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Posts Tagged ‘Alfonso Cuaron’

Nothing lasts forever. Netflix has risen to ubiquity in the last few years due to an effective two-pronged strategy: lavishly-produced brand new material you can’t see anywhere else, and licensed old favourites from many other places you’d really like to watch again. The enormous success of this approach has taken traditional media providers by surprise, catching them flat-footed, but state of affairs will not endure. Disney are due to launch their own streaming service within the year, which means a sizeable tranche of movies and TV shows will vanish from Netflix and move onto the rival (this will include all the Marvel and stellar conflict movies); other providers will likely follow suit, taking their own archive content with them.

So it is very likely that Netflix will become increasingly dependent on its self-generated content in order to stay successful. Here the service’s ‘here and nowhere else’ policy may actually count against it, especially when it comes to less-commercial movies. Your typical arthouse or quality movie release is often dependent on reviews and awards success in order to find or attract an audience, and most awards-giving bodies have been very clear that a Netflix-only release does not qualify a film for the big name prizes – it has to play in actual cinemas if it wants to get nominated.

For a long time Netflix held the line and refused to compromise when it came to putting their original movies into cinemas – to do so would be to defeat the whole point of being a streaming-only site. However, recently they seem to have cracked, putting Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on at film festivals and into actual movie theatres. This appears to have paid off in spades, for in addition to most likely being the best-performing subtitled movie in years (Netflix is coy about these things), Roma has managed to displace The Favourite as the favourite for this year’s most prestigious awards.

The film is mostly set in Mexico City, nearly fifty years ago, and concerns the life of a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who is the live-in cleaner, child-minder and general domestic help for a wealthy family in the wealthy suburb of Colonia Roma.  The couple are experiencing marital difficulties; their four children are loud, demanding, and (I found) rather annoying. Cleo has a lot on her plate nearly all the time.

For a while this looks like it’s going to be one of those slice-of-life movies where nothing much actually happens worth mentioning, but then Cleo discovers that her new boyfriend, the martial-arts-obsessed Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), has managed to get her pregnant. His response when told of this is to vanish from the scene quicker than you can say ‘Come home, Speedy Gonzales!’ Meanwhile, her employers’ marriage disintegrates, the husband moving out and leaving his wife (Marina de Tavira) to cope alone, while trying to keep the truth from the children.

You know me, I’m not especially cynical (quiet at the back!), but while watching Roma it did occur to me that if you wanted to make a movie that was custom-built to become a critical darling and Oscar bait, the end result might very well end up looking rather like this one.

For one thing, it is made in pristine, luminous black and white, which is a choice that directors make for one of two reasons: either as a sort of visual shorthand to indicate that a film is set way back in the past, or because they’re interested in the aesthetics of a film, rather than its narrative qualities. This movie is not set so long ago that black and white feels like the natural way to go (indeed at one point the characters go and see the colour movie Marooned – perhaps a playful tip of the hat, coming from the director of Gravity), so I’m guessing it is at least partly a visual thing. Certainly the film always looks beautiful even when the things appearing on the screen probably shouldn’t.

Also stirred into the mix for this spicy favour-currying curry is the fact that despite the cinematic artifice of the film’s presentation, the story it depicts is resolutely naturalistic and down to earth. There’s inevitably a whiff of socially-aware film-making going on here, which is of course a long and estimable tradition within ‘serious’ film-making. The lives of the different strata of Mexican society are presented, and the various injustices and issues within that society are obliquely addressed.

Although it has to be said that this is not a film which feels especially inclined to dive in and get its hands dirty, or anything like that. Roma is not one of those movies where the director’s art vanishes behind the story – Cuaron is clearly at work throughout. Quite apart from the choice of the film’s aesthetic, he opts for quite a formal approach, with many scenes composed of very long takes, mostly in long shot, with the camera panning or tracking to follow a particular character as they move about. The very-long-take seems to be in fashion at the moment as a way for directors to show off (there’s a particularly ostentatious example near the start of Outlaw King, another Netflix movie), but it does manage to feel less contrived here, even when the logistics of achieving some of the shots make them undeniably impressive.

You may be sensing that I am less swooningly in love with Roma than many proper film critics – well, it’s a fair cop, guv’nor, I have to say that this is true. For the most part I did not find the story particularly immersive or especially engaging. The film is so self-consciously and obviously crafted as a work of art that the characters and their story almost feel secondary to anything else – it looks beautiful, of course, but this is the beauty of a painting or sculpture, intended to be viewed holistically, rather than that of a really great narrative.

The one exception to this is a sequence towards the end of the film involving a hospital visit, which is genuinely tough-to-watch, emotionally wrenching stuff – not just because of what happens, but also because of the general sense of the viewpoint character being treated with a total lack of empathy or consideration. Perhaps this is what the film is about, at its heart: Cleo and her employers live together, and all have their own personal problems to deal with, and while to their credit they do seem to have some concern for her, she is not quite a member of the family – if anything, she is treated like a much-loved pet, and most of the time they remain preoccupied with their own concerns.

As I say, though, if there is a particular message that Alfonso Cuaron would like Roma to deliver, then it does not feel like the film’s only, or even primary concern. This is a beautiful film, skilfully crafted, with solidly naturalistic performances, and a deeply humane sensibility. It feels precision crafted to be an awards contender, and perhaps that’s the problem with it: it feels perhaps just a little bit too calculated. Nevertheless, I expect it will continue to do very well for the remainder of the awards season – I’m not sure it would get my vote, though.

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As long-term readers should be well aware, I am member in good standing of the Kermodian sect of film-followers, which is to say that under normal circumstances I will happily go a very long way to avoid seeing a film in 3D. I can’t have seen more than half-a-dozen or so, certainly not more than ten, and most of those because the movie in question wasn’t released in a 2D format. Of those the only one in which the stereoscopy didn’t feel like a tedious piece of gimmickry was Hugo, and that was two years ago. However, now I have to add another film to that list, and the film in question is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Even Dr K himself has gone on the record to concede that (and I quote) ‘Gravity is worth seeing in 3D’, such a startling announcement, all things considered, that it surely signifies the coming of a really exceptional piece of work. And so it proves – we are so routinely bombarded with superlatives these days that they have lost any real meaning, which means that this will inevitably not have the impact I would wish, but nevertheless – Gravity is an astonishingly good movie, head and shoulders above virtually everything else released so far in 2013.

gravity-poster

Sandra Bullock is way out of her usual rom-com comfort zone as a space scientist, which is not inappropriate given her character is way out of any sort of comfort zone. Ryan Stone (for this is her name)  is a mission specialist on a space shuttle mission to refit the Hubble Space Telescope. It is her first time in space and she is having trouble acclimatising, not least because there is no climate in the first place. She is a complete contrast to the commander, Kowalski (George Clooney), a hugely experienced veteran on his final mission prior to retirement.

All is going reasonably well until news reaches the astronauts of an unfolding disaster in orbit, resulting in a dense cloud of debris travelling around the planet at supersonic speeds. The shuttle is in the path on the debris, and a close encounter between the two could have devastating consequences for the crew…

And that’s just the first five minutes (albeit of a relatively short film by modern standards). To say too much about what follows would inevitably reduce the impact of the story, but suffice to say that Stone and Kowalski are instantly flung into life-threatening danger which persists for the rest of the film, one way or another.

It all starts quietly enough, though: after captions deliver some salutary information about the hostility of hard vacuum to life as we know it, the film opens with a peaceful, breathtaking shot of Earth rotating. Nothing happens for what feels like a long time, until – with almost imperceptible slowness – the orbiting shuttle comes into view, slowly swelling to fill the screen. The camera lazily loops and spins around the vehicle, taking in Clooney lazily jetting around it by means of a new type of jetpack, a tense Bullock at work on a grappled Hubble, and so on – both actors’ faces are clearly visible. And this goes on for what feels like eternity, in what does an extremely good impression of being a single, unbroken shot. It’s utterly, utterly extraordinary, and makes the opening of Touch of Evil feel very pedestrian (not that this is really a fair comparison).

You are inevitably reduced to wondering how the hell Cuaron achieved this, how many different CGI and blue-screen elements are interacting in this single shot, and so on – but then, almost miraculously, the droll dialogue between Clooney and Mission Control (Ed Harris), and the obvious tension that Bullock is feeling, sucks you into the story and the characters, and your sense of sheer confoundment at the technical wizardry – and for once this does not feel like too strong a word for it – is reduced to a dull background roar. The actual plot is much too compelling for anything else.

Maybe Cuaron has tricked everyone and actually made the film on location in orbit. Or possibly he just managed to track down the people who faked the moon landings and got them to help him out. I would argue, not that it matters, that Gravity isn’t really a science fiction movie, as – the existence of a NASA orbiter programme excepted – everything in it is completely grounded in the realities of manned spaceflight, but even so it is one of the most convincing depictions of space travel I can recall seeing. Issues such as inertia, momentum, orbital velocity and reaction mass are crucially important again and again – even the difficulties of using a fire extinguisher in zero-G are addressed. There do seem to be some implied references to classic SF and space movies, most of them very deadpan – Harris’ involvement is surely a reference to his very similar role in Apollo 13, while later on I’m sure there’s a wry tip of the hat to Barbarella, of all things – but these are very incidental pleasures. The film is content to concentrate on being an utterly gripping drama.

If Gravity was simply a technically superb thriller set in orbit, given the virtuosity of its production it would still be a very notable piece of work. What elevates it to the status of a breathtaking instant classic is that the heart of the film is a deeply resonant and very moving human drama. The film is fundamentally about isolation and loneliness, about being cut off from the world. This is true of Stone both physically and psychologically, and the deftness with which the film makes this clear and charts her progress back towards something approaching normal reality is, in its own way, every bit as impressive as any of the special effects or directorial flourishes which Cuaron deploys. The key scene at the end of the second act of the film may well prove a little controversial to some people – whether it’s a brilliantly executed piece of metaphor or a hackneyed old cliche will probably be a matter of personal taste – but apart from this text and subtext complement each other perfectly and the result is a film which works brilliantly on every level.

The advertising for Gravity seems to be based largely on the film’s credentials both as a thriller adventure and a groundbreaking piece of 3D virtuosity. And both of these are, as I hope I’ve been able to communicate, deeply impressive. But it’s the human factor which really gives the film its power, and it’s the performances of Clooney and Bullock which bring it to life so vividly. This is an amazingly beautiful, desperately gripping, and in places profoundly moving film, as close to unmissable as any I have seen in recent years. Many Oscars await, if the award is to retain any credibility.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 17th 2004:

Sometimes low-budget and art-house films have more of an influence on mainstream and genre cinema than you might think. Consider the kitchen-sink, realist (some might say miserabilist), socially-engaged films made by people like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke in the UK over the last twenty years, films like Meantime, Made in Britain, Naked and Life is Sweet. Consider the generation of outstanding British actors these films have made famous – performers like Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, and Tim Roth. Now consider what all these high-powered thesps are currently doing with their time!

Yes folks, it’s a review of another Harry Potter movie, in which nearly all of the above pop up – and had Tim Roth not turned a recurring role in the franchise down in favour of doing Planet of the Apes we would have had the full set. I must confess to having felt merely whelmed at the prospect of the latest installment, Prisoner of Azkaban, mostly due to the bland overfaithfulness of the first two films (and the frankly alarming behaviour of some of the more fanatically zealous Potterphiles). But, freed of its previous role as warm-up act for Lord of the Rings, and with new director Alfonso Cuaron at the wheel, the series has taken a quantum leap forward.

It kicks off in ominously familiar style, with the Dursleys being beastly to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), before the whole back-to-school routine begins once more. The appalling danger facing our hero and his chums (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) this time round is all to do with disturbed wizard Sirius Black (Oldman) who has escaped from the magical prison Azkaban and is determined to track Harry down…

To be honest, on paper the plot doesn’t have much to distinguish itself from that of the first two films, it’s the same mixture of intrigue, imagination and humour, with a few twists along the way. And in many ways this film is much like its predecessors. As noted at the top of the page, this series has the ability to attract a truly stellar cast for even quite small roles (one suspects many of them have their arms twisted by their kids). The regular cast (Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Alan Rickman) all show up once more, and this time round they are joined by Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, Lenny Henry, Julie Christie, Michael Gambon, and Emma Thompson (who hams it up something chronic), to name but most of them (and I swear I saw Ian Brown from The Stone Roses as an extra in one scene). Presumably the producers have squads of hunters out looking for Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench, who seem to be about the only two classically trained British film stars yet to have appeared in this series. Admittedly some of these people have very tiny parts (the fourth-billed Christie has about three lines), but in way that’s almost more impressive. The key parts are uniformly well-performed, and Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris well, giving the character a slightly distant, slippery quality that bodes well for future appearances.

Of course, all the Potter movies have been all-star-cast affairs but what’s new this time is a welcome change in focus and direction. Steve Kloves’ script is commendably ruthless in the way it hacks back the text to produce a focussed and pacy script that never drags or outstays its welcome. Admittedly there are a few loose ends come the final credits and some of the exposition is a little shaky but probably only people who already know the story will notice this.

But the success of Prisoner of Azkaban is largely down to Alfonso Cuaron’s direction. Cuaron knows how to give a film atmosphere, as is obvious from the slightly Time Bandits-esque opening. He gives the real world scenes real grit, the ones in Hogwarts and elsewhere a genuine sense of wonder, and the contrast between the two has never been so striking or effective. It’s invidious to make comparisons, but it’s probably impossible now to make a big-budget fantasy film without setting yourself up against Peter Jackson’s mighty trilogy – and Cuaron acquits himself well, particularly in the sequences featuring the spectral Dementors. Their grim presence seems to have bled out and given the rest of the movie a rather chilly atmosphere (ironic, given this is the first Potter movie not to get a Christmas release). But there’s warmth and humour here as well as bleakness, with inventive and funny jokes and visual quirks filling the screen on a regular basis.

I may have to go into hiding for saying this, but for me Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the first in the series to actually take flight and work as a film in its own right rather than just as an adaptation. And, of course, it does J.K. Rowling’s work much more justice as a result. Great fun, for all the family – dare I say it? – magic.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 30th November 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. When I came out to Japan, I was assured that the time difference was only eight or nine hours — and this is mostly true. However, cinematically speaking it’s a different matter. Compared to the United Kingdom, Japan is usually a little bit behind — although this can stretch to anything up to a year. On the other hand, sometimes we’re ahead.

Reaching the Pacific several months after its UK release is Michael Caton-Jones’ Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction (Japanese title: Smile of Ice 2), an ‘honestly, you shouldn’t have bothered’ sequel to the notorious 1992 original. As Sharon Stone apparently negotiated herself a very juicy deal where she got paid a huge wodge of cash whether the movie got made or not, one can perhaps view the finished product as an exercise in amortising expenses rather than a proper movie. As a proper movie, it isn’t very good.

Rumpy-obsessed author and maybe-psycho serial killer Catherine Tramell (Stone) pitches up in London and finds herself banged up (not a new experience for her) on suspicion of killing a famous soccer player (Stan Collymore — no, really). Shabbily relentless cop Roy Washburn (David Thewlis) retains brilliant psychoanalyst Michael Glass (David Morrissey) to assess her mental state with a view to stopping her bail, which he does. For various reasons her bail comes through anyway, and before long Glass finds himself the unwilling subject of Trammell’s attentions…

Well, I haven’t really seen the original movie and this sequel doesn’t really make me want to. When the list of great spectator pastimes is written, watching people getting up to it will be somewhere near the bottom, just above watching people talk about getting up to it, and Basic Instinct 2 contains lengthy sequences of both. These are dull or embarrassing rather than actually erotic.

Somewhat more interesting is the thriller plotline, wherein Glass finds himself in the frame (this may even be a deliberate pun on the part of the screenwriters, which suggests they should reassess their priorities) for various murders of people from his past. This is actually quite engaging, although the script doesn’t offer an alternative suspect to Trammell until rather late in the day. This plotline thankfully features a lot less of Stone, who gives an atrocious performance throughout, and rather more of Morrissey and Thewlis, both of whom battle heroically with the rather thin material they’re given.

The London setting and British cast give this movie a certain novelty value, mostly based on the ‘ooh, it’s whatsisface off thingummy’ factor?But it’s not nearly as clever or interesting as it thinks it is and at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, the film’s morality is deeply unsound. Are we supposed to empathise with or root for a character who is straightforwardly presented as a manipulative, amoral psychotic? That seems to be the intention, but a dodgy script and Stone’s performance make that almost as unlikely as most of the rest of the events in the movie. It’s just about watchable when Stone’s not on screen, but never quite tops the unintentionally hilarious opening sequence.

Arriving from the UK late-summer timezone is Jared Hess’ Nacho Libre, another star vehicle, this time for Jack Black. Really loosely based on fact, this is the tale of a Mexican friar who moonlights as a masked wrestling star.

Regular readers will know I like to include a mini-synopsis for every movie; well, that was it. Okay there’s a bit more to it, involving Black acquiring a very thin tag partner, having rather unmonastic feelings about a nun (Ana de la Reguera, appropriately hot yet pure-looking) and… oh, you get the idea. But not a lot more.

It bowls along fairly amicably, powered by Jack Black doing all his usual schtick: silly voices, singing, falling over for comic effect, and there are quite a few laughs. But not as many as you might think, and for a rather peculiar reason — this movie is not formulaic enough.

You can’t fault Jared Hess for wanting to avoid the clichés which usually beset this kind of tale (underdogs rise to sporting greatness), but without them the story seems disjointed and episodic. This is a very mainstream, knockabout comedy, or it should be, but Hess strives for an atmospheric quirkiness that seems rather out of place.

Jack Black is good value and I did enjoy the movie, but it’s not a comedy classic. It seemed to deeply confuse all the Japanese people at the showing I went to, but that’s probably not a good thing.

From early autumn UK time arrives Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (Japanese title: Tomorrow World 2027). This movie is supposedly based on PD James’ rather literary SF novel of the same name — but friends, I’ve read that book, and other than a couple of events and a few characters, the movie has only the loosest resemblance to the original story.

Clive Owen plays Theo, a London office worker in the near future. Life in 2027 is rather grim, partly due to draconian laws intended to keep the illegal immigrant situation under control and the activities of terrorists intent on overturning these laws, but mainly because everyone in the world has been entirely infertile since about 2009. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Theo’s ex Julian (Julianne Moore) turns up, needing his help: Theo has high-up contacts which he can use to get transit papers for a refugee girl (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who Julian and her (ahem) activist pals desperately need to get out of the country. Or so it initially appears…

The James book was written at least 15 years ago and is, as I said, rather literary. Cuaron’s version is relentlessly gloomy, frequently kinetic and concludes with an enormous gun battle featuring a couple of tanks. To say that there is a bit of political commentary in this movie is understating things — there are explicit parallels with Iraq and Abu Ghraib, not to mention some domestic British issues.

If you don’t mind that kind of thing you may well enjoy the movie. Cuaron creates a convincingly dismal and dismally plausible dystopia, with just enough of today in it, although Owen’s London Olympics sweatshirt may be a gag too far. His direction favours lots of flashy very long takes, but this doesn’t get in the way of the story, which is thoroughly well-acted by people like Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, and Sir Michael Caine. If the ending is a bit inconclusive, well, so’s the one in the book. This is a good and thought-provoking movie, even if it is a bit crashingly unsubtle in places.

Arriving from the near future (late December, to be precise) comes the war movie Flags Of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood (so it’s a thoughtful sort of war movie). When I say this movie is concerned with the battle of Iwo Jima, a bloody clash near the end of the Pacific War, you will understand why I suspect it hasn’t done very well over here, well-made though it undoubtedly is. The Japanese are not actually demonised as such, but it remains unavoidably the case that a major plot point concerns them horribly killing a likeable character played by Jamie Bell. I was uncomfortably aware I was the only European in the theatre when I saw this movie — I nearly shouted ‘now you know how it feels when we watch Mel Gibson movies in England!’ but I thought better of it.

Anyway, the movie goes back and forth between the battle (lavishly recreated) — specifically the famous raising of the American flag atop the island — and the fates of the flag raisers when they are flown home to participate in a drive to raise money for the war effort.

This is a rather slow and worthy movie, but hey — it could have been another drum-beating embarassment like Pearl Harbor, so let’s not complain. The cast features a mixture of established young stars like Ryan Phillipe and Paul Hunter and relative unknowns like Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach (who’s particularly good), together with older performers like Robert Patrick and Neal McDonough. Without being too specific, the movie makes various wise points about the difference between the myths and realities of war and the effect this can have on the participants when they return home. I suspect you actually have to be American to fully get this film, in the same way you have to be Catholic to really get The Exorcist, but I found it to be thoroughly engrossing and as well-made as one would expect from a Clint Eastwood project. I predict nominations and maybe even the odd actual Oscar.

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