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 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

First Man Review

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

A quote from one of the United States’ most iconic figures in history, and depicted in the latest Hollywood biopic First Man.

The film documents the major life events of American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling); all leading up to his Apollo 11 mission that made him the first person in history to step foot on the moon. We see his trials and tribulations, and how the loss of his infant daughter (and several close friends) impacted his psyche, as well as his drive to complete his mission to the moon. Also depicted is the strain on Neil’s family life, and how his wife Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) coped with his emotional reclusion from her and the kids. An added level of storytelling that was almost as fascinating as the main plot.

The space flight sequences here are shot with this cinematic, visceral intensity that I imagine was quite difficult to capture. I felt myself getting physically anxious for Aldrin and Armstrong, and the excitement was a roller coaster ride. Without knowing a single thing about space flight, I was left feeling hopeless when random knobs were frantically being pulled as Armstrong and friends soared through space in their claustrophobic shuttle. Effective, nerve-racking filmmaking at its finest.

I highly enjoyed Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong, as he gives him this distant, almost reclusive personality you wouldn’t expect here. And even though Armstrong felt emotionally distant, deep down the audience could empathize with him and his personal struggles. Through Gosling’s performance it’s clear he never came to terms with the traumatic grief of his daughter’s death. This theme of grief is present throughout the entirety of the flick and is perfectly (and most likely fictionally) all resolved in the dramatic, heartwarming climax.

Towards the end of First Man I really started to feel the runtime weighing down the film. It seems to be that way for a lot of dramas (and biopics), where they become less impactful as they progress simply because they’ve been drawn out for way too long. In reality, this just isn’t the kind of movie that necessitates a two plus hour runtime to share its message, no matter how wonderful or touching that message may be. A solid fifteen minutes could’ve been shaved off First Man to condense it into an even stronger, more emotional film.

First Man is a kindly Hollywood tribute to a cherished American hero. Whether the real Neil Armstrong wanted or felt he deserved all the showing praise, it doesn’t matter. He gets it here.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

The Post Review

What I assume will be my last belated review from 2017, The Post was one of the more politically motivated (and dividing) films of the year.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post focuses on American newspaper publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who recently inherited ownership of the Washington Post. Graham works feverishly with editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in an attempt to play catch-up with The New York Times, who just exposed a massive government secret spanning decades.  This secret, known today as the Pentagon Papers, detailed the United States’ military interests in Vietnam, even years before military action took place. This included major lies from four U.S. presidents, government deception of the public, and even the acknowledgement that we might not win the war if the U.S. decided to fight.

So, when the Nixon administration tried to silence the news media by making the papers illegal to publish, The Washington Post throws it all on the line for their right to bring this information to the public eye.

When it comes to The Posts storytelling capabilities, they happened to be both powerful and conventional. Spielberg has this natural style of filmmaking that’s always so engaging, with the ability to suck viewers into the most mundane of scenes. That ability translates over nicely in The Post, which stays interesting, topical, and compelled. Scenes are shot with some variety, and the actors were motivated to give their all.

That being said, The Post doesn’t really throw anything new into the mix. We’ve seen biographical dramas on journalism before, and The Post didn’t really stand out as being revolutionary (as many critics would have you believe). How The Post stands the test of time has of course yet to be seen. It’s messages and themes about the government attempting to censor and control the media are undeniably topical, for the moment. But its methods are so similar to films like Spotlight that I’m skeptical how well it will age. A lot of The Post’s critical praise has come from its relevancy to the current U.S. administration, but without that context I’m afraid that it won’t stand as strong.

At the very least, The Post is a well-directed and intriguing drama, with passionate performances from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Beyond this, I’m not sure if The Post is  award-winning material.

The Verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint

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