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

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

Overlord Review

Don’t you find it frustrating when people compare the quality of one film to that of another? Especially when one is sub-par and the other is regarded as a classic. That’s how I felt going in to Overlord, a film I’ve seen likened to that of 1982’s The Thing as well as Saving Private Ryan, the most brutally realistic depiction of warfare put to screen.

Overlord tells a tale of WWII paratroopers set to airdrop over France the night before the Invasion of Normandy, D-Day. The Allied soldiers have one mission and one mission only: destroy a German radio tower so that the European invasion can be effectively carried out. After their aircraft is shot down before they could reach their target, they are left with only a handful of men to carry on the job. Chief among this squad of soldiers are Cpl. Ford (the battle-hardened leader of the bunch played by Wyatt Russell), Pvt. Boyce (our main protagonist played by Jovan Adepo), and Tibbet (the wisecracking New Yorker stereotype played by John Margaro).

And upon discovering the radio tower, wouldn’t you know it, they uncover an evil Nazi plot involving serums, secret labs, and even zombies. In the words of Indiana Jones, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” Now crunched for time, our heroes must foil a plot with the potential to secure the Third Reich a one thousand year reign.

The truth is, Overlord really isn’t like either of those films I previously mentioned, mainly because it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a full on B movie or a more serious war drama. So, instead it rides the line between earnest and corny, never giving us enough of either to be worth our time. Not that war dramas cannot ever be both silly and serious, as we’ve seen with such films as Inglorious Bastards. But where Bastards intentionally blended the two with clever fiction writing, Overlord is neither artistic enough nor dumb enough to make the silliness work to its benefit.

There are hints of “brothers in arms” kind of emotional filmmaking, but the exaggerated characters were a little too out there for me to take it seriously. The motives and characterization of Cpl. Ford is always fluctuating with no consistency, and Tibbet is too stereotypical to the point where he’s irritating.

There’s also hints of science fiction elements to it that jumble up Wolfenstein and even some straight to SyFy Channel schlock. This stuff is fun whenever it comes up, but engaging moments like these mostly don’t come until towards the tail end of the film.

Around the middle chunk of the Overlord was when things were the slowest, and I didn’t feel like the film was utilizing its time well. Our heroes were too frequently placed in boring situations when they could’ve been off doing something vastly more interesting. What would you rather watch, WWII soldiers fighting zombies, or soldiers hiding in an attic for forty minutes?

The real tragedy of it all is that while the writing and story of Overlord are confused and lacking, there was a lot of potential hidden just beneath the surface. I highly enjoyed how cinematic the directing was, and some of the beautiful shot compositions really display the true horrors of warfare. One scene had the outlines of paratroopers dangling from trees silhouetted against the smoky, burning forest in the background. This moment was both stunning and horrifying, and it stuck with me long after I saw it.

The action and special effects, when we finally witness their full potential in the final act, are quite good and easily the most memorable part of Overlord. This is when the movie becomes fully unhinged, giving audiences this unnerving experience through effective body horror and top notch CGI. There’s zombies, nice set pieces, frightening imagery that made my skin crawl, and just about everything else I had been hoping to see all throughout the picture.

Overlord is clearly a bit of a mixed bag. Like several previous Bad Robot productions, it has very high highs and painfully low lows. Its premise is fascinating and sounds like a naturally exciting story, but the writing sabotaged the film every step of the way.

The Verdict: C

-Zachary Flint

The Old Man & the Gun Review

Some men rob banks just for the heck of it. Because the thrill of the chase is just too pleasing and satisfying to pass on. At least, that was the mindset of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford), a bank robber and escape artist known for escaping prison more than a dozen times. Tucker was recognized as the guy who commits armed robbery in the kindest and most respectful of ways, all while having a smile on his face.

Depicted here are the later years of Tucker’s life, after he meets a rancher named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who quickly becomes his love interest. While balancing between his love and criminal lives, he discovers a detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is hot on his trail. And Tucker isn’t far from being caught again.

It’s a quaint little movie, and it peacefully tells its story without the flashiness of other bank heist features. There aren’t any shootouts or elaborate theft plots, just a quiet and well-meaning story told in a compelling and ambient way. In fact, we cleverly never even see Tucker draw a gun on someone, an interesting display of the strong screenwriting.

Robert Redford as Tucker is a genuine actor at the top of his game, and dare I say he overshadows the great performances of Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck. Every word that leaves his mouth is charming, and it’s hard to believe this sincere old man is a lawbreaker and prison escapee. Yet, even with this knowledge we attach ourselves to and sympathize with Tucker.

At the center of The Old Man & the Gun is a vaguely uplifting tale about aging, and where people derive satisfaction from life. Forrest Tucker continues to steal money to feel alive, perhaps not fully happy living under the normal circumstances of an aging man. John Hunt, the detective tasked with bringing Tucker down, is in the middle of a midlife crisis. A crisis only cured by his desire to discover and capture the elusive criminal. Not a lot is shared in terms of the philosophy of life, but I think the average viewer can take plenty meaning from it.

The Old Man & the Gun is most easily described as a boring movie that keeps you entertained. It sounds paradoxical, but just like the slow-moving individuals the film depicts, The Old Man & the Gun is doing everything other powerful dramas of our time do. Just, at a lot slower pace.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Review

I am completely exhausted of the zombie craze, and it’s not an overstatement to suggest that others are too. For years the zombie has become increasingly embedded in our culture, with an influx of television shows, movies, and video games all about them. Many use the same plot formula and clichés, while others try to add their own blend of creativity to this oddly wide-open genre.

In the wake of the zombie craze, I feel it’s important to go back and understand where this obsession with the undead first started, or at least when it became popular.

Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first film to use a zombie. In fact, I remember several zombie-ish films like White Zombie and The Last Man on Earth. Despite that, Night of the Living Dead did give us the modern interpretation of a zombie. They’re actually not even called zombies in the film, rather they are referred to as “ghouls”.

Released in 1968 and directed by George Romero, Night of the Living Dead is known for its explicit gore and grainy realism. It stars Judith O’Dea and Duane Jones as survivors immediately thrusted into a random apocalyptic event. The undead have risen, and our everyday heroes are trapped inside a small farmhouse surrounded by cannibalistic evil. Who will live and who will die?

Our characters aren’t completely void of intelligence. They argue and squabble over the situation they’re in, and what the best course of action will be for the group. Should they stay and barricade the house, or take their chances outside on the road? At one point the argument goes so far it results in a woman being punched directly in the face (not unprovoked, of course). The characters all think for themselves, and therefore feel like real people trapped in a real situation.

Some sequences are leisurely paced by today’s standards, yet there’s a certain level of charm to this I admire. You must remember that Night of the Living Dead established many of the zombie tropes and clichés that we take for granted. How a zombie behaves, how to kill one, and even how to protect yourself; all common zombie movie scenarios that Night of the Living Dead pioneered. In other undead films these aspects are all assumed and therefore glossed over, whereas here everything comes as a slow realization that must be explained through exposition and televised emergency broadcasts. All of which adds to the terrors of the unknown.

The most uncomfortable, disturbing scene is when the ghouls pull the mangled guts and remains of a couple from a truck. The ghouls then precede to hunch over and gruesomely devour what’s left of them. Apparently, Romero obtained large quantities of real meat from the local butcher for the specific scene, and its authenticity pays off. This moment (as well as many other tense scenes) is accompanied by vile, minimalist sound effects that really drive home the horrors.

Each of Romero’s zombie flicks have an overarching theme that to some extent lingers over the film. Like American consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or the birth of internet culture in Diary of the Dead, relevant social satire persisted (and to varying effects).

In Night of the Living Dead, it’s all about race. To a modern viewer it would not immediately appear so, at least not until the surprise ending that’s as tragic as it is shocking. To those who saw Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, the racial message was much clearer and more obvious. Casting Duane Jones as a Black man in the leading role was revolutionary and bold for the time, and his unjust demise is rightfully upsetting. My own realization of the film’s true intents wasn’t until the credits, where we see Duane dragged out of the house by hooks, and his limp body thrown onto a bonfire.

Some people retrospectively call Night of the Living Dead boring, but I believe it maintains its spot as one of best, and most important horror films to date. I honestly find myself much more scared of it now than when I was younger, and I think that’s attributed to my appreciation of the genre. Night of the Living Dead utilizes its unique plot and style, mixes it with creepy sights and sounds, and gives the audience one truly frightening experience. It’s a film I continue to go back to time and time again and gain a little more respect for it with each viewing.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Halloween (2018) Review

Forty years ago, on Halloween night, Michael Myers (Nick Castle) stalked and killed the residents of Haddonfield, Illinois. Now he’s back with a vengeance to kill Laurie Strode (the scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis) and family in an all new franchise reboot by Blumhouse Productions.

John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick remains an iconic cultural piece of history and is often regarded as among the best horror films of all time. I make it a tradition to watch the original twice every Halloween, and I consider it one of my favorites.

There have been countless sequels, remakes, rewrites, and reboots. Yet, this is the first time there’s been so much hype revolving around a Halloween movie. Despite the hype and raving reviews, I’m not quite sure the magic transferred over here.

Too much of Halloween mimics past films within the franchise. Kills, plot points, and major scenes are completely ripped from the original Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween H20, and even the Rob Zombie remake. Having so much potential to succeed and a wide-open platform to speak on, Halloween made little effort to differentiate itself from any sequel in the series. If you were to blend up some of the best and worst aspects of all these movies and put it into one modern film, it would be Halloween 2018.

Some of the dialogue and sound effects were awkward and frankly dead on arrival. All the humor was misplaced and didn’t make sense in the context of what was happening on-screen. The jokes got occasional laughs from the audience, but I don’t believe anyone will be highlighting the quality of the humor as a selling point.

No, we’re more concerned with the gore, a staple of the slasher genre. And as sad as it is to say, it wasn’t as graphic as one would hope. Now the original film could hardly be called graphic by today’s standards, but at least most of the kills were on-screen. I swear only half the kills in this movie even take place on-screen, with many characters shown to already be dead. Some are murdered slightly off-screen, as if to tease us. Strangely, this directly contrasts with several incredibly gruesome death scenes, including a gory head smash that we see every bit of. It was as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide if Halloween should be PG-13 or R, so they just met in the middle.

There’s a nice long tracking shot of Michael Myers as he goes from house to house slaying victims, getting adjusted to murder once more. It’s very cinematic, and the visuals within the sequence are filled with a nostalgic, spooky atmosphere. Festive decorations, pumpkins, and costumes line the streets that Myers haunts, and I loved every bit of it.

The main event, if you will, of Halloween is the showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. In a sense it becomes a classic game of cat and mouse, with the odds not always in Myers’ favor. This was hands down the best part of the film, the moment everyone was waiting for. And did it deliver? Yes, yes it did. We’re given a satisfying, tense, and kick butt conclusion to one big shoulder shrug of a movie.

If you wanted a Halloween movie that looks, feels, and plays out exactly like previous installations, then this is the film for you. Just like many Blumhouse films, the Halloween remake plays it safe in the most frustrating and painstaking ways. The unoriginality negatively impacted many key death scenes, as I could accurately predict almost every twist and turn just off prior movie knowledge. Even disregarding the rest of the series, this new Halloween was just lacking in the spooky department. It’s Halloween, I’m entitled to one good scare, and this just didn’t fully do it for me.

The Verdict: C

-Zachary Flint