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Thursday June 1st

Get ready for the Oscars with film reviews from Film Fest 919

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book"

Courtesy of Film Fest 919
Buy Photos Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book" Courtesy of Film Fest 919

This weekend marked the inaugural year of Film Fest 919, which is also the Triangle area’s first major film festival. Over the course of five days, the festival screened 36 films, hosted a series of seminars and even had a few celebrity appearances. 

Senior writer Zach Goins took to the red carpet and reviewed a few of the potential Oscar-worthy films coming to theaters. 


Film still of "Roma" Courtesy of Film Fest 919

“Roma” is widely referred to as Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal project yet, and it’s not hard to see why — he’s put everything he has into this film.

Loosely inspired by Cuarón’s childhood, “Roma” shows a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City during the 1970s. Cleo, the family’s nanny (Yalitza Aparicio), must help the mother, Sofía (Marina de Tavira), through her struggles, while dealing with her own. 

As Cleo and her employer’s personal lives begin to unravel, audiences are completely drawn into the family and their stories, feeling like the children are their own and the house is a place they’ve visited many times. 

In her first-ever acting role, school teacher Aparicio is phenomenal, delivering a number of powerful scenes throughout. Aparicio is already garnering Oscar buzz for her debut role. 

Cuarón took an unconventional approach to “Roma,” shooting it chronologically and without a written script. Cuarón told each actor their lines shortly before every scene, but kept the others’ lines a secret, ensuring real and honest reactions in all of the dialogue. 

Set in beautiful black and white, “Roma” is truly an audio-visual experience meant for the big screen. On top of the stunning slow pans and scenery, the film’s sound is strikingly loud and impactful, particularly in a closing scene set in the ocean. 

Powered by Cuarón’s extremely personal story and Aparicio’s standout performance, “Roma” is a beautiful story of heart and belonging. After shining in such a heralded debut, it’s clear this is only the beginning for Aparicio.

“What They Had”

Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank in " What They Had" Courtesy of Film Fest 919

Simply put, “What They Had” is the definition of a stellar ensemble film. Led by a deeply moving performance from Hilary Swank coupled with writer/director Elizabeth Chomko’s cutting script, “What They Had” makes for an incredibly emotional trip to the theater. 

Swank and co-stars Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner and Taissa Farmiga make up a cast without a single weak link. Even Farmiga, the youngest of the bunch, is able to stand her ground and go toe-to-toe with the best of them. 

After Ruth (Danner), who has dementia, runs off in the middle of the night, her daughter Bridget (Swank), returns home to Chicago to discuss the difficult decisions that must be made when it comes to her mother. 

While Bridget and her brother, Nick (Shannon), insist on placing their mother in an assisted living community, Burt (Forster), Ruth’s husband, is reluctant to give up their life together. Along the way, arguments ensue and tempers flare while the family tries to make the most of their time with Ruth’s fading memory.

An extremely personal film, “What They Had” will have viewers misty-eyed and sniffling because they can’t help but think about their own loved ones. Chomko’s raw and emotional dialogue makes it easy for audiences to imagine themselves making these tough end of life decisions.

“What They Had” is a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, elevated by exceptional performances from every cast member and the raw power of Chomko’s startlingly real script.

“Boy Erased”

Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges in "Boy Erased" Courtesy of Film Fest 919

Anyone who has followed film in the last few years knows you can’t talk awards season without mentioning Lucas Hedges – and that holds true again this year. With a filmography like his, including “Manchester by the Sea,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Lady Bird,” it’s safe to say “Boy Erased” has the potential to follow suit.

Based on a heartbreaking true story, “Boy Erased” follows Jared Eamons (Hedges), the son of a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe), as he’s forced to attend a disturbing gay conversion-therapy camp after coming out to his parents. 

Outside of a fantastic outing from Hedges, Nicole Kidman delivers a powerful performance as Jared’s mother who finally sees the light and realizes with tremendous guilt what she’s forced her son to endure. 

Unlike “What They Had,” which expertly balances a cast of all-stars, “Boy Erased” couldn’t quite manage its star power and underutilized Crowe. When he’s on screen, he’s excellent, but unfortunately that isn’t often. 

Joel Edgerton had his hands full as the film’s writer, director and star, but his strongest contribution comes as an actor portraying Victor Sykes, the horrific leader of the conversion camp. 

As a director, some of Edgerton’s choices were questionable, particularly his decision to fracture the timeline of events. In a drama like this, it seems logical to follow a chronological path. Instead, Edgerton’s decision to go nonlinear keeps the film from picking up momentum and building tension along the way.

Despite its flaws, “Boy Erased” still manages to deliver a powerful look at the horrors of conversion-therapy through superb performances by Hedges and Kidman.

“The Old Man & the Gun”

Robert Redford in " The Old Man and the Gun" Courtesy of Film Fest 919

Much like its star Robert Redford, “The Old Man & the Gun” is charming and fun. It’s a perfectly enjoyable film — nothing more, nothing less.

Based on a true story, Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a charismatic 70-something bank robber who’s escaped prison 18 times just because it makes him feel alive. This time around, Tucker falls in love with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widowed ranch owner, while on the run from Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). 

Redford and Spacek have convincing chemistry as he attempts to woo her, despite his criminal activity. Spacek adds an intriguing, hesitant contrast to Redford’s confident and eager character, which creates a nice dynamic between the two.

Unlike Redford and his critical casting, Affleck delivers a forgettable performance as the burnt out cop chasing down the crook. It’s clear being a seasoned, worn out officer is in Affleck’s character description, but beyond that, he comes off as bored and dull. 

In a refreshing change of pace from a typical heist film, director David Lowery takes a laid-back and whimsical approach, which makes this an amusing low stakes film.

Much like Forrest Tucker robbing a bank, audiences will enjoy “The Old Man & the Gun” with a smile on their face. But without Redford and his moxie, it’s nothing more than a heist film – but because of legend at the helm it works perfectly as a lovely farewell. 

“Green Book”

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book" Courtesy of Film Fest 919

Reserved for the closing night of Film Fest 919, “Green Book” was one of the most anticipated and critically acclaimed films of the festival, second only to “Roma.” Winner of the Grosch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Peter Farrelly’s project was a bit underwhelming.

Based on a true story, a blue-collar Italian-American named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is hired to drive Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an award-winning black classical pianist, throughout the Deep South on a concert tour. 

Considering a majority of the film is Ali and Mortensen going back and forth, it works as an excellent platform for each of them to show off. Beyond the two brilliant actors, “Green Book” isn’t much more than a typical “unlikely duo” movie. 

While it touches on elements of racism and homophobia, it remains fairly tame, only brushing the surface when a deep dive could have elicited some extremely powerful moments between the two. 

From a technical standpoint, the film’s sound mixing is remarkable, seamlessly synchronizing Ali’s mock piano playing with the overlaid audio without ever seeming fake. 

Despite being fairly conventional, “Green Book” is still an enjoyable period piece chronicling the improbable development of friends coming from entirely different worlds, highlighted by two sensational performances. Ali is phenomenal as the out-of-place artist cast aside for not being black enough, yet still not accepted by whites because of his skin color. 

Come February, expect to see both Mortensen and Ali up for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. 


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