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Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuaron won a bushel of Oscars for his last groundbreaking project, 2013’s lost in space epic, Gravity, and one of the most daring and innovative filmmakers working in cinema had what every artist craves — cache. He could do whatever he wanted with his earned credits. And so Cuaron told a personal story about growing up in Mexico City, a love letter to his own nanny. Roma follows the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) for most of the year 1971, through her ups and downs and the loping rhythms of domestic life. This review is going to come across sounding far more critical than I intend. It’s mostly because I’m trying to deduce why my own experience with Roma was not the rapturous, transformative experience that my fellow film critics have sang. It’s a good movie but I’m trying to pinpoint why it kept me from fully engaging, or what within me stopped from engaging further. I think it stems from the central intent of the film and its overall perspective that proves too limiting for my tastes.

But first the good and the exquisite. Roma is a lusciously photographed and composed movie that brilliantly recreates the time and place of Cuaron’s childhood with stunning black and white photography (Cuaron serves as his own cinematographer for the first time). There are moments that are stupendously put together, pulled directly from Cuaron’s impeccable memory. Sometimes these even stem into the surreal, like a forest fire that features a man in holiday costume singing to himself while life and the flames rage on behind him, the chaos of the moment centered on a beautiful focal point. There’s an extended sequence of a car trying to park down a narrow driveway that becomes a symbol of unchecked manhood. There’s a riot that feels like it is being captured live, even though your brain tells you it’s the work of hundreds of people all coordinated to bring about Cuaron’s vision. There’s even a subtle (maybe not so subtle) nod to Gravity at the local movie theater. There is one family relative who garishly hangs the heads of dearly beloved dogs from the past as if they were hunting trophies. It’s a peculiar and striking detail and something that carefully tells you more about a side character. Then Cuaron cleverly cuts to the current canine being pet, establishing the connection of present and future as well as past and present, an achingly affecting theme throughout the film, trying to better understand our beginnings and the people who impact us.

You can tell he has great affection for the women often responsible for the upbringing of children in rich homes. Cleo is the main character of Roma and given humble life by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio. She’s very passive and selfless to a fault, but her actions demonstrate the care she has for the family she works for, especially the younger children. The emotional thrust of the film is Cleo’s unexpected pregnancy. She’s single, young, and worried it might cost her employment. It’s a difficult decision and the would-be father, a friend of a cousin, seems to want nothing to do with this new responsibility. There’s a moment late in the film, filmed in Cauron’s signature long takes, that breaks your heart, forcing the audience into Cleo’s position where she is struggling for meaning as an agonizing reality sinks in. Aparicio shows that she is more than capable of communicating larger emotions when given the opportunity.

And yet, I kept waiting to be truly transfixed, and waited, and ultimately I found myself enjoying Roma but more as a lyrical long form memory piece from someone else’s life than as a functioning drama. This is a love letter to Cuaron’s childhood nanny (it’s dedicated to her by name) and it’s a recreation of his childhood memories, which makes it deeply personal and lovingly realized from the basis of plucking fully formed moments and bringing them to startling life. The visual arrangements, movements, and bustling activity of life feel beautifully reconstructed. The problem starts to be that the movie feels like a series of moments rather than a larger story, and the argument for many will be that this is by grand design, that Cuaron is intending to comment upon the nature of life and memory through the smaller details, the kind that find their sticking places in our senses, and I do not dispute this intention. However, the end result can approach feeling like watching someone else’s dream of their past, a collection of home movies. The entry point for an audience member is going to be narrower because we didn’t live these memories.

Roger Ebert said that cinema was an empathy machine and with the right storyteller an audience should have no problem being able to experience a plethora of emotions and experiences from a wealth of characters in an array of circumstances and settings. The added problem with Roma is that Cuaron purposely chooses an outsider perspective but also choosees to film it as an outsider. Cleo is an outsider presence, which is a good starting point for drama and contrasts. She’s an indigenous Mexican, working poor, and the family member who isn’t really family. She floats through different communities feeling like she doesn’t fully belong, reminded of what sets her apart and unable to fully immerse herself in her surroundings. She’s left her family, her old way of life to move into the city and be a surrogate parent, and when she becomes pregnant she has to question her commitment to having her own child. The character of Cleo has great potential for human drama, though Cuaron seems to idealize her and hold her as a romantic symbol of his childhood, like he’s trying to do right by her legacy and memory. She’s a little too simplified, a little too selfless, and a little too opaque for the lead of a movie.

Being an outsider is a good starting point for a story, allowing insight and criticism. This perspective is nullified by Cuaron’s storytelling and filmmaking choices to make the audience feel like a passive observer. Cuaron favors long wide shots that keep the viewer at a relative distance, both literally and figuratively. We’re soaking in all the details of the scene but those details are set dressing and visual compositions (Cuaron even imported his family’s old furniture). We don’t delve deeper into this realm because we are observing it from afar, from the added distance of time. It’s like a museum piece of a middle-class Mexican family’s life, safe for consumption and minor consideration before an audience is free to move onto the next exhibit. There’s a compassion that almost feels clinical, like the artist too afraid to spoil their art. I have no doubt how meaningful the movie is personally for Cuaron but he curiously forgoes the tools to make it more accessible, more open to others to empathize, and more meaningful for people who unfortunately didn’t have a Cleo.

Roma is a gorgeous movie that is handsomely made and lovingly dedicated to the people who often go unseen and undervalued in a lifetime. It’s elegantly photographed and often has the feel of a living dream built from Cuaron’s childhood memories. It’s well intentioned and with obvious artistic flair. However, when it was all done, all 135 minutes, I felt surprisingly unaffected. It’s a movie of moments, some of them vivid and others lyrical, but the outsider perspective and filmmaking choices made it hard to find an entry point and to fully engage in Cleo’s plight and the characters as a whole. So much more attention seems to be placed upon recreations of time, place, and people that were meaningful to Cuaron, but that doesn’t make them meaningful to me without added efforts. Roma is a quality movie with quality production and an okay story that holds back the intended reach.

Nate’s Grade: B

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.

The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.

The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.

The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.

Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.

Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bright (2017)

Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.

In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.

For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.

However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.

Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.

The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.

Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.

On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.

Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).

Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.

Nate’s Grade: C

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