Archive for January 2019

Roma

January 27, 2019

roma Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, considered the front-runner among the eight films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, comes pre-packaged with all sorts of hype about how personal and autobiographical it is for Cuarón and how artfully it has been realized. Every frame of the film could be isolated and hung on a wall, and maybe that’s what should be done with it. Roma is a beautiful boring movie. Cuarón’s laborious technique gets between us and the emotions we’re supposed to be drawing from the screen. What’s sad is that, after the accolades and awards, a fair number of people who actually sit through the thing may feel they’re the ones at fault, not refined enough to appreciate such a monumental work. To such viewers I can only say, It’s not your fault.

In outline it’s a nostalgic sketch set in 1970, when Cuarón was eight or nine, based on his family’s life in Colonia Roma, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City. The movie is dedicated to the family’s maid back then, named Cleo here and played (well and honestly) by novice actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo works for an educated, professional couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, and their four kids. She gets pregnant by a ne’er-do-well who, when she tells him the news, ditches her in a movie theater; the drama between them is upstaged by the far less fancy film showing on the screen (La Grande Vadrouille, a French war comedy) — my attention kept wandering to it. At least the movie within the movie moves.

Most of Roma is photographed (by Cuarón himself) in long shot, in lengthy takes. Some of the press has identified various aesthetic reasons for this, but it just keeps everything at a literal distance from us, and there’s a practical reason for the glacial pace — Cuarón wants you to see Roma in massive 70mm, the film fetishist’s preferred format (well, that or 16mm), and when you compose and edit for an image that large, the cuts can’t come too fast and furious or the movie will make everyone throw up. Meanwhile, on the home screen, which is where most of us will see Roma, it just feels pompously, pointlessly long. “Why are we watching Cleo walking this whole goddamn way,” I would gripe to myself, or “Oh goody, another slow pan across nothing much happening while yet another airplane passes meaningfully overhead.” There’s a scene where Cleo goes to find her slimy baby daddy at a martial-arts training class, and I swear we have to sit through what feels like 45 minutes of a bunch of guys doing wrathful martial-arts poses before we get to the point of the scene, which is him saying he wants nothing to do with the baby. The scene could’ve unfolded in a Burger King bathroom, but that wouldn’t have been as visually, Oscar-baitingly impressive.

I’m sorry; this all sounds harsh. Roma is, for me, a failure, but one on a higher level than a superhero movie or romcom that fails. It swings for the fences and whiffs, a big whistling whiff, but at least it swings. It’s not a cowardly bunt, and the emotionally transparent Yalitza Aparicio sustains us through a lot of it, with Marina de Tavira picking up slack as the family’s sad and angry mother. Roma has its too-facile plot points, like the revelation immediately preceding Cleo’s water breaking, and the dramatic sequence following it is blunted by, once again, Cuarón being extremely artful and clever with the camera placement. The water breaking is part of the film’s rampant water imagery, starting with the opening titles, with a window reflected off wet floor tiles — the movie is visually grandiloquent before it’s two minutes old. Every director has a polished nostalgic turd like this in them, and Roma is Cuarón’s. Now, perhaps, he can stop telling us what an artist he is and return to proving it.

Advertisements

First Man

January 21, 2019

Film Title: First Man You may not be able to tell what emotions Neil Armstrong is experiencing most of the time in First Man, but you might have a better than fair idea of how he felt physically during his flights. Being in a rocket, according to this movie, is like being inside a submarine running crazily on rollercoaster tracks at intolerable speed, spinning and creaking and sparking and thundering. There have been many credible earlier films about the journey beyond Earth — The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 — but First Man is perhaps the first one of them to convince me utterly that, yep, this is what it sounded and looked and felt like. A solid round of applause for director Damien Chazelle (La La Land), of whose previous work I’m not fond, but whose work here is a creme de la creme pure-cinema ride, symphonic and abstract and richly filling.

Unavoidably, the scenes on the ground can’t compete. Most of the movie takes its emotional cue from Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling as a cool cucumber, a champion at tamping down his feelings. In one scene not far into the film, after Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have lost their infant daughter to cancer, we see Armstrong go off by himself and cry a bit, and that has to get us through the remaining two hours plus. Armstrong is the definition of withholding, which makes him an ideal astronaut. But Janet is the opposite — not overly temperamental, but emotionally transparent. And Claire Foy brings such a directness of spirit to her big scenes that Gosling actually bestirs himself and responds to her. Their time together isn’t all anguish and anger, either — there are scenes of them horsing around with their two boys. They never say in so many words what they mean to each other, but we get the idea.

All of that is wallpaper for the larger cinematic portrait not of Neil Armstrong the man, but Neil Armstrong the cipher onto which we can project our hopes and fears while riding with him into varying depths of space. Chazelle doesn’t want too much specificity of character, too much idiosyncrasy, getting between us and the experience. The alien grandeur of the moon sequence is heightened when the frame thickens from its common widescreen scope to the taller proportions of an IMAX screen. (On your TV, the picture will shift from a letterboxed 2.35:1 aspect ratio to a screen-filling 1.78:1.) Wedded to an eclectic Justin Hurwitz score, the images have the burnish and urgency of Steven Spielberg in his prime (Spielberg executive-produced). The action is alarming at times, sometimes close to terrifying. The creaking and clanking we hear inside the planes and rockets drive home our sense that these were essentially fancy buckets — metal tubes full of meat. A million things could have gone tragically wrong during the launch, flight, and landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969; or, rather, a million things had to go right, and it only took one thing to go wrong.

Chazelle takes the 2001 approach and cuts off the sound when appropriate (i.e., when we’re out in space and not meant to be hearing anything). Elsewhere, the sound is exquisitely detailed, fully imagined and integrated. Technically, First Man is a victory, a near-masterpiece. It doesn’t do much that other films haven’t done before, but it does those things with a purity of purpose rare in big-studio American films just now. It’s as though Chazelle and his ringer cast (not a clunker performance in the lot — Gosling’s taciturnity works for the story Chazelle is telling) had approached each scene, whether a space shot or a conversation around a dinner table, and polished it to a blinding shine. This drive to perfection sacrifices a level of humanity; a true work of art usually has at least a drop of embarrassment, a moment of swinging too hard for the fence and whiffing, some evidence of fallibility that compels us to think warmly of it. This is sometimes what people mean when they say they admire a work but don’t love it. I admire First Man enormously.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

January 13, 2019

the-man-who-killed-hitler-and-then-the-bigfoot“It’s the Bigfoot, Ed. They want me to kill it.” That’s ol’ Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) talking to his brother (Larry Miller) over a cup of powdered cocoa and mini-marshmallows. Some forty-odd years prior, Calvin also pulled the trigger on Hitler himself, hence the title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, that title promises something different from what the movie delivers. A feature debut by Robert D. Krzykowski (who co-produced Lucky McKee’s The Woman), Hitler/Bigfoot has unexpected pathos and gravitas, and the titular killings are anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Calvin lost what was really important in the war — his innocence (a killer is something you can never un-become) and the love of his life.

Why did Calvin never track down his stateside sweetie, schoolteacher Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald)? Probably because he felt stained by killing a man, even if that man was Hitler. As Calvin explains to the two government suits who recruit him to deal with Bigfoot, killing Hitler didn’t matter because his words survived him; like the deadly virus that the Bigfoot carries (which is why it urgently needs killing), Hitler’s hateful ideas radiated outward from his corpse and infected millions. Hitler and the Bigfoot both turn out to be smaller and less impressive in the flesh, and more easily killable. Killing them doesn’t make Calvin any happier or even more heroic. As he says, he just did what he was told.

That Hitler/Bigfoot is more subdued, humanistic and poignant than the title indicates doesn’t mean it’s a cult classic like Bubba Ho-Tep, though. It’s a little underdone, with an elaborate flashback structure that sometimes confuses us — we’re watching Calvin (played as a young man by Aidan Turner) during the war, then as a nail-tough codger in the ‘80s, then as a young man again before heading off to war. I suppose this structure is justified by being a tall tale about a man looking back on an eventful life. Krzykowski, though, either neglects or forgets about narrative beats we’re expecting. What happened to Maxine? Why does Calvin fake his own death if he’s just going to be seen publicly with Ed later on? And what’s that in his shoe that bothers him for the whole movie? A tracking device, I’m guessing — how the government keeps tabs on him. (It’s also implied there’s a painting in his parlor that’s bugged.) But Krzykowski has Calvin dump it out of his shoe in a medium shot, and we never get a good close look at the thing. For all we know, it’s the ring he never got a chance to give Maxine.

Still, if you enjoy Sam Elliott and his rich baritone, there are worse ways to spend your evening. Calvin is the sort of flawlessly ethical American who finds a $100 scratch ticket on the sidewalk but refuses to collect the winnings himself; who lives modestly with his trusty ol’ dawg and kills brain cells at a bar, saying he’s thinking about giving up the booze but knowing he won’t. Elliott puts all of this across effortlessly — he’s an iconic presence playing an iconic man who would rather just be obscure. “This is not the comic-book story you want it to be,” he tells the somewhat starry-eyed younger agents who pull him back in. The unemphatic directorial style promises that much, but it’s Elliott — his sad, measured voice the sound of a bruised soul who has seen more blood than you — who really delivers on the promise.

Bird Box

January 6, 2019

birdbox The news informs me that, having watched the new Netflix film Bird Box, people nationwide are taking the “Bird Box challenge.” This involves wandering around wearing a blindfold, copying the characters in the film. Sadly, it does not involve aping the film’s other following behaviors: carrying birds around, listening to upbeat Dionne Warwick oldies, or taking pity on refugees escaping from terrifying hazards. It would be nice if more of us took that last Bird Box challenge in the weeks to come. Anyway, if you don’t expect it to make literal sense on a scene-by-scene basis, Bird Box is a fairly tense metaphorical thriller, though with a fatal structural flaw.

Well, since you asked so nicely: When a narrative has fancy flashback architecture — if it goes back and forth between what we understand as “now” and what we’re told was “five years ago” — it’s very hard for any of the flashbacks to pack any suspense. We begin with our emotionally prickly artist heroine, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), preparing two children we assume are hers for a dangerous rowboat trip down a river. We then go back to five years earlier, when the apocalypse comes in the form of creatures who drive their victims suicidally insane if looked upon. Malorie, who is pregnant, makes her way through the chaos to a house holding several other survivors. Right off the bat, we figure Malorie had to survive whatever threatens her in the flashbacks we see, and we figure she lives to have at least one kid, too. But wait, one of her fellow survivors is also pregnant. So either Malorie ends up having twins, or this second pregnant woman is destined for the dirt and Malorie has to adopt her kid, and…

Well, like I said, it’s metaphorical. Bird Box was directed by Susanne Bier, who has made several acclaimed, even Oscar-nominated dramas in her native Denmark and elsewhere. If Netflix is to be believed, Bird Box has been watched 45 million times, which, even if we buy only a third of that number, represents millions more eyes than have been on any of Bier’s previous features. Bier isn’t really interested in the monsters, or in survival either; she seems more intrigued by how people in extremis treat one another. To that end, we get a fair number of scenes dealing with the tension, or relative lack thereof, between the survivors in the flashbacks. This has the unfortunate effect of making the few characters all seem to be symbolizing something or other — John Malkovich’s unhospitable character, for instance, reps callous paranoia — and there’s a potentially distasteful element wherein the mentally ill, immune for some reason to the monsters’ influence, become violent predators who want the unafflicted to look at the monsters and die. Then again, that may be part of a subtler point that we must empathize with the mentally ill or suffer accordingly.

Anyway, the film continues to flip back and forth, without many surprises. Since kids are involved, we have a hunch there’s a limit to how dark the story can get, and we are correct. Bird Box has been around in a variety of forms for decades. The most we can do is look under the hood of this year’s model, kick the tires, and see how it runs. The characters are basically delivery systems for the film’s metaphors, and the actors can’t access much beyond the basics — fear, love — in the moment. I most enjoyed the sequence dealing with the crisis finally arriving in America, which provides a cascading chill of mores and taboos exploding everywhere we look. But even here, we get Sarah Paulson as Bullock’s acerbically pro-social sister — for all of five minutes. I would cheerfully have swapped a few of the gray, cold, repetitive rowboat scenes for a few more minutes with Paulson.