Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Rarely do films have the capacity to tackle social issues with such intelligence and insight as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Set in a small, quaint country town, a local woman (Frances McDormand) rents out three decaying billboards along a deserted road. With these billboards, she creates a controversial message directed at the revered police chief of Ebbing, Missouri, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). What follows is a moving drama about both hate and forgiveness, all while balancing a dark sense of humor.

Led by the incredible talents of Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell, the acting felt as human as a film could get. With a script as powerful, down-to-earth, and moving as the performers, Three Billboards manages to impress on both a practical and emotional level.

Three Billboards hits all the right beats at precisely the right moments, with plenty of dramatic and heart wrenching moments to keep the audience engrossed in the story. Any lesser film would’ve created a black and white scenario for itself, with the police portrayed solely as incompetent racists and our female protagonist as a virtuous everyman.

And while at first glance that seems to be the case, Three Billboards instead prefers to operate in various shades of grey. Each and every character has their ups and downs, moments when they act irrationally and selfish, racist and sexist, but also sensible and just, compassionate and forgiving. As the story evolves, we the viewer are given insight into each character, and come to understand them all a little more deeply.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of my favorite kind of films to see.  It leaves the viewer to contemplate the morals and meanings, as well as fill in the blanks, but not in a way that makes you feel gypped or cheated. I believe there’s a lot to be learned from films like Three Billboards. And given the opportunity, I’d watch it again in a heartbeat.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

The Story of 90 Coins Review (Short Film)

“Don’t let a promise become just a beautiful memory”, a poignant message from the Chinese short film The Story of 90 Coins. The directorial debut of Malaysian filmmaker Michael Wong, The Story of 90 Coins is quick with its pacing, and poetic with its words.

The film stars Han Dongjun and Zhuang Zhiqi as two young lovers in the modern world. The man makes a promise of never-ending love to the woman, love that he expresses over a period of ninety days. While all goes well in the beginning (with honest intentions of marriage in the future), reality sets in for our female lead, who chooses to follow her career aspirations over her partner.

Being just below ten minutes long, the audience isn’t given much time to grow attached to these characters. The film knows this, and does incredibly well at giving us the necessary details and personality traits of the characters so that we can feel invested in their relationship.

One slight issue the film comes across is that, while the characters are likable and work well together onscreen, the film’s pacing is somewhat off. Certain scenes or moments that should’ve gotten more attention are grazed over, while some scenes of lesser importance got more focus onscreen. Again, being restricted to only ten minutes in runtime, this is only a minute detail that is easily forgivable.

I have a particular admiration for films that give viewers an unconventional ending, especially when you’re expecting something far different than what you get. The Story of 90 Coins is one of those films. Instead of leaving the audience off on a romanticized and sentimental note, the film promptly shows us the realities of love, loss, and regret. And in the end, the audience is left with some wise words of caution, being not to break promises we may later regret. A simple, yet touching message.

The synthesized soundtrack that accompanies most of the film is definitely overemphasized, acting more as a hindrance than building any sort of drama. I feel that the film could’ve been even more emotional and effective, had it not been for the distracting music attempting to be dramatic.

The Story of 90 Coins is a short little drama that I found to have a high entertainment value. While the pacing and soundtrack aren’t utilized to their best potential, the true strengths of The Story of 90 Coins lie in the genuine acting and the powerfully woven message.

Check out The Story of 90 Coins here!

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Hidden Figures Review

Hidden Figures is the new drama film directed by Theodore Melfi, depicting the careers of female Black mathematicians working for NASA in the sixties. Hidden Figures focus on three of these women specifically, Mary Jackson (Janelle Manáe), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Globe (Taraji Henson). The story focuses mostly on Katherine, as she attempts to overcome the prejudice of her coworkers and help send John Glenn into orbit on the Friendship 7 space mission.

I went in to Hidden Figures expecting it to be beat for beat your typical Hollywood drama. To my pleasant surprise, it deviated (at least a little) from the formula. There were scenes in the film that went places I didn’t expect. For example, I had the prediction that every character that these women came across would treat them in the same discriminatory way. I was very far off, as many characters surprisingly treated Jackson, Vaughn, and Globe with respect. Not that the filmmakers had to portray the characters this way, but I felt it was a nice touch that went well with the tone. Small aspects of Hidden Figures like this that caught me off guard far outweighed the overly predictable moments.

The performances in Hidden Figures were all very compelling and entertaining, especially the three leading ladies of the film. They each deliver their lines in cheeky and witty ways, adding a lot of fun to some quite possibly underwritten characters. I could tell they were really having fun with these roles. Jim Parsons and Kevin Costner (two characters who also work for NASA) also do great jobs in their respective roles.

The theme of racial prejudice is a common and topical subject, and it seems every film has its own way of dealing with it. Hidden Figures deals with prejudice in a more calm and subdued manner than many of its counterparts. It delivers an anti-prejudice message in a more child friendly way, keeping with its feel-good drama tone. People who like strong racial messages in films will love Hidden Figures.

My one nitpick for the film would be the climax of the film. While it was entertaining, I didn’t feel like a lot was on the line. The most intense scene of the film didn’t even include any of our main cast. Also, while we did have satisfying endings for most of the protagonists, it felt like the conclusion for Mary Jackson wasn’t there. We saw her go back to school so that she could continue working with NASA, but didn’t get much satisfying resolve with this. These are of course only minor problems, as Hidden Figures is a great film with a lot of heart.

Hidden Figures was exactly the kind of feel-good drama I wanted to see. In even its heavier moments, Hidden Figures still maintained a relatively light tone to get its message across to people of all ages. The performances, themes, and easy going tone make for one enjoyable film experience.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

Straight Outta Compton Review

The film Straight Outta Compton documents the less than humble beginnings for the revolutionary rap group N.W.A. that hit the scene in the late eighties. We get some good background on the key members of N.W.A. and how their lives reflected the songs they wrote. We follow the band on their road to success, as well as their subsequent fall from fame.

The first half hour of the film really sets the tone well for how Compton was in 1986. The increasing tension between black youths and law enforcement is depicted in a unforgiving, confrontational way. I overall enjoyed the way the filmmakers tackled race issues and police brutality, even though they didn’t really say much on it.

I’ve read that a lot of the events depicted in Straight Outta Compton actually happened, which is pretty amazing. Some of the stuff that happens to the group is messed up and kind of astonishing. Events revolving around contract disputes, gang violence, and police violence. Now, this is all written from the perspective of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, so you have to take some of the portrayals with a grain of salt. I am sure there are some individuals misportrayed or omitted by choice, which is probably the biggest downfall to this film.

For example, the depiction of N.W.A.’s manager Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti) is obviously very stereotypically portrayed. He’s seen as this over exaggerated bad guy strictly because Ice Cube and Dr. Dre felt they were ripped off by him. At times this gets a little overbearing and irritating, as the film goes out of its way to show us that Jerry Heller is a complete piece of trash.

The soundtrack to Straight Outta Compton is fantastic, mostly because it’s composed of songs from N.W.A.’s own Straight Outta Compton album. The songs are classic eighties gangsta rap tunes with awesome beats and contentious lyrics. If you’re a fan of rap music then you will probably enjoy the soundtrack to this film quite a lot.

Straight Outta Compton is an entertaining biopic about a very influential and controversial rap group. It deals with some pretty relevant issues while entertaining the audience with a good story and great music. So if you like rap music or the group N.W.A., I’d give Straight Outta Compton a watch. If rap isn’t your cup of tea (or if you get annoyed by anti-law enforcement imagery) then you might want to give this film a pass.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

La La Land Review

One film that has alluded me for a few weeks now is the new critically acclaimed musical La La Land. I had heard many great things about it, so it was only natural that I check the film out and see how good it was. The result being a very enjoyable experience.

La La Land tells a love story between Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) as they follow their dreams in the city of Los Angeles. Mia is an aspiring actress who continually exhausts her resources auditioning for every role in films she can. Sebastian is an aspiring jazz musician who wants to one day own a jazz club. Through a series of events I can only describe as fate, Mia and Sebastian form a relationship while they attempt to juggle following their dreams.

Overall I think that La La Land is a great movie, fantastic even. Musicals usually aren’t my thing, but this one was especially compelling. The singing and dancing in La La Land was a lot of fun to watch and I was very engaged in the story and characters.

The biggest aspect of any musical is of course the music, and in this aspect La La Land really delivers. The staple song ‘City of Stars’ has been stuck in my head since I left the theater, but in a good way. Just about all the songs in La La Land had their unique lyrics, locations, and tone.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were both great and had some amazing on screen chemistry. At times it was hard for me to look at them as two characters in a movie and not as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, but that’s just natural. This does not detract away from their great performances, as they are very successful at captivating the audience with their interesting personalities.

I could tell that La La Land was crafted very precisely and meticulously by the filmmakers. The choreography of the many, many dance scenes was very exact. Which is particularly impressive, because the choreography often seemed to be very rigorous and demanding.

The very first scene of the film involving a big traffic jam along an LA highway showcases this perfectly. Everyone involved in the jam gets out of their cars and starts singing and dancing in unison. The scene lasts for maybe five to ten minutes and is all one long tracking shot, meaning the actors had to get it all exactly right in a single go. I was pretty astonished at how they managed to shoot this grand scene so well.

For those who like good camera work and lighting, look no further. La La Land uses a variety of camera angles and lighting styles to keep from being monotonous. Both of these aspects really stuck out to me as being impressive, and I feel it will for others as well.

The end of La La Land is one that I definitely did not see coming. I won’t spoil anything, but I think the last fifteen minutes or so is what really elevates this to being a fantastic film. It accurately displays the true talent behind the writers and the director in just how well this scene is crafted. The emotion and passion we see from our two protagonists in this scene actually got an audible reaction from many audience members at my viewing. We are given insight into all the deep thoughts and feelings the characters have within a span of a few minutes.

La La Land is everything a fan of musicals could want, and more. The performances by Stone and Gosling are fantastic, the songs catchy and enjoyable, and the story is one we can all relate to. I can see myself going back to La La Land years later and still enjoying it all the same. I think the story here is timeless and nostalgic, one that will last for many years to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Ex Machina Review

Since its release, I’ve been told by countless people to go watch Ex Machina. That it’s this groundbreaking film about A.I. that has a lot of surprising twists and turns. Naturally, I was excited to see it. And after watching Ex Machina, I liked it! Just, not as much as everyone else seems to.

Ex Machina stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb Smith, a programmer who wins a one week trip to the home of  Nathan Bateman. Bateman owns a large software company called Blue Book, and has secretly developed a human-like artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb has been brought to the luxurious and isolated mansion to test Ava and determine whether she is actually capable of having a conscience.

Throughout the film there is this unsettling relationship that forms between Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. I could at no point guess what they were thinking or where their conversations would take them. Constantly I felt a lot of tension on screen between the two of them, that at one point either of them could completely snap. This was probably one of the strongest points of Ex Machina, as the film was able to keep me guessing what the characters would do next.

Another factor I really liked about Ex Machina is the eerie performance by Alicia Vikander as the humanoid artificial intelligence, Ava. She has this level of deception about her that kept me very interested in her motives. She really isn’t the character you think she is and she acts pretty unpredictably.

I guess that would have to be the truly great thing about Ex Machina. That I never knew where the film was going. The unsettling tone of the film always had me on my toes, wondering what would happen next. And what actually unfolded on screen was always different than what I assumed.

Now, I don’t think I was as blown away or mesmerized by Ex Machina as many others were. I’ve heard some people call it the best film of 2015, which definitely is not the case. I enjoyed it and thought it was a good film with some interesting points and great acting. However I don’t feel like Ex Machina was saying anything revolutionary or groundbreaking, as some people would have you think. There are plenty of films about artificial intelligence that have much more to say than this. I think saying Ex Machina is the best film of the year is being a bit pretentious.

Another slight problem I had with Ex Machina would be the ending. I felt it took a very  unnecessary turn towards slasher flick territory that didn’t really fit the rest of the film. I guess you could argue the film had been building up to it from the beginning, but this scene really detracts from the point Ex Machina was making.

Ex Machina is a quality film worth giving a watch. The performances by Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander are all spellbinding, and never knowing where the film would take me was a lot of fun. So while I didn’t think the film was saying anything revolutionary, there is definitely enough content there for viewers to be satisfied with.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

A Monster Calls Review

A Monster Calls was probably my most anticipated movie coming into the 2017 year. It looked like a fantastic concept, full of cool effects and a great list of actors and actresses. In particular Sigourney Weaver, who gives a good performance in even the worst of her roles.

After seeing A Monster Calls, I was completely blown away. The story, the acting, the visuals, eveything, was all very compelling.

A Monster Calls centers around a young, creative boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a terminal illness. When his mother’s illness becomes significantly worse, he is sent to live with his stern and uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Conor struggles to cope with all of this, so his imagination conjures up a giant monster (Liam Neeson) to help him carry on. The monster tells Conor very old stories that can apply to his own life in the present.

I’m usually not a fan of child actors, I often find them annoying and frankly just bad at acting. However I felt that Lewis MacDougall was an amazing exception to my usual feelings. A Monster Calls relied entirely on our ability to emotionally connect with Conor and feel for his pain and suffering. I personally was able to enjoy Conor’s character and understand his plight. I feel many others will be able to emotionally invest in Conor’s well-being as well.

Whenever the monster tells his stories to Conor the film cuts to these beautiful computer animations. The animation is made to seem like it was water colored on paper, but also has this three dimensional aspect to it. It reminds me of the animated scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which were very similar. The animation is very pleasing to watch and fits the dark and somber tone of A Monster Calls very nicely.

At the close of A Monster Calls, I took a quick glance around the theater at the couple dozen or so people seated. Not a single person was dry eyed. From young teenagers to fully grown men, everyone was crying at how heart breaking (and at the same time uplifting) it was.  When the credits scrolled, not a single person spoke. Everyone exited the theater completely silent, lost in deep thought about the film we just experienced. That is the mark of a truly thought provoking film.

And at its core, that’s what A Monster Calls really is, an experience. It teaches us many valuable lessons that can be carried along later on in life. How we can cope with even the most difficult problems we face, but that we must be brave enough to face them. That not everything in life is black and white, good vs. evil, and so forth. These are all important lessons to be taught and A Monster Calls teaches them well.

I would recommend this to anyone who is up for a very heavy handed film. It is compelling, poignant, and full of all kinds of emotions. It tackles very difficult subject matter in a mature and confrontational way. A Monster Calls is a fantastically emotional film that serves as a great kickoff to the 2017 year.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint