Dispatches from MIFF: Part 1

Ken Jones

I’ve been a movie fan all my life, but it’s only in the last few years that I got heavily involved in wanting to see more movies and actually review them. Being from Maine, I don’t always get a chance to experience many films outside of the mainstream until they come to Netflix or Amazon. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Maine has a film festival. The Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) has been an annual event in Waterville, ME (between Augusta and Bangor) since 1998.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, MIFF is screening 100 films over 10 days; these films range from independent features and shorts from around the world to classic rediscoveries to films from an honoree’s filmography. In the past they have honored various talents behind and in front of the camera with awards and recognitions, including Terrence Malick, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Demme, Ed Harris, Peter Fonda, John Turturro, Malcolm McDowell, Glenn Close, and Gabriel Byrne. This year, they are presenting a Mid-Life Achievement Award to actress/model Lauren Hutton and a Karl Strauss Legacy Award to cinematographer Roger Deakins, as well as honoring the career of the recently deceased Jonathan Demme.

This year was my first attending the festival and while I could only make it for two days, I managed to maximize my time and get in seven viewings over the course of those two days. The films are screened at the Railroad Square Cinema and the Waterville Opera House. Here are some brief reviews of the films I saw during my first day at my first film festival.

Day 1 (Sunday July 17th):

The Nile Hilton Incident (12pm)

The Nile Hilton Incident is the first of four films I saw on Sunday. It’s a Swedish, Danish, and German produced film set in Egypt that is a crime thriller set against the backdrop of the Egyptian Revolution in January of 2011. Noredin, a corrupt detective in a corrupt police precinct, tries to solve the case of a murdered prostitute in a hotel room. Over the course of the investigation, he slowly rediscovers his principles as he gets more involved with the investigation. Things slowly spiral out of control for Noredin as things spiral out of control for the Egyptian government in the last days of the Mubarak presidency. The film is pretty standard police procedural with a political component escalating the stakes of the investigation. What really stands out is how the corruption of the police department and the government in general saturates so much of the film. In addition to Noredin’s story, there is a parallel storyline involving the hotel employee who stumbled upon the murder.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Force (3pm)

The Force is a documentary about the Oakland Police Department, a department that has been under federal oversight since 2003. This documentary covers a period of time from 2014 through the end of 2016, in a cinema verite format. It’s a fascinating look behind the scenes as cameras ride along with police officers, observe their academy training, and are given extensive access to the various interactions Chief of Police Sean Whent has with the community. This was an interesting film to follow up The Nile Hilton Incident with, because of the rampant police corruption in that film and the attempts to rehabilitate the image of the police in this film. Whent is a figure who comes across as very willing to be involved with the community, as well as be transparent with them, and willing to hear from them. With the backdrop of protests due to police shootings across the country during this time, it’s a frustrating film to watch, because you see people trying to make a difference and how much of Sisyphean task it can seem like because the actions of just a handful of people can undo all the hard work. The film at one point chronicles a shocking nine day stretch where the police force is sent into chaotic upheaval with a series of firings and resignations. The film does a very effective job of showing how complex the issues of race relations are in this country and it puts a face to the people that can get lost in the sea of protests and riot gear on both sides. It’s sobering and illuminating.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sunrise (6:30pm)

Sunrise is a classic silent film of director F.W. Murnau from 1927. It’s a fable-morality tale about a country man torn between love for his wife and the lustful temptation of a city woman. The Woman From the City and The Man devise a plan for him to kill The Wife and make it look like she drowned, only when the moment of truth comes, he can’t bring himself to do it. Terrified of her husband, The Wife flees from him and he pursues her. They spend a day in the city as he slowly wins her back and they rediscover their love for one another. One thing I have discovered about the few silent films that I have seen is that the emotional core of the story is of greater significance than the content of the story. On its face, a husband nearly threatening to kill his wife in the middle of a lake would be a bridge too far; no amount of wooing after the fact could/should win her back. And yet, for whatever reason, it works here. Aside from the beginning, there are also very few title cards in this silent film. So much is conveyed by their faces and without words. His regret and her gradual softening are palpable. The film pulls you into this couple’s relationship and it’s incredibly sweet and touching, and becomes incredibly emotional when there is a hint that things might turn tragic. The film was accompanied by a live score from Mark Tipton and Les Sorciers Perdus, which really added to the experience.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One-Eyed Jacks (9:30pm)

My first day closed out with One-Eyed Jacks, the only film ever directed by Marlon Brando. It’s a western that stars Brando and Karl Malden, who also worked together in On the Waterfront. After robbing a bank together, Malden’s Dad Longworth leaves Brando’s Rio stranded in the desert to be caught by the Mexican authorities. Five years later, Rio escapes from prison and goes in search of Longworth, only to find that he has become the sheriff out on the coast of California in a town with a bank worth robbing. Apparently this film took nearly two years to shoot and Brando, an inexperienced director, eventually had the reins taken away from him. The film is a bit of a mess, and it meanders a bit, but there is no denying the on screen charisma of Brando, whose character is morally ambiguous and a little self-destructive throughout the film. In fact, none of the characters are outright protagonists or antagonists, per se. There are also some beautiful shots of the ocean as a backdrop for several scenes as well. It’s not necessarily a classic worth seeking out, but if you ever stumble across it, it’s worth a look.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Part 2 to follow.

 

Game of Thrones Recap: Dragonstone

Brittany Strelluf

The following contains spoilers for Season 7 episode 1 of Game of Thrones.

In an incredible opening scene, Arya finds satisfaction in the revenge she sought for the Red Wedding. Actor David Bradley did an exceptional job in this scene. Arya contrasts the murder by showing mercy to the frightened and abused child bride of Walder Frey. In another scene, Arya is brought back down to Earth by a friendly and kindly group of Lannister soldiers. Arya sports a new costume, more reminiscent of her trademark costume instead of the pleated skirts, net embellishments and braided bun hairstyles of Braavos.

Dissension was found in Winterfell where Sansa and Jon argue openly about the redistribution of property. Snow stands firm in his decision. In the next scene Sansa tells him he is a good ruler. We learn that they are acting out of their respective fears gleaned from their personal battles. Jon out of fear of the Night King and the army of the dead, Sansa out of the fear of Cersei Lannister. Fans will be thrilled to see Lyanna Mormont still at Winterfell.

Hopefully, Jon and Sansa will meet up with their little brother Bran soon. That meeting is becoming more of a possibility as Meera and Bran Stark have now arrived at the Wall. It will be interesting to see Bran take up his role as the Three Eyed Raven and watch his newly acquired knowledge come into play.

In King’s Landing, we encounter Jaime and Cersei. Cersei’s redeeming factor was that she loved her children. Now her children are gone, she is a murderer and is now Queen of the Iron Throne. She expresses no remorse for Tommen’s suicide. If Cersei wasn’t beyond redemption before, she certainly is now. Euron Greyjoy meets with the Lannister twins to discuss alliances, and in a charismatic performance proved himself to be an utter creep. Jaime tries to be the voice of reason, but his words fall on deaf ears. Many fans theorize- or maybe they just hope- that he will turn away from Cersei entirely. Gregor Clegane continues to be an intimidating presence as Cersei’s monster bodyguard. The Mountain was described in the books by Tywin’s “Mad Dog”. Cersei is trying to become her father, yet she lacks the ability to fulfill that role.

Sandor Clegane is being set up for a new development of his character. The Hound is traveling with the Brotherhood without Banners, led by Beric Dondarrion. Fans might remember a fight between Beric and the Hound, where Sandor killed Beric and then saw him brought back. Although world-weary and cynical, Clegane is now beginning to embrace the Lord of Light and a more humane side of himself.

Samwell is at the citadel, and after breaking into the forbidden literature, discovers a store of dragonglass, better known as obsidian, which is desperately needed to fight the Others and the vast White Walker army that is coming for everyone. In a jump-scare scene, we learn that Jorah Mormont is now in quarantine at the citadel for his progressing greyscale illness, but his heart and mind still remain with the silver queen.

In the final scene, performed with almost no dialog, Daenerys arrives in Dragonstone. Viewers may remember that Dragonstone was where Stannis Baratheon was stationed with Davos and the Red Woman Melisandre. This is an important scene for Dany, as she had been nomadic for the vast majority of her life, and now is in possession of a home built by her ancestors. Her hand runs over the table that Aegon Targaryen built. Aegon was called Aegon the Conqueror, a role Daenerys is now hoping to fill.

This was a solid episode that was packed with a great deal of information to set characters up for the story this season.

OnScreen Review: 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Perhaps inexplicably, the prequel films to the Planet of the Apes have become one of the best franchises in Hollywood this decade. Given the unimpressive remake by Tim Burton in 2001, interest in the property did not seem that high, and news of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was met with a certain bit of skepticism and hesitation by people, myself included. When it turned out to actually be good, it was a pleasant surprise. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seemed to be tempting fate, but even that was good. And now with War for the Planet of the Apes, they have successfully completed a trilogy, a rare feat in Hollywood.

The film picks up a few years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan living deep in the forests trying to hide from a military force that is searching for them, led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). The Colonel’s soldiers finally locate Caesar’s group, but are defeated. Caesar, wanting a world where apes and humans can co-exist, releases the survivors with a message for the Colonel to just leave the apes the forest and there will be peace. Caesar’s plans to lead his clan to a new home across the desert are thrown into chaos when The Colonel and his men assault them the night before they plan to leave, resulting in casualties and tragedy that hits close to home for Caesar. Caesar leaves his clan to take out The Colonel, vowing revenge, with Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way, they encounter a human child who cannot speak (Amiah Miller), and a chimp named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who helps them on their journey.

Director Matt Reeves, who directed the previous Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, returns to direct this one as well. Where Dawn drew some inspiration from Shakespearean tales of kings, War has its own inspirations, including The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments, Apocalypse Now, and The Bridge on the River Kwai just to name a few. It’s a strong, complex story. It mainly centers on how the need for revenge comes into conflict with being a leader for Caesar. Essentially, the apes end up in the middle of a human conflict that is on the brink of happening.  It’s a multi-sided conflict. The Colonel is a character that would be easy to just have be an over the top Colonel Kurtz, in some ways, there are suggestions that the Colonel has lost his mind similar to Kurtz, but when given the opportunity to explain his actions, it is clear that he has a true purpose and reason for doing what he is doing, even if the audience may not sympathize with his actions.

Where the sympathies of the audience lie may, in fact, be this films truest strength and achievement. Not only is the viewer supposed to side with the apes in this film and against the human beings, it actually does it in a convincing and compelling way. The Colonel is essentially fighting against the extinction of the human race as we know it, due to a theorized mutation in the Simian Flu. After seeing the Colonel in one light for half the film, it showed a level of nuance to the character that is rare for summer blockbusters. Even so, by the end of his explanation, I found myself saying, “Well, we had a good run.” It’s impressive narrative maneuvering that Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback are able to so effectively get us rooting against our own kind, so to speak.

It helps that the film is a technical marvel. The CGI of this film is completely seamless when it comes to Caesar and the rest of the apes. Several times during the film I actually shook my head and was amazed at how life-like these characters were. There is no uncanny valley with these apes. It’s amazing. Of course, the technical brilliance of these CGI apes requires actors in these roles that are equal to the task, and Andy Serkis again gives another amazing CGI performance. At this point, it is somewhat ridiculous that Serkis has never been nominated for any significant awards for his CGI work. Even though his face is covered by CGI, the man is still acting, and that acting informs the CGI we see on screen. I can picture a time maybe twenty years in the future where Serkis is given a lifetime achievement award for his body of work, because what he has done is impressive. Caesar is a powerful and emotional performance by a fine actor.

There’s an emotional weight to this film that is uncharacteristic of a summer blockbuster. The always terrific Michael Giacchino lends his talents to the music of the film, and his score helps to enhance the emotional heft of the film without ever being intrusive or overbearing. Being an unofficial conclusion of a story, even though the studio has plans for future films to continue the story, there are a few losses that really hit home. But there are also emotional connections between characters that really resonate. Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is a character they stumble across who has been hiding in seclusion by himself for years and is clearly not all there mentally. There is also the complexity of having some apes that choose to work for the humans against Caesar, former followers of Koba from Dawn who fear reprisal from Caesar and so are aiding the enemy. The visuals of these apes working as grunts for the human soldiers, being called “Donkeys” (after Donkey Kong) was just that extra layer that is rare for a summer blockbuster. Caesar and his group form a bond with the girl that they encounter. If there was one thing that I thought the film was not entirely clear on, though, it was whether the mutation of the Simian Flu represented a de-evolution of human beings or just the loss of the capacity for speech.  That bit of information either makes the girl a mute that can comprehend or essentially a pet, which is a weird.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the rare capstone to a trilogy that does not suffer from the problems that plague so many third films in a trilogy after two great entries. It is a poignant story rooted in personal loss and grief and the desire for revenge; it puts the characters in tough circumstances and sees them through in a way that is not always easy to see when thinks are at their most dire for Caesar and the others.  It a fine conclusion for a trilogy that signals an end for this chapter and leaves open the door for a new story to be told in this universe.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

OnScreen Review: 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

I’ve been a Spider-Man fan ever since I was a kid. I had the action figure. I watched the cartoon “Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends” on Saturday mornings. I read the comic books in the 80s (I fondly remember the Sinister Six series). I watched the animated series in the 90s. And then the Sam Raimi films came along. What Raimi did through two movies was everything I hoped for in a Spider-Man movie. I ranked both Spider-Man (#7) and Spider-Man 2 (#3) in the Top 10 of my Superhero Movie Rankings that I made last spring. And then Spider-Man 3 ruined everything. It’s a movie I still can’t revisit. That led to Sony deciding the reboot the franchise and go in a darker direction with The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, sucking out much of the joy of the character. Each new release brought diminishing returns and lower box office receipts. Things looked bleak when word of another reboot and a third origin story surfaced. But it’s always darkest before the dawn, right? Miraculously, Marvel swooped in and somehow managed to convince Sony to let them bring Spider-Man into the MCU, essentially wresting creative control of the web-slinger from Sony and bringing their prized (but slightly tarnished) property back into the fold. The extended Spidey cameo in Captain America: Civil War showed promise. Spider-Man: Homecoming capitalizes on that promise, bringing audiences the best version of the character since Spider-Man 2.

Forgoing the outright origin story, the film instead uses the events of The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War to bring us into the story. After going to Germany to fight in Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) awaits further instruction from Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), frequently checking in with Tony’s bodyguard and head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Still just a 15 year-old teenager, Peter spends his days in high school with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), being picked on by Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), quietly pining for a senior named Liz (Laura Harrier), and being subtly mocked by lone classmate Michelle (Zendaya). Believing he is capable of more than the friendly neighborhood crime-fighting he is mainly stuck doing, he is eager to prove to Stark and himself that he is ready for more when a he foils an ATM robbery that is using modified Chitauri technology from The Avengers. This technology leads his to a burgeoning criminal weapons syndicate led by a former salvage worker Adrian Tooms/The Vulture (Michael Keaton).

There is so much that this film gets right. First and foremost, is Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. His performance brings back the joy and fun of being a superhero to the character. Spider-Man was always a wise-cracking superhero who was also a big time nerd. There was a bit of awkwardness to the humor of the character that Tobey Maguire could tap into, though I would suggest that Maguire made a better Spider-Man than he did a Peter Parker, on the whole. Andrew Garfield, a talented actor, never quite fit the part of the weird, picked on outsider. It was a role that was ill-fitting on him.

Holland might be the best balance between the Parker and Spider-Man role yet. There have been plenty of Spider-Man stories involving an adult Peter Parker, but the default image of the character in the minds of most people is that of a high school kid getting these super powers and abilities, his age is a distinguishing characteristic. Holland is young enough and talented enough as an actor to look believable as a 15-year-old kid; Maguire and Garfield were way too old to play the character that young. Holland brings a youthful energy to the character too. The film isn’t an origin story, but it is still about the character learning to be a hero and growing into the role. When a class field trip to Washington D.C. provides him the opportunity to follow Tooms and his crew to Maryland, Peter unlocks his suits full capabilities with the help of Ned, essentially taking off the training wheels of the suit without having to do the training. He even gets an AI assistant like J.A.R.V.I.S. that he names Karen (voiced by Jennifer Connelly, who is married to Paul Bettany who voiced J.A.R.V.I.S. before becoming The Vision.) This opens up over 500 variations of web attacks and other enhanced features that he plays around with (among other things, enhanced interrogation mode, which gives him a booming, threatening voice). Holland plays the character in these moments like a kid at Christmas who is playing with a new toy, trying out all of the bells and whistles of the suit.

The script nails the high school aspect of the story, making Peter Parker’s life as important to the story as the actions of Spider-Man. They achieve this by drawing inspiration from The Breakfast Club and other John Hughes classics and other high school movies. Nearly all of the characters in Peter’s orbit at school (Ned, Michelle, Flash, and Liz) are involved in the school’s academic decathlon team. The story also wisely brings both worlds crashing together in the last act, making the climax of the action have personal stakes involved.

The action happening in this movie is another aspect that the film nails. It shows surprising restraint in keeping the size and scope of it all small by comparison to the stories of Captain America, Iron Man, and the rest of the Avengers. Aside from a field trip to Washington D.C. the story is contained to New York City and mainly to Queens. Most of the action takes place on a small, individual level rather than involving giant city-wide destruction. In this regard, it reminded me of the handful of series that Marvel has made for Netflix and Ant-Man in how Marvel has shown a certain level of dexterity in being able to modulate the scope of their projects to fit the characters and format. It takes the “friendly, neighborhood Spiderman” phrase to heart. The action gets bigger at the end, but it works because it’s after a previous failure that he has learned from and it demonstrates that he has essentially grown into the suit, so to speak.

Michael Keaton is a great casting choice as The Vulture. A friend of mine who is very much into comics was incredibly skeptical of making The Vulture be a main villain in any Spider-Man movie, but they pull it off pretty ingeniously here, incorporating the wrecked Chitauri tech from the end of The Avengers as the basis for the wings he uses to fly. Also, Keaton plays him as a character that does not see himself as a villain, but is doing things to provide for his family. He is someone who is not outright villainous, but is looking to take advantage of a changing world after being burned in the past.

Given his prominence in the trailers, I was worried that Downey Jr. would be overused, but there’s actually just the right amount of Tony Stark involvement, basically popping in and out of the story four times, one of which was via phone call. The rest of the cast is also really quite good, even Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, who I was not sold on as a playing Peter’s aunt compared to how she was depicted in the comic books. Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Laura Harrier, and Jacob Batalon all work well in their roles as well as look age appropriate for the characters. Bokeem Woodbine, who always makes every project he is in a little more interesting, has a supporting role as The Shocker. Martin Starr, Donald Glover, Marshall Logan-Green, Michael Chernus, Michael Mando, and Angourie Rice round out the strong supporting cast, while the film also sneaks in small cameo appearances as well.

Despite Marvel’s insistence to the contrary, Zendaya is this iteration's Mary Jane for all intents and purposes, and pretty overtly so by the end. As Mary Jane was essentially my first cartoon crush as a kid, Mary Jane just has to be a red-head. But because of that, I also recognize that I’m incapable of being unbiased in regards to that character. Regardless of the color of his skin, the changes to Flash Thompson didn’t entirely work for me. Changing him from the school jock who bullied the nerdy Peter Parker into a rich nerd who bullied Peter Parker because learning comes so easily to Peter seemed like an unnecessary change. However, I’m not going to begrudge Zero from The Grand Budapest Hotel getting parts in mainstream movies. In the grand scheme of things, these are minor quibbles that did not detract from the enjoyment of the film in any significant, meaningful way.

Overall, there is a noticeable shift toward diversity in the cast from previous Spider-Man movies and previous Marvel movies. This is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, all of the performances are really good (even and especially the previously mentioned Zendaya and Revolori). And the racial diversity on display in the high school likely reflects the demographics of modern day New York City far more accurately than the far more homogenous one depicted when Spider-Man first appeared in comic book form. On the other hand, it feels like a blatantly obvious overreaction (or just reaction) by Marvel to the lack of diversity in some of their previous franchises and the whitewashing of some characters. The reason that this is a mixed bag for the film is that surrounding white main characters with racial diverse supporting cast members does little to quiet the criticisms. The best way to address these issues is to make an awesome Black Panther (which does, in fact, look awesome), and cultivate other diverse characters.

I could go on at length about the suit (I liked it) and some of the Easter eggs (there are plenty), but there are enough words in this review already. When it all adds up, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great example of what a summer blockbuster can be. It is a standout in a pretty mediocre summer overall, so far. Marvel had a lot of heavy lifting to do with this film. They had to rehab the image of the character. They had to effectively incorporate him into the MCU. They had to make The Vulture an effective nemesis to Spider-Man. They had to nail the casting and the high school setting. On nearly every front they succeeded, in some aspects they excelled. They fixed Spider-Man, and I couldn’t be happier.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Top 10 Movies of 2017 (So Far)

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

June has given way to July, which means that the year is halfway over, which makes this time of year a perfect point to take a look at the year in movies to this point. Halfway through 2017, there have been a few genuine standout hits at the box office and a few movies that have really resonated with audiences. It also seems that there have been more duds than normal compared to the last few years. Compared to last year, this feels like a down year overall, so far.

Last year, nine of the ten titles that made my mid-year list ended up in my Top 20 at the end of the year. In 2015, only 7 ended up making the year-end list. I suspect that this year could be similar to 2015, or slightly lower depending on the quality of the awards season fare. To date, I’ve seen 33 films movies this year released before July 1st. Here are the ones I consider to be the Top 10 (so far).

10. Personal Shopper

After years of being the face of a YA franchise and having her name in the tabloids, Stewart has emerged as a talented young actress. This haunting and elegiac film from Olivier Assayas is a showcase role for her. It’s a film with an ending that is open to interpretation, but it’s also got emotional heft, as Stewart’s character is a personal shopper for a celebrity but is also a medium waiting to hear from her recently deceased twin brother. It’s a unique little ghost story.

9. Lego Batman Movie

Like The Lego Movie, the Lego Batman Movie has a lot of stuff going on, almost like it’s made for hyperactive kids in a hyperactive world. But there’s also a lot of fun and entertainment in too. It has lots of nods and winks to the various iterations of Batman in the past. The Lego franchise of movies may very soon veer off into “worn out” territory, but for now it’s still enjoyable. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden hankering for lobster thermidor.

8. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Of all of the movies I’ve seen this year, Captain Underpants cracking the Top 10 (So Far) is perhaps the most unexpected. But I laughed so hard at this movie. It perfectly captures that 3rd & 4th grade level of humor that it goes for. And it makes the stakes seem like life and death, even though they are trivial, because of course what most kids consider to be the end of the world events are pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things. It’s just naturally funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

7. Okja

Okja is a Netflix original film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho. It’s phenomenal. Okja is a fully realized CGI creation and the friendship between her and Mija, the little girl trying to save her from the Mirando Corporation, is really sweet. It’s another interesting Bong concoction, which comes with his typical social commentary woven into the story. But it does detract from the overall picture.

6. Colossal

Colossal was a really surprising film. I thought it was one thing going into it and it turned out to be something almost entirely different. Clearly, making the Top 10 (So Far), that’s not a bad thing. Hathaway is great, playing a different role than she typical is seen. And the same can be said of Jason Sudekis, who really gets a chance to go in a different direction.  In fact, the movie plays very much against mainstream Hollywood expectations, and I give it props for going where it goes.

5. John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 is exactly what an action sequel is supposed to be, something bigger that expands the world we glimpsed in John Wick. It also further cemented that this was the kind of movie that Keanu should have been making for the last decade or so. I think it’s safe to say that Keanu has taken the action championship belt from Liam Neeson.

4. Logan

Logan is the swan song for Hugh Jackman in the role of Wolverine. It’s been a pretty good run. And Jackman ends it on a high note here. Logan is the Wolverine movie we have been waiting for; full of the brutal violence that fits the character. Newcomer Dafne Keene is also great as Laura, aka, X-23.

3. Wonder Woman

Warner Brothers and DC Films finally hit one out of the park with their expanded universe. Wonder Woman succeeds where Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad failed. It’s got great action, quality characters, and a welcome earnestness and heart that has been sorely lacking since everyone started trying to ape Nolan. Here’s hoping it’s a sign of things to come.

2. Get Out

Get Out is the runaway winner for sleeper hit of the year, regardless of what happens the rest of the year. On a budget of less than $5 million it became one of the biggest movies of the year. It resonated with critics and audiences alike. It’s fun, unnerving, and keeps you off balance. It’s also a throwback to psychological thrillers and horrors, drawing inspiration from Night of the Living Dead and The Stepford Wives as being able to weave social commentary into the story.

1. Baby Driver

Hands down the most fun I have had in a movie theater this year. Baby Driver raced to the top of my list after I saw it last week. A crime action movie fueled by a propulsive soundtrack, the movie is a perfect example of every element of a film working in harmony together to create an enhanced whole and a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable movie experience.

OnScreen Review: 'Okja'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

After expanding its original content catalog for TV shows, Netflix has recently begun to expand its original content for feature films after making a handful over the past few years. Okja is the latest; a film from renowned South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is a director who is known for mixing tones, blending genres, and healthy doses of socio-political commentary into his films, which include The Host and Snowpiercer, and Okja is no exception.

This time around, Bong is tackling the business practices of multi-national corporations; in particular, the mass production of food and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The corporation at the center of everything here is called the Mirando Corporation. Its CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces in 2007 that the company has successfully bred new superpiglets that are environmentally friendly and will help solve global hunger in the long run. In the meantime, they have sent out 26 of these superpigs to farmers around the world and a winner will be announced in 10 years. In present day South Korea, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives in the mountains with her grandfather and their superpig, Okja. Okja is not just a pet to Mija, but more like a best friend. When Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives and announces that Okja is the winner of the Mirando Corp contest, Okja is taken away. Against nearly impossible odds, Mija leaves to go get Okja back, traveling to Seoul and eventually New York City in her adventure. Along the way, she is aided by members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and their leader Jay (Paul Dano).

On a surface level, it would be easy to dismiss this film as a propaganda piece against the consumption of meat and corporate greed. To be sure, there is plenty of corporate greed on display in the Mirando Corp board room, but there is also a level of desperation for image re-branding by Swinton’s Lucy Mirando. By her own admission, her father was not a great person, and she has an ongoing feud with her sister, from whom she has apparently wrested control of the company. The superpig contest is an attempt to rehab the image of the company and be more profitable, but without really changing any of the practices of the company. It’s essentially like putting lipstick on a pig (pun intended). The glimpses that Bong gives about the exploitation of these animals, the manner in which they are treated, and the eye-opening conditions of the slaughterhouses are purposefully unsettling, and, if I was not such a meat lover, it may have been enough to make me consider giving up meat. There are also a few instances of visual and verbal satire, including a recreation of the picture of the Obama and his White House staff watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. To be sure, Bong is definitely challenging some delicate sensibilities of Western, capitalist cultures.

While this is the backdrop of the story, it is not the heart of the story. And it’s ultimately not a propaganda film. After all, Mija’s favorite food is a chicken stew that her grandfather makes. The main heart of the story is the bond between Mija and Okja. Okja is a film that shares as many parallel themes with Black Beauty, Free Willy, or Babe as it does with Syriana, Silkwood, or a Michael Moore documentary. Okja, a superpig, essentially looks like a pig crossed with a hippo. The opening scenes of Mija and Okja enjoying the idyllic Korean countryside are terrific and reminded me of some of the moments between Mowgli and Baloo in the 2016 version of Disney’s The Jungle Book. Okja is more than just a pet though. There are clear signs in the animals of intelligence beyond that of a typical animal. An early scene where Mija is in peril shows Okja demonstrating a capacity for problem solving and improvisation to save her. It’s more than just anthropomorphism on the part of Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson; the actions of Okja and other superpigs, including one heart-wrenching moment near the end of the film, suggest that these creatures, which have been genetically modified, are self-aware and intelligent creatures.

None of it would work without the superb performance of Ahn Seo-Hyun as Mija. She is the heart and soul of this picture. Her determination to do whatever it takes to rescue her friend is rivaled by perhaps only Wonder Woman and her determination to end World War I by defeating her nemesis. Given that Mija is all of 12 years old, both tasks seem equally daunting in their respective films. And yet both are equal to the task. Mija refuses to let anything stand in her way. Whether that means running full tilt at a wall of glass in an office building in Seoul, only to have it not wobble and send her to the ground in a thud, or whether that means holding onto a harness on Okja as she goes careening through a mall, she will not give up. Her single-mindedness makes her one of my favorite characters of 2017.

She is supported by Dano’s Jay and other members of the ALF. Dano is an actor I run hot and cold on depending on the role. He’s very good here as a high-minded leader who struggles to maintain his composure at times, but does have the best of intentions. Steve Yeun of “The Walking Dead” fame is also a member of the group. His is the best supporting role, as a person of Korean descent who can speak both languages in a film that is in English and Korean, and the advantage that gives him over everyone else. Lily Collins has a small supporting role in the group as well. While many people will be quick to point out the anti-corporate aspects of the film, Bong does not exempt these animal freedom fighters from satire. One of them has to continually be told to eat something because he insists on leaving the smallest carbon footprint imaginable.

Swinton is a phenomenal actress who appeared in heavy makeup and awful teeth for Bong’s Snowpiercer. She returns this time with, sporting braces in the opening scene, no less! Surprisingly, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is one of the toughest to swallow here, as his disgraced Dr. Johnny is a weird amalgamation of 70% Richard Simmons, 20% Woody Allen, and 10% of a Steve Irwin/Jack Hannah type. It’s the type of performance sure to polarize viewers. I was surprised to find myself a little down on it as Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite current actors. Giancarlo Esposito also has a supporting role as one of the head honchos of Mirando Corp. and Shirley Henderson is Lucy’s mousy but pushy assistant.

Okja is a satirical adventure film with a surprising amount of heart too. It takes a Mija and Okja to hell (on earth) and back, almost literally. Bong Joon-ho has made yet another film that challenges his audience, but has also made a film that has a sweet story of friendship and devotion at the heart of it. Okja is a definite achievement for Netflix and a film worth seeing, even if it may turn you off to ham, bacon, and pork for a while.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Filmmaker Roxy Shih on the creation of the Taiwanese-American Film and Overcoming Obstacles

Alex Chester

There’s a new film festival coming to Los Angeles, CA on. July 8th. The Taiwanese American Film Festival. Headed by up and coming director Roxy Shih. This, I thought, is freaking awesome. The entertainment industry is severely lacking media outlets to showcase Asian-American works. Let alone a specific Asian ethnic group. Yes, there’s more than one type of Asian. Oh, and some of us don’t even know how to use chopsticks properly... if at all…

Ms. Shih, has had her work shown at The LA Film Festival, LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, Cannes, SXSW, Toronto Independent, and Dances with Films. She is a game-changer and someone to keep your eyes on. She is one bad-ass chick and I can’t wait to see where her career takes her. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding her upcoming film festival and her career.

Why was the Taiwanese-American Film Festival Created? 

The Taiwanese-American Film Festival was created not only to celebrate the achievements of up and coming Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American filmmakers, but also serves to create a bridge between these two communities, and give a platform for their voices.  

Diversity and Inclusion are currently hot topics in the entertainment industry.  What do you hope to achieve with the first ever Taiwanese-American Film Festival? 

We really hope to open the conversation further on diversity by putting the spotlight on Taiwanese-American and Taiwanese filmmakers. As a TA filmmaker I've always wanted to know who else is in my community, and what kind of stories we share since we have common roots. Having the lack of media representation growing up created a need to empower and unify creative voices in our community. TAP-LA (Taiwanese American Professionals) was essential in helping getting this festival off the ground, and because we have this support, we hope that we can encourage the development of even more cultural film festivals that will allow bigger audiences and communities to bridge the gap and have a more open dialogue with one another. 

As a female Asian-American Director, what are some of the difficulties you have run into due to your sex and race? How have you overcome them?

I feel like most of the time people are unaware of the impact of their words. The industry is conditioned to normalize these stereotypes... sometimes without their knowledge. I've been told "you're just a little girl, what could you possibly know?" to when I expressed interest directing sci-fi genre project as my first feature I've been told "But wouldn't you rather tell an Asian-American story? If you're going to make this, will it have an Asian lead?" I look into the eyes of the people that have said this to me and I see no ill intent in their eyes. This was honestly how they saw things, how they saw me.

I knew that complaining about it wasn't going to change anything. Actions speak louder than words. I looked for female mentors, examples and leaders that have broken the glass ceiling, went against the grain. They encouraged me to not think about being a woman or a minority and not allow these factors to mentally hinder my chances; simply become the filmmaker you see yourself becoming, who has an intense desire and passion to tell stories. When you have focus, willpower and integrity, you realize that very little will stand in your way, and that there are actually many people around that are willing to help you. 

Once you get there, and you find yourself becoming that mentor and example, you'll be able to inspire and empower younger generations and give them strength to pursue what they love. And this ties back to the festival, we have amazing Taiwanese-American panelists that have done incredible things in this industry, and we hope that it can be an example and encourage the younger generation to apply what they've learned to themselves so that they too, may succeed. 

What are some of your favorite projects you have worked on?

Without a doubt, THE TRIBE (my directorial feature). It was the most incredibly growing experience. I discovered my voice as a director, what my strengths were in storytelling and what more I had to learn. It was an incredibly humbling experience because my friends, family and even strangers, went above and beyond to make it happen. It made me realize that the more you give, the more you receive back. I also highly enjoyed working on the series Dark/Web, which is slated to come out this fall. It's a horror/sci-fi anthology series, and I'm thrilled because I got to work with some of my favorite people. It's going to be a new narrative form TV has never seen before!

What are your thoughts on Representation versus Presentation in the entertainment industry?

Filmmakers have an incredible responsibility because we have the ability to impact change. A very good friend of mine Mary-Lyn Chambers (who is a dope director) once told me that the very power to affect change is as simple as writing a character description on a script. You can say "the doctor (50s, male, caucasian) walks in," or you can say "the doctor (50s, female, Indian-American) walks in." I mean, it's great that the industry is now more sensitive to include diversity in their cast, but we also have to be sensitive on how they are portrayed. If they are portrayed in a way that is enforcing harmful and negative stereotypes instead of portraying diverse characters in our real world, then that doesn't help the cause. The only way we can progress forward is by telling honest stories, stories that tie all of us to one another, showing that we are more connected than we think. 

As an Asian Director do you feel it is your duty to further the cause of diversity? Do you think that just being you, a woman of color, that in itself is a call to action? 

If you asked me this question a year or two ago I wouldn't have felt that my voice mattered. I was simply just trying to make films and live in my own bubble where I can continue to work on what I wanted with the people I like working with. When I went to the Female Eye Film Festival last year in Toronto all of that changed. We had roundtable discussions on our stories, how to create more opportunities for women, and the future of the narrative landscape. We wanted more films, made under the female gaze, to be placed more on the map. It charged me, inspired me, and yes, made me realize that me just being who I am is already a call to action. Now... I can't choose to speak, I need to speak. It's an exciting, revolutionary time.

Any words of advice for the aspiring film-maker? Specifically API ones?

Nina Yang Bongiovi (producer of FRUITVALE STATION, DOPE) spoke recently at a "Women Who Lead" event at LA Film Fest and she has said something that has stuck with me - "Whatever it is that you're doing, make sure that your intention is pure." No words have rung any truer, if you do your work with your heart, you will succeed. That goes with any business, and filmmaking is no exception. As for specifically API filmmakers, there is a whole community of us that are here to help you if you are starting out. If you are intimidated, don't know how to get started, feel free to reach out. For ALL filmmakers remember to stay humble, stay hungry, and continue learning from one another. 

What do you have lined up next?

I'm excited to go into production later this summer to direct my second feature PAINKILLERS, which is going to be produced by Title Media and Lone Suspect. I'm also working on a documentary later this year focusing on Asian-American actors performing Elizabethan Shakespeare, and a film I'm directing in Taiwan at the end of the year with my longtime collaborator Sheldon Chau. It will be the first time I'll be trying my hand in directing in Mandarin, so we'll see how that goes! :)

Be sure to check out Roxy’s website https://www.roxyshih.com/ and if you are in LA July 8th go to the TA Festival. Support your fellow Asian-Americans.

OnScreen Review: 'Baby Driver'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Through four feature films, Edgar Wright has not directed a bad film. Beginning with Shaun of the Dead, Wright has turned out top-notch, crowd-pleasers that gleefully play around in genre sandboxes. In Shaun, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The World’s End, Wright has displayed a keen visual flare and knack for clever dialogue. Despite never having a film that has grossed more than $32 million domestically, he is one of the most proficient directors working right now. Baby Driver is his fifth directorial effort, and he continues his streak of not making a bad film.

Set in Atlanta, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver for bank robberies that are organized by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby always has his headphones on and drives to his soundtracks, which help him to focus because of a childhood accident that resulted in permanent tinnitus (Mawp… mawp…) and the death of his parents. Baby has been driving for Doc for years to get out of debt for him, and is nearly there. The crews that pull of the heists are never the same, except for Baby, who is a supremely skilled driver, even though he is young. A few of Doc’s regular people, though, are “Buddy” (Jon Hamm), his wife “Darling” (Eiza Gonzalez), “Griff” (Jon Berthnal), and “Bats” (Jamie Foxx). When Baby is nearly squared with Doc and desiring to get away from it all, he’s pulled into one last score that puts him and everyone he loves at risk, including Debora (Lily James), the pretty young waitress that he falls for.

The first of many things that stands out about this film is how it incorporates music. The soundtrack or score is not there to merely supplement the scenes and prompt the audience on how to feel. From the opening scene where Baby waits in the car while a robbery goes down and he sings along to “Bellbottoms” by the John Spencer Blues Explosion, the music is woven into the fabric of the film. In an unbroken take shortly after that, Baby is walking to a coffee shop around the corner with his ear buds in listening to “Harlem Shuffle” and the entire sequence is choreographed to the song. It’s a thing of beauty.

In fact, there are several instances where scenes, gunshots, tire squeals, and other action beats are matched to the soundtrack, much like how “Don’t Stop Me Now” scene played out in Shaun of the Dead or how the engine revs in Mad Max: Fury Road served as the score in some instances. The ability to sync all of this together into a cohesive whole is a testament to Wright’s creativity as a filmmaker. It’s perhaps the closest thing to an action film being a musical that I have ever seen. This film is simply energetic.

That energy is carried also comes through in the car chases too, in spades. Leaving the movie theater after seeing this film, you may need to make a conscious effort to obey the speed limit driving home. Unlike, say, Michael Bay, who litters his movies with jump cuts and quick edits that scream that he is too hyperactive as a director, Wright deploys them in his action in a way that makes the energy of the action infectious for the viewer, making you feel like you are in the car with Baby and the crew racing through the streets to avoid the cops. The real beauty of this film is that every aspect of it is operating like a finely tuned vehicle, every part working in chorus with the rest to maximize the vehicle’s performance.

Elgort is capable in the lead as Baby, pulling off the cool, quiet, and mysterious demeanor. Baby is someone who has only driven and never had to get his hands dirty, and the question lingers of what he will do if he needs to get his hands dirty. As the brains of the operation, Spacey is a lot of fun as Doc, a no-nonsense, fast-talking character that Spacey clearly has a lot of fun playing. Hamm gets a chance to play against the Don Draper type in Buddy. Foxx, though, is given a chance to show what he is still capable of; Bats is a menacing, unpredictable element in the mix and someone always seems to end up dead around him. Sadly, Lily James, who shined in Cinderella a few years ago, is not given much to do beyond being the light at the end of the tunnel for Baby. Another strong piece of the cast is CJ Jones who portrays Baby’s foster father, Joseph, who is deaf, wheelchair-bound, and concerned about the work Baby finds himself doing. Their relationship is touching and Jones’ performance is a small but important part of the film in showing the good side of Baby, who the film takes pains to point out is a good kid caught up in a bad situation.

If there is anything that may hamper the film slightly is that the “one last job” aspect of the story is so familiar. But Wright has made a career of making genre films that revel in the tropes and finding new ways to keep them fresh, whether it is a zombie apocalypse or the buddy cop flick, so why should “one last job” be any different? The one minor hang-up I had was with the final act, which pulls a bit of a bait and switch on who gets the onus of being the final, ultimate villain and obstacle to Baby and Debora getting free and clear of it all. The film hints that the character has a dark side of rage that Baby and others should never want to see, but it’s only suggested and implied until the ending. Perhaps an earlier scene illustrating that could have made it feel less like a swerve.

Baby Driver is kinetic, fast-paced, and has a dexterity that is rare for most action films these days. It is the most enjoyable experience I have had in a movie theater this year, with only John Wick: Chapter 2 coming close to the level of pure revelry of filmmaking on display. The music, the action, the editing, everything about the film is working in unison. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, it hits the gas and rarely lets up until the credits roll.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

OnStream: July 2017

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Every month, Netflix and Amazon announce a list of movies they are adding to their streaming service.  While I mostly focus my attention on movies currently in theaters, this is alternative programming for people who can’t get to the movie theater on a regular basis.  Here are 10 recommendations from the new streaming titles available in the month of June.

1. [Insert Classics Here] (7/1 on Amazon Prime, Netflix)

Looking at the slate, it is a lean month for newer releases, so let’s start off with an assortment of classics that will be available. One of Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic movies shows up on Amazon Prime, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Other great options on Amazon include Bull Durham, Clear and Present Danger, Cold Mountain, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, The Hunt for Red October, Kingpin, Manhattan, Rosemary’s Baby, and a whole lot of Star Trek movies.  Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is sure to stir up some emotional childhood feelings on Netflix if you’re interested. Other Netflix options include Best in Show, Delicatessen, Emma, Matchstick Men, Punch-Drunk Love, and Titanic.

2. The Salesman (7/6 on Amazon Prime)

This Oscar-winning Iranian film was listed as being available last month, apparently that didn’t happen, or it popped up and then went away for a bit, similar to what happened to The Handmaiden back in March and April. Maybe this time they’re telling the truth. I’m still interested in seeing it.

3. The Assignment (7/6 on Amazon Prime)

Typically, I like to list highlights, but this is a unique lowlight of a movie that could be offensively bad or quietly veer into the “so bad it’s good” category. Michelle Rodriguez plays an assassin who wakes up to find out that he has undergone a gender reassignment surgery and goes after the doctor who performed the sex change. The doctor, sadly, is Sigourney Weaver. The premise sounds like it reeks of the desperation of trying to make a topically relevant action movie that severely strains believability, but apparently the script is as old as 1978. There’s about a million ways this movie could go wrong. I’m equal parts fascinated and appalled that this movie exists and wonder how it got greenlighted by a studio.

4. The Void (7/6 on Netflix)

The Void is a sci-fi horror movie that looks creepy as hell. A group of people are surrounded in a hospital by a group of mysterious hooded figures. It played for about a week here in Portland, ME back in April, and I didn’t get a chance to catch it then. I had heard good things, but my schedule just didn’t line up with being able to see it. Currently, it’s boasting a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes with comps to low-budget 80s horror films. Sounds like it could be a candidate to become a cult classic down the line.

5. Our Kind of Traitor (7/8 on Amazon Prime)

After the critical success of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy there has been a renewed interest in adapting the spy stories of John le Carre. Our Kind of Traitor came out in 2016 and received little attention, but it is a quality spy thriller about an unassuming British couple on vacation that gets roped into the defection plans of a Russian oligarch afraid for his life. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play the couple while Stellan Skarsgard is the affable Russian mobster. Damian Lewis has a supporting role as an MI6 operative.

6. Lion (7/9 on Netflix)

Looking back at the Oscars for 2016, Lion was the also-ran nominee for most of the major categories. It’s a shame, because in a slightly weaker year it could have easily been a strong Oscar contender. Lion is the story about Saroo, who was orphaned in India as a child and adopted by a family in Australia. As an adult, he uses Google Earth to go searching for his birth mother and his brother. The first half of the film is really harrowing, focusing on how Saroo got lost and barely survived on the streets of Mumbai, but ends in a quite poignant and slightly bittersweet place.

7. To the Bone (7/14 on Netflix)

Another month, another Netflix original film. This time it’s a dramedy about an anorexic young woman (Lily Collins) and the unorthodox doctor (Keanu Reeves) who challenges her face her eating disorder and change her life before it’s too late. The film is written and directed by Marti Noxon, a long-time Hollywood writer and producer on several TV shows including Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Glee, and Grey’s Anatomy.

8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (7/18 on Netflix)

The first of the planned Star Wars anthology stories, Rogue One was a pretty successful expansion of the Star Wars universe that didn’t compromise the integrity of the original trilogy. It’s not original, as it pretty blatantly draws inspiration from classics like The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, and a few other movies about covert missions in wartime, but it is effective.

9. Miss Sloane (7/19 on Amazon Prime)

Miss Sloane is a movie from last fall that got lost in the shuffle a bit during the end-of-year/Awards Season rush.  Directed by John Madden and starring Jessica Chastain, it seems like it was positioned for Awards Season, but missed its wave. This film is a dramatic thriller where Chastain plays a powerful D.C. lobbyist who gets on the wrong side of a powerful opponent that may be too much for her, even though she has a win-at-all-cost attitude. Chastain is an actress who is so consistently great, I will see her in just about anything she chooses to do.

10. Chef (7/28 on Amazon Prime)

Chef is a fun film written by, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau from 2014. It’s about an unhappy chef of a prestigious restaurant in L.A. who abruptly loses everything, buys a food truck, and begins to rediscover his love of food and family as he travels cross country serving food. It’s a pretty great road trip movie and features some tasty looking food too. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but it’s the kind of movie that’s like good comfort food.

OnScreen Review: 'It Comes At Night"

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Most horror movies tend to outperform their box office predictions in their opening weekend. People, particularly teens, love to go to the movies and be scared. It seems like every year, though, there is one horror movie that garners critical acclaim yet fails to connect with the wider audience because it is not a straightforward slasher or monster flick with cheap scares. Typically, these are indie horrors, with most recent being It Follows, The Witch, and The Babadook. This year, that film is clearly It Comes at Night. The follow-up film to director Trey Edward Shults’ 2016 family drama (though a horror in its own way), Krisha, is an unconventional horror that has a few thrills but is mostly built on atmosphere and interpersonal tension.

The film is set in post-apocalyptic world of some kind. What exactly has happened is never made clear, but some contagion has spread causing death and disease in its wake. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live in a secluded house deep within the forest. After saying goodbye to Sarah’s father, who had become infected, their isolation is interrupted by the arrival of an intruder named Will (Christopher Abbott) who is scavenging for supplies for his family: his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew. With some reluctance, Paul agrees to let them Will and his family live with them so long as they abide by the house rules he lays out, the most important being to always keep the only entrance locked and that goes outside at night.

Shults is a young director who spent some time working for Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols before doing Krisha. His relationship with Nichols was how he managed to get Edgerton for this film. The influence of these two directors is clear on Shults, both in what he does and what he doesn’t do. He has said in various interviews he learned to never make a movie how Malick makes them, but the use of natural light for the filming of this movie stands out as a Malick thread. There is a beautiful shot where Edgerton’s Paul has to go outside at night to make sure there is no one else around after they catch an intruder. Armed with a shotgun with a flashlight attached to the end of it, he slowly scans the tree line, the light from his flashlight hauntingly moving between the branches, casting shadows and peering into the inky darkness.

The setup of the house is another terrific aspect of the feel of this movie. The ominous big, red door that is the only entrance to the building is bolted shut, painted red as if to scream “Stop!” It is also at the end of a long hallway. In some ways, it reminded me of a rustic version of an airlock on a space ship, keeping the inhabitants safe from what is outside. Adding to this sense is that they so often are shown wearing gas masks in order to avoid exposure.

Exposure to what is never fully explained, which is frustrating at times, but this film is not about the disease outside but the slow deterioration of the group dynamic inside the house. So much of this uneasy living situation is built on trust, and any slight wobble in that trust can quickly cause everything to collapse. When things begin to spiral, it quickly breaks down into a form of tribalism; even though they are all people, they are still two families that are tenuously together for convenience.

As I said, the film is largely atmospheric, with most of the scariest moments being found in a few nightmares that Travis has after experiencing the death of his grandfather and having a general fear of the unknown that is lurking in the outside world due to this disease. With only one exception, we don’t see any characters outside of these two families. And outside of one instance where their dog chases after something in the woods, the potential threat of this disease remains on the margins, even as it is at the forefront of every character’s mind to protect their family from it.

There’s also a ton of ambiguity that begins the spiraling of events in the house, and the film never provides hints and strong suggestions at what caused things to happen, but never gives firm answers. This could easily turn people off to the film; I found it mostly effective but I could have used a bit more substance. Shults builds the film to an emotional gut punch of an ending, with a John Carpenter classic being the clear inspiration for the closing shot of the film even though it is not meant to evoke the same response from the audience.

Shults has said that the film came from dealing with the death of his father from cancer and his processing of his grief from that; the opening scene saying goodbye to the grandfather reflects this and the Shults grew the story from there. It could easily be argued that his previosu film, Krisha, is more of a (domestic) horror movie than It Comes at Night, this sophomore effort is still achieves much  

of what it sets out to do. It’s more unconventional and has fewer moments that truly scare as a horror film than The Babadook, The Witch, or It Follows, but it establishes a tone and an atmosphere in a tightly contained environment and gives just enough shading along the margins for the external threat to be lingering most of the time and imposing in a few moments.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

OnScreen Review: 'The Mummy'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

In a world in which every studio has to have a blockbuster shared cinematic universe, Universal Studios has dug into its back catalog of classic horror monsters to create a revival of what is now being called the “Dark Universe.” These films will bring together the stories of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man and other classic monsters into a shared universe. Kicking off the Dark Universe is The Mummy, curiously starring Tom Cruise.

Working for the U.S. military in Iraq, treasure hunter/soldier of fortune Nick Morton (Cruise) and his close friend and partner Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) stumble across an ancient Egyptian tomb located beneath the streets of a remote town, which they discovered through Nick sleeping with an archaeologist and stealing her notebook. That archaeologist, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) tracks them down when they call in an airstrike to save their skin, which unearthed the tomb. Inside, they find a sarcophagus submerged in mercury. Perplexed by presence of an Egyptian tomb in the middle of Iraq but pressed for time, they extract the sarcophagus and make for an airfield. Little do they know that inside lays the body of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who killed her family and made a deal with the god Set. Set bestowed her with a dagger that she would have used to give him human form, but she was captured and buried alive. Released from her forgotten tomb, Ahmanet set her sights on Nick, cursing him as the new vessel for Set to come to Earth, and the organization that Jenny secretly works for, led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), may be the only thing that stands in the way of that happening.

When word came out that Universal was planning to remake all of their classic movie monsters, it wasn’t a surprise. It was an unoriginal and uninspired move, but it has been done countless times in the past. In fact, this incarnation of The Mummy was sold to the public initially as a reboot of the Brendan Fraser-led films from nearly 20 years ago. Landing Tom Cruise as the lead, then, was a surprise turn of events. It never quite made sense to me why Tom Cruise would be interested in the project, even though his stated reason was that he loved the classic monster movies as a kid. After seeing the film, I’m wondering if he has second thoughts now. This film is easily the worst film of Cruise’s career. In fact, off the top of my head, I’m hard pressed to even think of one that comes close to it.

Practically nothing that transpires makes sense. When the tomb/prison of Ahmanet is discovered, there is a reservoir of mercury that is being fed by a continuous stream of mercury. Where is this endless reservoir coming from, in the desert no less? Ahmanet causes the plane transporting the sarcophagus to crash, with Nick on board, who later wakes up in the morgue in a body bag. It is never made clear why his being cursed prevents him from being killed like a normal human being and why she couldn’t just choose a new vessel if he died. These were one of about a dozen questions that popped into my head as I was sitting in the theater.

The reason these questions were popping up regularly in my head is because there is little to nothing in terms of compelling action or set pieces. These classic horror monsters are being brought into a modern world, but not set in a modern horror film. The Mummy is an action film through and through will a few nods to horror. And the action is dull. The action sequence where the plane crashes is impressive, but most of it takes place inside the cargo bay of the plane, which was actually filmed using practical effects, but there’s nothing about it that stands out with a “Wow!” factor. There’s nothing original or inventive about the fighting, just tired stuff that has been done better in many other movies. Of course, there’s also the obligatory Tom Cruise running. Running through alleys as he and Jake Johnson are shot at, running through a field after realizing that the Mummy he is seeing in his weird visions is actually real, running through London as stone buildings and glass are transformed into a giant sandstorm chasing him.

Some of the CGI is probably one of the few things that stands out about the film. When Ahmanet is released, she is the shriveled, mummified corpse you’d expect, and she slowly regains a normal human appearance over the course of the film by literally sucking the life out of her victims. The work that goes into her appearance and of the undead she commands looks impressive, most reminiscent of Cara Delavigne’s Sorceress from Suicide Squad. Less remarkable is the work done in transforming Crowe from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, who looks like a severely bruised and bloated version of Russell Crowe with weird eyes. The film also blatantly rips off An American Werewolf in London in having a character that dies haunt Cruise’s Nick throughout the movie and provide exposition about what is happening to Nick.

Director Alex Kurtzman, who has an incredibly shaky track record writing and producing some of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade, from Transformers to Star Trek to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to name just a few, helms this as only his second directorial feature. It’s a visually dull film for the most part, though some of the flashbacks to the Egyptian desert look nice. London looks drab and the whole film is mostly working with a muted color palette. Despite millions more in money to spend and far superior technology at their disposal, this film never comes close to capturing the thrill or the spectacle of what those original films could pull off with makeup, lighting, and actors that completely embodied the role; in this case, Boris Karloff. As far as remakes of the Karloff classic go, this is one is shockingly inferior to even the remake from 1999. That film, and (at least) its first sequel, The Mummy Returns, had a level of 90s campy action that made the film tolerable in the broad, mindless blockbuster kind of way. I’ve never been a fan of Brendan Fraser as an actor, but this film actually made me miss Brendan Fraser, something I never thought possible.

The Mummy is a presumptive and imperious misstep by Universal, one that reeks of arrogance and hubris. As an entry point into a planned “Dark Universe” it’s an ignominious start. With several movies planned to follow based on this, and having announced major stars for the casting of major roles, The Mummy could seriously threaten those long-term plans. When the opening Universal logo appeared on screen, I leaned over to my friend Dave, who had gone to see it with me, and jokingly said that instead of the Universal logo they should have changed it to a “Dark Universe” logo. No sooner had I said this than the Universal logo continued past its normal sequence and slowly transitioned to a “Dark Universe” logo done in the style of the Universal Pictures logo. Really, that was the highlight of the film. It was all downhill from there.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Dave Chan - Between Yellow Face and Whitewashing

Melissa Slaughter

David Chan brings the Yellow Peril
 
A white, gentrified Brooklyn might be the punchline for every comedian at the Comedy Cellar right now. But some people aren't gonna let that stand.
 
Joseph Shahadi stated that his mission with the 7th Annual Art of Brooklyn Film Festival was to showcase all of Brooklyn. Not just the straight white men, and not just with the calling card of "diversity." He opened the "Between Yellow Face and Whitewashing" Panel by stating this festival is about "inclusion...we're not making space...we're giving you space" that’s rightfully yours.
 
The guest director/curator of the festival this year was Dave Chan, an award-winning filmmaker, who’s film “What’s Eating Dad?” was featured at last year’s Art of Brooklyn Film Festival. Dave’s role as guest director/curator was to organize panels for public, and he hosted many of them. In line with my own interests, Dave put together a panel that addressed the trend of white-washing, yellowfacing, and white saviors that occurred in 2016, and shows no signs of slowing down in 2017. The panel featured: David Huynh (Actor/TED talk speaker), Anne Hu (filmmaker), Eddie Shieh (filmmaker), Becky Yamamoto (actor/comedian), Victor Huey (lead grip), Celia Au (actor who can be seen in episode 11 in Netflix’s Iron Fist). 

  • Books could (and have) been written about the topic covered in this panel, and it's unfair to break it down without giving it the nuance it deserves. So here are some highlights:
  • Executive Director Joseph Shahadi reading internet comments about the announcement of this panel. Just read any facebook comments thread on whitewashing and you’ll get the gist of what these were. 
  • Victor Huey has been in the business for over 40 years. His stories about how film was mostly Irish and Italian when he started, and how someone told him “didn’t have a Chinamen’s chance” of working in the film business, were some of the best features on where we started and how far we’ve come. 
  • David Huynh (an accomplished Shakespearean actor who recently came off an acclaimed run of Vietgone in the Midwest): “I go on a third of the auditions of my peers...there’s just not as much opportunity.” 
  • Anne Hu (who wrote/directed starred in the short Cake): Asian women are of two different extremes...either submissive/servant types, or the dragon lady…. [I received] slut-shaming from Asian men who have never seen the movie...it’s important for Asian-American women to claim their sexuality.”  
  • Becky Yamamoto: “ I’d love not to make an Asian thing, but just an Everyman thing.” 
  • Celia Au (on why she keeps going in this industry): If we give up, we’re giving up on the people behind us. 
  • There were long discussions over what doesn’t work (Ghost in the Shell; Great Wall; Aloha; the upcoming Ni’hau), what we should celebrate (Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Masters of None; Justin Chon’s upcoming Gook; John Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians), and how representation both in front of and behind the camera matter. 
  • If there was any call to action, it was filmmaker Eddie Shieh’s simple answer: “We need to support each other. 

I was happy to see that there were not just people of Asian descent in the audience. And the non-Asian people did ask questions on race and how to address it in the film industry. Panels and discussions such as these need to happen, and they need to happen often. But more often than not, they are shouting into a vacuum. When Asian people are only talking to fellow Asian people, progress becomes difficult. I applaud Dave for putting together this panel, as well as making it a positive, educational experience.  
 

Telling Honest Stories: An Interview with Filmmaker Roxy Shih

Melissa Slaughter

Roxy Shih likes to laugh. We spoke on the phone a few days before this interview, and she is a delight. She’s also an actor, director and producer. This year, Roxy is also one of the founders of the first ever Taiwanese-American Film Festival in Los Angeles, opening on July 8th! Tickets are on sale now, and Roxy was kind enough to answer some questions for me!
 
- There's so many types of storytelling, what intrigued you most about filmmaking? 
 
As an artist, I've always found empowerment and clarity in collaboration. Not all artists prefer to work in this way, which is what makes filmmaking such a standalone form. I love that it allows you to incorporate so many mediums of expression: acting, music, cinematography, design...etc all together as one. All of these departments create storytellers in their own form, and for all of us to come together to tell one story using our respective skill sets is the most rewarding way to do so (albeit the most challenging). It's like... we're all planeteers and when we come together we form Captain Planet! (probably not the best analogy but you get the point ;))
 
- What have been your most meaningful projects to work on? 
 
Oh man, there's so much. Every single show I've worked on so far has taught me something... but I think the most meaningful has been my directorial feature "The Tribe," which has allowed me to confront some of my deepest fears and challenges as a director and producer. Some other ones include the series "Voices" that I collaborated with Jubilee Project, where we explored Asian-American themes with millennials from our community, and a non-profit short I produced this year called "The Plural of Blood" where I worked with primarily women in the key departments. With the latter it just goes to show that sometimes you may not be aware of the impact of your decisions, and how just choosing to hire a female gaffer instead of a male gaffer can be a complete game changer. The work, both on screen and behind, should empower inclusivity. 
 
- What are your goals as a director (and not just as an Asian Female director)?  
 
I just want to tell honest stories. I have a reputation for being a genre director, but genre is just the seasoning on top of the main course. It's what makes it fun - that comedy, musical or horror romp seasoning to give you some more flavor with your meal. It aligns with of all the "seasonings" in society: race, gender, religion...etc, we all have universal stories and struggles. I just hope that through my work, audiences can be challenged to think a little bigger, with their hearts and minds a little more open.   
 
- What inspired you to create the Taiwanese American Film Festival, and what is the objective of the Festival? 
 
As a Taiwanese-American filmmaker I always wanted to know who else was in my community, I don't get to meet very much of them! I really wanted to bridge the gap and had no idea how- I wanted to know who shared a similar life story with shared cultural roots. My really good friend Anthony Ma is on the board of TAP-LA (Taiwanese American Professionals) and him and the president JC Chang have always been passionate filmmakers and film lovers. TAFF is their brainchild, and they brought me on to help make it happen (and secretly I've been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time) I'm on the filmmakers side, and it has always been my desire to recognize other filmmakers in my community.

After being in the film industry for some time, I found that there is no use in competing with one another, and the only way we can go up is if we support each other, and continually do so. So far, I'm thrilled with this year's program and support! The filmmakers have such unique voices and I hope that with this festival we can encourage the development of more cultural festivals and continue supporting and empowering diverse filmmakers around the world. 
 
- What is on your Craft Service table (aka what is your favorite food)?
 
 I wish I can be fancy and say something like lox or caprese bites, but honestly, I'm super basic and just want LaCroix. 
 
- What are you reading right now?
 
 I visited Savannah last year for the Savannah Film Fest and the ghost tours scared the shit out of me so now I'm reading "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
 
- What is your social media? 
 

@roxyshih on instagram and fb! x
 

OnScreen Review: 'Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Following on the heels of the financial success of this spring’s The Boss Baby, Dreamworks’ latest animated feature is Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.  Adapted from a popular series of kids’ books, Captain Underpants is very enjoyable feature full of laughs that could spawn a series of future films.

Fourth graders George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are two best friends who spend their time writing crazy comic books and pulling crazy pranks at school.  George writes their stories and Harold animates them, with their favorite being their invented superhero Captain Underpants.  Their pranks frequently bring them into conflict with the Principal Krupp (Ed Helms), a mean adult who looks to suck the joy out of everything, confiscating countless comics and toys from them over the years.  When they are finally caught pulling a prank involving an invention by Melvin (Jordan Peele), their classmate who is a classic butt kisser to the faculty, Principal Krupp threatens to put them in separate classrooms, a punishment that shatters their world.  In a desperate attempt to prevent this, George attempts to hypnotize Krupp with a 3D Hypno Ring he got out of a cereal box.  Astonishingly, it works, and after having fun with making him act like a chicken and a monkey, they tell him to be Captain Undepants due to his striking resemblance sans his toupee.  Assuming the identity of their comic book hero, Krupp is soon galavanting around their town pretending to be a superhero without powers just as mad scientist Professor P (Nick Kroll doing a German accent) arrives to take over as the new science teacher.  Also, the P stands for Poopypants.

The humor here is definitely geared toward the 4th grade level of potty humor.  George and Harold crack up laughing in a flashback when they learn that there is a planet called Uranus.  The villain is name Professor Poopypants.  The thing is, the jokes aren’t sophomoric, juvenile, or crass.  Rather, it’s enjoyable because George and Harold find so much unabashed joy and laughter from these things that they find funny that it makes it relatable.  It’s the kind of childish comedy that makes it easy to remember being a kid and hearing something funny for the first time and how entertaining and silly something like Uranus sounding like “Your anus” could be. 

The other thing that really works for the film is that they make the stakes matter.  Principal Krupp is an adult that seems to find pleasure and satisfaction in taking away anything that is fun.  In the eyes of a 4th grader, teachers and principals can seem like they just hate fun.  Also in the minds of 4th graders who are best friends, being put in separate classrooms can seem like the end of the world.  From their limited perspective of the world, it’s a massive upheaval of the order of the universe.  This film does a very effective conveying that sense of doom and the threat that it is.

Captain Underpants has some impressive animation.  At times, there is some traditionally hand-drawn animation on top of the computer animation.  There is also one interlude sequence involving sock puppets.  This blending of styles gives the film a unique look all its own.  Professor Poopypants also has a shrinking/enlarging ray gun that lets the film get creative with how the action of the third act plays out.

The voice acting is another highlight of the film.  Ed Helms is a legitimate standout.  His Captain Underpants voice is an amalgam of various classic superheroes and cartoons.  Krupp is also an unwitting victim of this hypnosis, and comes out of it whenever he gets a splash of water to the face, making for some great verbal acrobatics for Helms where he’s jumping between identities from Krupp to Underpants and back and forth again and again.  One moment he’s belting out Captain Underpants’ catchphrase of singing “Tra-la-laaaaaa!” and the next second he is yelling at Harold and George or wondering where the rest of his clothes are.  Kroll is also a delight as the humorless Poopypants who hates his last name and is sick and tired of people laughing at it.  The German accent is just icing on the cake.  Hart and Middleditch as George and Harold definitely capture the spirit of boys in the 4th grade.  Kristen Schaal also pops up as Edith the lunch lady who like likes Krupp.

Captain Underpants is the kind of animated film that is enjoyable for kids and adults alike.  There’s a lot of talent and creativity on display here, only some of which I have touched on.  Kids will enjoy the toilet humor (literally, there is a giant toilet that terrorizes the school) and it invites adults to have a childlike enjoyment of the film too.  It’s infectious humor.  Often, people will say that they just want to be able to shut their brain off when they watch a movie.  That’s fine, but often that’s used as an excuse for tolerating subpar movies.  Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is exactly the kind of film that someone can turn their brain off and actually be entertained by in the purest sense.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

OnScreen Review: 'Baywatch'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

The remaking of “classic” TV shows into feature films continues, this time with Baywatch, a show that surprisingly ran for 11 seasons from 1989-2001.  I remember it being a flash in the pan on early on in its first season on network television before ratings cratered.  It was cancelled and then repackaged for first-run syndication and went on to become something of worldwide phenomenon, particularly when it added Pamela Anderson to the cast in 1992.  It went through a few iterations of spin-offs, including “Baywatch Nights” and then “Baywatch Hawaii.”  It was an action drama, though you could argue it was more of an action prime time soap.  It was never taken very seriously and had a certain level of camp to it.  As a movie, it has been repackaged as a full on comedy, similar to what happened with 21 Jump Street and Starsky & Hutch.  The end result is mostly unfunny and uninteresting comedy.

The Baywatch lifeguard team, led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), is a well-respected element of the local community, thanks in large part to the popularity of Mitch due to his outgoing personality and hard work keeping the beaches safe.  Flanked by Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), the team is holding open tryouts for new members.  The hopefuls include Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass), a slightly-chubby nerd who harbors a not-so-secret crush on the stunning CJ.  While they earn their way onto the team, another recruit is foisted upon them in the form of Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a two-time Olympic gold medalist who flamed out spectacularly and has to perform community service as part of a plea agreement.  While trying to instill the importance of teamwork in Brody, Mitch and his co-workers have to deal with an increasingly sinister drug element in the form of local property owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra).

Openly admitting the comedy is very subjective, there is little here to recommend this film.  While there are a few jokes that land, like Mitch continually referring to Brody in demeaning nicknames while refusing to call him by his real name, most of the time it strains to be funny and fails.  The funniest moments were when the film is making fun of itself and the TV series it is based on, almost winking at the audience that they are in on the joke.  Having scenes that venture into the “Baywatch Nights” territory is a somewhat clever nod to the ridiculousness of the original TV series.

Unfortunately, that self-awareness is not sustained through the whole movie.  In fact, it feels like there are three or four kinds of comedies going on here and they can’t settle on a single tone.  In one scene, the audience is supposed to believe that this team does serious work to keep the beaches clean and safe; another scene where they are berated by a police officer plays up the comedy of how it doesn’t seem to register with them that they are not real cops and that they don’t do investigations.  If the whole film were more in line with the latter of those two scenes, it might have been a better and more consistently funnier film than the one we got; something closer to the 21 Jump Street model.  Actually, any consistent tone would have worked better rather than this.  At times, it seemed like everybody in the cast was in their own version of the movie, with the Jon Bass version decidedly the worst version.

In fact, most of the acting is not bad.  Dwayne Johnson, to his credit, is an actor who is going to give you everything he has, whether it is the Fast and the Furious franchise, Central Intelligence, San Andreas, or this severely lacking material.  Efron is game, but unfortunately his character comes across as composites of his characters from Neighbors and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.  It’s unclear from scene to scene if his character is supposed to be indifferent, dumb, or a self-destructive drunk.  Kelly Rohrbach is more than just a supermodel in a bikini, showing off a few comedic chops.  Daddario and Hadera don’t get much to do, outside of Daddario being annoyed by Brody’s advances.  Bass, who acquitted himself well in a supporting role in last year’s Loving, gives a painfully broad performance as the awkward-fitting Ronnie.  Chopra’s villain, sadly is not that effective, actually saying at one point that she’s not a Bond villain, yet.  Of course, there are also cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, with Hasselfhoff actually getting to be in one of the better scenes of the winking parody version of the film in as Johnson’s Mitch has a heart-to-heart with the Hoff’s Mitch.

Like the TV series, the film seems to be as much about ogling the actors and actresses in their bathing suits as anything else.  There are hints of would could have been a path to a halfway decent comedy, but it’s unable to commit to what it wants to be.  Baywatch is a B-level comedic remake of a B-level TV series.  In that way, it’s appropriate that it is a belly flop at the box office. 

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

OnScreen Review: 'Wonder Woman'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

I could spend a lot of time re-litigating the case against Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad and all the apprehension that surrounded Wonder Woman given the spotty track record at DC since they decided to make a DC Cinematic Universe.  Instead, I’ll just refer to my reviews of both movies from my old blog, because I want this review to focus primarily on Wonder Woman.  With a lot riding on this film, Wonder Woman steps up to the plate and delivers in a way that the previous DCCU installments have failed to do.

Set during World War I, Wonder Woman gives us the origin story of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the daughter of the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).  The Amazons, created by Zeus to protect mankind, live in seclusion on their island of Themyscira , training in case Ares, the god of war returns.  Afraid of losing her, her mother is reluctant to have her become a warrior, despite Diana’s eagerness to train.  Trained in secret by her aunt (Robin Wright) until her mother finally relents, Diana is pushed harder than any other warrior.  Hidden from the outside world, Themyscira’s isolation is broken when a pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane in the ocean nearby and is saved by Diana.  Revealing himself to be an Allied spy, he is carrying valuable intelligence he stole from German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his mad scientist Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), aka Dr. Poison.  News of the great “war to end all wars” leads Diana to conclude that Ares has returned and must be stopped.  Armed with the sword known as “The Godkiller,” a shield, and the lasso of truth, Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve to confront Ares and help put an end to the war.

Much has been made of the fact that Wonder Woman represents the first female superhero movie directed by a female director, in this case Patty Jenkins.  What direct bearing it has on the end product of this film is likely beyond me (or perhaps I just haven’t taken the time to consider it).  Directing is definitely a male-dominated position, but the gender of the director doesn’t factor into my equation when I think of films like Zero Dark Thirty or Selma, I just think of them as well-made pictures.  I think it is easy to get lost in the weeds of this subject and my preference is to focus on the merits of the film; whether those merits are directly attributable to the film being directed by a woman or not, they certainly speak to the capability of Jenkins as a director.  And they speak volumes.

If there is one attribute of this film that stands out more than anything (and it is something that DC was desperately in need of) it is the pervading feeling of fresh eyes being involved.  Jenkins, as director, brings a different color palate and different visual style than Zack Snyder did with BvS and David Ayer did with Suicide Squad.  To be frank, this film does not drastically deviate from the conventions of most superhero films.  It shares some obvious similarities to Captain America: The First Avenger, which is unavoidable considering the backdrop of war.  Yes, the final act turns into a giant boss fight like nearly every other superhero film, and, yes, there is seemingly a ring of fire around the fighting that nearly gave me flashbacks to the hellscape in downtown Metropolis at the end of BvS.  However, it is toned down here, and it takes place at a military airfield, and the war makes it more palatable as a more natural environment for explosions and destruction.  It’s also refreshing to not have a climactic battle have everything be doused in rain and look so murky that it can be difficult to make out everything that is going on (I’m looking at you, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword). 

In the same way Jenkins brings new eyes to the film as director, Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman is a character with fresh eyes.  Venturing into the outside world from an all-female society, everything appears new to her, but yet she has a level of poise to talk almost all of it in stride.  It’s occasionally played for laughs, like when Steve is trying to guide her through the streets of London.  Particularly entertaining is when she bursts in on a war council meeting and the men in the room are completely flummoxed at the presence of a woman in their midst.  The wrong look on her face could engender critiques of playing it up as a moment of female empowerment against the patriarchy of the time.  But the scene resists that and the look on her face is perfect; it doesn’t register in her mind why these men would have an issue with her being there. 

There are other instances of her making a similar face or a situation where her status as a fish out of water or stranger in a strange land is highlighted.  I struggled for the right words to describe it to myself throughout the film until the end.  There is an earnestness and sincerity to the character that is incredibly refreshing.  And based on some comments I’ve seen on social media, it is very deliberate choice by Jenkins.  This is yet another characteristic Wonder Woman seems to share with Captain America.  But oddly, she reminded me of Buddy the Elf in Elf in terms of how she steps out into this bigger world and approaches everything with an earnestness, an innocence, a little naiveté, and pureness of character that is rare in most people who are hardened by their experiences with the world.  Another character she also evoked in my mind was Leeloo in The Fifth Element, who coincidentally had a male “sidekick” of sorts in Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas.

Gadot, who was arguably the best thing about BvS, is great in the role of Wonder Woman, perfectly embodying the physicality of the character as well as her previously mentioned sincerity.  I also thoroughly enjoyed that she practically never listens whenever anyone tells her to stay put, whether her mother or Steve.  Pine has quietly turned into one of the finer actors around, and fits in perfectly alongside Gadot’s heroine and serving as her tour guide of sorts to the “world of man” and doing his best to explain things from slow-dancing to why she can’t carry a sword in public.  For the first time since the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, a DC movie features characters that feel fully formed.

A lot of superhero films portray their characters doing great feats in the name of love or out of a sense of duty (The old Spider-Man line, “With great powers comes great responsibility”) or moral obligation.  Wonder Woman has those things too, but there was more to it.  As a character experiencing the world for the first time, she’s witnessing death, pain, and suffering for the first time too.  There is a moment early on when she sees another Amazon killed by a bullet.  Later, as they approach the front lines, she sees the injured soldiers returning from the front.  Her face is full of compassion.  It’s that compassion that fuels her sense of duty and compels her to finally make a stand and say, “I’ve seen enough, I have the power to do something, I have to act.” 

Superhero films regularly deal with the battle of good vs. evil.  In this regard, I appreciated the nuanced approach that Wonder Woman takes to this topic.  She is driven by the belief that if she kills Ares, mankind will stop their fighting and there will be lasting peace.  Of course, as anyone knows from history, this mindset in a film set in World War I is pure folly.  Fortunately, the film’s attitude is not so simple or cut and dry, as explained when she finally does come face to face with Ares.

wonderwoman-825x580.jpg

Wonder Woman is a homerun.  While at times a standard superhero film, the strength of the story and central character elevate it far above the previous film in the DCCU.  Gadot is terrific in the lead.  It’s a breath of fresh air in a series of films that have been dour and overly serious to this point.  Attributable to a female perspective or not, it is a welcome and refreshing perspective on the genre.  And maybe more than anything, it’s a ray of hope for DC Films.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

OnStream: June 2017

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Every month, Netflix and Amazon announce a list of movies they are adding to their streaming service.  While I mostly focus my attention on movies currently in theaters, this is alternative programming for people who can’t get to the movie theater on a regular basis.  Here are 10 recommendations from the new streaming titles available in the month of June.

1. The Salesman (6/1 on Amazon Prime)

Asghar Farhadi’s film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.  It gained notoriety in the news because Farhadi did not attend the ceremony because of the travel ban imposed by the Trump White House at the time.  Now that it is available for streaming, it is a chance to separate the picture from the news that surrounded it.  Farhadi is one of Iran’s most acclaimed directors, having also won Best Foreign Film for A Separation.  Living in Maine, I don’t often get a chance to see many foreign language films in theaters so I’m looking forward to catching up on this one.

2. Blow Out (6/1 on Amazon Prime)

While I primarily would like to focus on newer movies in this list, I also want to throw in an older movie or two as well.  This month has no shortage of classics, including Apocalypse Now, the film I’m going to make time for is another one I have not seen, but have heard positive things about over the years, Brian De Palma’s 1981 film Blow Out.  It stars John Travolta as a Hollywood sound man who records evidence that a car accident was actually a murder.  It is supposedly highly influenced by Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), both excellent films.

3. Spring (6/1 on Netflix)

Spring is a weird mashup of genres that I stumbled across back at the end of 2015.  It’s Before Sunrise for the sci-fi crowd.  An American, traveling around Europe to avoid some hometown troubles, strikes up a romance with woman who turns out to have a very dark, mysterious secret.  There are horror elements, but it’s mostly romance, centered on these two characters opening up to one another. 

4. War on Everyone (6/3 on Netflix)

This month is heavy on movies I have not seen, but have heard positive things about or have been looking forward to.  War on Everyone is one I have been eagerly awaiting since the beginning of 2016.  It made my Most Anticipated of 2016 List when I crafted that at the beginning of 2016.  Sadly, it never saw a theatrical release; rather, going the VOD route.  It’s a dark comedy about two corrupt cops from writer/director John Michael McDonagh, who made 2011’s The Guard and 2014’s Calvary, which made my Top 5 of 2014.

5. 20th Century Women (6/5 on Amazon Prime)

This film from writer/director Mike Mills appeared on a number of year-end lists at the end of 2016.  It also garnered awards buzz, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Annette Bening and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  The film is set in 1979 and focuses on a teenager being raised by his mother and two other women in Southern California.  Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup co-star with Bening.

6. Stanford Prison Experiment (6/17 on Netflix)

This 2015 movie is based on a famous, real-life psychology experiment gone wrong.  24 male students are selected for a mock prison simulation, 12 guards and 12 inmates.  It’s a loaded cast of young talented actors that includes Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, and Michael Angarano.

7. Star Trek Beyond (6/17 on Amazon Prime)

Star Trek Beyond is the third entry in the Star Trek reboot started by J.J. Abrams back in 2009.  This time, acclaimed action director Justin Lin assumed the helm of the franchise.  It’s much more action-heavy than most Star Trek entries are but it’s a pretty solid action movie.  The regular cast returns, with Idris Elba (the villain) and Sofia Boutella added to the mix.

8. Moana (6/20 on Netflix)

Moana was one of the most beloved and enjoyable movies of 2016.  Along with being a critical darling, it became a huge financial winner for Disney.  A lot more parents will be hearing its catchy songs in their homes after June 20th.  If this serves as a warning for you or helps to build anticipation for June 20th, what else can I say except, “You’re Welcome?”  Moana came in at #12 on my Best of 2016 list.

9. Paterson (6/22 on Amazon Prime)

Jim Jarmusch is one of the idiosyncratic directors that make movies that have to be 100% viewed on their terms.  If you’re not on its specific wavelength then you will not appreciate or enjoy the film in any way.  At least that has been my experience, as I’ve enjoyed some of his filmography and been perplexed by other parts of it.  I suspect that this slice of everyday life starring Adam Driver as a bus driver who is a poet could be more accessible than, say, The Limits of Control for instance.  Even if it is not, I am intrigued.

10. Okja (6/28 on Netflix)

Speaking of intrigue, few directors are as intriguing as Bong Joon Ho and the concoctions he comes up with that are his films.  The Host, Mother, and Snowpiercer are very distinct movies.  Okja is an original film for Netflix about a genetically engineered animal, a young girl that befriends it, and the multi-national corporation that takes it away, and the competing interests of the activists groups trying to help the little girl get it back. The film stars Seo-Hyun Ahn as the young girl, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, and Giancarlo Esposito.

OnScreen Review: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

In the interest of full disclosure, there are few franchises I actively dislike more than the Pirates of the Caribbean.  Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed Curse of the Black Pearl.  It was genuinely fun and adventurous.  But for me, it remains the lone highlight of this now five film tale of the adventures of Jack Sparrow.  Dead Man’s Chest, the subtitle of the 2nd film, is a title I had to look up.  Coupled with At World’s End, it represented a completely botched attempt at a trilogy and was so inane and convoluted that they bored me.  I’m hard pressed to recall anything about 2011’s On Stranger Tides aside from there being mermaids at some point.  I completely forgot that Penelope Cruz was in the film or that Blackbeard was the villain until a quick look at Wikipedia.  Now, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales brings back Johnny Depp to his (once upon a time) iconic role.  In a world where some franchises (The Fast & the Furious) have found new leases on life later on in their franchise run, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is following the usual arc of sequels that slowly sink into the arc of diminishing returns. 

Normally, I would give a brief plot synopsis, but as is usually the case with these movies, the plot really doesn’t matter and if you think about it for more than a minute it just unravels.  In short, though, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the grown son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), is looking for the trident of Poseidon, the latest mystical artifact of these films that will allow whoever possesses it to control the seas.  He believes Jack Sparrow can help him find it.  Eventually their paths cross and they also cross paths with a young woman named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who is also searching for the trident.  Hot on their heels is the villain, Captain Salazar, an undead pirate hunter who seeks revenge on Jack.  Also, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back.  Beyond that, nothing in the plot is really that important in pointing out because it’s as flimsy and nonsensical as the previous three films, maybe even more so.

This film is the epitome of mindless action, because it is completely mindless.  This is the type of film that feels satisfied answering any potential questions and plot holes with the simple answer of, “Because, magic!”  And I had plenty of questions.  Why are Salazar and his crew cursed to be undead and trapped in the Devil’s Triangle as opposed to any other ships that entered it?  Why does Jack’s compass keep them trapped in there?  Why does Barbossa have the power to free the Black Pearl from the bottle it is captured in?  What exactly is the chain of custody regarding the map/journal that Carina has to the trident?  Why does Paul McCartney show up as Jack’s uncle?  These are just some of the many questions that the film hopes to distract you from with Johnny Depp prancing about like a loon while his crew makes forced jokes.  There was literally one joke I laughed at in the whole movie, and it was a quick throwaway line that I chuckled at.  Every other attempt at humor, every visual gag, and every slapstick moment involving Jack elicited a groan, a head shake, or an eye roll.  And while this franchise is based off of a Disney ride, the way in which Jack, Henry, and Carina end up in an uneasy alliance is inspired by another famous Disney ride.  The happenstance and convenience of how their paths cross has to be inspired by It’s a Small World.

Taken in tandem with the forgettable On Stranger Tides, Dead Men Tell No Tales seems like it is serving a few studio purposes.  First, it’s providing a tentpole franchise sequel that has broad/lowest common denominator/mass appeal.  Second, though, it’s serving as a feeder system of sorts for the big budget studio system.  Even though his Captain Jack Sparrow has slipped completely into self-parody, Depp is still a fairly reliable box office commodity that can serve as a safety net with young up and coming talents.  In On Stranger Tides, it was Sam Claflin (or at least IMDb says so, I absolutely cannot picture him in my mind in that movie) and Astrid Berges-Frisbey.  This time around it is Thwaites and Scodelario.  Thwaites has had some promising breakthrough roles over the past few years, most notably the Aussie film Son of a Gun, but also in Maleficent as Prince Phillip and the horror film Oculus.  Scodelario is someone who has been in the Maze Runner series and this seems like the next step up for her, I guess.  At any rate, it seems like these last few films serve as a chance to see if they can catch lightning in a bottle with any of these younger actors and actresses and hope they really connect with the audience.

 

As for the returning Depp, like I said, at this point is completely self-parody.  At points, it’s painful to watch.  Bardem brings little to the table.  His Salazar is difficult to understand at times, mainly because on top of his accent the character wheezes because he drowned when he became undead.  The CGI effects to make him look like he is continually underwater and drowning may be technically impressive, but are visually unspectacular, along with the rest of the crew.  If there is one redeeming quality of this film it is that they attempt to rectify the incredibly unsatisfactory manner in which Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s story wrapped up in At World’s End

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been in a steep decline ever since the original.  I found each successive sequel more tedious, unimportant, unfunny, and a chore to sit through.  If Captain Jack Sparrow were in any way still a compelling character on screen, it would be far easier to enjoy these films.  But he is not, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a slog.  I have zero interest in future installments of this franchise.  They give themselves an out with the ending here, but there is apparently a post-credits scene that leaves the door open for more.  I for one hope we’ve seen the last of Captain Jack Sparrow and that he and his crew are lost at sea, because I am done.  I thought King Arthur Legend of the Sword was the worst movie of the year, but now I’m not so sure.  They’re neck and neck with one another.  Given the ridiculous length of the title Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I’m inclined to give it the slightest edge for worst movie.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2: Not the Box Office Hit We Need Right Now

Greg Ehrhardt

*WARNING, POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2*

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was in many respects Marvel’s final exam. Could they sell the public on a movie that prominently featured a talking raccoon, a tree that only ever utters one phrase, and three other misfit heroes with minimal superpowers? Lest anyone forget, not even comic book nerds had much affinity for these guys.

The answer, as we know, is yes, with the first movie delivering $333 million, a 91% RT score, and fans clamoring for more.

The success was great news in that it told Hollywood it could get weird with their characters, without any history with them, and still make a movie people wanted to see.

However, when you get a successful franchise starter, the sequel usually doubles down on what everyone claimed to have liked about the first one. And Vol 2 was no different. And therein lies the problem.

As a result of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, we are left with a space adventure franchise without much in the way of adventure, but much to say about 70s/80s music, and much to say about friends sitting around bickering and whining about their childhoods.

So while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 broke new ground as a comedy, it has served up nothing but retread ground as far as everything else goes, including Marvel’s now famous villain problem, which I won’t get into here because these thoughts echo mine.

So let’s discuss the soundtrack then: first,  it became an odd focal point of the marketing of the movie, leading to an actual exclusive interview granted to announce the songs chosen. So was this the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy or the sequel to Sing? Are we watching a space opera or an actual to goodness opera?

When you’re selling a movie based on your selection of pre-existing radio songs that you and only you could make, that usually indicates the story is incidental to the movie. Can you imagine Martin Scorsese tell the press “Yeah I’m making a movie about the greatest wall street con job ever, but who cares about that, you will never believe what Bo Diddley song  I picked for the 2nd act!!”

Secondly, James Gunn, the director of both movies, decided it wasn’t enough in Vol 2 to force in clichéd 70s songs into certain plot points like he did Vol 1; he had to have an actual scene, a pivotal one at that, featuring Kurt Russell as Ego doing his best William Shatner imitation describing the meaning of the song “Brandy” to Peter Quill(it was groan-inducing even amongst the teenagers in the theater with me who probably had no idea what the song was). There were much more clever ways for Ego to tell Peter that they are not meant to be tied down to anybody rather than spell out the meaning of the song. But, when you sell the world what brilliant song choices you made for the soundtrack, you can’t stop the sell!

There’s also the issue of the overall theme of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 being misfits acting as their own dysfunctional family and ultimately coming together, with not one, not two, not three, but four subplots of “family dysfunction”. In of itself, the theme isn’t a problem, except that they already did it in their own franchise, never mind other prior marvel movies, never mind other 2017 releases.

You know what hasn’t been done lately? A “fun for the sake of fun” space adventure for all ages. Let me take that back: a GOOD “fun for the sake of fun” space adventure. We’ve gotten some space romances, some space horror movies, and some space realism, but the last GOOD PG-13 legitimate space adventure (outside of 40-50 year old franchises) was Zathura in 2005. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, check.  I’ll wait here…

Ok you’re back? Good. Now where was I…

The Marvel directors like to say they want to make their comic book sequels smaller, not bigger (Joss Whedon said so here about Age of Ultron. I guess a giant chunk of earth falling on Sokovia is slightly smaller than aliens invading NYC, I’ll give him that), and James Gunn said Vol 2 is going to be bigger and yet more intimate than the first movie here. And frankly, it’s easier to go smaller than go bigger. When you go bigger, you have no choice but to keep trying to outdo yourself in future sequels. But the danger in going smaller is you are banking on the audience having serious connection to the characters, which, after just one movie, is a tall order.

Whether Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 succeeded on that front, I leave to you. Whether it did or didn’t,

ultimately, it still comes down to the question of whether we are totally cool paying $15 to jump into space just to see these characters undergo counseling for two hours like in a super-sized Dr. Phil episode? Haven’t we seen that before in other movies in more earthly settings?

You know what we haven’t seen before on screen? A freaking living human planet!!!!! A planet with an actual face on it!!!!! And what does James Gunn and the Marvel gang choose to focus on? Sisters squabbling over their mean dad and an adult complaining about his dad leaving him.

You tell me what is more interesting?

Look, I know what Marvel is going after: these characters are just like us. A raccoon can have human feelings too. That’s wonderful. The academy voters will consider GOTGV2 for an extra five seconds before putting the screener in their discard pile in favor of the next SJW/Member Berries movie they will swoon over for best picture. Congratulations Marvel!!

What I would like to see Marvel go for is a movie that puts us in situations our imaginations never dreamed of, to make us forget about our lives (for better or worse) for two hours, that puts us in positions to feel like a kid again. We romanticized the adventure movies of yore for creating new imaginations within us, not making us depressed about friends and families that can’t get along.

If I had to guess, I bet Marvel views getting a best picture nomination as its true final exam to attain its place as an elite movie studio.

However, in my opinion, if Marvel can demonstrate in Avengers 3-4 (movies rumored to heavily take place in space) that space is a place to have fun again and not just a regurgitation of all the problems we have on earth, then it will have really passed its final test.

~~~~~

Greg Ehrhardt is an occasional contributor to OnStage and OnScreen, and no, you do not have to get off his lawn.