Friday, January 25, 2019

Roma (2018) ✭✭✭✭✭

Alfonso Cuarón’s directorial career has dealt with everything from updated Dickens (Great Expectations) to twisted coming of age (Y Tu Mamá También) to teen wizardry (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) to dystopian futures (Children of Men) to deadly accidents in outer space (Gravity). About the only similarities among this cinematic cornucopia are consistently high levels of execution and utter conviction in the storytelling. With Roma (2018) Cuarón ups his own ante with an astonishing personal memoir of growing up in Mexico City; a film that left me, like his young protagonists, huddled in shock and gasping for air.

Simply stated, Roma is an outstanding example of the art, craft and aesthetics of filmmaking. Here Cuarón, who acted as his own DP, constructs stunning monochrome images that seem to burst from the screen in 3-D, making black and white seem like an exciting new color. The story is based on Cuarón’s childhood recollections from 1970, and center on a young housekeeper named Cleo (first time actress Yalitza Aparicio), who in her own way is as sheltered and naive as the rambunctious upper class family she cares for. Over the course of the film, both Cleo and her charges will learn a lot about the unreliable, messy nature of male animals, both two and four legged. And some of these messes will leave a permanent, painful stain.

While the story is simple at heart, the film features a number of impressive long take set pieces, often with scores of extras, that are extremely complex. Cleo witnesses a student riot from a second floor furniture store; its deadly mayhem escalating and spilling over to death at her feet. A sprawling martial arts camp becomes a sort of Valhalla for irresponsible young men under the blinding desert sun. A well-heeled Christmas party descends into the gate of hell, as the revelers cause an adjoining forest to erupt in a massive wildfire. These bravura scenes evoke the byzantine visual poetry of Russian filmmakers Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevskiy, and each of their popular films - The Cranes are Flying (1957), Letter Never Sent (1960) and I Am Cuba (1964) - are homaged by Cuarón at some point in Roma.


But it’s the film’s quieter moments that lead to its most affecting revelations. The dad (Fernando Grediaga) expends more effort trying to park his fat Ford into a narrow garage than he ever does with his family. A distant, passing airliner reflected in a puddle of Cleo’s mop water. The children’s delight as a sudden hailstorm transforms their patio into a surreal playground. Cleo’s powerlessness as her fate becomes shockingly clear, and her wistful stare into a hospital nursery, lamenting a future that will never be.

Finally, as an emergency forces Cleo to confront her deepest fears, she finds she must become the strong, heroic protector she’s been seeking. While Kalatozov and Urusevskiy never made a feminist tome - the idea would never have occurred to them - Cuarón’s film seems like a great big thank you to the women of this world who fed us, clothed us, dealt with mens’ chaos and, ultimately, risked their own lives to keep us safe. To Cleo, the young and innocent have been preyed on enough, and not even the roaring riptides of nature can thwart her righteous justice.

Monday, January 7, 2019

1983 on Netflix

If you're like me, you only have vague recollections of 1980's Gdansk Shipyard strike, and even vaguer notions of what it accomplished. In fact, it was a highly effective act of political resistance, gaining Poles the ability to form labor unions, codifying basic human rights and, in its own way, ushering in the eventual crumbling of the Soviet Union.

The Netflix original series 1983✭✭✭✭ imagines a very different outcome for the era's political unrest. Using a horrific terrorist attack as a pretext, the Polish government rounds up hundreds of political dissidents, effectively crushing the nation's burgeoning democratic movement, all in the name of national security.

But all is not gulags and breadlines in Warsaw as a liberal immigration policy with Vietnam and a visionary finance minister (Andrzej Chyra) have transformed Poland into an economic powerhouse, and the world's leading manufacturer of computers and cellphones. The Polish people now have a peaceful, orderly society and material comfort. They seem to have everything except the truth about their own past.

Now, twenty years later, as grizzled veteran police detective Anatol Janów ( Robert Wieckiewicz) investigates a recent rash of murders and criminal activity, he has the gnawing suspicion that there's more going on than meets the eye. With the help of a well-connected law student (Maciej Musial), the pair slowly discover a complex conspiracy that leads to dark and forbidden places, threatening the pillars of lies on which modern Polish society is built.

This eight part series is not always easy to follow, especially in the early going. It's so challenging that it's tempting to zone out and become hypnotized by the stark beauty of its gray, bleak images. But by episode six, when all the story threads begin to coalesce, it becomes a fairly simple plot with clearly defined motivations. Writer Joshua Long and a variety of directors (including Agnieszka Holland) do a remarkable job of building and maintaining suspense. I can't think of one moment in the show's nearly 8 hours that felt padded or flabby. If you're a fan of moody, austere police dramas, give 1983 a try. But don't @me if you become transfixed for the whole 8 hours.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Elevator to the Gallows Turns 60

Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows is a stylish and seductive thriller about a murder plot gone terribly wrong. But unlike most thrillers, the film focuses on the aftermath of the crime, forcing its characters to reveal their stories and their souls while the relentless noose of justice tightens. Thanks to the film’s omniscient point of view, there is no mystery about the crime itself - we know exactly who has done what to whom - rather, in typical French fashion, all the unanswered questions revolve around the various miscreants’ mental and emotional turmoils. And in a testament to taut storytelling, all of these jumbled lives will be disentangled in a terse and tidy 90 minutes. 

Elevator to the Gallows is a must watch for photography buffs, as legendary cameraman Henri Decaë (The 400 Blows, Le Cercle Rouge) delivers an inky monochrome that captures the steely yet romantic essence of the city of Paris. His daytime scenes have the diffused, overcast look that defines French cinema of the era, while his night exteriors glow with glistening wet streets and whimsical neon signs, hazy with mist. In an iconic sequence, Malle has leading lady Jeanne Moreau wander the streets in close up, her face pelted by a gentle rain signifying the tears of her broken heart. 
Meanwhile, a pair of lovers flee the scene in a stolen convertible, the wind in their hair and the wide open boulevards of the city evoking a perfect metaphor of heady, youthful joy. 

But the film’s most memorable takeaway is the astonishing, and astonishingly original, jazz score by Miles Davis. While most soundtracks seek to merely support the action on screen, Davis’s cool, bluesy trumpet seems to drive the narrative, acting as a sort of unseen Greek Chorus. While his music emanates from a lofty perch unsullied by the desperate souls below, Davis’s riffs create an emotional context for Malle’s ever expanding tableau of human weakness. And the Greek Chorus analogy is apt for Elevator to the Gallows is a classical tragedy in the truest sense. Its anxious arc pre-determined by the dark character flaws of its principals; their stained shadows withering under the ethereal light of Parisian winter.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Red River Turns 70

Red River is a sprawling epic western, with just enough unique and offbeat artistry to make it a true American classic. It is a highly fictionalized account of the first successful cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail; a dusty track leading from San Antonio to Abilene, KS, that became an essential route for the nation’s food supply. Here we will meet tough-as-nails Texas rancher Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his foster son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) who over the years have built a cattle herd numbering in the thousands from little more than sweat, spit and prayers. But the end of the Civil War has brought economic collapse to the southern tier of the United States, and Dunson’s only hope of solvency is an arduous 1,000 mile journey across rocky wastes to a spanking new railhead in Kansas, where his cattle can be sold and shipped to the hungry northeast. 

What distinguishes Red River from lesser westerns is its razor sharp writing - each scene of dialogue has a specific purpose and is crafted for a clear emotional effect - and the depth of its characterizations. Most notably Clift, whose soft-spoken, serene line readings stand in sharp contrast to his cold-eyed gunfighter persona. He and Wayne engage in a subtle completion not only for dominance of the cattle drive, but for the film itself. Clift and Wayne are aided by a rogue’s gallery of supporting actors as Walter Brennan, Noah Beery Jr. and John Ireland lend their famous faces to the proceedings. The film also boasts one of the most satisfying - and surprisingly feminist - endings in the history of cinema, as feisty frontier gal Tess (Joanna Dru), fed up with wanton displays of testosterone, sets the feuding parties straight with a sobering dose of good common sense.

 However, the real star of Red River is director Howard Hawks, who took this low brow, dime store tale of laconic cowpokes and elevated it to the realm of high drama, appealing to the intellect as well as the heart. Hawks was an astonishingly versatile director, proving equally adept at everything from suspenseful thrillers like Scarface (1932) and The Big Sleep (1946) to wacky romantic comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1936) and His Girl Friday (1940). Hawks’ superb ability at cinematic storytelling was held in high esteem not only in Hollywood, but also in Europe, where his genre-defying filmography was an inspiration to the young filmmakers of the French new wave. In the iconic magazine Cahiers du Cinema in 1952, director Eric Rohmer wrote “If one does not love the films of Howard Hawks, one cannot love cinema.” 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Lady Bird (2017) ✭✭✭✭½

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird accomplishes something I previously thought impossible; it almost made me nostalgic for the darkly anxious days of 2003. This coming of age - or in this case meandering of age - film is polished to a humorous gleam that never hides its underlying harsh, truthful glare. With the drumbeat to the Iraq war pounding from their TV screens, along with early glimmers of the decade’s crisis economics, a group of high school seniors obsess about hormones, prom dates and college admissions. For one student who has nicknamed herself Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), anxiety for the future pulses through her naive spirit like the magenta streaks in her fashionably stringy hair. Lady Bird is desperate to escape the clodhopper confines of Sacramento, and its bumpkin co-conspirator UC-Davis, and attend college in the enlightened northeast, where surely her enthralling artistic aura will finally be recognized and celebrated.

While this may sound like standard post-pubescent fare, Lady Bird achieves an emotional loft miles beyond the typical teen film. Ronan’s erratic romance with an anguished young man (brilliant Lucas Hedges, who seems to be everywhere this award season) resolves into a scene of abject weeping that not only turns the gender tables, it will leave all but the most hardened souls wrecked and quivering. Laurie Metcalf, who plays Ronan’s mom, delivers a gem of a performance that launches passive-aggressiveness to the stratosphere. Something magical has happened to Metcalf in recent years. She has figured out how to play comedic abstractions so thoroughly grounded in truth that they cease to be abstractions, and instead become the astonishingly real people we deal with every day. Check out her extraordinary work in the HBO series Getting On (2015) for further confirmation.

It’s important to watch this film not just as the simple story of a geeky teenager, but within the context of time, and the grim ramifications the film leaves unsaid. Young Ronan may achieve her Ivy League dreams, but a few years later the costs will be devastating to her and her deeply leveraged family. The financial crisis will be be unforgiving to the heavily mortgaged, and during the film you just want to yell “Noooooooooooo” to her well-meaning but already struggling parents. Still, the film reminds us of a time when higher education and personal betterment seemed an unalienable right; an entitlement part and parcel of the American Dream. And perhaps that is Lady Bird’s real genius. In its mellow, microscopic way, it subtly, splendidly captures the death rattles of a once great nation. Before America fully descended to lies, greed and chaos. When anything was still possible.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

10 Years of The Savages

The Savages struck a vibrant chord with me when it was first released 10 years ago. It’s all about a pair of 40-ish siblings (Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who must pause their lives and become caregivers to an aging and ailing parent (Philip Bosco). That same situation pretty much defined my existence a decade ago when, on one coast, a mother-in-law stroked out while my father, inconveniently ensconced on the other coast, grappled with the latter stages of heart failure. As my brother, my wife and I scrambled to keep everyone in Depends, meds and some ragged semblance of quality of life, all of us grew closer as a family unit. The ending of life is a powerful focuser of the mind, and the sharing of fear and grief an epoxy to souls grown distant over the years.

Written and directed by the talented Tamara Jenkins, The Savages is a smart blend of tender moments, darkly comic notes, and situations that often seem on the verge of toppling into absurdity. From these elements, Jenkins weaves a web of life that feels very real, as Linney and Hoffman try to find their own moments of solace while their cantankerous father’s days both slowly and quickly fritter away. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have two of the most brilliant actors of their generation working to realize the vision. Linney’s turn as a neurotic, struggling NYC artiste rings with the authenticity of firsthand experience and was nominated for an Oscar, while Hoffman’s whiny, morose academic is squarely within his impressive wheelhouse.

For me, The Savages had the added bonus of being partially filmed in Sun City, Arizona; an irrigated, manicured - and totally preposterous - desert oasis where many privileged members of The Greatest Generation, my mother-in-law among them, lived in giddy leisure until drawing their last breaths. And just as the elder Savage draws his, the film courageously evokes an anti-climatic bathos, which is precisely how passages of the long suffering really feel to the survivors: a strange, stunning mixture of crushing sadness and welcome relief.

Those pastel Sun City cottages are now being snatched up by a new generation of aging Boomers, eager to live out their days basking in the town’s favorite activities: golf, bingo and horrendous driving. Most of the new residents are my age - a few even younger - and well, it makes a guy think. As a film, The Savages does the same thing. It presents a stage of life we’ll all face sooner or later - if we’re lucky - and it gives us an unusual opportunity to reflect on our own character and our own mortality. And like the Savage family, may we all learn from our anguish, and find the strength to venture on.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

40 Years of Close Encounters

I’ve changed my mind about Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) several times over the years, proving once again that consistency is not my strong suit. When I first saw it, nestled cosily in a shiny new multiplex, I thought it was pure hokum. Its car chases, toothless hillbillies and mashed potato mountains made the film seem like Smokey and the Bandit Meet the Flying Saucers. It didn’t help that the aliens’ mother ship - a spectacular reveal intended to make audiences gasp - looked like that tacky, oversized chandelier hanging over Aunt Elisabeth’s dining table, under which I had spent many uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners as its dagger-like crystals swung precariously over my head.

Still, despite my complaints, there was something about the movie that haunted me. Not doubt because it was a story I really wanted to believe. I’d like to think that if there are intergalactic craft buzzing about the earth, and if one day they should decide to make themselves known to us, that they would be a kindly, peaceful, emotionally stable lot that would happily take humanity under their wing, or whatever alien appendage would be appropriate, and show us the way forward. Now that’s something we could really use.

I’ve encountered, closely (stop it!) the film a few more times over the past forty years: on TV, on home video and I even paid to see the ill-advised 1980 Special Edition, which promised to show us the inside of the alien spaceship (spoiler: it looked like an enormous, austerely designed Norwegian disco). And I’m happy to announce that I’ve not only made peace with the movie, I now revel in it, warts and all. Forget about the acting, which ranges from serviceable to embarrassing - Richard Dreyfuss could certainly chew some scenery in those days - and ignore its poorly developed female characters. Hey, it’s a Spielberg, his films don’t do interesting women. A few years ago, he had the great Sally Field playing Mary Todd Lincoln, one of the most psychologically complex women in American history, and turned her into a clingy hausfrau.

But I digress. Close Encounters is a film to be appreciated for its sheer grand spectacle. It’s a film beyond the scale of humanity, and therefore its human elements are simply in the way. Its special effects, state of the art in 1977, still hold up and seem strangely subtle and tasteful compared to today's full throttle CGI fests. The lighting of the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond is simply a marvel here, and imbues each scene with a palpable sense of the otherworldly. And John Williams’ score, complete with that unforgettable five note major scale ditty, provides an aural grandeur worthy of the film’s extraordinary visuals. Forty years later,  Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a flawed masterpiece, but even flawed masterpieces can contain important messages. The film impresses upon us mankind’s true, rather insignificant, place in the cosmos. And these days, there are lots of puffed up, self-righteous folks running around who need to be taken down a couple of pegs.

Roma (2018) ✭✭✭✭✭

Alfonso Cuarón’s directorial career has dealt with everything from updated Dickens ( Great Expectations ) to twisted coming of age ( Y Tu Ma...