ROMA


Cleo enjoys the view from the rooftops of suburban Mexico City.

(2018) Drama (Netflix) Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Damesa, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Verónica Garcia, Andy Cortės, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Josė Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Latin Lover, Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, Jose Luis López Gómez, Edwin Mendoza Ramirez, Clementina Guadarrama. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

 

Some movies assault our senses frontally; others wash over us like a wave. Roma, the Oscar-nominated Netflix opus from acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, is one of the latter types of films.

Set in the upscale Roma neighborhood during the turbulent 1970s and loosely based on the director’s own childhood. Cleo (Aparicio) is the maid and nanny for an upper middle class family, including Sra. Sofia (de Tavira) and the father (Grediaga), a medical doctor. On the surface, life is good for the family; they have a lovely home and enjoy evenings of watching TV together as a family with the maid and the other servant Adela (N. G. Garcia) taking care of the family’s every need.

But when the doctor leaves for a conference in Canada which turns out to be a euphemism for leaving his family for his mistress, things turn upside down for the family. Sofia becomes withdrawn, angry; she relies on Cleo more than ever to run the house. The children begin to act out. In the meantime, Cleo gets pregnant courtesy of her jerk of a boyfriend Fermin (Guerrero) and she goes into labor just as the notorious Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 is underway. The family begins to disintegrate from within.

In many ways the movie feels more Italian than Mexican; the slice of life aspect that sees the dual deterioration of Sofia and Cleo has the fatalistic yet dreamlike – albeit strangely realistic – quality that marks the films of some of the great Italian directors of the 70s through the 80s. Cuarón shoots the film essentially in medium shots nearly exclusively, making u feel like flies on the wall but oddly detached. We are not so much part of the family but spies within. All that’s needed to complete the effect is a gigantic tape recorder.

Shooting in black and white usually produces either a retro or documentary feel but again there is that feeling that we are voyeurs in the household. In fact, I would venture to say that this is reality television in the sense that movies once fulfilled that role. It is at once mundane and beautiful.

While Cuarón is specifically examining his own background in a specific time and place, this movie is equally applicable to virtually any time and place. Not all of us grow up with servants but nearly all of us grow up with challenges in our family, whether it be the sudden loss of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse or simply that the times they are a’changin’, we all know heartache in our lives.

This may be too slow-moving for some. The story unfolds like a rose even though there is more rot than rose to it. Parts of the movie are difficult to follow although Cuarón does tie everything nicely by movie’s end, I suspect that there aren’t a lot of Americans who will be patient enough for the two hours plus running time. Also, most of us are going to see this on television or computer screens at home or in some other distraction-heavy environment. If ever there was a movie that was meant to be experienced in a movie theater, it’s this one. Here in Central Florida, the movie was only available in The Villages which is a real shame. That’s partly due to the onerous rental terms that Netflix set for the film, making it nearly impossible for a theater to turn any sort of profit for running the movie. Maybe at some point kinder heads will prevail at Netflix and they will make the film available for a more reasonable theatrical release. I think the goodwill that such an action would generate among their subscribers (and potential subscribers) would be worth far more what they are profiting from the film currently.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the most beautifully composed shots you’ll see this year. Aparicio is a major find. The cinematography is compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow moving and occasionally disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, graphic nudity and adult themes throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie from a streaming service to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Point Man

Living in the Age of Airplanes


A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

(2015) Documentary (National Geographic) Harrison Ford (narration). Directed by Brian J. Terwilliger

 

We take travel for granted. We step on an airplane and in less than a day we are anywhere else in the world. It was not that much more than a century ago that was not the case at all. Long distance travel was done by ships, or by trains. And it was not that many generations before that that the fastest travel was only as fast as the horse you rode on.

The fact is that for the first 200,000 years of human existence, the only way we got anywhere was by walking. Most human beings never ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born. We had a clearer map of the stars than we did of our own planet. What lay beyond the horizon of our sight might as well have been on the moon; in fact, we could see the moon much more clearly than what was just over the hill.

This National Geographic documentary celebrates the airplane – and I mean celebrates it. Narrated by actor and aviator Harrison Ford, this National Geographic documentary looks at how the airplane has changed the world and is divided into five different sections; the first examines the beginnings of flight and places it in a timeline of human history. Quite frankly, if you look at where the plane lies on that line, it’s barely distinguishable from its end which represents the present.

From there we look at airports as a portal to the globe; step through a gate, sit down and when you rise and emerge through the other gate, you’re in a faraway place; maybe halfway around the globe. Ford also intones that the airplane is the closest thing we have to a time machine in that it can transport us to sites where ancient civilizations once flourished, or to monuments of modern civilizations. It’s a claim that’s a bit histrionic and overly dramatic, but I can see the point.

We also see how much of the things we buy and place in our homes were transported there at least partially by air. We follow a rose plucked in Kenya with 14 days of life left to it; from Kenya it is flown to Amsterdam where it is then shipped via FedEx to Memphis and from Memphis to Anchorage to where it ends up in the dining room of an Alaskan home. We are then shown all the other items in the room that made it to that home through the air.

Finally we see the final stage. “Of all the places airplanes can take us,” muses Ford, “the most meaningful is home.” We see then the airport as a place where reunions take place. Anyone who has taken a trip where they have been separated from their families for any length of time, or visits a loved one they haven’t seen in way too long will appreciate this segment.

The music and images here are well thought out, and make for a fairly thrilling experience. There is an IMAX version of this 42 minute film and I wish I’d seen it in that format; it would have been remarkable. It’s still impressive even in the 2D presentation that you are likely to have at home.

We don’t see the down side of air travel here; the delays, the cramped seating, the expensive food and drink options, the inconveniences and the security checkpoint hassles. However, as Louis CK once said in a comedy routine, we bitch about being delayed half an hour for a trip from New York to Los Angeles that lasts about six to eight hours; a trip that once took fourteen months that the entire party taking it wouldn’t survive. We do have it a lot easier in that regard.

There’s no doubt that airplanes have opened up the world to the average person and made it possible for goods and services – and tourists – to travel the globe. It’s pretty astonishing if you take the time to think about it. While this particular documentary is a bit overly glossy in the style of an industry convention presentation or more to the point, a film in a pavilion at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT, it does remind us that air travel is something that we shouldn’t take for granted. The world would indeed be a very different place without it.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are amazing. The James Horner score reminds us what a talent he was. The flower segment is absolutely fascinating.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a little bit like a film at an EPCOT pavilion. The subjects don’t flow and there is little connection from one section to the next.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s nothing here that’s not suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Horner, who scored the film, ironically died in an airplane crash shortly after its release.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A plethora of featurettes, deleted scenes and some content from some of the film’s partners including FedEx.
SITES TO SEE: iTunes
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Koyaanisqatsi
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!

Kingdom of Shadows


The price of recreational drug use isn't always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

The price of recreational drug use isn’t always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Sister Consuelo Morales, Oscar Hagelseib, Don Henry Ford Jr., Nik Steinberg, Diego Alonso Salazar, Auden Cabello, Leah Ford, Virginia Buenrostro, Luz Maria Duran, Joshua Ford, Dina Hagelseib, Diana Martinez. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz

It is no secret that the drug cartels have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. Violence from the cartels has escalated and in the city of Monterrey, a beautiful municipality that is the center in a war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel which has escalated so that innocent civilians who have no connection with the drug trade whatsoever are disappearing, murdered by one faction or the other which was unheard of just a decade ago.

Director Bernardo Ruiz looks at the problems created by this violence from three distinct viewpoints from three different people; Sister Consuelo Morales is an activist/nun who advocates for the families of those who have disappeared, acting as a liaison between the families and the police who are perceived to be (and actually are) corrupt – in fact, some of the kidnappings are performed by officers of the law, further deepening the mistrust the people of Mexico have for their own government and its institutions.

Don Henry Ford Jr. is a convicted drug smuggler from Belmont, Texas who worked on his own family farm, but deepening debt forced him into a need for quick cash and there are few instances of cash that are quicker than bringing drugs from Mexico to the United States. Although he was eventually caught and served time in prison, he was already disillusioned by what he saw as escalating violence by new players in the game who disregarded the rules and has since left the life to concentrate on his legitimate farm work.

Oscar Hagelseib grew up in Socorro, Texas, the son of illegal immigrants in a neighborhood that was infected by the drug trade. A cousin’s house was used as a stash location for the cartels and those who entered the trade were far more prosperous than those who didn’t. However, as it turned out, Oscar would go into law enforcement, first with the Border Patrol and later with the Homeland Security Agency. Once an undercover agent but now in charge of drug-related offenses in the El Paso office, he is unafraid to show his face in the media, arguing that he was in less danger than would a snitch or someone within the cartels who betrayed the cartels.

All three look at the disappearances primarily – those civilians who one day just aren’t there. More often than not they turn up in narco kitchens – mass graves. These disappearances haven’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Pinochet in Chile and those at the time were done by government military forces. The corruption is so rampant that nearly every candidate for office in Mexico has to include overhauling their local police force as part of their platform, but few ever get around to actually doing it.

The documentary suffers a little bit from a lack of focus; there is no coherent storyline here, more like a series of interviews entwined together. The statistics are sobering and so are the stories being told here, but because there really isn’t any kind of unification between those stories they are wasted somewhat, floating on the wind instead of being given a larger context. That does those stories a disservice, although they do remain powerful.

It is well-known that the cartels in Mexico are outrageously violent, but we don’t see much of the violence here except for some news footage of bodies being cut down from places where they will be seen as an example of what happens to those who cross the cartels, and one family member of a disappeared one recounts tearfully how her daughter had been raped for three days straight before being executed according to an eyewitness, although she prayed it wasn’t true – you can see in her eyes that she knows that it is.

It is in fact the faces that are the most haunting thing. The end of the movie is simply a montage of faces, faces of the victims and the faces of the families. Some can barely hold back the tears; others can barely contain their rage. Some are stoic, others expressive. Some are young, some old, some in-between. That last montage carries more meaning than almost the rest of the documentary put together; those faces connect the viewer to the story in a powerful way. If only the rest of the movie could be more like that. Still, this is the kind of story that the news agencies in the States isn’t likely to tell and when it does, only in a cursory way. This is the world these people live in, a world we are partially responsible for due to our insatiable consumption of illegal narcotics. If we want to win the war on drugs, that’s what we need to concentrate on.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and haunting. Uses news footage effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Unfocused and lacks flow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and depictions of violence, and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The term “narco kitchen” refers to mass graves in which drug cartels bury those they’ve executed. Prior to burial the bodies are incinerated so that they cannot be positively identified.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Shameless

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill