Movie Review: Roma (2018)

Title: Roma
Release Date: 21 November 2018
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Espectáculos Fílmicos El Coyúl | Pimienta Films | Participant Media | Esperanto Filmoj

Among contemporary directors, Alfonso Cuarón is the one most likely to make a completely different type of movie on each outing. Roma is a film inspired by Cuarón’s childhood memories and in that sense is a lot like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Fellini’s Amarcord, especially in its use of well-choreographed crowd scenes of family and community activity.

Set in 1970-71, the film is set in the home of a prosperous family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.  The main character is the family’s live-in maid/nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young woman of indigenous ancestry. Cleo becomes pregnant early in the film but is abandoned by her lover Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  Meanwhile, the mother of the family, Sofía (Marina de Tavira) must deal with holding the family together when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. These twin stories are impressionistically set against family drama, celebratory gatherings, and the political violence of Luis Echeverría’s presidency.  The most significant scene of the latter involves the Corpus Christi Massacre, when government-trained paramilitaries murdered 120 student protestors, occuring while Cleo is shopping for a crib and then going into labor.

Filmed in crisp black & white, Roma is a visually-stunning movie that immerses the audience in early 1970s Mexico.  Like Yasujirō Ozu, Cuarón frequently employs mid- and long-range shots where the camera does not move while characters move in and out of frame.  He also constructs some impressive tracking shots that make you think “how did they do that?”  And yet, despite Aparicio’s fine performance, I feel like Cleo is always at a distance and we never get to know her very well.  Thus I don’t feel the strong emotions in the film’s climax that many other viewers did.  Centering the story on women, and particularly an indigenous woman, instead of a child proxy for Cuaron is admirable, but it also never quite connects for me.

I think this is a beautiful and admirable film, but I also can understand the criticisms that it whitewashes the inequality between Cleo and the family and that the technical brilliance overshadows the human heart.  Still, this one would be worth seeing again on a big screen if I ever get the chance.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Warriors (1979)

Title: The Warriors
Release Date:  February 9, 1979
Director: Walter Hill
Production Company: Lawrence Gordon Productions

Yet another cult film I’ve never watched, The Warriors is take on the crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s by way of an Ancient Greek story.  The Warriors are a gang based in Coney Island who with dozens of other gangs travel to the Bronx for a summit called by a charismatic leader Cyrus (Roger Hill).  Cyrus proposes unifying all the gangs and working together against the police to control the city but before he can finish his speech he is assassinated.  (The killer appears to receive his gun from the cops and thus be a police informer but this is never followed-up upon so maybe I misread what was happening).

The Warriors are falsely accused of killing Cyrus and have to flee back to Coney Island for the safety of their home turn, pursued by all the other gangs and the police.  They lose their leader in the initial scuffle and war chief Swan (Michael Beck) takes over shepherding the rest of the gang on their journey home.  He’s challenged by the heel of the gang Ajax (James Remar) who prefers conflict to diplomacy.  The cast overall does a good job of capturing the youth and vulnerability of the gang members and seeing the story from their point of view rather than a societal judgment.  The only actor who didn’t really work for me is David Patrick Kelly as Luther, who really hams things up, although he also delivers the movie’s most famous line.

For a 1970s film, the cast is very diverse although the production company insisted on white actors in the lead.  For a story about gangs of men, the women in the movie have a lot of agency and call out the men on their bullshit.  The most prominent woman character is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who initially taunts The Warriors but then joins them as a valuable contributor to their effort to get back to Brooklyn as well as a romantic interest to Swan. There is homophobia and attempted sexual assault as you might expect from gangsters in a 70s film, but it’s almost all from Ajax, while the rest of the gang appear almost noble.

For an action film, this movie takes things slow, reveling in the scenery of the on-location settings and the quirky costumes of the various gangs while building the tension.  This really works to the film’s advantage, although the choreography of the fight scenes is also good.  Somehow the cartoonish fantasy element of the story also undergirds the gritty reality of the movie and allows for some great character moments. I was particularly impressed by a scene where the exhausted Warriors share a subway car with some wealthy kids and the contrast of their lives is quietly emphasized.

I ended up liking this movie a whole lot more than I expected I would and think it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review:  Stranger Things (2022)

TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2022
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 9

The supernatural/horror/thriller/drama Stranger Things returns after a three-year (pandemic-delayed) gap with new adventures for a growing team of residents of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana.  After diminishing returns in seasons 2 and 3, season 4 feels like a return to form that comes close to greatness of the debut season.  With a large cast of characters, the season is longer in both the number of episodes and the length of individual episodes to tell all their stories, so it can feel sprawling and uneven at times, but I personally feel the more the merrier.

The show reflects a bigger budget and more ambitious scope than previous series lending it a more cinematic feel. It also has more intense gore and horror elements than previous seasons. New cast member Joseph Quinn stars as the season’s breakout character Eddie Munson, leader of the Hellfire Club at Hawkins High School where the nerdy outsiders bond over Dungeons and Dragons’ campaigns.  Sadie Sink returns for her third season as Max Mayfield getting a chance to really develop her character and show off her acting chops.

My review continues below with spoilers, so beware!

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Movie Review: The Second Mother (2015)

Title: Que Horas Ela Volta?
Release Date:  27 August 2015
Director: Anna Muylaert
Production Company: Africa Filmes | Globo Filmes | Gullane Filmes

Val (Regina Casé) is a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family in São Paulo who dotes on their teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) whom she has raised since he was a toddler. During the time she’s been working in São Paulo, Val has been separated and estranged from her own daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), who is the same age as Fabinho.  When Jessica comes to São Paulo to prepare to enter the university, Val gets permission to have Jessica live with her.  Tension arises when Jessica, unfamiliar and indifferent to the expectations of social class, acts like a houseguest rather than the child of a servant.

The premise of this movie feels very similar to The Maid, although it goes in a different direction. Casé and Márdila are very strong in their roles and the movie does a good job of artfully exposing the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism.  Anna Muylaert’s direction is strong, creating a naturalistic feel to the movie and moving the camera through spaces in the home to build the tension and show the divides.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Before Midnight (2013)

Title: Before Midnight
Release Date: May 24, 2013
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment | Venture Forth | Detour Filmproduction

Another 9 years have passed and Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are spending the summer vacationing in Greece with friends and family, including their twin daughters and Jesse’s son from his previous marriage. Breaking with precedent of the previous films, in the first act of the film we see a lot of Céline and Jesse in group settings rather than one on one.  We also get to see that Ethan Hawke as a dad in Before Midnight is a whole lot like Ethan Hawke as a dad in in Boyhood.

Also breaking with precedent, the heart of the movie leaves behind the beautiful Greek scenery and instead is set in a nondescript hotel room.  Putatively Céline and Jesse are too spend a romantic night together there without the children, but instead it becomes the scene of a bitter argument. Jesse wants to be more involved in his son’s life, but it would require moving to the United States.  Céline is resentful that she’s been forced to take on domestic responsibilities at the expense of her career.  As they unravel their feelings they begin to contend with the idea that they may no longer be in love.

As with the previous movies the dialogue is excellent and Hawke and Delpy really live inside their characters.  Hawke is so good at playing a guy who is kind of an asshole yet remains sympathetic.  This heartfelt and heartbreaking movie is apparently the last we will see of this couple. If the 9 year pattern persisted the fourth movie would be released this year, but alas there will be no B4: Tokyo Drift or anything like that.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Aparajito (1956)

Title: Aparajito
Release Date: 11 October 1956
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Epic Films

Picking up where Pather Panchali left off, Aparajito is the second installment of Ray’s Apu Trilogy.  Set in the 1920s, the Roy family now lives in the holy city of Benares (modern day Varanasi) and continue to struggle with poverty.  The central character Apurba “Apu” Roy ages from a child (Pinaki Sengupta) to teenager (Smaran Ghosal) over the course of the film.  The central story is that Apu’s success in school earns him a scholarship that takes him away from his mother Sarbajaya ( Karuna Banerjee) and the strain that puts on their relationship. This could be melodramatic but the neorealistic style of the film steeps it in everyday lived experience.  The sharp B&W cinematography captures everything in gorgeous detail.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Anne of Green Gables (1985)

Title: Anne of Green Gables
Release Date: December 1, 1985
Director: Kevin Sullivan
Production Company: Anne of Green Gables Productions | Sullivan Entertainment | TV-60 Filmproduktion | WonderWorks

I suppose in the end it was a rather romantic way to perish, for a mouse.

Revisiting another movie I loved in my early teen years.  Anne of Green Gables premiered on Canadian television as a miniseries in 1985 but I don’t think we saw it in the US until 1987.

Adapted from the famous novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the film tells the story of the aging siblings Marilla (Colleen Dewhurst) and Matthew Cuthbert (Richard Farnsworth) deciding to adopt an orphan to help on their farm in a rural community on Prince Edward Island.  They’re surprised when instead of boy they receive Anne Shirley (Megan Follows), an imaginative and stubborn 11-year-old given to daydreaming and romanticizing the world around her. The shy Matthew is immediately won over by Anne, while Marilla puts on a show of being a strict guardian but soon also succumbs to Anne’s charms.

Despite being made-for-TV, this is a high-quality production with gorgeous location shots and fantastic period costumes.  But the characters are the best and everyone seems perfectly cast. In addition to the three main leads, Schuyler Grant stars as Anne’s bosom friend Diana, Charmion King plays Diana’s wealthy Aunt Josephine who is amused by Anne, and Jonathan Crombie is Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s rival at school.

It’s fashionable to dismiss things for being overly sentimental, but there’s something about the warmth and sweetness of this story that I really love.  I think we need more kindness and imagination in our world, not less.  Which is why I aspire to be Matthew Cuthbert as I grow older.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Before Sunset (2004)

Title: Before Sunset
Release Date: July 2, 2004
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment

Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) reunite after nine years, this time traveling around Paris as they converse.  Jesse has published a novel based on their night together in Vienna and gives a book talk at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore which Céline.  They then spend the hour before Jesse has to leave for the airport for his flight home having another of their profound conversations (kind of jealous that I’ve never had a conversation like this in my life).  They talk about why they didn’t reunite as planned in Vienna, their regrets about not doing so, how their lives (and their dreams and philosophies) have changed in the intervening years, and their unsatisfying marriages.  Over time the become less guarded and reveal more of their deepest feelings.

Any doubts I had that this movie would ruin the ambiguous ending of Before Sunset were erased by the easy chemistry between Delpy and Hawke and the amazing dialogue.  It certainly helps that Delpy and Hawke contributed to writing the script and that they made the dialogue sound natural over long takes filmed on location. The movie is technically brilliant since it is essentially set in real time and documents one long conversation.  The ending caught me off guard because I was wondering how they were possibly going to wrap it up with so little time left, but instead ends on a wonderfully ambiguous cliffhanger

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)

Title: The Hotel New Hampshire
Release Date: March 9, 1984
Director: Tony Richardson
Production Company: Filmline Productions | The Producers’ Circle | Woodfall Film Productions | Yellowbill Productions Limited

Sorrow floats, too.

When I was in my early teens my mom told my sister and I about this weird movie she saw on tv about this eccentric family who have a flatulent dog named Sorrow who dies and then keeps popping up in taxidermied form. Eventually we watched it together and it turned out to be even weirder than imagined. In retrospect it’s strange that I watched this movie at such a young age.  You could put content warnings on this movie for rape, suicide, incest, anti-gay violence, terrorism and more, and yet it’s played for (dark) comedy.  I don’t think these things went over my head so much as they didn’t hit me as hard as watching it as an adult. In fact, the quirky transgressiveness of the movie appealed to me and for a time it was among my all-time favorites, and I also became fond of the John Irving book its based on.  It’s been a long time since I watched or read either, though.

The movie is about a family of oddball characters called the Berrys overall several years when they suffer several tragedies and strange events.  While it’s an ensemble piece, two of the five Berry children, John (Rob Lowe) and Franny (Jodie Foster), are the main characters.  Their father Win (Beau Bridges) is a dreamer who wants to recapture the happiest days of his youth by owning and operating a hotel. Over the course of the film, the Berry family run two hotels: first in an abandoned school in New Hampshire and later at a rundown hotel in Vienna. The stacked cast also includes Paul McCrane, Jennifer Dundas, Wilford Brimley, Seth Green, Matthew Modine, Wallace Shawn, Amanda Plummer, Dorsey Wright, and Nastassja Kinski as Susie the Bear.

The movie remains very entertaining.  However, while in the 80s it felt like it was pushing boundaries of how controversial topics are treated, now it just feels like it has a lot of shock for shock value.  Also as an adaptation of a very long novel, it tries too hard to tell the entire story so that as a viewer you kind of get whiplash moving from seeing only the highlights of various different plot threads.  The movie still has a lot of charms and some great acting performances, but it feels like an opportunity was lost to make something much better.

Rating: ***

Movie Reviews: Before Sunrise (1995)

Title: Before Sunrise
Release Date: January 27, 1995
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment

An American tourist, Jesse (Ethan Hawks), and a French Student, Céline (Julie Delpy) meet on a Eurail train.  Feeling a connection, Céline agrees to spend a night wandering around Vienna before Jesse flies home in the morning.  The movie is essentially a series of introspective and philosophical conversations held in front of the beautiful scenery of Vienna.  Hawke’s character is borderline douchebro but shows enough vulnerability to reveal that much of what he’s doing is posturing to hide his sensitive side.  Delpy, apart from her Gallic beauty, shows a lot of complexity and depth of character. There’s a certain artifice to their conversations, but even that feels real as it reflects the way people try to impress someone they’ve just met.  Over time their defences wear down and they find pure Gen X romance while drinking wine under the moon in a Viennese park.  They also make good use of the same iconic ferris wheel featured in The Third Man.  In sum, this movie is a collection of beautiful moments.

Rating: ****