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
Summary/Review:

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 Exterminating Angel (1962)


Title: The Exterminating Angel
Release Date: 16 May 1962
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production Company: Gustavo Alatriste
Summary/Review:

A group of wealthy people attend a dinner party at mansion of Señor Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucía (Lucy Gallardo).  Strange things begin to happen as most of the Nóbile’s servant staff leave the mansion as if they are escaping, scenes and dialogue are repeated, and animals (wild and domestic) appear where they don’t belong.  When it comes time for the party to end, the guests find themselves unable to leave.  There’s absolutely nothing blocking their exit, but whenever anyone tries to leave the room they find themselves reconsidering and just staying put. As days and weeks pass, the guests are reduced to their basest instincts and turn against one another, although Dr. Carlos Conde (Augusto Benedico) attempts to keep order.

I kind of liken the experience of the characters to standing at the end of a high diving board saying “I’m going to jump” but then failing to move.  Of course the story works metaphorically on many levels.  Our U.S. Congress today knows what they need to do to move the country forward and yet remains frozen. Buñuel, of course, was satirizing the inertia of the elite social classes and the church of his time.  I like to think that these rich people were just totally helpless of what to do once the working class people abandoned them.

In short, The Exterminating Angel takes the premise of movies like The House on Haunted Hill of a group of people trapped inside a mansion but instead of camp horror gives it a Twilight Zone spin.  Of course, surrealism should be expected from the creator of Un Chien Andalou.  Ultimately, this film about a bunch of rich people trapped in a room is far more entertaining that I’d ever expect!

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)


Title: The Wild Bunch
Release Date: June 18, 1969
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Production Company: Warner Bros.-Seven Arts
Summary/Review:

The Wild Bunch tells one of the most familiar stories in film history. A group of aging outlaws lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his sidekick Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) try for one last score with a heist of silver from the railroad.  The heist is a bust and soon the surviving members of the Wild Bunch find themselves on the run over the border into Mexico pursued by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of the gang now deputized by the railroad company as a bounty hunter.

The big difference between The Wild Bunch and earlier Westerns is that in 1969 the production code is no more.  Expletives are shouted, womens’ breasts are bared, and every bullet shot hits its target with an explosion of flesh and blood. (Previously all I knew about Sam Peckinpaugh was from a Monty Python sketch which I thought was exaggerating the blood and gore, but now I know better). A bigger change from earlier Hollywood is that all moral certitude is gone as the gang of anti-heroes does what they need to do to survive.

The Wild Bunch is essentially the template followed by action-adventure films for the ensuing 50 years.  It feels like an oddball among the other movies on the AFI 100 list but I can see it deserving a shot for being an influence.  And while this isn’t a movie I particularly enjoyed, it was worth watching it once.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Touch of Evil (1958)


Title: Touch of Evil
Release Date: February 1958
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: Universal-International
Summary/Review:

Touch of Evil takes place on the border of Mexico and the United States, beginning with someone placing a time bomb in a car in the sleazy Mexican border town that doesn’t explode until the driver crosses the border.  Witnesses to the explosion include Mexican special prosecutor Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his newlywed wife Susan (Janet Leigh).  Vargas takes an interest in the case and unravels the corrupt career of a racist American police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Meanwhile, Susan stays at an isolated motel not realising that it is owned by the sinister Grandi gang.  Bad things always happen when Janet Leigh stays at a motel.

This is not a movie that you watch for the plot as it doesn’t make much sense if you think much of it and every scene exists simply to set up the next twist.  Instead this is a movie you watch for the technical brilliance of its filming, particularly the camera work that is exemplified in the brilliant opening scene where we follow the car with the ticking time bomb and are simultaneously introduced to Vargas and Susan walking down the street. Heston may be the least Mexican person ever (he either has a deep tan or is wearing brownface) but he acquits himself well as the noble prosecutor.  Welles for his part is suitably slimy as the cop who plants evidence on his suspects.  Other notable performances include Dennis Weaver as the twitchy night manager of the motel (another precursor to Psycho) and Marlene Dietrich as the brothel owner and Quinlans ex-lover.  This is the movie I’d like to see again on the big screen if I have the opportunity.

Note: I watched the 1998 version of the movie that was edited to Welles’ specifications.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Él (1953)


Title: Él
Release Date: July 9, 1953
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production Company: Producciones Tepeyac
Summary/Review:

Él (Spanish for “Him,” but also released as This Strange Passion in the United States) is a Mexican film directed by the Spanish-born Luis Buñuel.  I’m familiar with Buñuel as a figure in the Surrealist art movement and particularly as the director of the bizarre silent movie classic Un Chien Andalou. Except for a few sequences near the conclusion, Él is not a surreal movie.  In fact, it feels a lot like a classic Hollywood film.

Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) is a prosperous middle-age man who spots a younger woman, Gloria (Delia Garcés), at church an aggressively pursues her.  Gloria appears resistant to his advances but after a flash forward in time, we learn that Gloria marries Francisco.  The better part of the film then features Gloria narrating to her friend and former fiance Raul (Luis Beristáin) about how starting with their honeymoon, Francisco has tormented her with an irrational and paranoid jealousy. If you have any experience with domestic violence, be warned that this is not an easy movie to watch.

The movie reminds me somewhat of Gaslight in the way the charming older man swiftly turns into tormentor of his younger newlywed wife.  But unlike Gaslight, there is no underlying mystery to Francisco’s jealousy, he’s simply mentally ill.  There are parts of the movie that also remind me of the dangerous obsession of Vertigo, particularly a scene in a bell tower, although I have no idea if Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Él. The direction and the action in the film is good, but ultimately there is not much to this movie beyond a startling presentation of paranoia.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Three Caballeros (1944)


Title: The Three Caballeros
Release Date: December 21, 1944
Director: Norman Ferguson (supervising director), Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts,  and Harold Young
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

The second of Disney’s six package films of the World War II era is also the second to originate from Walt Disney & company’s good will visit to Latin America after Saludos Amigos (which I’ve not yet watched).  The movie focuses on Donald Duck receiving birthday gifts from his feathered friends in Latin America, the Brazilian parrot José Carioca and the Mexican rooster Panchito Pistoles.

The first two segments are animated shorts that we watch with Donald. “The Cold-Blooded Penguin” tells the story of a penguin named Pablo who hates the cold and migrates to the Galapagos. “The Flying Gauchito” tells the story of a boy from Uruguay who adopts a flying donkey.  Both stories are cute and feature lots of puns and sight gags.

José then joins Donald and takes him on a journey to Bahia in Brazil through a pop-up book where they sing and dance with Aurora Miranda. Panchito joins them and they learn the Christmas story of Las Posadas.  The three birds travel around Mexico on a flying sarape, exploring various song and dance traditions.  Then things get weird as Donald has surreal visions while singer Dora Luz performs.  Donald then dances with Carmen Molina among shrinking and swelling cactus before the grand finale.

For much of this movie Donald Duck is incredibly horny about the Latin American women performers.  Even if you set aside 2020 sensibilities about the “male gaze” and sexual harassment, the fact that these excellent performances by Miranda, Luz, and Molina keep getting upstaged by Donald going full-Tex Avery is just rude.  I’m not sure why the filmmakers felt they needed nonstop “comic relief” but it doesn’t feel like they had much goodwill for the artists of Latin America.  The visuals are pretty impressive in the animation and I really like the musical numbers, especially Aurora Miranda’s.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Like Water for Chocolate (1992)


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Like Water for Chocolate
Release Date: April 16, 1992
Director: Alfonso Arau
Production Company: Miramax
Synopsis:

A friend of mine said that watching this movie made her “hungry and horny at the same time.” That’s a good summary of the magical realistic comedy-drama based on the novel by Laura Esquivel.

In the early 20th century, in northeastern Mexico, Tita (Lumi Cavazos) grows up with the knowledge that her family tradition expects her as the youngest daughter to never marry.  Instead, her strict Mama Elena (Regina Torné) expects Tita to care for her in her old age on their family ranch. Tita learns the art of cooking from the elderly family cook, Nacha (Ada Carrasco).

When Tita and a young man named Pedro (Marco Leonardi) form a mutual attraction, Mama Elena rejects his marriage proposal.  Instead he marries Tita’s eldest sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) since it will allow him to be close to Tita.  Tita’s emotions are magically transferred into the meals she cooks leading to incidents such as everyone at Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding feeling the sadness of lost love and later when Pedro gives her roses and everyone feels arousal.

The movie takes place over several decades as Tita and Pedro need to hide their forbidden love and Tita stands up to her mother.  The movie is framed by Tita’s grand-niece in the present day narrating the story around the recipes in Tita’s cookbook.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw it at the local arthouse cinema around the time it came out.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered three details clearly:

  • a naked woman running from a burning outhouse and jumping on a horse with a soldier.
  • a woman trailing a very long blanket behind a horse-drawn carriage.
  • the special ingredient in her cooking is love.

What Did I Forget?:

Pretty much everything else.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie strikes the right balance of magical, comical, and dramatic.  It explores a lot of issues through a whimsical story such as family, tradition, and gender.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Considering that this movie features a women-lead cast with men as side characters, depicts Mama Elena as a strong woman running a remote ranch on her own, and offers Tita as a more compassionate alternate version of strong womanhood, I’d say that it was ahead of its time in many ways.  It still feels very fresh to me event though the story took place over 100 years ago.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, I think so.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with L:

  1. Laura (1944)
  2. Lifeboat (1944)
  3. The Little Mermaid (1989)
  4. Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 (1999)
  5. Lost in La Mancha (2002)

What is your favorite movie starting with L?  Any guesses for my M movie (Hint: it features a great quest)? Let me know in the comments.

Movie Review: Coco (2017)


Title: Coco
Release Date: November 22, 2017
Director: Lee Unkrich
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Coco is a delightful animated film by Pixar that weaves in the traditions of Día de los Muertos to a celebration of family and music. Miguel is boy in a family of shoemakers who loves the music of the local legend Ernesto de la Cruz, and wishes to pursue making music of his own.  The problem is that his family has banned music for several generations after his great-great-grandmother and his great-grandmother Coco (then a child) were left behind by great-great-grandfather seeking a music career. What follows is a wonderful adventure where Miguel accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead (depicted humorously as a bureaucratic parallel to our own world). with the help of a  bumbling skeleton named Hector, Miguel seeks to return to his own world and get his family’s blessing to play music, learning a lot about his family in the process.  There are some unexpectedly dark parts to this film – maybe not what would scare a young child in a movie full of skeletons – but nonetheless very serious material for a family film.  Visually it’s splendorous and I enjoy the wide ranges of expressions given to the skeleton’s bony faces.  Definitely another terrific addition to the Pixar catalog.

Rating: ****

Book Review: What was the Alamo? by Pam Pollack


Author: Pam Pollack
TitleWhat was the Alamo?
Publication Info: New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., [2013]
Summary/Review:

The Alamo is something this northeasterner only knew the vague details about, so I was pleased to read this children’s history book with my son.  Interesting details include the infighting and poor planning of the “heroes” of the Alamo that contributed to their defeat, as well as a broader picture of the conflicts among the Mexicans and American settlers in Texas.

Rating: ***

World Cup Round of 16 Rooting Interests and Predictions


After an exciting round of group play, the knock-out rounds for the 2014 World Cup begin today.  Below I’ve listed the teams I’m rooting for and the teams I expect to win (not always the same) for each game.

28 June 2014

Brazil vs. Chile

This is a tough call.  I have a soft spot for Chile and they acquitted themselves well in group play, but I’ve always liked Brazil and it would be tragic if the host nation exited the tournament this early (especially after having to endure all the corporate, government, and FIFA corruption).  That being said, I expect Brazil will have no problem winning this game and probably advance at least to the semifinals.

Supporting: Brazil           Prediction: Brazil

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Colombia is one of the most exciting teams in the tournament with the most feverish fans.  Uruguay did well in group play, but aren’t going to go far without their bitey star Luis Suarez.  Colombia is an easy team to support and pick for the win.

Supporting: Colombia         Prediction: Colombia

It’s interesting that four of the five remaining South American teams are essentially playing for one semifinal spot.  I expect that Brazil will advance from this group of four, but the Brazil versus Colombia quarterfinal has the potential to be an exciting match.

29 June 2014

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Mexico is our biggest rival, but I’ve been swayed to their side this World Cup for several reasons:  CONCACAF regional pride, the performance of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the exburance of coach Miguel Herrera, and their exciting style of play in a tough group.  I adopted the Netherlands in 2010 as my team to support after the US elimination (mainly because I had just visited Amsterdam that year), but the karate chop performance of the final kind of took the bloom off that rose.  Still, the Netherlands look like a dominant side that may advance all the way to the final again, and will be hard for Mexico to beat.

Supporting: Mexico          Prediction: Netherlands

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Costa Rica’s team is the surprise of the tournament, giant-killers in what should’ve been the toughest group.  It’s hard not to like Los Ticos.  Greece are also surprise members of the final 16.  However, they haven’t shown a lot of skill in the group stage.  I expect another Costa Rica win.

Supporting: Costa Rica     Prediction: Costa Rica

An all CONCACAF quarterfinal would be a thrilling thing, but I expect that the Netherlands will progress to the semifinals from this group of four.

30 June 2014

France vs. Nigeria

I tend to root for the underdogs, so I have to favor Nigeria here, but France is looking like one of the top teams in the tournament, so I don’t have much hope for the African side.

Supporting: Nigeria         Prediction: France

Germany vs. Algeria

Algeria is the other surviving African team who’ve drawn tough European competition in Germany.  I’ll root for Algeria, but expect Germany to make it at least to the semifinal.

Supporting: Algeria          Prediction: Germany

There’s an opportunity for an all-African quarterfinal coming out this group of four, but it’s more likely that European neighbors Germany and  France will meet to decide a spot in the final four.

1 July 2014

Argentina vs. Switzerland

I’ve not been impressed by Argentina who  won a weak group by basically holding out for a Lionel Messi wondergoal.  On the other hand, Argentina has enough talent that should be able to advance as far as the semifinal without breaking much of a sweat.  I haven’t got much of a sense of Switzerland, but I’ll be rooting for them just so that USA would have a more potentially beatable side in the quarterfinal, should it come to that.

Supporting: Switzerland       Prediction:  Argentina

Belgium vs. United States

Sure, Belgium is a dark horse to win the World Cup, and sure they won all three of their group matches.  Sure, the United States has struggled and only just made it out of group play.  But Belgium played in one of the weakest groups, while the United States faced down three challenging opponents without ever throwing in the towel.  I believe that we will win.

Supporting:  United States       Prediction: United States

While I think that the United States can make it to the quarterfinal, Argentina is the prohibitive favorite of this group of four.  Still, Iran held Argentina scoreless for 90 minutes, so maybe someone can pull of a miracle win.