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

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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I Get the Oscars So Right! Your Grandiose Guide to the Glittery Gold Guy

 I Get the Oscars So Right! Your Grandiose Guide to the Glittery Gold Guy

Others are mired in their opinions being "subjective".  Sad. They worry they're not seeing "all sides" of a cultural debate, and give credence to other opinions willy nilly, especially on tedious, round table NPR shows with titles like "Up, Down, and All Around: Everyone's Damn Viewpoint on Everything."  Blah. So exhausting.

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The Ragnarok Will Be Televised

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

After reading Greg’s hot take about Thor: Ragnarok, I felt compelled to respond. It’s a slightly awkward position to be in, feeling the need to “defend” something that has drawn near-universal praise, but this aggression will not stand, man. Also, I wanted to title this “Dr. StrangeThor: Or Why I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Ragnarok” but it’s a little too wordy for a URL.

According to Greg, Thor: Ragnarok crosses the line in the franchise from being an action movie with elements of comedy into a full on parody of Marvel movies. This is a troubling shift for Marvel and potentially portends Marvel’s own Ragnarok, which is the end of the MCU as we know it because the jokes undermine the stakes and undermine the story, making the overall product more disposable.  This is concern trolling disguised as a hot take (really a lukewarm take given how much Greg soft pedals it all by saying, “But I actually really liked it!”). In his excitement to Stephen A. this thing, Greg has fallen into what he accused Taika Waititi of doing: missing the forest for the trees.  Greg seems to have missed that what he sees as a potential Ragnarok for Marvel has already been happening for a few movies now.

Let me first start by saying that while I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and you can read my review here (shameless plug, I know), I’m not going to claim that it’s the best Marvel movie ever. That’s clearly recency bias. For me, The Avengers is the best top to bottom Marvel movie so far, but Thor: Ragnarok is close behind along with several others. But this movie is tons of fun.

There is a clear progression in the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe laid out by Marvel delineating the MCU in Phase One, Phase Two, and Phase Three categories and building upon the previous phase. This expansion has also led to a diversification of the superhero template they’re working with. There were elements of this in the first Thor movie, as Greg rightly points out, giving it some Shakespearean touches of royal family drama. It’s most overtly seen, though, beginning with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was a 70s conspiracy thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy was a pure sci-fi action adventure. Ant-Man was a heist movie. Spider-Man: Homecoming was channeling the John Hughes high school movies of the 80s. Also, those last three films were noticeably funnier than previous Marvel movies. I mean, Brian Fantana is Ant-Man and Andy Dwyer from Parks & Rec is the Star-Lord.

Thor: Ragnarok is another diversification of that template, making what is essentially an 80s action comedy. What are some of its influences? I’ve read that Flash Gordon was a heavy influence (something I can’t speak directly to as Flash Gordon is a cinematic blind spot for me). But another 80s movie that I see as a pretty clear influence on Thor: Ragnarok is John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. There’s definitely a bit of Jack Burton in Hemsworth’s Thor in this entry, with a lot of the comedy undercutting the character without undermining him. It takes a good actor to pull that off, and I think Hemsworth does just that.

Since Greg referenced National Lampoon’s Family Vacation in a YouTube clip, I don’t feel so bad going back to the 90s for my reference point here. One of my favorite shows still to this day is The X-Files. Did fans of that show say, “How can we take the larger alien conspiracy story arc seriously with episodes like ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ and ‘Bad Blood’ thrown in there?” Of course not! Do those episodes betray the essence of the Mulder and Scully just because they are more overtly comedic? Shut your mouth!  Was the show undermined by the comedic episodes? (No, it was undermined by not knowing how to effectively wrap up the alien conspiracy, actually.) Some of those episodes are the most beloved episodes of the series. It’s ok blend levity with stakes, and mess with the balance. We’ve seen what happens without it in DC’s Justice League. Is it any surprise that Wonder Woman succeeds because it pulls in some of the elements that made Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor successful origin stories?

*minor spoilers ahead*

A lot of the humor of Thor was that Thor was of the “unintentional comedy” variety of a fish out of water, but you can’t go back to that well. With Ragnarok, Thor is a more self-aware character and the comedy and, yes, the drama, comes from that. I saw it a second time Sunday night. In some ways, it works better on a second viewing. The family drama is still there, this time expanded to include Hela. There’s heart to the relationship between Thor and Loki, particularly in the elevator scene where Thor tells Loki that he thought the world of him and always wanted him by his side, but Loki chose to be something else. The scene where Thor throws rocks at Loki’s holographic projection of himself is rewarded at the end of the movie when he is actually standing in front of Thor when Thor assumes he’s just another projection.

I would say that there’s no denying that Thor: Ragnarok subverts the genre and the expectations for a Thor movie. The question I would have is “To what end?” I guess I see more at work in some areas here than Greg does. Thor is stripped of his hammer and his home by the movie, similar to how Tony Stark is without his Iron Man suit for most of Iron Man 3. As Odin notes, he’s not Thor, the God of the Hammer, he’s Thor, the God of Thunder. And the “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people” really worked for me. As someone who grew up in Christian faith and believes “the church is not a building, the church is people,” that line makes sense.

*end spoilers*

We got excited in 2008 when The Dark Knight transcended the superhero genre and worked not just as a superhero movie but a compelling crime drama as well. It showed that superhero movies had the potential to be something more than just origin stories and big fights, and what had been associated with superhero movies to that point. DC thought everything had to be dark and brooding after that. Fox mostly stayed in its lane with their X-Men universe, with Logan being their first real departure from their own formula. Funny enough, it looks like the MCU is the only one that has taken the proper lesson from The Dark Knight in realizing that superhero movies can be not just something else but almost anything else. There is no indication that Marvel will take the wrong lesson from their own success here, given their sustained success with other properties within the MCU.

What Greg sees as a Ragnarok event for Marvel is really something that has already been regular practice for MCU movies for a few years now. I guess one way to approach Thor: Ragnarok is as the beginning of the end, but I think that’s the DC mindset (Never go full DC). Another way to look at it is as an evolution. It’s entirely possible that Marvel may lose its way in the sprawling scope of the MCU, but it won’t be because they made an action comedy. Greg has his three mottos in life, well, I’ve got at least one motto too, and it’s what Ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this.

*I write movie reviews regularly here on OnStage Blog, and unlike SOME people on this site, I don’t talk about Fight Club. Follow me on Twitter @kenjones81, where @Grege333 and I mix it up about movies and sports fairly regularly.

 

The Ragnarok is coming for the MCU

Greg Ehrhardt

(Spoilers for Thor Ragnarok follow)

The plot of Thor Ragnarok is, boiled down to a sentence, that the end is coming for Asgard.  The movie may also be a sign of an end to come for the MCU.

So technically speaking this is not as provocative as it seems, since this is literally true according to Kevin Feig, President of Marvel Studios. He said once Avengers 4 is over, that’s pretty much the end of the MCU as we currently know it. But you’re not reading this story to see me reposting retread links are you? Heck No, hot takes await!! The end is coming for the MCU!! *

*legal disclaimer: Greg does not think Marvel will shut down and stop making movies. Greg is engaging in a legal term known as hyperbole to make some sort of point, and maybe a Star Trek reference too*

Why is a Ragnorak coming for MCU? I read from Marvel signing off on this final cut that they felt for this movie to make money, it had to turn Thor into an absurdist comedy, a farce even instead of a classic action movie. Almost every Marvel movie to date has been funny, but there is a fine line between being funny and being a farce, and Marvel drove 150 mph over this line in a Ferrari.

 For many people, this will be seen as me once again sitting on my porch yelling “Get Off My Lawn!!”. And some part of this is true. I am old fashioned. I like my action movies to focus on, shockingly, action!! Instead, Thor Ragnarok was focused on being a parody of a marvel movie first and foremost, with the action being secondary.

Based on the reaction of the people in the theatre I watched this with, most everyone welcomed this. “The best Marvel movie yet!!” was a common reaction. The critics certainly loved it, with a 93% rotten tomatoes score. And I get it. The previous Thor movies were heavy on Shakespearism and light on fun.

However,

And I really hate to ruin the party for everyone…

I really do…

But……

This is what the Thor universe was!!!

Thor never pretended to be a Deadpool wannabe as the Ragnarok portrayed, nor was the Thor story ever some meta commentary on the rest of the MCU. Thor was, is, fundamentally, a story centering on big, huge, familial themes (as well as a lot of good “fish out of water” stories, even in the comics!). Even just looking at the first two movies this was still true! To transition this story into a parody is a sign that Marvel no longer trusts its own content for making good movies.

But so what you say, the audience and critics loved this movie, so what am I talking about??

Fair question! And I have answers…

So I have at least 3 credos in my life. One of them involves Jason Statham, and is most definitely NSFW. However, OnStage Blog EIC Chris Peterson still insists on keeping OnStage Blog family friendly, and so, that credo will have to wait until he registers www.onstageblog.xxx.

 My 2nd credo, if you have to have a 2nd credo, is here.

My 3rd credo is to always consider long term ramifications off short term decisions. And making Thor Ragnarok into a parody was a short term decision based on, I suspect, the success of Deadpool.

Thor Ragnarok generated $123 million on its opening weekend. That total is 80% higher than Thor 1, and 40% higher than Thor 2. 

Hollywood loves to do trend analysis. Making a Thor movie into a parody reversed the trend from the lowest of box office performers to one of its 7 best. Marvel  loves to make money. So guess what’s going to happen to future Marvel movies if they have one single movie that struggles or underperforms at the box office?? You got it. “Open the comedy night club, your main event is your wild and zany wise cracking couple, the Scarlet Witch and Viiiiiiiiiiiision!!!”

Before everybody writes stuff in the comment section like “ZOMG this dude doesn’t want any movies to have fun!1!1!!!!11”, while I would never think to write a formal review to compete with OnStage resident critic Ken Jones’ review of Thor Ragnarok I would give Ragnarok 3 out of 4 stars in a formal review It set to be a parody, and it succeeded on that front.

(Side note: I actually would think to compete with Ken Jones, but Peterson said our weekly fight club in the basement of the Shubert Theater is sufficient competition for the staff. See, I give you a peek behind the curtains in addition to hard hitting analysis!)

But the long term question is still: “Is Marvel too afraid of the weirdness some of their stories have to offer without winking to the audience that “don’t worry we think this is silly too”. Lest we forget, Dr. Strange, a movie based on a very serious world of the mystical arts, went through some late re-writes to add more humor to the story.

We have a possible clue as to their answer: Taika Waititi, director of Thor Ragnarok was quoted as saying this regarding managing the tone of the third installment:

"If we were taking things a little too seriously," Waititi revealed, "I would say, ‘Never forget that we're making a cosmic adventure with a space Viking.' That sort of captures it all. We've got the Incredible Hulk, and a giant woman with antlers. We've got aliens and spaceships. It's almost like a bunch of kids were asked what they wanted to put into a movie, and then we just did that."

He somehow hit the nail on the head and missed the forest for the trees at the same time.

He is basically saying “aliens, spaceships, and people like Thor and Hulk are ridiculous, and we are going to let the audience know we think that throughout this movie”. This was not done mean spiritedly, it should be said, but does this attitude jive with what we have been told for 7 years, which is the Infinity Wars is the most serious, high stakes confrontation we will ever have!!!! Did they cross the line of having fun vs making fun of it?

Before you go to the comments section once again and angrily type “Yes you idiot, we can handle more than one style of movie at the same time!!111!!!11” consider this: Asgard, central to the entirely serious Thor story, was literally burning to the ground, and it was nothing but a footnote in the movie. If Asgard burning down doesn’t matter, then why will the Infinity Wars stakes matter?

Franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings will stick with us forever because they clung to our emotions with the stakes being as high as it was. The galaxy’s fate was at risk, Star Wars said, and all of the characters believed it. (See, Star Wars, and no Star Trek. This is what we call fair and balanced).

Do we, the MCU audience, think the galaxy’s fate is at risk after we ventured through a movie where Thor and Loki were more invested in their next joke vs what was happening with their home?

So what am I getting at? Is Marvel going to stop making blockbusters as a result of this?? I’m not delivering a hot take stupid enough to even imply that. The Ragnarok here is, simply, “To be watched, perhaps even enjoyed, but then not remembered”. That is the looming Ragnarok for the MCU as a result of Thor 3. Thor and Loki let the Ragnarok happen to Asgard. Will Kevin Feige let it happen to MCU?

Only the time stone will tell.

*I am an occasional contributor to OnStage Blog. You can follow me on twitter @Grege333. And I liked the movie, ok?? Can I like the movie and still question the ramifications of making it the way they did????"

7 Movies to See Before the End of 2017

Ken Jones

We’re entering into the awards season of the movie calendar. Practically everyone who cares about movies is aware of the big name releases coming out, including Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but the majority of films vying for contention will be released between now and the end of the year. Below are seven titles that you should not get lost in the box office shuffle between now and the end of the year because they’re films that should pop up on a number of year-end “Best Of 2017” lists and be heard from during Oscar season.

1. The Florida Project (Now Playing, Limited)

The Florida Project is the second film from director Sean Baker, who caught a lot of attention among critics with 2015’s Tangerine, a film about a day in the life of two transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve in Hollywood that was shot entirely on iPhones. This follow-up, which was just reviewed very favorably on this very site, is about a 6-year-old girl’s summer in the shadow of Disney World. Baker populates this film with a lot of non-professional actors, including Brooklynn Prince who portrays the 6-year-old Moonee. Willem Dafoe, one of the few professional actors involved, also stars and word is that it’s one of the best performances of his career. There have been a lot of comparisons to last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, as a sleeper best movie of the year. The Florida Project had a limited release in NY/LA on Oct. 6, expanded to 33 theaters this weekend, and will hopefully expand to even more over the next few weeks, but it’s probably unlikely to get a wide release (600 cinemas or more).

2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Oct. 20)

Director Yorgos Lanthimos is one of those unique European directors whose style does not mesh very well with the Hollywood studios or mainstream American audiences. Regardless, or perhaps because of that, I have a fondness for his films and am greatly interested in whatever his latest film is. 2009’s Dogtooth is one of the most surreal and disturbing family dramas you will ever see. The Lobster (my favorite film of 2016) is a darkly comedic film about a society that requires people to be married or be turned into an animal of their choosing. It’s also an eerily prescient film about polarization of society. The Killing of a Sacred Deer has Lanthimos re-teaming with his star of The Lobster, Colin Farrell. It seems to be less comedic or absurd and more of a twisted psychological horror about a family who lets a strange teenage boy into their midst. Nicole Kidman also stars, as does Barry Keoghan, who some people might recognize as George from Dunkirk.

3. Lady Bird (Nov. 3)

Greta Gerwig is one of my favorite actresses, having given incredible performances in movies like Damsels in Distress, Frances Ha, Mistress America, and Maggie’s Plan in the last few years. She also helped co-write Frances Ha and Mistress America along with Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird is Gerwig’s solo writing and directing debut. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as a teen/young adult living in northern California with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. It’s clearly in the coming of age indie comedy vein of movies, similar perhaps to last year’s Edge of Seventeen. Ronan is one of the best young actresses right now, and it’s possible that this film could net her a third Oscar nomination at only 23 years of age. By the way, all of these first three films are from A24, which has put out some of the best film dating back to 2013. Just check out their filmography on Wikipedia.

4. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (Nov. 10)

As much as I enjoy the dark comedy of a Yorgos Lanthimos film, in my mind nobody does dark comedy today quite like Martin McDonagh. His first two films are In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, both of which I thoroughly loved. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is about a mother (Frances McDormand) who is fed up with the police getting nowhere in solving the case of her murdered daughter. She puts up three billboards calling out the chief of police, played by Woody Harrelson. Sam Rockwell, a personal favorite of mine, is also in the film as a deputy. McDormand always brings it in every performance, and she looks to be at her foulmouthed best here. Also a playwright, McDonagh’s films always have clever dialogue and jokes, so despite the dark subject matter, this should be highly entertaining. It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival this past September.

5. The Shape of Water (Dec. 8)

I’m not sure what it is about this film, but from the moment it was on my radar I thought it had the chance to be something special. It’s looking more and more like it could be a serious Oscar contender. It’s a fantasy drama set during the 1960s Cold War, with a mute janitor befriends and falls in love with an amphibious creature known as “The Asset” at a government facility. Sally Hawkins is the mute janitor, and frequent Guillermo Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones is the creature. Michael Shannon also has a prominent role. Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg also have supporting roles. The look of the creature is clearly influenced by The Creature from the Black Lagoon. A friend of mine caught the first hour of the film at a festival last month and said it was phenomenal. It picked up a bunch of awards at the Venice Film Festival, including the prestigious Golden Lion. My money is on it to receive a Best Picture nomination and hopefully a Best Director nod for Del Toro.

6. Molly’s Game (Dec. 25)

Sorkin has long been one of the best script writers in Hollywood, and he steps into the director’s chair for the first time with Molly’s Game, an adaptation of a memoir from Molly Bloom, who ran a high stakes poker ring in Hollywood and New York for a decade before being raided by the FBI. Jessica Chastain is the lead in the role of Molly, with Idris Elba and Kevin Costner in supporting roles. Chastain is a consistently great performer; pairing her with a Sorkin script can only portend good things. The original release date for the film was supposed to be November 22, but after strong buzz coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, the release date was pushed back to a limited release on Christmas Day, perhaps to keep it fresher in the minds of Oscar voters.

7. Phantom Thread (Dec. 25)

This film just got a title, as it was previous known only as “Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Film” on IMDb. As you may have guessed, it is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, his first film since 2014’s Inherent Vice. PTA is a director for whom the phrase auteur seems made for, having made some of the best films of the past twenty years (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master). Not much is known yet about Phantom Thread only that it is set in the 1950s in the world of high fashion and stars Daniel Day Lewis. There are no trailers and hardly any publicity stills as of yet. As if a new PTA film isn’t enough of a reason for this movie to be on your radar, Daniel Day Lewis has stated that this is his last film and he is retiring. Given that his last collaboration with PTA resulted in Daniel Plainview, one of the iconic performances of the 21st century, I can’t think of a better way for one of the greatest modern actors to leave the stage.

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: '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

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.

OnScreen Review: 'Colossal'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Colossal is one of the most unique films of 2017.  It’s a film directed by Nacho Vigalondo, a man who directed Timecrimes, the 2nd best time travel movie of the 2000’s (Primer is the best, maybe ever, by the way).  From Spain, Colossal is his 2nd English language film as well.  It also stars Anne Hathaway in what may be one of her better performances.

Gloria (Hathaway) is an out of work writer who fills her days and nights with drinking and partying with friends, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), who dumps her because he is done supporting her drinking habit.  Kicked out and with no place to live in New York City, she returns to her hometown and her parent’s old, unfurnished house.  While there, she reconnects with her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudekis), who runs a local bar and gives her a job.  After a night of drinking with Oscar and his friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), Gloria stumbles home and cuts through a playground.  Halfway across the world, a giant kaiju monster suddenly manifests in Seoul, South Korea and terrorizes the city.  Eventually, Gloria comes to the realization that her being in that playground at exactly 8:05 AM causes the monster to appear.  This startling information causes her to try to sober up and rethink her life, but when she reveals this to Oscar and his friends, it slowly leads to a dramatic change in the relationships of this group.

This film falls into that group of films that don’t fit easily into one category.  It begins as a black comedy about a woman with a drinking problem.  She gets so drunk she often falls asleep/passes out in uncomfortable positions, only to wake up to an aching body part, first her neck, then her back, and finally (and rather hilariously) her right breast.  Her drinking is progressively becoming a problem and she seems indifferent to the poor decisions she is making.  And the film portrays her and her drinking with Oscar, Joel, and Garth initially in a light and genial manner.  Clearly, though, waitressing and tending a bar is not the ideal employment for where Gloria is at in her life. 

Next, the Godzilla-like monster is thrown into the mix, appearing in Seoul and having this mysterious connection to her.  It is pretty entertaining how she stumbles into figuring out that she has a connection to the monster.  And when she reveals this to the guys, I was amused by her enjoyment at being able to control it.  However, because of her drunken clumsiness, her enjoyment of absurdity quickly turns to a sobering fear with the realization that the potential deaths of thousands of people could be on her conscience if she is not careful.  Her behavior could have catastrophic consequences for people, which causes her to reconsider her life and her drinking habits.  It’s also a not so subtle metaphor that such actions can have consequences far closer to home too in real life too.

Finally, the film adds another element, turning the story on its ear and veering into unexpected territory.  Without giving away too much of the film, much of the first half of Colossal is really a bait and switch based on the ways that mainstream Hollywood films condition the audience to expect the plot to go in a certain direction based on specific indicators.  When the pretty, down on her luck woman moves home and reconnects with the guy who was her childhood friend, we expect a certain romantic plot to play out.  But this is not a mainstream Hollywood studio film and things don’t go the Hollywood ending way. 

In fact, that the film had the fortitude to stick through with where it was going to the end made me appreciate it even more, even though it wasn’t making sense to me in the moment.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s the kind of film that probably would have been compromised and ruined by the big studio system.  The interpersonal dynamics of the relationships between Gloria, Oscar, Joel, and Garth are challenged and upended and in some ways irrevocably changed.  The film surprisingly ends up being about the real-life monsters and not the rampaging one in Seoul, South Korea.  The film surprisingly ends up being about abuse, not just the physical kind, but also the mental, verbal, and emotional kind, and finding a way to break free from it.  Also, the Spider-Man axiom of “with great power comes great responsibility” comes into play in that having power, even something as weird as this, is not something that everyone handles well.  Some people who live lives of quiet impotence should not be given immense power (Surprisingly, this film is not a metaphor about the Trump presidency).

Like Rachel Getting Married, this film gives Hathaway a chance to play a character that is atypical of most of the roles she gets.  I never understood or accepted the backlash against from when she won an Oscar a few years ago.  She is an immensely talented and versatile actress who is enjoying playing a somewhat unlikeable character here.  Nothing, though, is more atypical than the role that Sudekis is given here.  He really impresses as he gets to play against type rather than just being a purely comedic role.  It’s a much different performance than anything else he has ever done.

Colossal is not just a unique blending of film genres or the unexpected film that zigs when you think it is going to zag, it is also a pleasant surprise.  It plays with your preconceptions and creates a story that could not be made in the studio system of Hollywood.  It’s the kind of film that knows what it is, what it is about, who the characters are and why they are like that.  It takes seemingly mismatched and incongruous pieces from a few different genre types and fits them together to form a cohesive story in a style all its own.  Vigalondo is a director whose name people should keep in mind going forward, as he seems to be someone whose profile should be on the rise. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Star Trek vs. Star Wars: The argument to end all debate

Greg Ehrhardt

Everyone loves a good debate; whether its discussing Yankees vs Red Sox, Trump vs Clinton, Roe vs Wade, debates stir up all sorts of intellectual curiosity that increases our awareness of people that do not share our world view. We come out of these arguments stronger and healthier as a people and as a nation………………………………………………………………..

Hmmm… Yeah I didn’t even believe that myself. Ok, let’s start over.

No one likes a good debate these days, and for good reason. However, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have one from time to time. A debate we should be having on a daily basis  is whether Star Wars is really the best sci-fi movie franchise out there. Heck, is it really even a sci-fi franchise?  (We won’t quite go there today)

Star Wars is so popular it has its own holiday, as we know. But, there is another sci-fi movie franchise that is arguably better than Star Wars and is more worthy of national and global holidays. The franchise, of course, is Star Trek. Sure, Star Trek is not exactly the plucky underdog in the Star Trek Vs Star Wars debate; there are still star trek conventions occurring to this day, and 5 separate live action series and going on 13 movies made. But, in my opinion, it is criminally underserved compared to the hype Star Wars gets on a daily basis.

So here I am to prove, once and for all, that Star Trek is a better movie franchise than Star Wars.

Some provisos before we get started:

1)      To keep this as apples to apples as possible, I will be focusing only on the Star Trek movies with the original cast and the reboot starring Chris Pine/Zach Quinto. My omission of the Star Trek Next Generation movies is not intended as a slight.

2)      I love Star Wars and Star Trek. This breakdown pitting them against each other is for fun only.

3)      The criteria I use to evaluate Star Wars Vs Star Trek is mine, and mine alone, and quite obviously subjective. There is no science to it (ironically enough).

4)      Credit to the format of this debate goes to The Sports Guy Bill Simmons. I could not imagine writing this any other way after reading his famous Pacino vs Deniro debate

Without further ado, let’s Make it So!!!

(sorry, I know I promised no TV and no Next Generation, but it’s hard sometimes)

Best Lead Male Character

Luke Skywalker vs Captain James T. Kirk

So you can make a pretty good argument that Obi-Wan Kenobi is the true lead male character of Star Wars: he has been in just as many movies as Skywalker in a prominent, leading role. However, since Star Wars is really about the soap opera of the Skywalker clan, and since Luke (I am guessing) features prominently in Episodes VIII/IX, I’m going with Luke here.

And let’s discuss Luke. He’s incredibly naïve, gives up constantly , ignores his future as it is being directly told to him, and, unbelievably, can’t even put up a fight vs the emperor by himself (sure sure, he defeats him by selling his dad on family and thus getting his dad to turn on the emperor, but he was going to be defeated by the emperor unless a 1-30 chance happened!!)

Isn’t it really important that our hero vanquishes the bad guy???

Meanwhile, we have James T. Kirk, who, by all accounts, hates to lose, cheats death constantly, not by midichlorians, but by his cunning and strategic attacks on his opponent’s weaknesses. He rejects temptation to the dark side with much more moral clarity than even Luke Skywalker.

You tell me who you want in the foxhole with you, Kirk, or Luke? If you want to get out alive, there is no question.

Edge: Star Trek

Best Leading Female Character

Princess Leia vs Lt. Uhura

Well, let’s see. We have a princess who isn’t afraid to shoot a gun and takes down Joba the Hut all by herself by choking him to death.

or

We have Lt. Uhura, who never in the entire movie franchise (or the tv series) assumed the captain’s chair for even a second, despite some very questionable red-shirts assuming command temporarily during that time. And when you get right down to it, Lt Uhura’s biggest contribution to accomplishing the missions in the movies was to do this.

No Contest

BIG EDGE: Star Wars

Best Supporting Character

Mr. Spock vs Han Solo

One is a brash gunslinger who now doesn’t even want to acknowledge ever shooting first in a bar scuffle.

One is a logic focused half earthling/half Vulcan who is brilliant, incredibly strong, and maintains an ethos of non-violence. However, he isn’t afraid to shoot first either when situations warrant.

So naturally, the edge goes to Mr. Spock. However, Han Solo will always have this going for him as far as drop the mic moments (the best ever)

Edge: PUSH

Best Villain

Darth Vader vs Khan

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Darth Vader frequently tops most people’s “best movie villains of all time” list, and his performance in A New Hope and Empire Strikes back certainly merits such an appraisal.

However…can a villain really be a villain if he ends up becoming a hero??? Can he??

Meanwhile, on the other side, we have a villain who not only revels in burying his opponents alive, but, in his opportunity to turn good and save innocent lives, decides to push the nuke button anyways.

(I mean, is this really a debate?)

Big Edge: Star Trek

Best Costumes

Star Wars’s best dressups come in the prequel, with fairly inventive, albeit ridiculous, outfits.

Meanwhile, Star Trek costumes look like something from an adult YMCA sleepover

HUGE EDGE: Star Wars

Best Prequel Movie

Phantom Menace Vs Star Trek (Chris Pine version)

As Rifftrax once said about the Phantom Menace (paraphrasing), “You know what I want from my sci-fi movies??? Talking. Lots and lots of talking about what happened”

As far as Star Trek prequel goes well first, there is………………I don’t need to cite anything!! It’s being compared against the Phantom Menace!!

(So you say Revenge of the Sith is the best prequel? Really? You sure??)

HUGE GIGANTIC EDGE: Star Trek

Worst Movie

Attack of the Clones Vs Star Trek: The Motion Picture

So Star Trek: The Motion Picture is so bad I punished OnStage movie critic Ken Jones to watch it as a result of losing a bet. And he ended up agreeing with me after being forced to write a review on it. Basically, I found watching certain paints dry more pulse pounding than that movie.

But of course, we’re comparing it to The Attack of the Clones, which, speaking of watching paint dry, features prominently scenes like this.

Sorry, no contest

(And Final Frontier is so bad its good. Sorry, it is.  Star Trek The Motion Picture is just painstakingly boring bad)

Edge: Star Trek

Best Movie

Empire Strikes Back Vs Wrath of Khan

Empire might be, still, the best action sequel ever made.

Wrath of Khan is still underrated for the non-star trek fans. It features some legitimately tense set pieces for the uninitiated, and features some commentary on the dangers of following a vendetta blindly and without thinking through the consequences.

All that said, Empire wins fairly handily

Edge: Star Wars

Best Moment

“I am Your Father” vs Spock’s Death

“I am Your Father” is iconic, a trend-setter, and a game changer for the franchise. HOWEVER, the part that has always bothered me is Luke’s reaction to it. Watch it here. It’s basically the 7 stages of grief compressed into 10 seconds. It’s an impressive bit of acting to accomplish it, but is it a little too scenery chewing? Doesn’t the denial phase take more than 5 seconds? Does he accept it that quickly?

Spock’s death scene, on the other hand, is Shatner and Nimoy’s finest acting accomplishment, by far. You watch it, in context, and think its two brothers saying good bye for the final time. Its haunting, and it takes an entire (unfortunately crappy) sequel to deal with those feelings.

“I Am Your Father” is understandably more in the cultural lexicon, and it gets points for that. It’s hard to take a line from a somber death scene and parody it. But, for my money, I can’t choose between one or the other. But I have to give the edge to what society chose

Slightest of slight edges: Star Wars

Cast Diversity

Star Trek features an Asian and African-American cast members, along with a Half Alien/Half-Earthling who serves as an allegory for racial discrimination amongst its starring cast. Oh yeah, and Star Trek featured the first ever inter-racial kiss on screen. (I know, I’m not supposed to talk about TV!)

Meanwhile, Star Wars has this to say about racial diversity

HUGE EDGE: Star Trek

Morals of their Stories

Star Trek has the following things to say from their movies

Sound decisions are never made while wearing pajamas at work” (Motion Picture)

“The needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few” (Wrath of Khan).

Don’t mess with the earth or its animals, or environmental catastrophe will follow (The Voyage Home)

Learning how to use your pain to make you a stronger person (Final Frontier, and yes, there was a lesson to be learned from that movie besides “Stop making odd numbered movies Star Trek!”).

Revenge is never a good thing to base foreign policy around. (Undiscovered Country)

 All of these morals seem relevant today, no?

And here’s the two lessons from Star Wars:

1)      Only evil people speak in absolutes (don’t recall the great leaders of our time speaking in “both sides have a point” generalities, but never mind)

2)      Good conquers Evil…………………………………….which as we know from the 2016 US election is poppycock.

HUGE GINORMOUS EDGE: STAR TREK

So there you have it, by a final score of 6-4-1, I give you indisputable evidence that Star Trek is a better movie franchise than Star Wars.

Now, may the force live long and prosper with you, always.

 ~~~~~~

Greg Ehrhardt is an unabashed Star Trek fan and an occasional contributor to OnStage and OnScreen.

OnStream: May 2017

Ken Jones

  • Onscreen Chief Film Critic

I spend most of my writing on reviews of new releases in theaters, but not everyone consumes movies the same way I do.  For some, going to the movie theater is a hassle or expensive or they just don’t have time for it.  Movies are more accessible than ever thanks to streaming services.  Every month Netflix and Amazon Prime add new titles and take away titles.  There are plenty of articles written online about everything that is coming and going from these streaming platforms that a simple Google search will show you.  I’m going to try to find ten recommendations among the new arrivals each month.  Here’s a handful of recommendations from these new-to-streaming titles from Netflix and Amazon Prime throughout the month of May.

1. Gone with the Wind (5/1 on Amazon Prime)

In addition to The Wizard of Oz being available on Prime beginning in May, this 4 hour epic is also available.  And if I may confess for a moment, I have never seen it!  It’s a total blind spot for me, so I’m hoping to rectify this wrong sometime in May.

2. Don’t Think Twice (5/1 on Netflix)

One of my favorites from last year, Don’t Think Twice is an indie film written and directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia about a tight-knit New York City improv group who has its friendships tested when one of them gets selected to be on a SNL-type show.  Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher make up the troupe, with Jacobs giving a real standout

3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (5/1 on Amazon Prime)

This comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy about two mismatched travelers trying to get to Chicago for Thanksgiving is an 80s classic.  It’s funny and surprisingly poignant.  You’ve got to love comedies that also have heart.

4. Winter’s Bone (5/1 on Amazon Prime)

Winter’s Bone is the movie that made people stop and take notice of Jennifer Lawrence.  She plays a teenager struggling to keep her family together when the police come looking for her father in the Ozarks.  John Hawkes gives a powerful supporting performance.

5. Manchester by the Sea (5/5 on Amazon Prime)

Manchester earned Academy Awards for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan and actor Casey Affleck.  By now I’m sure everyone knows that it’s a heavy, grief-filled movie, with a couple of gut punch moments.  Don’t let that deter you from seeing one of the best movies of 2016.

6. The Place Beyond the Pines (5/16 on Netflix)

This 2013 film from director Derek Cianfrance is a multi-generational crime drama about two families on opposite sides of the law and how their paths cross in 1997 and again in 2012.  It’s an impressive cast, with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendez, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Rose Byrne, recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, and Ray Liotta.

7. Moonlight (5/21 on Amazon Prime)

Last year’s Best Picture winner makes its way to Amazon Prime later in the month.  If you missed it in the theaters, which a lot of people must have considering it only made $27 million domestically, check it out.  Barry Jenkins’ drama follows Chiron (played by 3 different actors) as a kid, teenager, and young adult as a poor, gay, black man growing up in Miami.  The dinner table scene with Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali is one of the most powerful scenes from any movie in 2016.

8. Southpaw (5/24 on Netflix)

Director Antoine Fuqua’s boxing movie about a champion who had it all, lost it, and has to fight to get it all back stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Miguel Gomez, and Oona Laurence who is a talented young actress and a standout here.  Boxing movies can be formulaic, and Southpaw is not without its flaws, but Gyllenhaal and Laurence are good and boxing movies are some of the most satisfying sports movies.

9. War Machine (5/26 on Netflix)

For the last few years Netflix has ramped up their original TV content.  2017 Netflix is expanding their original movie content.  One of the more intriguing ones is this political satire about the war in Afghanistan.  Brad Pitt is producing and starring as a General based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal.  It’s adapted from the Michael Hastings book The Operators.  Topher Grace, Will Poulter, Tilda Swinton, Ben Kingsley, and Lakeith Stanfield also star in the movie directed by David Michod.  It’s an interesting gambit by Netflix to release this on Memorial Day Weekend, and while they have already released a few other movies of their own (check out I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore) this is the first potentially high-profile feature film from them.

10. Doctor Strange (5/30 on Netflix)

Last Fall’s big Marvel hit arrives at the end of the month on Netflix.  Director Scott Derrickson and star Benedict Cumberbatch did a pretty impressive job bringing the mystical character of Doctor Strange to the big screen.  Dazzling special effects and a strong cast helped propel this to some great numbers for Marvel.  If for no other reason, check it out for the ability to then go on Twitter and get continual joy out of the @Cometobargain account.

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Ken Jones has loved movies his entire life. His earliest movie memory is seeing Pinocchio at a drive-in theater. While watching Ghostbusters at a young age, he ran out into the dining room to recite to his parents, “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!” He thought it was hilarious; his parents were less than impressed. The first movie he saw in the theater was Transformers: The Movie in 1986 (which, come on, had Orson Welles in it!). He grew up with a deep, abiding love for Star Wars. His favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski. He studied history at Elmira College where he met the founder of the OnStage Blog, Chris Peterson, and became good friends due to a shared love of movies, the Red Sox, and Chinese buffet. Since 2015, Ken has been writing movie reviews on his WordPress blog, Jonesing for Films (jonesingforfilms.wordpress.com). You can follow him on Twitter @kenjones81 and you can also find him on Letterboxd (letterboxd.com/KenJones). He lives in Maine.

6 Questions for Movies This Summer

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

While recent March releases like The Jungle Book, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Logan, and Beauty and the Beast have moved up the window for when studios release blockbusters, for most of the last 20 years the first weekend in May has represented the unofficial kickoff of the summer movie season, when studios typically release their big budget blockbusters and tentpole features (As recently as the mid-90s, Memorial Day Weekend held this distinction).  So with the beginning of May fast approaching, and the summer period kicking off in earnest with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, here are six questions to serve as a preview of the movies scheduled for release this summer.

6. Can The Dark Tower capture the spirit of the source material?

The Dark Tower is a fantasy/sci-fi/western saga from horror legend Stephen King that spans seven novels (an 8th was produced out of chronological order after the series had concluded).  I’ve only read the first few books, but the series is a sprawling epic and considered to be King’s magnum opus.  The story opens with gunslinger Roland Deschain pursuing a dark figure across a desert and builds from there as he journeys through dimensions and universes in a quest to find and destroy the Dark Tower.  The project has been in development for quite a while and its path to the big screen has been full of twists and turns.  At one point, it was going to be made by Ron Howard and would be made into a trilogy and a two-season TV series that would connect the films.  That plan sounded unnecessarily complicated and fell apart shortly after it was announced.   

Eventually it settled at Sony and with director Nikolaj Arcel, a Danish writer/director making his American debut.  Idris Elba has been cast as Roland and Matthew McConaughey is the mysterious Man in Black.  Based on what has been written online, it is unclear if this is a direct adaptation of the first book, several books compressed into one film, or a reinterpretation of the source material.  That does not sound promising.  Supposedly, this will still lead into a TV series, which will star Elba.  I want it to be good, but given the track record of most projects that have so much trouble making it to the big screen, my expectations are low.

5. Will Ridley Scott deliver the Alien prequel we wanted the last time around?

Hope and expectations were sky high for Prometheus.  Ridley Scott made one of the defining sci-fi (and horror) films of all time in 1979 with Alien.  It spawned a franchise and a highly successful sequel from James Cameron that is one of the best sci-fi action movies.  Everyone who is a fan of the Alien movies was downright giddy when it was announced that Scott was returning with a sequel in 2012.  Sadly, Prometheus failed to deliver fully on the hype.  Personally, I still enjoyed it, but like a lot of people I wanted more of what I loved about Alien while Scott seemed interested in going in a different direction.  It seems as though we might be getting something more in the way of pure fan service this time around with Alien: Covenant.  It’s a massive and impressive cast.  And like Prometheus the promotional material has been outstanding.  What is different this time around?  We are actually seeing xenomorphs in the trailers and the publicity stills.  And facehuggers.  This is very exciting.  Let’s hope Alien: Covenant satisfies where Prometheus left us wanting more.

4. Can Wonder Woman deliver where other recent DC movies have failed?

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… we can’t be fooled again.”  While President George W. Bush may have mangled this expression, his version of it actually applies to where we find ourselves with Wonder Woman.  With Zack Snyder at the helm, reactions to Man of Steel were mixed.  Its sequel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, raised some question marks, but the trailers and promotional material provided some hope, hope that was quickly dashed when the movie came out last year.  The spin-off Suicide Squad looked even more promising based on the trailers and people got their hopes up again that maybe there wasn’t an overall problem with Warner Bros/DC and that it was just limited to a Zack Snyder problem.  However, Suicide Squad was also an incoherent mess.

With all of this as the backdrop, people have tempered their expectations for Wonder Woman, the first notable superhero film with a female lead (Gal Gadot) and a female director (Patty Jenkins).  It’s worth noting that Gal Gadot’s extended cameo in BvS was one of the few bright spots in that dreadful film.  And the trailers so far for it have looked promising.  But we have been here before with BvS and Suicide Squad.  It’s possible that a female superhero film directed by a female director could offer something that is a distinct change of pace and possibly right the ship for DC.  It’s possible that Wonder Woman ends up being DC’s equivalent to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger.  It’s not just the studio that wants this to succeed.  But we can’t be fooled again.

3. Is Baby Driver the movie that propels Edgar Wright into the mainstream?

Writer/director Edgar Wright has made some of the best genre-defining movies of the century.  Beginning in 2004 with Shaun of the Dead, and continuing on through Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and The World’s End Wright has made films that know exactly what they are and what the audience expects from the genre that he is working in.  To my eyes, there’s not a bad film in the bunch.  He even was involved in Marvel’s Ant-Man before eventually leaving the project and still received a writing credit.  As much as people enjoyed the end product of Ant-Man, a lot of people who know Wright’s work said, “Ant-Man was fun, but I would have loved to see the Edgar Wright version of that.”

And that’s the thing, not enough people know who Edgar Wright is.  For as beloved of an instant cult classic as Shaun of the Dead became, as energetic and consistently enjoyable as all of his films have been, they have not made significant noise at the box office.  Shaun made $13.5 million at the box office, Hot Fuzz earned $23.7 million, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World made $31.5 million, and The World’s End took in $26 million.  None of those are anything more than modest numbers.  He’s never had a movie be #1 at the box office yet.  Given that his latest, Baby Driver, is coming out the same weekend as Despicable Me 3 and the Will Ferrell-Amy Poehler comedy The House, I don’t expect that to change either.

But the buzz surrounding Baby Driver, which got rave reviews coming out of SXSW, pegs it as something of the La La Land for heist movies, a movie that is action packed and propelled by its soundtrack.  Sony was impressed enough with it to move up its release date from August 11th to June 28th, right in the heart of the summer release schedule.  They clearly have faith in it.  Personally, as a huge fan of Wright, I would love to see this film further elevate his status among more mainstream moviegoers.

2. Will Spider-Man: Homecoming be a return to form for our friendly neighborhood web-slinger?

Spider-Man is my favorite comic book superhero, period.  When I was a kid I read Spider-Man comic books, played with Spider-Man action figures, and watched the Saturday morning TV show Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends as well as the ‘67 animated series.  As a teeneager, I watched animated series from the 90s on Fox in the afternoons.  So I was over the moon when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man came out in 2002 and was actually good too!  I was ecstatic when Spider-Man 2 was even better.  I was crestfallen when they stumbled with Spider-Man 3.  When they blew it up and decided to reboot the character with a whole new director and cast?  None of it felt right to me and the two Amazing Spider-Man movies were incredibly disappointing to me.  It felt like Sony was killing the golden goose. 

In 2015, Sony and Marvel Studios came to an agreement where Marvel would co-produce new Spider-Man movies and bring him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe while Sony would retain control over the character.  In the eyes of many, myself included, this was seen as the beginning of a rehabilitation of Spider-Man’s tarnished box office image.  Spidey’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War, furthered the hope that this was a turning point for the character and so far the trailer have mostly continued that positive momentum.  As a character, Spider-Man resides in a sweet spot of action, drama, and humor.  Here’s hoping they find that sweet spot again with Homecoming.

1. Is there a sleeper hit lurking in the weeds, a la The Hangover?

Because summers are dominated by franchise sequels and big budget blockbusters, it’s pretty much a given what the biggest films of the summer are going to be.  We may not know what the biggest movie of the summer is going to be, but in some order, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Despicable Me 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Baywatch, and War for the Planet of the Apes will all almost certainly make $100 million or (significantly) more.  Every once in a while, though, a movie comes seemingly out of nowhere and connects with audiences at just the right time and in the right way.  Perhaps the most famous example ever is The Blair Witch Project, which was made for $60k and made $140 million.  More recently, The Hangover, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Straight Outta Compton really connected with audiences and exceeded their box office expectations.   These hits are few and far between.  There’s really no discernible pattern to them either, making it impossible to predict since past sleepers don’t necessarily indicate future sleepers.  With that said though, what are some titles to keep an eye on in the coming months? 

Two action films I’m looking forward to are Atomic Blonde and the previously mentioned Baby DriverAtomic Blonde stars Charlize Theron and is from the director of John Wick, which just had a sequel earlier this year that made $92 million.  As for Baby Driver, see what I wrote above in #3.  Trailers for both movies look awesome and both generated great buzz at SXSW.  One potential indicator of a sleeper hit is an underserved audience.  If it’s well done, All Eyez on Me could fit that bill as Straight Outta Compton showed what kind of audience is out there for a hip-hop biopic and Tupac remains very popular two decades after his death (hard to believe it’s been that long).  Detroit, the Kathryn Bigelow period crime drama about the 1967 riots, is another film that could tap into the increased racial tensions of the last few years surrounding police shootings of black men.  Either of these movies could succeed if they are well made. 

After the success of Bad Moms and Trainwreck in the last few years, could Snatched, Rough Night, or Girls Trip be a bigger hit than anticipated?  Horror fans are rarely underserved as an audience, but this summer is surprisingly light on horror thrills outside of, perhaps, Alien: Covenant and a spin-off prequel to The Conjuringin Annabelle: Creation.  Horror fans seem to be less inclined to be beholden strictly to franchises and established intellectual properties than other genres.  With that in mind, perhaps Wish Upon, geared more toward teens, finds an audience.  A24 is a company that has produced some of my favorite films of the last few years, but they’ve only had three releases (Ex Machina, The Witch, and Moonlight) top $25 million as theatrical releases.  They’ve got It Comes At Night which opens in June opposite The Mummy.  It’s from Krisha director Trey Edward Schults and the trailer suggests a similar foreboding atmosphere as that of The Witchand Ex Machina.

 

As much as I’m looking forward to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Ridley Scott returning to the Alien universe, or the rehabilitation of Spider-Man, there are few things as exciting in movies as when a hit comes out of nowhere and unexpectedly takes off.  I’m not necessarily expecting it with any of the movies I listed, but I’d love to see it.