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 Sofia becomes withdrawn, angry; she relies on Cleo more than ever to run the house.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

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Stray


Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

(2015) Psychological Thriller (East Meade Street Gang) Gabrielle Stone, Andrew Sensenig, Sean Patrick Foster, Dan McGlaughlin, Alexandra Landau, Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Arita Trahan, Ben Lyle Lotka, Paul McNair, Scarlett Robison, Ana-Maria Arkan, Joe Koch. Directed by Nena Eskridge

 

It is said that no matter how far or how fast we run, the past always catches up with us. I think that’s pretty much true; after all, who can run from what we carry with us everywhere we go?

Jennifer (Stone) arrives in the idyllic small town of Chestnut Hill as a stranger, but she quickly finds a job at a local bar and a house thanks to the trust of lonely Marvin (Sensenig). When Jennifer announces that she’s pregnant, she wastes no time pointing the finger of fatherhood at bar owner Greg (McGlaughlin). As you can imagine, Greg’s fiancée Sarah (Walsh) doesn’t take this news all that well.

As it turns out, Jennifer has something of a checkered past and it’s about to roar into quiet Chestnut Hill like a tornado, with Jennifer at the center. Jennifer’s actions are violent and vicious but she’s had to be that way given what she’s been through. Can she leave that past behind or will she finally be able to create the family she’s yearned for all her life?

This is a micro-budgeted indie (i.e. under $100K budget) and the feature debut of Eskridge, who is an industry veteran in the Northeast. She’s very quick to point out that this isn’t a horror film although there are some horrific elements here so those who are sensitive to such things should be aware of it. No, it’s not a gorefest by any stretch of the imagination; she calls it a psycho-drama and that’s a fairly apt description, but we do have to look in some pretty dark places before the film is over.

With films of this nature, there is a need to keep in mind the circumstances behind it; you can’t hold it to the same criteria that, say, a Martin Scorsese film would be held to. There is a learning curve to filmmaking and it is rare that a first feature microbudget thriller is going to be mistake-free and this one isn’t but all the same this is a very good looking film. Kudos have to go to cinematographer David Landau who puts in some impressive images, using light and shadow effectively. His montage of pastoral scenes at the beginning of the film that is broken up by a scene of sudden violence is masterfully edited.

The film falls down a bit more in the more human elements. The writing is spotty; some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like things that people actually say to each other, and the plot is reasonably predictable and upon occasion, contrived. I don’t mind the occasional contrivance but the filmmaker shouldn’t make a habit of it. I felt that some of the plot points didn’t feel organic.

I don’t like to bash actors and this might well be Eskridge’s inexperience showing through but the acting is stiff. There are scenes when couples are supposed to display affection for one another or when characters are supposed to show attraction to another character, but the body language doesn’t convey it. One can forgive that in a high school drama production but it’s hard to ignore when you can see the stiffness in the way actors hold each other or cuddle. It takes you right out of the film as you realize that these are actors acting, rather than characters being captured on film. The difference is important.

One point is that Jennifer’s violent tendencies are given away too early in the film. I think it would have added to the suspense of the movie had her violent streak been revealed half way through and THEN the back story start to come into play. In a thriller, or psychodrama if you will, it is more effective to keep audiences off-balance when it comes to the lead character’s motivations.

That isn’t to say this is a horrible film; it isn’t. It’s certainly flawed but there are some moments where things click and you can see that Eskridge has some talent and some of the actors do as well, particularly Stone. It also should be said that it does improve as it goes on and the ending is pretty nifty. As I said, there is a bit of a learning curve and this is more of a film at the beginning end of it. The good news that this might be a movie you go back to watching after some of the cast and crew have gone on to bigger and better things and take a gander of what they were up to at the beginnings of their careers.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is stilted. There are a few plot contrivances that take any sort of organic feel the movie had generated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Gabrielle Stone is the daughter of famed actress Dee Wallace Stone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rebound
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Living in the Age of Airplanes

Looking for Palladin


Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

(2008) Drama (Monterey Media/Wildcat) Ben Gazzara, David Moscow, Talia Shire, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Angelica Aragon, Roberto Diaz Gomar, Jimmy Morales, Sammy Morales, Vincent Pastore, Joe Manuella, Robert Youngs, Dick Smith, Sofia Comparini. Directed by Andrzej Krakowski

They say you can run but you can’t hide. That’s doubly true if you’re a movie star. You may find a remote village somewhere in the middle of nowhere where few (if anybody) will know who you are but if you have box office pull, Hollywood will find you.

Jack Palladin (Gazzara) has plenty of pull. One of Hollywood’s most respected actors back in the day, he has disappeared from view as of late with rumors that he is hiding out in a Central American village. High octane agent Josh Ross (Moscow) is sent to fetch him, bearing an offer for the two-time Oscar winner of a million dollars for a cameo in a remake of one of his signature films.

The trouble is, Palladin doesn’t necessarily want to be found, and the locals whose lives he has become a part of are willing to aid him in his privacy. Josh’ disdain for them is matched by their snickers that his Gucci loafers are obvious fakes which I’m sure a lot of Guatemalan villagers are experts at sussing out.

When they do finally meet, Palladin is not inclined to take the offer; he is far too content to be the cook in the restaurant owned by Arnie (Pastore), surrounded by his pals – fellow ex-pats and locals, like the bemused police chief (Armendariz). However, it turns out that Josh and Palladin have an unexpected connection – which changes the game in a profound way.

While the name of the village is Antigua, this is actually set (I think) in Guatemala where it was also filmed. Cinematographers Giovanni Fabietti and Alberto Chaktoura make good use of the breathtaking Central American scenery and the colorful environment of a rural Guatemalan village to make a visually pleasing film.

The late Ben Gazzara takes what could easily be a fairly cliché role (well, when all is said and done it is exactly that) and gives it far more dimension than it probably deserves. I always thought he was underrated as an actor and this is the kind of performance that gives me that impression. Palladin is a gruff old codger who sometimes plays at being a kind of Central American Yoda with a SAG card but deep down is running more from his own demons than from the price of fame. None of that is in the script but Gazzara conveys it nonetheless.

The problem here is that the story is kind of rote, with Josh being a kind of goyim Ari Gold. Jeremy Piven kind of owns this role and while Moscow does the best he can ends up leaving us thinking how much better the movie might have been as an episode of “Entourage” which really isn’t his fault; there’s just nothing to distinguish his character from the HBO version.

There is a twist near the end of the movie which throws everything off-kilter and for good reason – it’s so nonsensical that when I saw it on DVD I had to rewind and watch it again just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted what I saw. I hadn’t. I won’t mention what that twist is but suffice to say if something like it happened to you no doubt you’d want to get your head examined afterwards.

There are a couple of things to recommend the movie – Ben Gazzara and the Guatemalan location chief among them – but only just. If the script had been tweaked a little bit and that twist pulled out altogether (there are other reasons to make Palladin consider the cameo other than the one the writers came up with) this might have been a seriously good little film. As it is it may have just enough to make you not regret choosing to watch it one night when you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Gazzara is at his grouchy best. Nice cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really stands out in terms of story or plot except that which is preposterous.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming The Bridge at Remagen the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia where the production was filming and Gazzara and co-star Robert Vaughn were briefly detained. After being released, they helped a Czech woman escape by smuggling her out in the trunk of her car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,268 on an unreported production budget; even though this probably had any budget a’tall, I can’t see it being profitable on those kinds of receipts.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Bobby Fisher

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Deep Blue Sea


Deep Blue Sea
Thomas Jane is slightly overmatched.

(1999) Action Thriller (Warner Brothers) Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Samuel L. Jackson, Jacqueline McKenzie, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgard, LL Cool J, Aida Turturro, Cristos, Daniel Bahimo Rey, Valente Rodriguez, Brent Roam, Eyal Podell, Erinn Bartlett. Directed by Renny Harlin

Several years ago, Hollywood churned out three movies in a row – Deep Star Six, Leviathan and The Abyss – that all featured a claustrophobic monster hunt in a cramped undersea station environment. Of those only the latter had any merit as James Cameron, pre-Titanic, got to work out his aquatic fixation.

You’d think Hollywood would have learned. This is a movie that crams in as many clichés as the producers thought they could fit into a single movie; mad scientists messing with Mother Nature, Mother Nature turning bitchy on the mad scientist, taciturn brooding hero with a checkered past, a group of researchers trapped on an underwater research facility by a big ol’ storm, a Terrible Secret, killer sharks ripping people into bite-sized hunks o’ gore and monsters WAY smarter than the trapped station personnel. Yes, all this and comic relief too.

Doctors McAlister (Burrows) and Whitlock (Skarsgard) are doing research into eradicating Alzheimer’s by testing their drugs on sharks, but all they wind up with is really smart sharks.  Diver Carter Blake (Jane) is thrown into the equation to save the day after a combination of a really bad storm and some pissed off super-smart sharks wreck the station and cut off the survivors only hope of escape.

Now, I’ll watch Samuel L. Jackson in a bad movie any day of the week, and his presence here earns the movie the stars it gets. Jackson is a wealthy man with compassion and a conscience; in short, the kind of guy who doesn’t really exist in real life. He has the best moments in the movie, including a pep talk that ends up unexpectedly and to great effect. Most of the other actors here really, um, tank.

LL Cool J, who plays a devout chef, utters the best line of the movie when things look bleak and it looks like the sharks are about to break into the humans’ temporary sanctuary: “I’m (doomed). Brothers always get eaten in situations like this.” The rapper-turned-actor is actually pretty likable despite a poorly-written character.

This isn’t one of the movies that director Renny Harlin will proudly display in his list of accomplishments. Some of the shark effects are nifty, but for the most part, LOOK fake. Too much CGI ruins the soup, folks. A little less cliché and a little more inventiveness might have saved this movie, but after Jaws let’s face it; no other shark movie is ever going to come close.

WHY RENT THIS: Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J are worth watching. Or you really like sharks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cliché soup. Poorly written characters give the actors very little to work with. CGI is unbearable in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s quite a bit of shark gore here and a few choice bad words.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the usage of real sharks and mechanical sharks in the movie, and the drawbacks of both.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $164.7M on a $60M production budget; the theatrical run was quite profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Six Days of Darkness continue!

Sucker Punch


Sucker Punch

Superheroines don’t necessarily need to look slutty to be effective.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetone, Gerard Plunkett, Malcolm Scott, Ron Selmour, AC Peterson, Frederique De Raucourt. Directed by Zack Snyder

The imagination is a powerful thing. It can transport us from any situation, no matter how painful, and set us free. We can use it as a tool to help us escape from our pain – or else wallow in it and ignore the means of our own salvation.

Babydoll (Browning) has seen her mother die, her cruel stepfather attempt to rape both her and her sister (De Raucourt) and her sister die in a tragic accident for which she has been blamed. She is committed to a mental institution by said cruel stepfather who stands to inherit a fortune if Babydoll becomes mentally incompetent; a lobotomy would certainly go a long way to achieving that aim, but the doctor who performs these procedures will not be available for five days, so Babydoll gets the use of her brain essentially for five more days.

But is this really a gothic mental institution in the 1950s? Or is it a bordello into which Babydoll has been sold into white slavery, forced to dance for a high rolling clientele? Baby is befriended by Rocket (Malone), a spunky blonde who is also incarcerated there with her sister Sweet Pea (Cornish). Also there are their friends Blondie (Hudgens, a brunette) and Amber (Chung). They are presided over by Vera Gorski (Gugino), a Polish choreographer who might also be a doctor in the asylum. The club is owned by Blue Jones (Isaac) who may also be an orderly in the asylum.

It also turns out that Babydoll’s dances not only entrance her audience – they also transport Babydoll into a parallel world where she meets Wiseman (Glenn), a wrinkled old sage in a Japanese temple who informs her that she needs five items to escape; a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mystery. These can be found in the bordello but in order to retrieve these closely guarded items, Babydoll’s friends will need to grab them while the staff and guests of the bordello are distracted by Babydoll’s dancing. However, time is ticking down, cruel Blue might be onto them and each parallel world is more dangerous and scarier than the next. Can Babydoll and her friends make it out of their prison and into freedom?

First of all, let me just say that Zack Snyder is one of the most imaginative directors working in Hollywood today; he has given us 300, Watchmen and The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, all of which I can recommend without any hesitation whatsoever. I really can’t say the same for this one, however (which is incidentally the first original story he’s made a movie from – all the rest of his films are based on graphic novels, children’s books or are remakes of existing movies). In fact, this might wind up being the biggest disappointment of 2011.

There is so much going for this movie, too – great action sequences, lots of imagination and plenty of eye candy, both of the special effects sort and the female kind as well. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t gel. Much of this can be attributed by the storytelling, one of Snyder’s strong points but lacking here. He is essentially creating three parallel stories and trying to link them together but the linking is done in a clumsy fashion; the movement between the three parallel worlds should be seamless and frankly, it’s jarring the first time it happens, leaving the audience going WTF (which should also be in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language if LOL is).

For much of the movie, the primarily female cast are mostly in lingerie and stockings, which while a fine idea to my mind also kind of demeans them as action heroes when the script calls upon them to be that way. You’d never have seen the members of The Expendables prancing around in Speedos and socks before going out to kick ass. Then again, would you really want to?

There are some very nice performances, particularly from the always-reliable Gugino as the Polish madame/psychiatrist who is a figure of sympathy despite having made a deal with the devil. Malone also fares very well as Babydoll’s bestie, showing an enormous amount of pluck as well as being sexy and strong. Cornish, who plays her big sister, also does well as the over-protective Sweet Pea who has seen her leadership position usurped by Babydoll.

Browning, however left me a bit flat as Babydoll. She has nice pouty lips and big blue eyes but she never really convinced me as the action hero or the leader of the pack. She’s done fine work in other movies, but this one ain’t gonna be one of her shining career moments.

We rarely get to see female team movies like this and given the propensity for women to bicker and argue among themselves (at least as seen when they are teamed up by gender on reality television shows), I might have liked to see a bit more of the dynamics of an all-female action team. Unfortunately that’s a lost opportunity here.

Most of the men here are either rapists, flunkies or hopelessly clueless with the exception of Scott Glenn’s Yoda-esque Wiseman. Glenn is one of those actors from the 80s and 90s who did extensively good work (who can forget his turn as the sub captain in The Hunt for Red October or as the iconic cowboy hero Emmett in Silverado) but rarely got credit for it. He’s a terrific screen presence who I love seeing on the screen even though he’s pushing 70 now.

I really, really, really wanted to recommend this film and I really, really can’t. The story is too disjointed, the performance of Browning not compelling enough to grab my interest. The special effects, the fantasy sequences and the lingerie all are good enough to command my attention but the sad fact of the matter is that the movie simply doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole and the disappointing box office reflects that. I know Snyder as a director is as capable and imaginative as they come – I just wish he’d let a capable and imaginative writer handle the script.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible special effects and an amazing amount of imagination.

REASONS TO STAY: Storytelling shortcuts ruin the flow of the movie. Some of the performances are less-than-compelling.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality (as you can see from the picture although no overt sex), some fairly graphic violence, a bit of bad language and some disturbing thematic stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The digital effects alone are worth seeing on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Queen