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WATERVILLE – Movie magic is returning to Waterville’s big screens this summer.

The Maine International Film Festival, one of the highlights of the region’s cultural calendar, is back in action once again. Running from July 9 through July 18, MIFF has once again assembled a top-notch slate of films. We’re talking dozens of movies running the gamut – comedies and dramas and documentaries, feature-length and short, international offerings and movies made right here in Maine – all collected and curated by the folks at the Maine Film Center. It’s a typically outstanding program for what promises to be another dynamite festival.

MIFF was one of the many cultural institutions forced to pivot last year due to the circumstances of the pandemic. One could argue they were among the nimblest in doing so, teaming up with the Skowhegan Drive-In to present a pared-down and safe version of the festival last summer.

That relationship is continuing this year, even though MIFF’s indoor venues – Railroad Square Cinema and the Waterville Opera House – are both open and available. It’s a wonderful expansion of the festival, both geographically and in terms of the way in which the films can be enjoyed.

It’s also worth noting that there is a virtual component to this year’s festival. Through the MIFF website – www.miff.org – viewers can access a number of offerings, including all four of the short film compilations. It’s a great opportunity for those unable to travel to the festival site to still engage with some of the wonderful films that are part of the slate.

Additionally, the festival is featuring an exhibit called The Kneeling Art Photography Project, an exhibition of photos of Mainers from many different backgrounds taking a knee in support of anti-racist actions in their respective communities. Those who attend will have the opportunity to have their own photos made as they themselves take a knee and become part of this statewide solidarity. Also, there will be a live music and projection event in Castonguay Square following the opening night film on July 9.

I spend a lot of time at the movies. And while I embrace the bombast and excess that has come to mark the cinematic summer, there's something wonderful about the idea that scores of great films - films of all shapes and sizes from filmmakers that span the globe - are all going to be assembled and played for Maine audiences over the course of 10 marvelous days.

Trying to describe the entire bill of fare at MIFF would be a fool's errand; there are simply too many excellent offerings to try and fit them all in. Instead, let's take a look at a handful of potentially interesting highlights. This list will be far from comprehensive, but it should provide an informative cross-sectional peek at the wide variety of films assembled by the festival's programming team.

To that end, we'll be taking a look at an offering from every day of the festival. Please note that this list barely scratches the surface: you can get a look at the full schedule at the festival website at www.miff.org.

(All film descriptions come from the Maine International Film Festival website.)

Published in Cover Story
Monday, 28 June 2021 12:08

Even faster and furiouser – ‘F9’

I don’t want to be accused of burying the lead here, so I’ll just say this now: “F9” is a big, loud bunch of hot nonsense. The plot is transparently thin and peppered with holes at its best and utterly incoherent at worst. The performances are broadly winking and cartoonish. The action sequences gleefully defy even the most basic understanding of how physics work. It is candy-colored chaos, littered with CGI explosions and one-liners of varying effectiveness.

And I enjoyed myself very much.

Look, I love well-crafted sophisticated filmmaking as much as the next guy. I love complex characters working through engaging narratives, with ever word and deed sporting some sort of discernible motivation. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also find joy within the confines of the car chase cash register that is the “F&F” franchise.

This latest installment – tenth in the series if you count “Hobbes & Shaw,” which I absolutely do – continues the ever-increasing bats—ttery that has marked the series for years now. You don’t need me to point out the bizarreness of a little film about street racing developing into a blockbuster monolith packed with action and espionage and an ongoing cavalcade of movie stars, but it’s hard to write about any of these films without at least acknowledging that truth. Justin Lin, who made his name by directing entries three through six in the franchise, returns to the helm for this entry.

I cannot in good conscience tell you that this movie is good. It is not. However, there is no denying this movie is great fun to watch. You’ve probably heard films described as something where you just “need to turn off your brain.” Suffice it to say, you might want to get ready to flip that switch. Sure, you’ll likely find yourself chuckling and shaking your head at the physically impossible action set pieces or the wildly improbable twists and turns in the narrative. Frankly, there’s a lot here that feels not just incoherent, but almost willfully stupid. And yet – there’s just something about it.

Published in Movies

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a genuine affection for old man action movies. There’s something so compelling about watching a creaky-kneed geriatric hobble his way across the screen, gratefully giving way to stunt performers when things get a little too active. I know that sounds derogatory (and maybe it is, a little) but that doesn’t change the fact that I for-real dig it.

Of course, the king of geriatric action (geriaction?) is my man Liam Neeson. His “Taken” franchise really kicked off the boom times of the subgenre, though I should note that I don’t count the aging action stars as part of it – your Schwarzeneggers, your Stallones, your Willises. And while Neeson’s definitely lost a step or two since that first “Taken” outing, he’s still out there getting after it (and getting those checks).

His latest foray into old man action is “The Ice Road,” a Netflix offering written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. This time, Neeson plays an over-the-road truck driver who is pressed into service to save a bunch of trapped miners before it’s too late, only there are outside forces conspiring to stop him from doing that.

It’s the sort of paint-by-numbers action-thriller that makes up the entirety of Neeson’s workload these days – one that is decidedly lacking in both action and thrills. He does his gruff Everyman thing, trying to convey world-weariness even as his only clear motivation is cashing his check. It is purely disposable, a movie designed for folks of a certain age to fall asleep in front of.

Published in Movies

Baby horror has long been a vital subgenre beneath the horror umbrella. The possibilities that come with the fundamental mysteries of pregnancy and giving birth are myriad. You can do demonic possession or supernatural rituals or weird science, all with a body horror underpinning that comes part and parcel with the whole situation.

Of course, these movies aren’t always good.

Take “False Positive,” newly streaming on Hulu. I had high hopes for this one, honestly. Ilana Glazer stars and co-wrote the script with director John Lee. Both of them have some legitimately weird credits to their name. Throw in Justin Theroux and Pierce Brosnan as co-stars and you’ve got my attention.

Unfortunately, while the film starts with some real promise, it never quite gets to where we want it to be. Instead, it devolves into a muddled mishmash of dream sequences and “What is real?” psychodrama that never finds its footing after the strong start. Too many decisions make little or no sense; there’s never any sense behind why people are behaving the way that they are. We’re left with a confusing and ultimately unsatisfying film that never quite decides what it wants to be. Again, there are moments of strength, but not nearly enough of them.

Published in Movies

A major key to the ongoing success of Netflix is their ability to find and exploit market inefficiencies, an ability that applies to both the business side of the operation AND the production side.

Take romantic comedies, for instance. Rom-coms once ruled the box office, but have largely fallen off in the face of an increased reliance upon IP-based CGI-driven franchise fare. However, plenty of rom-com aficionados (I count myself among their number) are still out there. Netflix, seeing that underserved audience, set loose their algorithms and whatnot and began churning out romantic comedies. Not all of them were good and a lot of them were bad, but they still scratched that itch.

A more recent trend has been the notion of somehow deconstructing the rom-com, making different sorts of films using that genre as a template. And again – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“Good on Paper,” the latest Netflix rom-com, is the streamer’s latest effort at that sort of spin. Directed by Kimmy Gatewood from a script written by comedian Iliza Schlesinger (who also stars), it’s ostensibly based on true events from Schlesinger’s life. It’s a clear effort to find a darker angle on the traditional romantic comedy.

A clear effort, but not a successful one.

The film suffers from an inability to settle on precisely what kind of movie it wants to be, which is really too bad; if “Good on Paper” committed more fully to going in either direction – either more thoroughly embracing the shadows or going in a more traditional rom-com direction – it would have been far better. Instead, it’s a clumsy and intermittently watchable film, one that squanders a great deal of potential.

Published in Movies

There are any number of reasons that one might want to heap praise on Pixar. The studio has been producing exceptional work for almost three decades now, redefining the possibilities of American animated filmmaking along the way. Many of the films they’ve made over the years have become legitimate modern classics, iconic movies beloved by audiences and critics alike. Pixar films are fun and funny, packed with jokes and references aimed at every level of the audience.

Now, this success can be a double-edged sword. Because the studio has proven itself capable of crafting these wonderful works – arguable masterpieces, in fact – they can also find their efforts being viewed as somehow disappointing if they offer up a film that is merely very good. It’s not really fair (save in the case of the two “Cars” sequels, which, by all means, be disappointed).

Some people will argue that the latest Pixar offering – “Luca,” directed by Enrico Casarosa currently available for streaming on Disney+ - is minor Pixar. And those people won’t be wrong. However, what we need to remember is that even a lower-tier Pixar film is almost certainly a legitimately good film (again, leaving aside the aforementioned “Cars” movies).

That’s definitely the case with “Luca,” which is a charming and touching coming-of-age tale about fitting in and making friends and learning to accept yourself for who you are. It doesn’t have the full depth of emotional complexity that we often see from the studio – though you’ll still have plenty of feels – and it certainly seems more directly kid-oriented than some of the more layered Pixar offerings, but so what? It’s still a delightful movie experience, one that might even prove to resonate a little more fully with younger audiences than some of the more celebrated adult-conscious fare.

Published in Movies

Expanding one’s horizons is usually a good thing. Getting out of a comfort zone and trying something new can be a rewarding journey. It’s the sort of experience that can prove refreshing to one’s creative spirit.

A perfect example of said horizon expansion is when a noted comedian or comedic actor opts to make the leap into a more dramatic role. There’s something admirable about someone who is willing to take their talents in one sphere and explore whether those talents transfer to another. Now, it doesn’t always work, of course, so it’s an interesting crapshoot of sorts.

“Fatherhood,” newly streaming on Netflix, is the latest entry in the “comedic actors tackling dramatic roles” canon. Starring Kevin Hart, it’s a movie about the struggles of a single father dealing with grief and loss while also trying to ensure the best possible life for his child. Directed by Paul Weitz from a script he co-wrote with Dana Stevens, the film is based on Matthew Logelin’s 2011 memoir “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love.”

While there’s no denying that the film is a touch formulaic, it definitely has a surprising heart. And a surprising Hart, as far as that goes – he leads a solid cast with a performance that is considerably deeper, subtler and more nuanced than you might expect from him. Honestly, the film’s plot and narrative beats won’t surprise you, but the emotional impact just might.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 15 June 2021 22:12

‘In The Heights’ flies high

Full disclosure: I love a movie musical.

I love the big production numbers and over-the-top performances. I love storytelling through song and watching scores of extras dance in unison. I love the way that a three-minute song can do the emotional heavy lifting of a half-hour’s worth of dialogue.

So I was always going to dig “In the Heights,” the Jon M. Chu-directed film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s iconic musical of the same name, currently in theaters and available via streaming on HBO Max. Sure, I had a few minor misgivings – the film had passed through multiple hands on its way to the screen, which is rarely a positive sign – but with Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hughes both onboard, I figured at the very least, we were looking at a high floor.

But as it turns out, the title is indicative of a lot more than just the neighborhood in which it is set, because by God, this movie SOARS.

Published in Movies

There’s no accounting for taste – especially in Hollywood. Concepts like “good” and “bad” are mere abstracts at the highest levels of the movie business. The quality of the product itself is secondary; all that matters is the money. And when a movie makes a lot of money, there’s a good chance we’re going to get a sequel. Even if the movie in question is kind of terrible.

Hence, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.”

This awkwardly-titled sequel to 2017’s mediocre-at-best action-comedy “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” can’t even rise to the level of the rather low bar set by its predecessor. This new offering features Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds reprising their roles as the titular hitman and bodyguard, respectively; Salma Hayek is back as well (she’s the wife). A collection of new faces appears as well, including a handful of folks who definitely should have known better.

Gotta tell you - it’s not good, folks.

That first film managed to get by on the energy of its two leads and the chemistry between them, occasionally reaching the level of store-brand “Midnight Run,” but even that sense of fun is long gone in this new entry. Instead, we get a tonally inconsistent combination of smug mugging and bloody violence that isn’t nearly as funny as it seems to think it is, presented to us alongside a confusing and borderline nonsensical plot and a bunch of rote, repetitive and generally uninteresting action sequences.

Published in Movies

When a film trots out the phrase “based on a true story,” that can mean a lot of things, from a meticulous recreation of well-documented events (albeit with some dramatic license) to a largely constructed fiction that borrows a couple of ostensibly true elements from a preexisting story. But if the “true story” in question already has a complicated relationship with veracity?

Well … then you get “The Conjuring” films.

The latest installment in the increasingly sprawling horror franchise is “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” It’s the third “Conjuring” film proper, though there have been a number of spin-off/tangentially connected movies as well. Directed by Michael Chaves from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, it’s a continuation of the supernatural adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

As with any franchise, the law of diminishing returns is in play; this one is no exception. While it does feature some solid performances and a couple of decent jump scares, the truth is that this new offering doesn’t reach the level of the previous two films in the series.

Published in Movies
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