse Hallström, who has had enjoyably light efforts like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen over the past few years, shows a marked improvement in how to visually tell a story. The first half is marked by sweeping cinematography and fully realized scenes; the camera moves dynamically across the frame and showcases depth-of-field and mise-en-scene remarkably. And his actors, Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon, are both strongly represented as equals in the food world that begin to fall in love over common interests. Yet the film meanders in the last half of its 122 minutes, taking easy paths and failing to challenge social stereotypes like it promises. Despite those inconsistencies, it still remains a pleasant, moving watch that excels due to its clear respect for the characters and their passions. 

Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

technojournee: I don't know if you've read Kenneth Turan's self-indulgent so-called 'criticism' of Boyhood, but do you have any thoughts on it? Additionally, there was a criticism of Turan's criticism by Michael Miner. I think its a funny conversation about the state of contemporary criticism, film and otherwise I suppose.

I retweeted something that Rob Lowe said about how, whether you agree or disagree with Turan, his article gets to the core of what film criticism is all about. And there’s an important point within Turan’s article that allows for it to be self-indulgent and preachy and many of the things we often claim about with film critics. 

I think Boyhood is an extraordinary film. I said that back in April when I reviewed the film after seeing it close out the Phoenix Film Festival, and letting it sit for three months made me appreciate all of its nuances and the way it deeply affected me. I felt so personally connected to Mason because I grew up in the exact years he did, and for that reason the film moved me like no other one has this year. 

I’ve always claimed that personal voice is the most important facet of film criticism. Everything I attempt to write is modeled on the idea that you, as the reader, can tell where my voice is coming from. That my voice is backed by my own beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints. I will undoubtedly experience a film differently than someone else and therefore it is up to you, as a reader, to hopefully find insight into whether or not you will like the film based on how I communicate my opinion. 

Despite Turan’s article lacking substantive criticism of the film itself and straying away from vocalizing what exactly about the film made it wobbly and imperfect for him, he voices one of the strongest opinions on film criticism I’ve seen. He says:

Since I consider reviews to be expressions of personal taste and consequently believe it’s completely misguided to look at unpopular or out-of-step opinions as mistakes, the blunder option was not open to me. So I decided to take advice from one of my personal heroes, Sherlock Holmes, who famously decreed: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” What was it about me as a critic that had led me down a path where no one else followed?

For one thing, I find that as I get older and younger filmmakers focus more and more on their own young years, I have become increasingly resistant to coming-of-age stories, which at its core is what “Boyhood” is…

Ultimately, however, what thinking about “Boyhood” brought home, and not for the first time, is how intensely personal a profession criticism is. Whether we like it or not, even if expressing it makes us feel clueless and out of touch in our own eyes as well as the world’s, we cannot escape who we are and what does or does not move us. As I’ve said before and likely will have cause to say again, in the final analysis, as a critic either you’re a gang of one or you’re nothing at all.

And there it is. His article isn’t so much a takedown of the film as it is of the nature of film criticism nowadays. No opinion is certifiably right or wrong; that’s absurd. But every voice should be heard and used to understand a film and its reception. Boyhood has received some of the biggest acclaim of any modern film in the 2000s. Rightfully so. But people shouldn’t hop onto a bandwagon because it’s safe. Rather, they should form their own opinions and if they don’t agree with what a writer says, then so be it! You must have your own voice or you’ll be lost in the stream of modern day film criticism. 

A very long answer, but hopefully that tells you what I think on the essay. 

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Get on Up is inconsistently entertaining but never less than spectacularly acted thanks to the tremendous lead performance from Chadwick Boseman. Tate Taylor’s film is a rocky exploration of the iconic singer James Brown’s career and of the social unrest surrounding such a complicated, tragic man who wanted to bring the funk into everyone’s lives. The film opens with Brown in his 60s, looking overwhelmed at all of his thoughts before going on stage. Then it goes to him in his 50s as he wields a gun in one of the places he owns, asking about a woman who went to the bathroom as if she ran the place. Following that, the film jumps to various moments in time, whether that be him in his 30s with his family being interviewed at a Reno airport, or him in his 20s with the Famous Flames trying to make it big. The story is much like Brown’s manic, aggressive personality, in that it’s excitingly all over the place.
The film chronologically looks at Brown’s upbringing in the 1930s through 1950s in a pre-Civil Rights America, with his family coming from extreme poverty and being defined by a negligent mother and abusive father. Brown eventually gets abandoned by both parents and left under the care of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a kind, brothel-operating woman that treats the young boy with respect and a stern hand. Eventually Brown gets arrested for attempting to steal a suit and is sentenced 5-13 years in jail, a horribly unfair charge that emphasizes the uncomfortably racist approach to lawmaking at the time. He’s discovered as a musical talent by Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the leader of a religiously based singing group that helps Brown earn his way out of jail. They form together and eventually call themselves “The Famous Flames,” with Brown leading the way as the dynamic, talented frontman. 
Brown will make it big, that much is clear, but the rest of the band is left to fend for themselves. A troubled relationship grows between Brown and Byrd, with the latter feeling resentful and betrayed by Brown. The leading man grows aggressively powerful and stubborn, his arrogance far exceeding his appreciation for his opportunities. Boseman allows the character to fully flesh himself out, with the script showing his sense of humor, his abusive relationships, and his trouble with drug addiction all as matters of fact. Taylor uses a distinctly impactful technique that can often define a film’s success when used: breaking the fourth wall. Boseman’s Brown addresses the audience, usually explaining to them the backing behind his decisions. Yet there is a key moment when, after hitting his wife and yelling at her for wearing provocative clothing, he glances at the camera and acts ashamed of his actions. Should we sympathize with a man that we come to appreciate over the film, especially after such callous, repulsive actions?
That’s one of the striking questions that the film handles unevenly. One thing it handles perfectly? The music. Oh, the music. Chapters throughout the film are mostly named after his hit songs, with each one usually being shown in its entirety as a tremendous combination of music and dancing. That’s where Boseman’s performance comes together, since he appears to be a talented singer and dancer that perfectly fits Brown’s style. He almost makes us forget about his personal issues when he dominates that stage. Taylor’s film uses the music to coordinate with social issues, however sporadically effective they may be: Brown performing in Vietnam for black soldiers; the death of Martin Luther King Jr. coming a day before a concert in Boston; and Brown singing in a holiday sweater surrounded by, what he calls, a “hunky hoedown.” The film tackles race issues head on and never relents. 
The supporting performances are well-intentioned, but some fall flat due to the narrative’s inability to close out certain stories. Viola Davis’s turn as Brown’s mother starts strong when she is seen as a trapped woman who finally escapes a tumultuous household, but she becomes defined by her negligence and becomes a woman viewed as opportunistic rather than loving. It’s an effective role when used to understand Brown’s loneliness and destruction of personal relationships, but not for her as a mother. Dan Aykroyd is particularly strong as a father figure who likes Brown and becomes his record producer. And Ellis is fantastic in an understated role, one that asks him to sell the feeling of betrayal with a stoic nature. Yet the film will always come back to Boseman, the dominating, luminous force behind the Godfather of Soul. He’s magnetic and dynamic, with every moment he’s on screen feeling authentic and like a true embodiment. Get on Up isn’t a fully formed feature, but it’s backed by a great lead performance that articulates music’s importance on the public and their culture. 
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Get on Up is inconsistently entertaining but never less than spectacularly acted thanks to the tremendous lead performance from Chadwick Boseman. Tate Taylor’s film is a rocky exploration of the iconic singer James Brown’s career and of the social unrest surrounding such a complicated, tragic man who wanted to bring the funk into everyone’s lives. The film opens with Brown in his 60s, looking overwhelmed at all of his thoughts before going on stage. Then it goes to him in his 50s as he wields a gun in one of the places he owns, asking about a woman who went to the bathroom as if she ran the place. Following that, the film jumps to various moments in time, whether that be him in his 30s with his family being interviewed at a Reno airport, or him in his 20s with the Famous Flames trying to make it big. The story is much like Brown’s manic, aggressive personality, in that it’s excitingly all over the place.

The film chronologically looks at Brown’s upbringing in the 1930s through 1950s in a pre-Civil Rights America, with his family coming from extreme poverty and being defined by a negligent mother and abusive father. Brown eventually gets abandoned by both parents and left under the care of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a kind, brothel-operating woman that treats the young boy with respect and a stern hand. Eventually Brown gets arrested for attempting to steal a suit and is sentenced 5-13 years in jail, a horribly unfair charge that emphasizes the uncomfortably racist approach to lawmaking at the time. He’s discovered as a musical talent by Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the leader of a religiously based singing group that helps Brown earn his way out of jail. They form together and eventually call themselves “The Famous Flames,” with Brown leading the way as the dynamic, talented frontman. 

Brown will make it big, that much is clear, but the rest of the band is left to fend for themselves. A troubled relationship grows between Brown and Byrd, with the latter feeling resentful and betrayed by Brown. The leading man grows aggressively powerful and stubborn, his arrogance far exceeding his appreciation for his opportunities. Boseman allows the character to fully flesh himself out, with the script showing his sense of humor, his abusive relationships, and his trouble with drug addiction all as matters of fact. Taylor uses a distinctly impactful technique that can often define a film’s success when used: breaking the fourth wall. Boseman’s Brown addresses the audience, usually explaining to them the backing behind his decisions. Yet there is a key moment when, after hitting his wife and yelling at her for wearing provocative clothing, he glances at the camera and acts ashamed of his actions. Should we sympathize with a man that we come to appreciate over the film, especially after such callous, repulsive actions?

That’s one of the striking questions that the film handles unevenly. One thing it handles perfectly? The music. Oh, the music. Chapters throughout the film are mostly named after his hit songs, with each one usually being shown in its entirety as a tremendous combination of music and dancing. That’s where Boseman’s performance comes together, since he appears to be a talented singer and dancer that perfectly fits Brown’s style. He almost makes us forget about his personal issues when he dominates that stage. Taylor’s film uses the music to coordinate with social issues, however sporadically effective they may be: Brown performing in Vietnam for black soldiers; the death of Martin Luther King Jr. coming a day before a concert in Boston; and Brown singing in a holiday sweater surrounded by, what he calls, a “hunky hoedown.” The film tackles race issues head on and never relents. 

The supporting performances are well-intentioned, but some fall flat due to the narrative’s inability to close out certain stories. Viola Davis’s turn as Brown’s mother starts strong when she is seen as a trapped woman who finally escapes a tumultuous household, but she becomes defined by her negligence and becomes a woman viewed as opportunistic rather than loving. It’s an effective role when used to understand Brown’s loneliness and destruction of personal relationships, but not for her as a mother. Dan Aykroyd is particularly strong as a father figure who likes Brown and becomes his record producer. And Ellis is fantastic in an understated role, one that asks him to sell the feeling of betrayal with a stoic nature. Yet the film will always come back to Boseman, the dominating, luminous force behind the Godfather of Soul. He’s magnetic and dynamic, with every moment he’s on screen feeling authentic and like a true embodiment. Get on Up isn’t a fully formed feature, but it’s backed by a great lead performance that articulates music’s importance on the public and their culture. 

Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.