OnScreen Review: "First Man"

OnScreen Review: "First Man"

Biopics are frequently hagiographies, making saints out of their subjects often despite their flaws. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not in the hagiography business. It’s a straightforward narrative about how mankind got to the moon. That journey culminated on July 20, 1969, but it began nearly a decade earlier, when President John F. Kennedy announced his desire to see a US astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade. That journey is told through the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man who landed on the moon. The film tracks the highs and lows of both Armstrong and NASA on this journey to the moon.

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OnScreen Review: "Venom"

OnScreen Review: "Venom"

Spider-Man is my favorite superhero of all time. Venom is a character that many consider to be the greatest villain in Spidey’s rogues gallery, but I think he is one of the most overrated (and Carnage is right up there with him; go ahead and @ me, I don’t care). He has occasionally been fun to have in Spider-Man video games (in Ultimate Spider-Man for the PS2 you could actually play as Venom). But most importantly, I blame the character for ruining Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, a character he swore he didn’t want to do and then the studio essentially strong-armed him. Everything about this Venom spinoff seemed ill-advised and, clearly, I carried a lot of baggage into it. In fact, I had my knives out and I was ready to carve this film up and throw it on the trash heap along with some of my least favorite films that I’ve reviewed, like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. And then I watched it and those plans had to go out the window.

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OnScreen Review: "A Star is Born"

OnScreen Review: "A Star is Born"

Toward the end of A Star Is Born, one character says to another, “Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave - 12 notes and the octave repeat. It's the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That's it.” It’s a line of dialogue from the third remake of the film (fourth if you count 1932’s What Price Hollywood?). This particular remake has been in the works for a few years now, initially with Clint Eastwood attached to direct and with Beyoncé to star at various points. Every couple of decades, this film seems to get taken down off the shelf and repackaged for a new generation and an artist offers the world how they see that same story told over and over.

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OnScreen Review: "Mandy"

OnScreen Review: "Mandy"

Mandy exists in a world that doesn’t make any sense, and yet it totally works. It’s the kind of film that midnight showings were made for. It’s firmly grounded in the grindhouse exploitation tradition of movie-making. I’ve never done drugs, but I imagine movies like this give a pretty fair approximation of what a bad experience is like. Nicholas Cage, so often a target of criticism and ridicule as a celebrity, has found a movie that matches his craziness and puts it to good use and, frankly, he’s rarely been better. It’s not A Quiet Place or Hereditary in terms of the kind of horror film it is, it has its own unique blend of horror and entertainment going for it. This is an instant cult classic.

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OnScreen Review: "The Predator"

OnScreen Review: "The Predator"

I had hoped that Shane Black would bring an interesting reinvention or sharp new angle to the Predator series of movies. Instead, what we’re treated to is a muddled mess. It’s hard to tell if there was too much studio meddling or if Black is just trying to put too much into this one movie. Either way, The Predator is just the latest example of how not everything should be a franchise.

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OnScreen Review: "Crazy Rich Asians"

OnScreen Review: "Crazy Rich Asians"

Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel or tell us a new story. Romance, drama, comedy, horror, these stories have a universal language that transcend language and geographical barriers. What Crazy Rich Asians does is freshen up the formula with new faces at the center and expose us to a culture and way of life that is not typically seen in mainstream Hollywood films except in fish out of water stories.

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OnScreen Review: "Eighth Grade"

OnScreen Review: "Eighth Grade"

For most kids, being a teenager is rough. It’s full of uncomfortable and embarrassing moments, situations, and events. Puberty hits everyone at different stages and there’s the difficult task of starting to figure out how to start being more like an adult with your own distinct identity and everything that entails. Plus, other kids can be unsparingly cruel. The coming of age tale is a well-worn trope in movies, and it seems like every year there is at least one or two that stand out. Few, though, capture the painful awkwardness of this better than Eighth Grade, a terrific indie film from comedian Bo Burnham.

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OnScreen Review: "The Meg"

OnScreen Review: "The Meg"

It’s August, which means that summer is winding down at the box office, the major summer blockbusters have all been released. The summer market typically takes a downturn in August, but there is usually one last popcorn action flick that gets released in early August. This year, that film is The Meg. Oddly enough, The Meg is one of my earliest internet movie fascinations… back in the 90s! This adaptations of a 90s bestseller has languished in development hell for at least 20 years. Over that time it has seen multiple script rejections and directors attached to it. Now, in 2018, The Meg is finally pulled out of development hell and has reached theaters. And the result is rather unspectacular.

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OnScreen Review: "Sorry To Bother You"

OnScreen Review: "Sorry To Bother You"

Sorry To Bother You first popped up on my radar when it was one of the most talked about movies coming out of Sundance. Created by musician and first-time director Boots Riley, I was mainly intrigued by the cast that featured Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, two young and promising actors that have emerged over the last few years. The premise of the film also interested me too. It came out locally while I was still away at the Maine International Film Festival, so couldn’t see it until I got back; it was the very first movie I went to post-MIFF and fulfilled and exceeded my expectations for it.

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OnScreen Review: "Mission: Impossible – Fallout"

OnScreen Review: "Mission: Impossible – Fallout"

Everyone talks about how the Fast & Furious franchise remade itself, found its footing after a couple of mediocre sequels, and became a serious box office attraction, but the Mission: Impossible franchise has actually had a similar trajectory. The first film was a successful remake of the classic TV series. The second one faltered a bit. The third one was a step in the right direction and a decent return to form. Ever since, the franchise has excelled. It’s rare that franchises get better as they put our more sequels, but here we are with Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth entry in this Tom Cruise-starring vehicle, is among the best of the series (I’ve got Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation neck and neck).

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MIFF 2018 - Part 3

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

DAY 5

Zama

Day five kicked off with Zama, the latest film from Lucrecia Martel. Martel is an acclaimed Argentinian director and Zama represents her first film in nearly a decade. It’s an adaptation of a book from the 1950 about an 18th Century Corregidor who is stuck in a remote South American village and unable to secure a transfer to a better location in the Spanish Empire. The film is unique in that it almost defies classification; it’s a period drama that is also sometimes a dark situational comedy. It’s a visual and aural experience. It is also something of a head trip. Narratively, the film is fractured and disjointed, almost like a stream of consciousness. The end result is a kind of dream state that slowly descends into a waking nightmare, as if David Lynch were filtered through Terrence Malick’s The New World. After the film, Santiago Gallelli, one of the producers, took part in a Q&A.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

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Prepare to hear a lot about conversion therapy in the second half of 2018. This is the first of two major films that are dealing with the subject this year, the other being Joel Egerton’s Boy Erased. This film is set in 1993 and stars Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role of a teenager who gets sent to a gay conversion therapy camp. The camp is led by the domineering Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her converted brother Rev. Rick (John Gallagher Jr.). Cameron takes some time to adjust to her circumstances at this camp, and there is some humor to be found in her not having the “right” reactions at awkward social interactions, or simply not knowing how to react to something. And there are some light-hearted moments of teens being teens, including a great one where a group of them are working in the kitchen and start singing “What’s Going On” by 4 Non Blondes.

As the film progresses though, it becomes more and more blunt and serious about the struggle of this place that is attempting to turn these kids into something that they are not and the harm it is causing. As a Christian, it was a hard film to sit through; just because what someone is trying to do is well-intentioned does not mean it can’t also be incredibly misguided and harmful. There’s a bit of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest feel to this film in that eventually you begin to seriously doubt whether the people in charge truly have the best interests of the kids at heart and whether there is any way out for them. I hope this and Boy Erased begin to cause some introspection among believers.

After the film, three members of the state legislature and a rep from the Maine ACLU held a discussion about the recently passed state bill than banning conversion therapy in Maine, which was just vetoed by the governor. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is scheduled for release in theaters in early August.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Being There

When I mapped out my schedule for this festival, I made a concerted effort to see mostly new releases. Every year, though, the festival shows a handful of classics. With the showing of the Hal documentary, they’re also showing a few of Hal Ashby’s films too. Being that I have never seen Being There before, but knowing its reputation, I decided to make the time for it here. I was not disappointed. It is a brilliant piece of satire right up there with the best work that Peter Sellers has ever done. Seller’s simple portrayal of Chance the Gardner/Chauncey de Gardner is brilliant. Chance is the epitome of a man-child. Shirley MacLaine is also great in this film. I knew very little about this film going into it other than the broadest of strokes, that a simple, plainspoken man is taken for a wise and sage person. I had no idea it was going to be so satirical, that Chance is actually so simple-minded, but dresses so nice that people just assume he is rich and knows what he is talking about and assign more depth to his words than are actually there. It’s a brilliant, brilliant film that is still relevant.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

DAY 6

The Queen of Fear

Another Argentinian film, this time around it is a bit of a passion project. Valeria Bertuccelli is the lead actress, the writer, and the director. It’s a bit of a character study, and though not necessarily autobiographical, does apparently pull from Bertuccelli’s knowledge of the business. Her character, Robertina, is a renowned theater actress and is about a week out from another stage performance. She’s also a bit eccentric in her approach to performing and the demands her method places on her agent and the theater create tension and uncertainty for everyone involved. She quickly drops everything and flies out of Buenos Aires to spend some time with an old friend who is dying of cancer. The film has moment of comedy, moments of personal drama, and few possible strands of horror involving power outages at her home and her dog acting oddly. A very affecting film, a woman was left in tears at the end of our viewing saying that she had never experienced anything like that before. One of the producers, the same one who was here for Zama, also participated in a Q&A afterward.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland

I knew the name Sandra Bland. I certainly could tell you the broadest of details about her story: a black woman, arrested in Texas, found dead after being held in custody for three days, death by hanging, a suicide. I’m sure a few of the other details I could have recalled prior to seeing this documentary. What becomes abundantly clear from watching this documentary is that not enough is known about Sandra Bland’s life. I liked that the documentary does in fact focus on the life and death of Sandra Bland. The documentary has a lot of behind the scenes footage involving her family and their lawyers meeting as it happened, a surprising amount of access really. And it is respectful to both sides, devoting time to the sheriff and the DA of Waller County in Texas. The family remains suspicious of the circumstances of her death. The Waller County officials maintain that nothing wrong was done on their part, though they failed her because she died in their custody. The majority of the evidence suggests her death was a suicide, but there are some odd details that don’t fit neatly into a tidy explanation. And it certainly doesn’t excuse away the fact that this woman ultimately should not have been arrested in the first place, with the arresting officer needlessly and unequivocally escalating the situation. Cut it any way you want, justice was not served for this woman in a multitude of ways. A sobering documentary about a subject that has not lost any of its potency or relevancy in the last few years. It will come out on HBO at some point and is almost sure to be an Oscar contender.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Scott and the Secret History of Hollywood

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This was an uneasy documentary that is full of salacious details that are sure to titillate. However, it’s also a humanizing film. It delves into the sordid history of Hollywood and the story of Scotty Bowers, a man who arranged secret rendezvous with many of the biggest Hollywood stars back in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. Scotty ran a gas station nearby one of the Hollywood lots where he provided people to the stars for a small fee. Most of the trysts were homosexual in nature, behavior that could kill an actor’s career if it were exposed during the era of the Hays Code, morals clauses, and vice cops. Scotty, now in his 90s, published a book of his and others’ escapades back in 2012 after everyone else had died, and while almost none of it is verifiable with hard evidence, his stories are validated by others in interviews. It is at times a very unsettling film, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement and when Scotty says in no uncertain terms that he was molested as a child and sees nothing wrong it. But the film takes a non0judgmental approach to all of it. Much like how Scotty says he tells the stories of his deceased friends because it humanizes them, this doc presents Scotty Bowers in all his humanity, a WWII veteran haunted by his experiences who tried to provide happiness to people, for better or for worse. A challenging film to be sure.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

OnScreen Review: "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?"

OnScreen Review: "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?"

For many, many years, Mister Rogers was a staple of PBS and children’s lives in America. I remember watching him as a child growing up in the 80s. He was far from my favorite show as a kid, but there is no denying that he was a distinct part of my childhood. All these years later, even if I can’t remember all the words to the song to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I can at least remember the tune, Mister Rogers coming in through the door, changing into his sweater and changing his shoes, the trolley to the neighborhood of make-believe, and then the closing song “It’s Such a Good Feeling.” My experience with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was limited to my own individual childhood viewing for a few years, and so it was great to get to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? to gain a greater appreciation for who Fred Rogers was and how radical his show truly was.

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MIFF 2018 – Part 1

MIFF 2018 – Part 1

Last year, I attended my first film festival. The Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) is a 10-day event in Waterville, ME run by the Maine Film Center. It is hosted at two locations: The Railroad Square Cinema, a small three-screen theater that is one of the rare independent theaters in the northeast, and the Waterville Opera House, located in the heart of downtown Waterville. When I attended MIFF last year, I could only do two days, but I made the most of them, seeing a maximum of seven films over those two days. I so thoroughly enjoyed my experience that I was determined to come back this year for more.

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OnScreen Review: "Ant-Man and the Wasp"

OnScreen Review: "Ant-Man and the Wasp"

It seems like it gets lost in the shuffle in comparison to all of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, but 2015’s Ant-Man is an easily enjoyable movie. Despite some initial questions about Paul Rudd being tapped to join the MCU, Ant-Man has slid right in alongside all the others in the MCU rather smoothly. In addition to being a superhero flick, it was also a good genre heist movie as well. This time around, it’s more of a straightforward action movie, though still tempered with plenty of comedy.

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OnScreen Review: "Sicario: Day of the Soldado"

OnScreen Review: "Sicario: Day of the Soldado"

I’m a huge sports fan. Growing up in New England, I have gotten to experience more than my fair share of championship teams this century. There is a lot of turnover in sports now, with players switching teams regularly. Every once in a while, a team has an exceptional season and wins a title, but loses some key players through free agency or retirement, and the next year they aren’t terrible, but they just aren’t the same as the year before because they were unable to replace those key players. Some of the elements are there, but there is just too much missing of what made the team great.

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OnScreen Review: "First Reformed"

OnScreen Review: "First Reformed"

Can God forgive us?

This is half of a question raised in the film First Reformed, words that linger over everything that transpires in this unique concoction from writer/director Paul Schrader. Schrader is most known for being the screenwriter of some of Martin Scorsese’s biggest films: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. These are provocative films, and First Reformed is also a film that intends to provoke and move the viewer.

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OnScreen Review: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

OnScreen Review: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

We have a special fascination with dinosaurs. Maybe because their skeletons remained preserved for us to discover them and learn about them. Maybe it is because they were at the top of the food chain on this planet before we were around and we now reside in the spot they once occupied. Maybe because dinosaurs are just cool when you first learn about them as a kid. Whatever the reason, a bestselling book named Jurassic Park was became a blockbuster movie in the 90s. It spawned two sequels that were decidedly less impressive than the original. Three years ago, this franchise, once thought to be extinct, was brought back to life in a hugely successful blockbuster, Jurassic World. Given how Hollywood works, there was no way there wouldn’t be a sequel. And given how, apparently, this franchise works, there was no way that this sequel would not come close to matching the success of its predecessor. And so now we must deal with the dino dropping that is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

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