Roma Review

I didn’t hear anything about Roma until I heard everything about it. A foreign film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Roma has been showered with praise by critics and received numerous awards, as well as several 2019 Academy Award nominations. As soon as Netflix acquired the rights and began distributing it, word of mouth began to spread. Roma was, in fact, the first film in over a year to be recommended to me, and not the other way around.

At first glance, Roma appears to be your garden-variety drama. Intelligent acting and social consciousness occupy the whole picture, but this is present in most Oscar-bait films. I was enjoying watching Roma but noticed nothing that warranted such high praise. How wrong I was.

The key to understanding Roma is to comprehend the history of Mexico during the 1970’s. Marked by political turmoil between an authoritarian government and leftist student protesters, the film depicts the infamous Corpus Christi massacre, where over one hundred people were killed.

The film rightfully centers around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid for a middle-class family in Mexico City, who embodies the experience of someone from that time period. Cleo is a likable, relatable character, and plays a tragically passive role in life. She’s thrust into bad situation after bad situation without a proper way of coping.

This all culminates in one of the more disturbing scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, the hospital. After a pregnant Cleo is rushed to the emergency room, we bear witness to an appalling and inhumane turn of events. The scene opens with a wide angle shot of an overcrowded waiting room, where hundreds of individuals await treatment. This part stuck with me, as the shot was composited in such a way that played to my fear of hospitals. It actually gave me anxiety just viewing the overcrowded conditions.

From here, we see Cleo taken immediately by the doctors, and we know something isn’t quite right. Tension has already been mounting as her water broke several hours prior, and at this point we fear the worst for Cleo. I won’t spoil what happens next for those who haven’t seen it, but I warn you for what follows. It’s gritty, blatant, and offensive to the eye, yet I found it all too difficult (and important) to look away.

Regarding another aspect of Roma, I came to respect the minimalist cinematography. The cleverness in the filmmaking and camerawork is often subtle, and therefore can go unnoticed if the viewer isn’t aware of such deliberate actions. The camera is always slow moving, often panning back and forth as the scene plays out. In considerably emotional or visually important scenes it will be placed in a far corner, in order to let the viewer soak in everything happening.

Roma paints an ugly picture of 1970’s Mexico, ridden with poverty, violence, and political tension. Yet, it gives off glimmers of hope for those living in what seems to be unfortunate and unbearable circumstances. Cleo has survived and conquered great adversity, and throughout the film she becomes a heroic, inspiring character prepared to deal with whatever life throws at her. For this reason, I was left with a bitter sweet feeling at the film’s conclusion. A feeling that gave me empathy for those in situations like Cleo, and the hope that a better life awaits them in the future.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part Review: A Creative Flick for an Unenthusiastic Audience

Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team! At least, it was in the first LEGO Movie. 

Now, things have changed drastically five years in the future, especially since the outer space invaders of LEGO DUPLO have taken over their home of Bricksburg. It seems the entire LEGO world has succumbed to bitterness, negativity, and chronic brooding. All except for Emmet (Chris Pratt) that is, who still maintains the same cheerfulness and optimism as he did in the first movie. But when Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), and his other friends are kidnapped by those same LEGO invaders, Emmet embarks on an epic journey to unknown worlds that will test his maturity in this adult world.

The LEGO Movie 2 sports the same colorful animation as its predecessor, computer imagery that looks convincingly like stop motion minifigures. The details are magnificent, down to the light reflections and scratches of paint on our LEGO figure protagonists. CGI has come a long way for the animation to look so realistic that people actually think it’s the real deal, and I have enormous respect for those behind the scenes who’ve made that happen.

The same respect goes for The LEGO Movie 2 in general. Even the casual viewer can observe the effort put forth to make this a family fun experience. Take the extensive voice cast for example, which includes many A-list actors and actresses who lent their voice talent for the film. Mix this with self-aware humor and you’ve got some hilarious in-jokes about celebrities like Bruce Willis, who according to The LEGO Movie lives in an air duct. And after Die Hard 5, that’s probably not too far off! Yes, lots of talent went into trying to make this movie as enjoyable, humorous, and creative as possible.

And the honest truth is, I can’t say I’m surprised at The LEGO Movie 2‘s lack of box office success. With countless remakes, sequels, and reboots out, was anybody that pumped up about a follow up to The LEGO Movie?

The LEGO Movie 2 is big on creativity and imagination, and it has a positive message about being yourself and remaining optimistic worked in there too. But, a lot of this is just a retread of the first film, “been there done that” kind of material. I know kids and adults alike will undoubtedly adore the charm and positivity that this movie has to offer, but that’s if they’re even up to watching another LEGO flick to begin with. And so far, the consensus seems to be no.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

They Shall Not Grow Old Review

They Shall Not Grow Old is as deeply humanizing and empathetic as a documentary about World War I can get.

The film is told through the voice over narration of dozens of actual veterans of WWI, most of whom fought for the British Empire. The narration is organized in such a way as to give the audience the full experience of a soldier who served in the war. We start with how they first enlisted, then move on to their time in boot camp, and then to their experiences on the front lines. All of it being accompanied by beautifully updated, restored, and colorized film footage.

The colorization of this hundred-year-old film footage was time-consuming and painstaking, as director Peter Jackson describes both at the beginning and end of the documentary. He also restored all 100 hours of footage he was given to use by the Imperial War Museum and received no payment for it. I’d consider this a passion project for Jackson and his production company, and their effort to restore this footage as a public service for future generations.

We all know about the horrid conditions in WWI, but to physically watch it happen before your eyes is a whole different story. I found many scenes hard to watch as the bodies began to pile up, as mortar rounds violently struck the ground, and the men slept in vile conditions. The most emotional moments were some of the firsthand accounts the men spoke of, namely a gentleman who put a fellow soldier out of misery because gunfire had left him terribly mutilated. Even though many decades had gone by, the man still got choked up talking about it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

They Shall Not Grow Old has no agenda, no ulterior motives or contemporary allegories of the political sort. No, the intentions of this documentary are actually quite clear. It exists to bring this monumental event in human history back to the forefront of our thoughts. Capturing in full color the camaraderie, bravery, and heartbreak of warfare.

It asks us to empathize with these men and shows how these crude individuals weren’t much different than young boys today. They questioned why they were fighting the war and were kind to (and often identified with) the German soldiers who they were supposed to hate. These brave souls were willing to risk it all for their country, and many paid the ultimate price.

They Shall Not Grow Old is the ultimate testament to those who those who died fighting in The Great War, and our respectful viewing of the film can help to humanize and rationalize an event previously condemned as part of the past.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

 

Glass Review

At last, M. Night Shyamalan’s dramatic conclusion to his superhero trilogy, Glass, has arrived. And while I was dissatisfied with Split, I had good faith that Glass would turn out significantly better.

Glass brings superhero David Dunn (known as The Overseer and played by Bruce Willis) to a final confrontation with the villains Kevin Crumb (The Beast played by James McAvoy) and Elijah Price (Mr. Glass played by Sam Jackson). All three are locked inside a mental hospital run by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in those with delusions of grandeur. Staple is determined to show these men that their powers aren’t all that special, but a nefarious plot by Mr. Glass awaits just below the surface, ready to show the world his true potential.

Glass first comes out of the gate swingin’, continuing this story in an interesting direction that instantly hooked me. We get some strong storytelling elements mixed with some suspenseful scenes that really stood out as remarkable.

Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worst very quickly.

For about an hour Glass just treads water, bringing the plot and characters to a complete standstill. It’s when our leads arrive to the mental hospital, where the film becomes fixated on what I’d argue is the overarching message of Glass, “Are these guys really superheroes, or is it all in their heads?” The thing is, we already know these characters are extraordinary because we’ve already seen Split and Unbreakable, therefore we know exactly how this will play out. But it doesn’t matter anyways, because the resolve to this theme is non-existent. The great “aha” moment is summed up in Bruce Willis kicking down a door. What a waste of valuable screen time.

Ultimately Glass displays some of the most fundamental flaws with Shyamalan’s filmmaking style and camerawork. The movie is plagued with awkward close-ups, scenes that go nowhere, and pretentiously boring camera angles that make Glass visually difficult to watch. Some of the upside-down shots and camera pans are so bizarre and unnecessary that some will call it artistically bold, but I call it bologna.

The acting often came off as wooden and emotionless from majority of the cast, Anya Taylor-Joy and Spencer Treat Clark were particularly unpleasant. James McAvoy and Sam Jackson stood out as the only noteworthy performances, but maybe they were a little too convincing. As you’ll recall from Split, McAvoy’s character was often goofy and hard to take seriously because of his multiple personalities. This often clashes with the tone of the film, which attempts to take the subject matter gravely serious. Dramatic scenes are frequently undercut by McAvoy acting like a nine-year-old and hacking up a lung, completely throwing the tone of the film off. Am I supposed to be laughing? Scared? Emotional? Shyamalan sure doesn’t know.

The climax between The Overseer and the Beast/Mr. Glass, what all this was supposedly building up to, was dead on arrival. There’s no satisfying battle or showdown, and any real action is marred by the terrible camerawork. Everybody kind of just stands around with their hands in their pockets, and again nothing of worth is accomplished.

And then, there’s the twist. A classic Shyamalan twist ending that’s bound to frustrate those who enjoyed the film up until that point. But for those of us who were already disappointed and bored out of our minds, the twist was merely the last straw. A plot move that irreparably damaged any worthwhile story elements the audience could take away.

I don’t really know what Glass was trying to accomplish, and I don’t really know if it succeeded in this or not. What I do know is just how slow, underwhelming, and anticlimactic it all was. Anyone who says this is Shyamalan’s return to form is misleading you. I can’t stress it enough, Shyamalan has talent, and his greatest works (Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense) are no accident. To my disappointment, Glass was one his accidents. A movie that set out to intrigue and excite the audience but ended up having the opposite effect.

The Verdict: D

-Zachary Flint

Bumblebee Review: A Solid B!

I, like many, found the Michael Bay Transformers movies increasingly unbearable to watch. The first film started out as a so-so guilty pleasure.  The second dropped off completely and was boring and racist. The rest were history.

As fate would have it, another Transformers movie was produced less than a year after The Last Knight; a film that would act as a prequel to Bay’s entire franchise, titled Bumblebee. In actuality this film would go on to bear no resemblance to any of Michael Bay’s films, but it didn’t matter. The collective public groaned and rolled their eyes at the thought of another Transformers movie. They were already on a downward spiral in quality, with The Last Knight being an incoherent mess. How could Bumblebee be any better?

In a shocking twist of events, it can be better! Much better, actually.

Bumblebee takes the basic premise of the first Transformers movie, and shaves away all the fat that makes the plot bloated and boring. There’re bad robots (called Decepticons) chasing down the last of the good robots (called Autobots), who seek to regroup to retake their home planet Cybertron. One of the good robots (nicknamed Bumblebee) goes into hiding on Earth and eventually befriends an awkward, angsty kid named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Together they build a unique friendship and cause mischief. It thankfully doesn’t get much more complicated than that.

From the minute the film starts, it’s evident that Bumblebee is doing its best to emulate the 80’s Transformers cartoon it’s originally based on. We’re immediately visually assaulted by an interplanetary war of robots, all of whom are fighting, shooting, calling for backup, the works. There’s little introduction to who, what, when, where, and why; and yet I found it easy to identify who was good and who was bad, just like any good kids show from the 80’s.

In the same vein I feel that these characters are easily identifiable with young kids/teens. Hailee Steinfeld is a likable actress who plays the part well, and Bumblebee’s antics play off her more temperamental personality in an amusing way.

And Bumblebee doesn’t just look like the Transformers show, because its style and feel are also similar. You can’t go five minutes without being reminded: This is a totally 80’s movie. Chock full of references to Elvis Costello, the Grenada conflict, and Ronald Reagan, Bumblebee lays on the pop culture quite heavily. The soundtrack is laced with songs from groups ranging from Tears for Fears to The Smiths, mostly songs that really exemplified the era.

Bumblebee goes so overboard in its 1980’s allusions that one can assume it was purposeful. The thought process being, make it so dated and cheesy that it inherently becomes charming. And for the most part, this method works! I found myself laughing a lot at the ridiculous teen stereotypes and cultural fads of the time (Remember Alf!).

It’s a shame that Bumblebee is even associated with the other Transformers films, because it’s really its own thing entirely. I’ve heard Bumblebee compared to The Iron Giant, which is a slight overexaggeration, but I think that mindset is on the right path.

Bumblebee is big blockbuster family fun with lots of adventure, action, and just a pinch of cleverness. Bumblebee‘s the kind of film you wish came out mid-summer and not in the middle of winter.

Yes, they play it safe in more ways than one (not to mention the numerous gaffs and other issues), but I found this excusable when looking at the broader scope of what this film is trying to accomplish. That is, making an entertaining Transformers movie that’s a little more thoughtful and faithful to the original show than previous attempts. That makes Bumblebee alright in my book.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Welcome to Marwen Review: The Most Disappointing Movie of 2018

There was no film in 2018 I anticipated more than Welcome to Marwen. Based on a true story, Welcome to Marwen tells the story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist who suffers from PTSD after being assaulted by a group of Neo-Nazis. Having lost his memory and ability to draw from the attack, he now lives out his life through a fictional village he created in his backyard called Marwen. Marwen, a mock WWII-era Belgian village, serves as a place for Mark to project his life experiences. This includes the many women of Marwen, who protect Mark’s fictional version of himself Captain Hogie from the occupying Nazis.

As Mark must soon face the reality of his torment, he uses Marwen and his characters to help cope, for better or worse.

To my utter amazement, Welcome to Marwen turned out to be one of the least compelling, boring, and melodramatic films I’ve seen in a while. How could a film with such a unique and heartfelt premise be such a box office bomb? Well, I’ll tell you.

For starters, Welcome to Marwen attempts to overexplain and describe the story instead of showing it. Exposition is lazily shoved in the audience’s face in the form of monologues, obvious dialogue, and even old photographs in Mark’s/Steve Carell’s scrapbooks. Several characters practically look at the screen and address the audience as they nonchalantly deliver exposition. Because of this we don’t get to fully experience a lot of pivotal events in the life of Mark which makes it harder to relate to him. The whole film is building up to a courtroom confrontation between Mark and his bigoted assailants, and what was meant to be a satisfying conclusion was rushed and left me feeling discontent.

All this overexplaining leads a lot of the symbolism in the movie, which is sprinkled throughout the entire picture, to feel on the nose and rather pointless to the viewer. Overlying themes of courage, addiction, and accepting those who are different beat you over the head so hard you’ll have to check for bruises when you leave the theater.

Welcome to Marwen’s plot was sappy and often confused in what emotions they wanted the audience to feel. Dramatically sad moments are undercut by awkwardly humorous ones. Scenes meant to evoke panic or fear have hammy acting and include inappropriate music swelling. The best example of this is when Kurt (the ex-boyfriend of Mark’s neighbor Nicol) mistakes him as a Nazi sympathizer and proceeds to harass him. The scene was intended to be suspenseful, but everything from the hokey acting to the soundtrack made it unintentionally funny.

And at the center of this mess is a story worth telling, and an actor/ director combo that should’ve been a match made in heaven. Carell has done some great dramatic work (The Big Short and Foxcatcher) and Zemeckis has made many iconic American movies (like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump).

Sadly, Welcome to Marwen is a testament to what happens when filmmakers get lazy and indulge in excesses. Having your drama movie be too whimsical and sentimental makes it sappy and far-fetched. Too much exposition leads the audience to not care about the characters. And too much forced symbolism mixed with melodramatic acting makes a mockery of the inspiring story the film is based on.

If you want a condensed, captivating version of Welcome to Marwen that gets the point across without being too overdramatic, just go watch the trailer. This was without a doubt the most disappointing film of 2018.

The Verdict: D-

-Zachary Flint

Mary Poppins Returns Review

After a 54-year gap between the release of both films, Mary Poppins Returns now ranks among the longest gaps between movie sequels (right next to Disney’s own Bambi and Fantasia).

Mary Poppins Returns picks up many years later, as Michael and Jane Banks have grown up, and their parents have long since passed. Michael now owns his parent’s old house; and after the recent death of his wife Michael is in trouble of losing the home to foreclosure. With all his energy put towards figuring out his financial situation, Michael reluctantly enlists in the help of the magical English nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to watch over his three kids. Mary Poppins and the new Banks children then proceed on a magical, exciting adventure that’s fun for the whole family.

Mary Poppins Returns was full of all the childlike wonder and imagination that I desired in Christopher Robin but didn’t get. In the same vein as the original Mary Poppins, this is a great feel good flick that you can watch at any age and still enjoy it all the same.

Even the most skeptical viewer could notice the originality within the story. This so easily could’ve been a simple copy and paste job for Disney to make a quick buck (like so many of their recent remakes). Yet, Mary Poppins Returns was written from the ground up, doing its best to be a faithful sequel while sprinkling its own imaginative ideas throughout.

Several scenes sported bright, vibrant animation that practically leapt off the screen, and it contrasted well with the gray London backdrop of the film.

The song and dance numbers are catchy stand out from each other and are full of that magical Disney whimsy we all love. My personal favorite was Trip a Little Light Fantastic, the song performed by all the lamplighters in the dark streets of London. The beautiful choreography and set design during this number really helped solidify my enjoyment of this film.

I’m sure it was no easy task for Emily Blunt to fill the shoes of Mary Poppins, as Julie Andrews portrayal is considered among Disney’s best characters. Therefore, with great admiration I report that Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins was remarkable. The spirit and charm of the character were captured well, and the so-so characterization was made up for by the acting talent of Blunt.

If I had to identify a weak spot of the movie, it would be William Wilkins, the president of the bank played by Colin Firth. His character is unreasonably rude and without sufficient motivation for being the “bad guy”. Colin Firth does a nice job putting some personality into his role, but ultimately even he couldn’t save this character from the evil corporate banker stereotype.

I also felt, strangely enough, that Mary Poppins services weren’t exactly needed in this story. The Banks children were already well-behaved and their father payed as much attention to them as he possibly could. And Mary Poppins herself tends to be a bigger troublemaker and overall inconvenience than any of the children. It’s a minor nitpick, but this did come to mind every now and then.

Sure, some of the magic is inherently lost in translation, and this simply won’t be as timeless as its predecessor. But I doubt anyone was expecting this to be of the same creative and colorful magnitude as the first Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins Returns was a truly heartwarming experience, and it makes me sad knowing we won’t be getting any clever Disney sequels like this in the foreseeable future. Up next are the remakes of The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo, and none look to be as cheerful, thoughtful, and impassioned as Mary Poppins.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint