Roma (2018)

2019 #25
Alfonso Cuarón | 135 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | Mexico & USA / Spanish & Mixtec | 15 / R

Roma

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
10 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Drawn from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s memories of growing up in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, Roma is the story of what happens to a middle-class family’s housemaid, Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), over the course of ten months in 1970 and 1971. It’s also one of the best-reviewed films of the year, winner of BAFTA’s Best Film award (amongst others), and a frontrunner for the same at tonight’s Oscars. No pressure, then.

Roma has already attracted a reputation for being slow and difficult to engage with for ordinary viewers — the very definition of an arthouse movie; and it’s in black and white with subtitles, just to compound the stereotype. There’s no doubting it has a measured pace, and the viewer needs to be prepared for that. It sets its stall with the opening credits, which fade in and out slowly over a static shot of paved flooring being washed by soapy water that flows across it like waves on a shore — and that’s all we see, for several minutes. From there, much of the move unfurls in wide shots, with slow pans or no movement at all, inviting the viewer to search the frame for details and significance. Note that it’s not nominated for Best Editing…

Cleo the maid

At first it’s difficult to see the point of all this, which is where accusations of it being boring stem from. Nothing seems to be happening, just people going about their lives and jobs; a “slice of life” narrative taken to the extreme. What’s missing from that view is context, and as the film goes on we get that — looking back at earlier scenes with the knowledge of what happens later, it’s more possible to see what Cuarón was going for. For example, there are two scenes side-by-side which are barely notable in themselves and certainly have no immediate connection — the father of the family going away on a business trip, and Cleo going to the cinema with the guy she’s been seeing — but when you know what happens later, these scenes are clearly back-to-back for a reason, with a clear connection. One might say juxtaposed, but they’re less being contrasted, more mirrored. There’s quite a lot of that kind of subtle, often exclusively visual mirroring throughout the film — it’s no coincidence that opening shot looks like waves.

This is a film that rewards perseverance, then. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for some the way it slowly inducts us into this family’s life builds to great emotional payoffs come the events of the final act. After a whole lot of very little, it suddenly gets very dramatic and heart-wrenching. You’d have to be pretty cold not to feel anything for the characters given some of the things that transpire, but how much of a connection is developed between them and the viewer is, I think, very much a matter of personal experience. Based on online comments, some find the finale emotionally cathartic, and end up sobbing their heart out; others find Cleo’s silence to be distancing, making her true character and feelings inaccessible, and by turn neutering the film. I find myself sympathetic to both points of view. The film, and the characters, are certainly understated, but I don’t think they’re wholly shut off. Put another way, I wasn’t in tears by the end, but I felt I understood something of these people and their reactions to what had occurred.

Departures

One thing I wasn’t prepared for by anything else I’ve read about the film (which, admittedly, wasn’t much) was how much… slightly odd stuff there was. Not full-blown Lynchian weirdness, just things you don’t really expect to see. A surprising focus on dog shit, for example. A martial arts display with some very, er, jiggly full frontal male nudity. A Norwegian New Year’s Eve song performed in front of a blazing forest fire. Walls of pet dog’s heads mounted like hunting trophies in a macabre display of affection, but with the sheer disturbingness of that seeming to go uncommented on. Cuarón has said 90% of the movie comes from his own childhood memories, so I guess he had an interesting time of it…

At the very least, Roma is a technical masterpiece. Shot by Cuarón himself (because Chivo was unavailable), it looks thoroughly gorgeous — crisp, textured, always perfectly lit, be that by the nighttime glow of a city or misty morning air, with some shots that look like molten silver caressing the screen. Cuarón is the frontrunner for the cinematography Oscar, marking the first time it will have gone to a director lensing his own film (assuming he does win, of course), and it seems to be very much deserved (in fairness, I’ve not yet seen any of the other nominees to compare).

But while everyone talks about the photography, very few people seem to mention the immersive sound design, and I think that’s just as worthy of attention. Roma is also nominated tonight for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, categories that are often dominated by blockbuster-type films due to their energetic soundscapes — its competitors include the likes of Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, and (somewhat ironically) A Quiet Place. I doubt Roma will overcome their bombast, but in its own way it’s just as effective, generating a world around you with its enveloping audio. I guess this is partly the problem of it going direct to Netflix, though — most people who see the film will listen to it through TV speakers, or, at best, a stereo sound bar. However, it’s proof that surround sound isn’t just for action movies, and that it’s worth having a system in your home, if you can.

Journeys

On the whole, Roma exudes the feel of a quality piece of Art, with a capital ‘A’ — it’s beautiful to look at, slow and heavy and opaque in its storytelling, with (perhaps) some deep message about human experience that’s left for the viewer to discern. Is it the best picture of 2018? Well, I mean, if you like that kind of thing… Should it win tonight? That depends what you think the Oscars should be rewarding, I guess. It’s not an unworthy champion in an artistic sense, but is something else — something artistic in a different way, and also more accessible — even more deserving of being crowned The Best? That’s always the tug-of-war when it comes to Best Picture, I suppose. It’s certainly not my favourite movie from last year (and I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to make 2019’s list either), but I still admire much of it.

5 out of 5

The 91st Academy Awards are handed out this evening. In the UK, they’re on Sky Cinema Oscars from 12:30am, with highlights on Sky One tomorrow at 9pm.

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Children of Men (2006)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #19

The year 2027:
The last days of the human race.
No child has been born for 18 years.
He must protect our only hope.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English… and German, Italian, Romanian, Spanish, Arabic, Georgian & Russian, apparently.
Runtime: 109 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd September 2006 (UK)
First Seen: cinema, October 2006

Stars
Clive Owen (Inside Man, Shoot ‘Em Up)
Julianne Moore (The Hours, Still Alice)
Michael Caine (The Italian Job, Batman Begins)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, 12 Years a Slave)
Danny Huston (The Proposition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)

Director
Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity)

Screenwriters
Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Gravity)
Timothy J. Sexton (Live from Baghdad, The Liberator)
David Arata (Brokedown Palace, Spy Game)
Mark Fergus (First Snow, Iron Man)
Hawk Ostby (First Snow, Cowboys & Aliens)

Based on
The Children of Men, a novel by P.D. James.

The Story
In the near future, mankind has become infertile, and no child has been born for 18 years. The world has gone to hell, with Britain one of the few countries that still has a functioning government, albeit a controlling, totalitarian one. In this world, government drone Theo is persuaded by his ex-wife, now head of an activist group, to escort a friend out of the country. Turns out that friend is a young woman… who’s pregnant — a situation that interests a lot of dangerous people…

Our Hero
Theo, disillusioned former activist, who’s roped back in, initially by kidnap, later with the promise of a hefty payday. Before long it turns out he’s actually a good guy at heart, of course.

Our Villains
“The rest of humanity” wouldn’t be a wholly bad answer here, as Theo and co keep bumping up against people violently concerned with their own interests. Within that, there’s the issue of if the activist group’s motives can be trusted…

Best Supporting Character
Theo’s friend Jasper, a former political cartoonist turned pot dealer, played by Michael Caine as a John Lennon-inspired old hippy.

Memorable Quote
“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.” — Miriam

Memorable Scene
Any of the (faked-)single-take action sequences is a worthy pick here. Alternatively, fans of a certain rock group will appreciate the inflatable pig floating over Battersea Power Station.

Technical Wizardry
As our heroes escape in a little Fiat, they’re attacked on a country road, the camera moving around the small person-filled vehicle in a single take. They used a special camera rig, along with a car modified to allow the windscreen to tilt out of the camera’s path, and seats that tilted to lower the actors out of the way too. The “single” shot took six takes in four locations, transition effects to seamlessly join shots, and CGI to create the motorbike, windscreen, blood, roof, and more.

Making of
The other most memorable single take is near the end, a running street battle during which Clive Owen’s layperson does his best to not get killed. It took 14 days to prepare the shot, with a delay of five hours every time it had to be reset. It was filmed over the course of two days, but only one complete take was actually captured. In the middle of one take, some blood spattered on the camera lens; Cuarón shouted “cut”, but was drowned out by the sound of tank and gunfire. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki persuaded the director to leave it in, and that’s the shot in the final film. Pay attention during the sequence and you can see the liquid and dirt that gets splattered on the lens disappear during one of the ‘seamless’ cuts.

Awards
3 Oscar nominations (Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Production Design)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Science Fiction Film)
2 Saturn nominations (Actor (Clive Owen), Director)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“[Cuarón] increasingly shoots the film’s set pieces in virtuoso long takes — gliding tracking shots that evoke Tarkovsky and handheld work that suggests Kathryn Bigelow. What makes these scenes stunning is not only mind-boggling choreography and timing, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera somehow capturing multiple planes of action even while continuously changing position, but also their ability to realistically evoke the frightening chaos and simultaneous madness of war. […] Such overwhelming studio work might be too arty for those who like their genre served sans showiness. But Cuarón is implementing a verisimilitude that both matches the film’s edge-of-your-seat escalations and demonstrates a new understanding of blockbuster realism.” — Michael Joshua Rowin, Stop Smiling

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Cuarón uses sequences evocative of Holocaust imagery and detention camps to implicitly communicate a world rife with injustice and pain. In designing the look of the film, Cuarón told his art department that he did not want inventiveness, but reference, so that an audience would be able to adequately recognize a distorted form of their own reality. For the reader and viewer who encounter this uncanny world, it feels all the more real because of its familiar elements.” — Mariel Calloway

Verdict

I saw Children of Men on a whim back in 2006. I can’t even remember why — I don’t think I’d seen any trailers or reviews, and it had been open for a good few weeks already. It was a time when I went to see loads at the cinema, though (in those days I paid good money to see Fun with Dick and Jane — does anyone even remember that?), and I think it may’ve been the only thing still on. Anyway, it meant I actually got in a little ahead of the hype that has gradually (and justifiably) grown around the film since, and still loved it. Cuarón mixes intelligent near-future sci-fi with exciting, and excitingly-realised, action sequences to create an action-thriller of a movie that stimulates both the mind and the adrenal glands. A fantastic film in every respect.

#22 will be next… to give the Devil his due.

Gravity (2013)

2014 #13
Alfonso Cuarón | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
10 nominations — 7 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Production Design.

GravityOn its theatrical release, a commonly-cited recommendation was to see Gravity in 3D on the biggest screen possible. Obviously, I didn’t bother. Some say it isn’t as effective on a small screen in 2D. Maybe it isn’t as effective, but it’s still a damn fine film.

A near-future thriller (albeit one set in space), the destruction of a satellite sees a cloud of debris hurtling round the Earth, in the process destroying the space shuttle of Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and other less-fortunate crewmembers. Using Clooney’s experimental space-jetpack, the survivors set off across the void for the nearest space station, racing against their oxygen supply to find a way home…

As many have noted, Gravity is a little light on plot. That’s a dealbreaker for some, it would seem, which I think rather misses the point. This is a survival story, predicated on two things: one, the desperate attempts of our heroine to triumph against increasingly-poor odds; and two, the spectacle of weightlessness and space. Not every movie needs a complex storyline to keep it going; not every film needs to only be about its plot. As co-writer and director, Alfonso Cuarón drives the film admirably on the aforementioned survival attempts and some swiftly-sketched character development.

The spectacle may have worked best on the big screen in 3D, but Cuarón’s talent as a director means it translates at home, too. That most of the film was created in computers means his penchant for long takes is indulged, but the impact of those is paramount: rather than fast-cut action sequences (even if the speed of cutting has been pushed to extremes in recent years, He said DON'T let goquick editing has always been a way of creating excitement in that arena), the never-ending shots serve to make you feel closer to events, right alongside Bullock, almost wishing it would stop. Plus there’s skill in being able to show us what we need to see from a single vantage point, without the easy option of being able to cut to a different angle to clarify a detail.

Left to carry much of the film solo, Bullock’s performance is strong enough, but this isn’t a deeply-drawn character. There’s something to her, and the situation she’s been put in is trial enough without the need for backstory, but is it really a performance that cries out for awards recognition? Not as much as the rest of the film.

Speaking of which, controversy has occasionally dogged Gravity — on two fronts. Firstly, that BAFTA awarded it Best British Film. Cue varying degrees of outrage and incredulity that an American-funded film about American astronauts could be considered British. The flipside to this is that Cuarón has made Britain his adopted home; and while the Big Studio may ultimately be American, the production company and producers are British. It was shot in Britain by a British crew, and the groundbreaking CGI — which even James Cameron, he of great determination and resultant innovation, said couldn’t be done — was created in Britain by British artists. Made in BritainThe most high-profile jobs — the actors, the studio — may be American, but everything else is pretty darn British. Rather than cry “that’s ridiculous! Give it to a proper British film!”, we should be keen to point out that, actually, this surprise global mega-hit wasn’t made in America, but in Britain, by all the talented filmmakers we have here. Rule Britannia, etc etc!

Secondly, there’s the genre issue. Most have labelled the film “science fiction”, primarily because it’s set in space. The hardcore SF brigade take umbrage with that, however: technically it’s set almost-now, with present-day technology. This is a story that Could Happen Today, not a distant dream of what Might Happen Tomorrow. Really, it’s a bit of a mixed bag: technically it is set in the future — that’s proven by little things like flight numbers and the existence of a finished space station that, in real life, is still being built — and makes use of technology that doesn’t actually exist (the space-jetpack I mentioned earlier), plus it depicts a massive-scale disaster that, obviously, hasn’t happened. But that’s no worse than many an earthbound thriller, which routinely use just-beyond-possible tech (look at all of Bond’s gadgets, even (at times) in the newly-grounded Craig films) and depict huge events that haven’t actually occurred (Presidential assassinations, nuclear detonations, etc). So, really, Gravity is no more sci-fi than those, except for it being set in space… which immediately categorises it as SF to your average viewer.

Space jetpackWhile I sympathise with the idea that it’s not A Science Fiction Movie, but instead A Thriller (That Happens To Be Set In Space), you can’t really deny its SF-ness. OK, if we’re classing this as SF then so too should be films like The Sum of All Fears, or most of the James Bond canon; but really that’s just an argument over technicalities — one I’ve indulged for far too long.

The point is, however you classify it, Gravity is an exciting, spectacular, technically-impressive movie; one that overcomes the alleged need for a huge screen and 3D to work even in the corner of your living room.

5 out of 5

Gravity debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4:30pm and 8pm.

It placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.