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: Babe (1995)

Release Date: August 4, 1995
Director: Chris Noonan
Production Company: Kennedy Miller Productions

There must be kinder dispositions in far-off gentler lands.

For a gentle barnyard comedy about a piglet who learns to herd sheep, Babe goes to some dark places and can be quite subversive.  The movie begins in a factory farm and make no bones about pigs be raised without sunshine and separated from their mothers at a young age.  This is a family film, nonetheless, but one that doesn’t condescend to children or avoid situations and words that they may not initially understand. I was surprised that Babe was written and produced by George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max series, but upon this rewatch I realize that there’s a tenderness at the heart of the darkness of Babe that’s not all that different from Mad Max: Fury Road, despite Babe’s more idyllic setting.

Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh and played by 46 different piglets and an animatronic created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) is the runt of the litter at a factory farm randomly chosen for a “Guess the Weight” contest at an agricultural fair.  Babe ends up on the farm of Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) presumably to be fattened for Christmas dinner.  But Babe forms a bond with the sheepdog Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes) who becomes his surrogate mother after her own puppies are adopted away.  As a result, Babe becomes a sheep-herding pig, and one who does his job with kindness rather than asserting authority. This talent is soon recognized by the quirky Farmer Hoggett.  Hijinks ensue.

The movie is beautifully filmed, soaking in the lush Australian landscape (albeit people have American accents and drive on the right side of the road, so this could be anywhere).  Credit must be given to Magda Szubanski as Arthur’s wife Esme Hoggett and Russi Taylor as Duchess, “the bad cat bearing a grudge,” for being the MVPs of dialogue deliver in limited screen time.  And if you can watch Cromwell’s delivery of the line “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” without weeping, you’re made of stronger stuff than me.

This is a classic movie that just seems to get better each time I watch it.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

Title: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Release Date: February 1944
Director: Preston Sturges
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

During the Second World War, the town of Morgan’s Creek becomes home to several military bases.  Local teenager Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) finds it to be her patriotic duty to attend dances for the servicemen before they leave to go overseas.  One night Trudy loses her memory after a head injury and when she comes to she realizes that she’s married one of the soldiers (and become pregnant!) but can’t remember who it is.  Trudy’s nebbish and 4-F childhood friend Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) has always been in love with her and agrees to marry her, but Trudy is fearful of being charged with bigamy.

The old-fashioned moral values and gender essentialism are laid on thick in this film, but it took me a while to realize that the excess is in fact a satire of those social mores.  In fact, many of the complex plot points are simply due to having to dance around the Hays code.  Because this movie is both subversive and utterly bonkers, I wanted to like it more than I did.  But the repeated gags of Norval and then Trudy stuttering and the repeated pratfalls were more irritating than funny.  Diana Lynn is hilarious as Trudy’s wisecracking younger sister while William Demarest plays their cranky father, Constable Lockenlocker.

This is the third Preston Sturges film I’ve watched and I do want to watch more!  The long tracking shots of characters walking through the streets are quite impressive.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Office Space (1999)

Title: Office Space
Release Date: February 19, 1999
Director:Mike Judge
Production Company: Judgemental Films

The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.

Office Space is a workplace comedy that satirizes the soul-sucking aspects of office jobs from the constant micromanaging to toxically positive co-workers to the least talented people (re: connected white men) failing up.  Rewatching this now in 2022 amid the media moral panic about so-called “quiet quitting,” this movie feels even more relevant than it did in the late 90s.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a depressed programmer at a tech company who decides to liberate himself by no longer working, with comic results.  He ultimately enacts a revenge plot on the company with his friends/co-workers Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman).  In a side plot, he begins dating Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), who works an equally soul-sucking job as a waitress for a cheezy restaurant franchise. Gary Cole has a memorable role as Peter’s slimy, passive-aggressive boss Lumbergh, while Stephen Root plays the meek Milton who is the butt of many jokes.

The movie’s reputation is built on its first half, maybe 2/3’s but falls flat toward the end (really everything after they destroy the printer).  And there’s a lot of homophobic language which is off-putting even if its accurate for a tech workplace.  But other than that there are good reasons why this movie remains relatable, and memeable, over two decades later.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Mean Girls (2004)

Title: Mean Girls
Release Date: April 30, 2004
Director: Mark Waters
Production Company: Broadway Video

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George?

Every high school has a clique of popular, conventionally-attractive, and typically wealthy girls who use their advantages to bully and manipulate the other girls at the school.  This teen comedy, oddly, adapts a sociological non-fiction work called Queen Bees and Wannabes and carries that more serious message under the more comical narrative.  While it feels like every beat in Mean Girls has been memefied over the years, the film still holds up well after almost two decades.

Naive 16-year-old Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) enters school for the first time after growing up homeschooled by her zoologist parents researching on location in Africa. Cady is unexpectedly given the opportunity to join the ruling clique, The Plastics, made up of queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams),  gossipy Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert), and ditsy Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried). Cady’s new friends Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) convince her to infiltrate The Plastics in hopes of finding ways to embarrass them.  Hijinks ensue as Cady finds herself alternately repulsed and fascinated by Regina.

The movie was a vehicle for Lohan, whose troubled personal life has overshadowed her film career, but McAdams and Seyfried have gone on to very successful careers.  The talented younger cast is supported by a lot of Saturday Night Live veterans as the adults, especially Tina Fey who wrote the screenplay as well as co-starring as the math teacher, Ms. Norbury.  That script, of course, is full of quotable dialogue and remains hilarious on repeat viewings.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hairspray (1988)

Title: Hairspray
Release Date: February 16, 1988
Director: John Waters
Production Company: Stanley F. Buchthal | Robert Shaye Production

I’ve never watched a John Waters film and this seemed like a good entry point. I”m going to have to work my way up to the one featuring coprophagia.  Set in the early 60s, the film is set around a local Baltimore teenage dance show, The Corny Collins Show,  with a regular cast of teenagers ominously called the council.  “Pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake, before she was in the vanguard of sensationalist daytime talk show hosts) auditions and earns a spot on the council.  Tracy is well received by most of the cast and audience, but snobby Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick, well before she created an earworm about graduation under the stage name Vitamin C) targets Tracy for abuse.

Meanwhile, Tracy’s best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) begins dating a Black classmate, Seaweed (Clayton Prince), who introduces Tracy to his mother Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs (legendary R&B artist Ruth Brown) and the dance parties of Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods.  Tracy sees the injustice of segregation and begins to use her fame to try to integrate The Corny Collins Show.  The movie does have a bit of a “white savior” narrative, but I felt that the movie was very honest about racism in a way you don’t usually get in nostalgic movies about teenagehood.

Waters’ quirky style and visual flair helps make the movie entertaining and accessible while being quietly subversive.  The cast is also great.  Divine and Jerry Stiller play Tracy’s working class parents while Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono are Amber’s ambitious stage parents.  And their are cameos by Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora which is something that could only happen in the 80s. It’s hard to believe a movie could bring together such an odd cast for a “message movie” that’s nevertheless delightfully weird.  The music is great too, and all the different dances done by the council make me realize that the kids dancing on TikTok today have a strong heritage.

Rating: ****1/2

Favorite Movies of All Time: 70-61

Over the past few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch lots of movies considered to be among the best of all time.  Now, for the first time, I’ve made my own list of favorite movies of all time.  Every other Wednesday throughout 2022, I will be revealing ten movies in my list of 250 Favorite Movies of All Time.

250-241 200-190 150-141 100-91
240-231 190-181 140-131 90-81
230-221 180-171 130-121 80-71
220-211 170-161 120-111
210-201 160-151 110-101


Title: Ghostbusters
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis
Year: 1984
When did I first watch this movie?: 1984, at the cinema, three times!
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Childhood nostalgia plays a big part, but a high-concept comedy where every actor plays their role and delivers their lines perfectly is hard not to like.


Title: Back to the Future
Director:Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson
Year: 1985
When did I first watch this movie?: 1985, at the theaters
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: The mid-80s were a good time for high-concept comedies and this one is not only a funny adventure but a movie where everything set up early on is paid off perfectly by the denouement.


Title: Star Wars
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and Peter Mayhew
Year: 1977
When did I first watch this movie?: 1977, in a theater on Martha’s Vineyard
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: I was 3-1/2 when I watched this for the first time and it may have been the first movie I saw in a movie theater, so Star Wars has really been part of my life for as long as I can remember.


Title:The Friends of Eddie Coyle 
Director: Peter Yates
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan,  and Steven Keats
When did I first watch this movie?: March 2020
Why is this one of my all time favorites?:  There was a period back in the 2000s when Boston crime movies were in vogue, but the best Boston crime movie ever was made decades earlier.  This is the working class mob film compared with the elite gangsters of The Godfather.


Title: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, and Bruce Bennett
Year: 1948
When did I first watch this movie?: December 2019
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: A psychological thriller that deconstructs masculinity in the clothing of a Western.


Title: Playtime 
Director: Jacques Tati
Cast: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek
Year: 1967
When did I first watch this movie?: March 2020
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: An experimental film with very little dialogue and almost no plot has never been so much fun!


Title: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot 
Director: George Seaton
Cast: Jack Lord, Leora Dana, Robert Carroll, Charles G. Martin, Frederic Warriner, and Richard Striker
When did I first watch this movie?: June 1985 at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: There’s no rational explanation for my love of this movie which is shown as an orientation to Colonial Williamsburg visitors.  It’s so corny, and yet it also summarizes actual historical events in an entertaining way.


Title: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
Director: Jonathan Olshefski
Cast: The Rainey family
When did I first watch this movie?: April 2019
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: A documentary that follows the life of a working class Black family in Philadelphia during the Obama years.


Title: A Close Shave
Director: Nick Park
Cast: Peter Sallis, Anne Reid
Year: 1996
When did I first watch this movie?: 1996, in the theater
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Wallis, Gromit, and a whole lot of sheep.  What could go wrong?


Title: On Golden Pond 
Director: Mark Rydell
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon, Dabney Coleman and William Lanteau
When did I first watch this movie?: 1982 or 1983 on a tv broadcast
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Hepburn and Fonda bring warmth and heart to their performances as an elderly couple dealing with aging and family struggles.

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

Movie Review: The Harder They Come (1972)

Title: The Harder They Come
Release Date: 5 June 1972
Director: Perry Henzell
Production Company: International Films Inc.

The groundbreaking soundtrack from The Harder They Come has long been one of my favorite albums, but I’d never seen the movie until a 50th anniversary screening at The Brattle Theatre this week.  Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, a young man who arrives in Kingston, Jamaica and tries to make ends meet while trying to break into the music business.  His repeated attempts at honest work fail and he eventually becomes a marijuana runner for a local gangster.  When he kills a police officer in a panic he goes on the lam and finally achieves the fame he desires as an outlaw.

The story is familiar and predictable but nevertheless well-told.  The story and style seems to have drawn influence from French New Wave movies like Breathless and it shares similarities with Senegal’s Touki Bouki, released the next year.  I particularly like the first half of the film which captures the feel and rhythms of early 1970s Kingston with a neorealist touch.  The latter part of the movie feels more like a hasty pastiche of Bonnie and Clyde. Ivan’s gleeful embrace of his outlaw status feels almost psychotic and he swiftly becomes a character hard to sympathize with.  Nevertheless it’s a fascinating period piece and a groundbreaking movie for Jamaican cinema.

And the soundtrack is just amazing.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Reviews: The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

Title: The Mystery of Picasso
Release Date: 18 May 1956
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Production Company: Filmsonor

Part of my love for this movie has to do with circumstances under which I first saw it.  I was visiting San Francisco in 2002 and a restored print of The Mystery of Picasso was showing at the historic movie palace, The Castro Theatre.  Not only did we see a cool movie but got a live organ performance pre-showing.

20 years later, the documentary still resonates even on a small screen.  Pablo Picasso, probably the first celebrity painter of the mass media age (or maybe that was Dali?) creates original works of art for the camera, illustrating his creative process.  Some of the works are filmed in real time with Picasso using markers with special dyes that bleed through a paper canvas while the camera films from the other side.  Other painting are done using oils and collage and are filmed in a stop-motion style.  All are accompanied by exciting jazz or Spanish guitar, the painting at times seemingly synched to the music.

There’s even a part of the movie where they show “behind the scenes” with Picasso interacting with the director Clouzot and the cinematographer Claude Renoir.  There’s a dramatic scene where Picasso works to finish with only seconds of film left.  I remembered this happening at the end of the movie, heightening the drama, but it actually happens closer to the middle.  I couldn’t find any evidence of alternate versions of the film existing so I must be misremembering.

Anyhow, it’s fascinating how with just a few brushstrokes Picasso can create recognizable figures and a story (generally a painter working in a studio with nude models or bullfighting scenes).  For his ink sketches, I found the more details he added the more gaudy they became.  But the oil and collage work became even more fascinating as Picasso would fully change many details and backgrounds, erase and redesign the figures, thus making several effective variations on a theme.  It kind of makes one wonder how Picasso decided when a painting was “complete?”

Rating: ****1/2