An Endearing Experience Going Down Memory Lane with Alfonso Cuarón
There may be a temptation to hold off viewing “Roma” for when it becomes available for streaming on Netflix soon after its limited theatrical release, but this is one movie best seen on the BIG SCREEN. A similar statement could be said for all of Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s (“Gravity” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) films because the look of his projects are as noteworthy as any other aspects, if not more so. He is a filmmaker in the true sense of the word! In the case of “Roma,” the black and white cinematography is utterly captivating and wonderfully takes center stage while offering a respectful nod to Fellini.
Set in 1970 in Cuarón’s homeland of Mexico, specifically a section of Mexico City, the film is a loving homage to his childhood home, his community and his family, made up of a stay-at-home mother, a father who is a doctor, a maternal grandmother, four small children and the family’s domestic help. The thinly veiled story is from the perspective of the family’s housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, hardworking kind soul who notices everything, cares for everyone, but judges no one. The audience is with her as she rises before anyone else in the wee hours of the morning and prepares breakfast. The camera follows her throughout the execution of her other household tasks, such as hanging clothes up to dry on the line, and cleaning up after the family dogs left to their own devices too often in the home’s courtyard. Cleo puts the kids to bed, wakes them in the morning and accompanies them to school each day. She empathizes with the mother as she is crushed by her husband’s decision to walk away from the family, leaving them with little money to maintain their somewhat affluent lifestyle.
In between caring for the family, Cleo endures her own personal drama of falling in love and suffering loss. The dialogue is sparse, the story line is minimal, yet this film seems to convey volumes. It manages to be intimate while also epic; simple, yet complex; covering multiple classes of people, social issues and political upheaval, and all while navigating various physical landscapes. We’re taken from urban centers to country ranches and costal towns. There are experiences of poverty and wealth, and the tension of Mexico’s class divides. Throughout, the photography, shot by Cuarón himself, sweeps you up and envelopes you, adding a sense of emotional richness and texture, and although the characters are purposely not completely drawn, they feel authentic. Underscoring the film’s authenticity, and like a breath of fresh air, is the use of non-professional actors in key roles, not least of which is Aparicio herself. “Roma” is her debut, having come straight from teaching pre-school to Curan’s set. In all, Cuarón has successfully captured a sense of time and place resulting in a film that is as gorgeous as it is poignant, making it a cinematic experience not to be missed. “Roma” is slated to get only a brief theatrical release before being made available on Netflix.
A Period Comedy with A Bite
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Olivia Colman (“Broadchurch,” “The Night Manager” TV mini series) perform before, there’s no better way to be introduced to her than through the new movie, “The Favourite.” In it, she’s part of a strong threesome that includes Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Colman definitely holds her own, if not a bonafide scene stealer as a mentally unstable and physically frail Queen Anne during 18th century England. This is a dark comedy romp of a film by director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) revolving around two power hungry women vying for the queen’s favor. Lady Sarah, played by Weisz, has long been Anne’s closest advisor and friend, with benefits. She relishes in running the show as Anne defers to her on most weighty matters of rule. If any men in power want to sway Anne on political matters, they know they have to get through Sarah first, for better or worse.
Sarah’s position seems secure until her distant cousin, Abigail from the poor part of the family, comes knocking on the palace door begging for a job. Since Abigail seems lowly and weak, Sarah does not see her as a threat, and takes pity, assigning her a position as one of many servants. It doesn’t take long before Abigail sets her sights higher and weasels her way up the palace ladder, garnering the attention of the queen while Sarah is not looking. Once Sarah feels threatened, it is too late because Abigail has secured a higher role, possibly pushing her cousin completely out of the picture. As such, the palace wars ensue to the utter pleasure of the queen.
The film starts out innocent and slyly enough, but the pacing and cruelties ramp up with every twist and turn. You may come into the film with one set of expectations - a light, fun comedy - but halfway through, you’ll find yourself in a completely different movie. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. “The Favourite” is an excellent example of dark comedy done well. In some ways it’s fun and frivolous, in other ways it’s disturbing and sinister. The characters are an unexpected treat, and in the hands of Stone, Weisz and especially Colman, they excel. That, coupled with being a period piece, it’s a delightful twist on more traditional movies of its genre(s). For a unique cinematic experience, take a ride on the darker side.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Country: Ireland / UK / USA
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 119 min.
Steve McQueen’s Delivers in His Hotly Anticipated Follow-Up to 12 Years a Slave
One of the highlights of the Mill Valley Film Festival 2018, and a sure-to-be-hit of the upcoming movie season - as in race for the Oscars - is “Widows,” a heist suspense movie starring Viola Davis. In fact, to leave this just at a description as “suspense” is an understatement. This is better described as a palm sweating, edge-of-your-seat, entertaining thriller that you will probably view more than once. Although many movies of the genre can tend to be fun, but unexceptional, what sets “Widows” apart from its predecessors is its unique script, a fantastic ensemble cast, with a badass group of women at its core, and all headed up by critically acclaimed director, Steve McQueen (“Hunger” and “12 Years a Slave”). None would have suspected McQueen’s follow-up to his Academy Award “Best Picture” winning 2013 drama “12 Years a Slave” would have been a contemporary heist, but then again no one should associate McQueen with predictability. He is a visionary, and he clearly has no intentions of being boxed into anyone’s expectations but his own. Like "12 Years," this movie is adapted from a book. McQueen collaborated with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl” and “Sharper Objects”) to breathe new life into Lynda La Plante’s British novel of the same name.
Audiences are launched into the film with a bang, as multiple characters are in the midst of a high-stakes robbery, with Harry Rawlings, played by the formidable Liam Neeson at the helm. Set in Chicago and while implementing a two million dollar job with his team, things take a literally explosive and tragic turn, leaving all involved dead. Harry is survived by his wife Veronica (Viola Davis), and by all accounts as seen in numerous flashback scenes, they had been very much in love despite their many years together and having suffered an earlier loss of their teen son. It also seems evident early on that Veronica had been unaware of Harry’s life of crime. Soon after his death, though, she is faced with Harry’s sordid past and pressed to make good on his debts. Reeling from her loss while seeing no way to accumulate the necessary funds in the short time given, she devices a heist plan of her own and enlists (or pressures) the other women who also lost their spouses in the earlier ill fated robbery. Reluctant though they may be, the group, made up of Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon, attempt to pull off their late husband’s last planned score. Along the way, thugs are unleashed and dirty politicians uncovered, while issues of race, gender and social injustice are integrated. Lending to the film’s atmosphere and rounding out the core cast, is an equally impressive supporting cast including Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo and Robert Duvall.
Warning: If you’re expecting some glossy transition of the band of merry widows, from hating each other, being down and out and looking and dressing a certain way, to love and roses, with all forgiven and sleek fashion at the forefront, you’ll be disappointed. This is not “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Oceans 8”. This is raw, gritty, at times violent, and welcomingly complex. Strap in this holiday season and enjoy the ride.