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roma (alfonso cuarón, 2018)

It's a sign of how much I like the work of Alfonso Cuarón that he directed the only Harry Potter movie I liked. More important, though, is that he directed at least four other movies that are better than that one. And now that includes Roma.

With Roma, Cuarón manages to combine the personal and the epic at the same time. That he does this while covering only one year in the life of his characters is amazing. Much of what happens to those characters is relatively mundane, which makes the scene where Cleo, one of the maids of a middle-class Mexican family, goes shopping for a crib stand out all the more. For she never gets that crib ... the shopping is interrupted by the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre. Cuarón has set the stage for that historic event without drawing attention to what he is preparing, so it's not really a surprise when violence breaks out. But before and after the Massacre, his characters continue with their daily lives.

Roma is obsessively autobiographical. Cuarón grew up in a house very much like the one in the movie, and he duplicated that house to such an extent that he used some family furniture to add authenticity. Yet Cuarón has an odd way of telling his own story. The kids (including, one assumes, the stand-in for Cuarón) are indistinguishable from each other. None of them develop unique characteristics. Instead, Cuarón tells the story of his childhood by giving us the story of Cleo. We don't exactly see things through her eyes. Rather, we see things as the young Alfonso remembers Cleo. He is not the main character in his own autobiography ... he is in fact fairly anonymous.

In this, Cuarón demands a lot of Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo. She is not a professional actress ... this is her first role. It works perfectly. Aparicio never grabs the screen the way a more flamboyant actor might, and it's appropriate, for Cleo blends in with the people in her life in much the same way, never standing out.

In Roma, Cuarón shows the differences between the classes without pounding the fact over our heads. Cleo is "one of the family", but she's also a servant, often taken for granted. Her employers are benevolent, but they are still her employers, at least until a remarkable scene at the beach where Cleo shows her value to the family more than she ever has before. (That scene, which occurs during a single long take, is one of many highlights of the film.)

Mention must be made of the look of the film, which is in black and white. Cuarón shot it himself, after his usual cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, became unavailable. It's a beautiful film, filled with long takes and long shots ... there is an intimacy to what we are seeing, but Cuarón doesn't rely on close-ups to get that effect.

Top five movies by Alfonso Cuarón:


under the skin (jonathan glazer, 2013)

Occasionally I state upfront that a particular movie was not made for me, which is another way of saying that all else being equal, I won't appreciate some of its qualities, but I can't necessarily dismiss it just because it's not my cup of tea. And so I give you Under the Skin, an arty, fuzzy movie about an alien's visit to earth. At least, I think that's what we're seeing ... nothing is very concrete in Under the Skin, and again, I might wish for more clarity, but Jonathan Glazer was up to something else.

Scarlett Johansson is that alien, and she spends most of the movie driving around Scotland, picking up men. Her purpose seems to be to collect these men for some unstated alien purpose. Thus, Johansson is well-cast ... the alien can apparently take on the form of any human, and since the alien lures men, it makes sense that one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood plays the role. Right from the start, you can assume that whatever man she picks up will offer little resistance to the opportunity to get busy with Scarlett Johansson. Tied to this is the way it was made known that Johansson would be appearing nude in the movie. I imagine more than one person thought this was reason enough to see the film, much as the victims in the movie don't see the peril they are in. And, just as the men in the movie are disappointed (to say the least) when they find they won't be getting any intimate time with Scarlett, those men who bought their tickets because Johansson got naked would be disappointed to learn that the movie is a murky (in more ways than one ... it's often hard to see what is going on) mélange of sci-fi obscurities, purposely slow-moving and unrevealing.

Honestly, I found little to like as I watched Under the Skin, although afterwards, I felt more kindly, blaming myself for not liking it instead of blaming the movie for being bad. I've read some interesting, positive reviews of the film ... Kelsey Ford's piece, "Slashed Beauty: On Female Masks in The Skin I Live In, Eyes Without a Face, and Under the Skin" at the Bright Wall/Dark Room website is especially good, not least because she writes about a favorite of mine, Eyes Without a Face. In my role as a recommendation service, I'd say hunt down Eyes Without a Face before you spent time with Under the Skin, but as usual, your mileage may vary. Meanwhile, Under the Skin is #78 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Top 4 Scarlett Johansson movies, by release date:

  • Ghost World (2001)
  • Lost in Translation (2003)
  • Her (2013)
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)



once upon a time in america (sergio leone, 1984)

Once Upon a Time in America is an epic gangster picture with flaws, some troublesome, but nonetheless a classic of sorts. It's not as loony as Once Upon a Time in the West, although it's even more ambitious than that sprawling Western, and it's not as iconic as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And unlike so many gangster epics, it refuses to romanticize its anti-heroes.

The complicated structure, which jumps between eras and doesn't always promise reliable narration, was famously messed with in the original release in the USA. It was shorter by 90 minutes (!) and the structure was "uncomplicated", which only ended up making everything incomprehensible. (I am relying on sources here ... I have never seen that particular release.) Even the final, 3 hour and 49 minute version is said to have been cut from six hours by Leone. I am infamous for my general distaste for movies that are too long, and at times that opinion is reduced to a simple idea that anything longer than 2 hours is bloated. But a 90-minute movie can be too long, and a three-hour movie can be engrossing for its entire length. Once Upon a Time in America is not too long ... I was never bored, although I felt the intermission came a bit late for my bladder (2 1/2 hours had already run by then).

The name Sergio Leone brings to mind a certain kind of movie ... the extreme close-ups, the long takes, the often leisurely pace. It's amazing to realize that Leone only got credit for directing 7 movies in his career, considering how deeply he imprinted his style on the world of film. Once Upon a Time in America was his final picture ... he died of a heart attack five years later, and some think the damage done to his film contributed to his demise.

There is so much greatness in this film. The period recreations are as impressive as those in The Godfather Part II. The cinematography is brilliant. Ennio Morricone's score is one of his best, and it had a part in the writing of the Pogues' classic "Fairytale in New York". And some of the acting is marvelous. Robert De Niro as Noodles is low-key, James Woods is more excitable, which fits their characters, but it's the supporting cast that really sticks. The criminally overlooked Tuesday Weld shines (David Thompson once wrote of Weld, "If she had been 'Susan Weld' [her real name] she might now be known as one of our great actresses"). Elizabeth McGovern isn't given much of a part as Deborah, even though she is the female lead, but Jennifer Connelly, who plays the character as a young girl, is wonderful in what was her film debut.

Weld triumphs over the material, McGovern does not, but they share something that points to worst aspect of the movie. One could guess that Leone wasn't much interested in the female characters, one reason Weld and McGovern are left to their own devices. (To be honest, Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West is the only female character I can remember in Leone's work, outside of this film.) As noted, there is no romanticization of these gangsters ... we see them at their worst, and even De Niro's Noodles must resort to opium to forget what he has done. So their actions throughout are violent and hypermasculinized. But this leads to two rape scenes, both awful, and inexcusable in that they exist largely as a comment on the rapists rather than as a concern for the victims. Weld's Carol seems to "ask for it", and she continues to hang with the gang after the event, as if it was nothing. And when Noodles rapes Deborah, it is properly revolting, but again Leone seems more interested in illuminating the character of Noodles than he is in giving Deborah some sympathetic depth.

There is so much to admire about Once Upon a Time in America. There are also scenes that are far over the line. #102 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Top five movies of 1984:

  1. The Terminator
  2. Stop Making Sense
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
  5. The Times of Harvey Milk