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Roma

Posted December 15, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Well, this is just inconvenient. As I continue to struggle in my efforts at getting caught up, a ten-alarm hype alert comes rolling through my local arthouse. (Yes, Roma is technically a Netflix picture, but you should totally support your local arthouse and see it on the big screen if you have the option.) Of course, anytime Alfonso Cuaron comes out with a new picture, attention must be paid. But here we’ve got a foreign-language film shot in black and white, with a trailer that’s short on plot or premise yet long on advance critical praise.

Put it all together and a very clear message is presented: This is a movie that film geeks will fall head-over-heels in everlasting love with while the casual moviegoer will dismiss the film as pretentious; blissfully ignorant and/or unable to fully appreciate the film’s storytelling mastery and artistic depth. And that’s exactly what we got.

From start to finish, on a purely technical level, Roma is nothing short of flawless. The sound design is masterfully used to convey the stakes and tell the story in any given moment. The editing is wickedly disarming, often allowing plenty of dead space before or after the main action of any given scene. Coupled with the sound design, it creates a beautiful sense of anticipation. Most importantly, every single shot is a bona fide masterpiece. After all, we’re talking about director Alfonso Cuaron, grandmaster of the long unbroken shot. Of course the extended shots are mind-blowing marvels, but even the still shots are impeccably constructed.

I can’t possibly overstate how much information Cuaron was able to cram into every corner of every frame. Cuaron shows particular skill in conveying two different scenes — one in the foreground and one in the background — within the same shot. It’s done with such subtlety and skill that I would need at least two or three more viewings to count how many times Cuaron does that. And every single time, the background and foreground scenes contrast in a potent, heartbreaking, thought-provoking way. There’s the scene in which the wealthy and well-to-do are furniture shopping while a riot is erupting outside. There’s the scene in which two characters are having a dramatic life-changing discussion in a theater while some madcap comedy movie plays in the background. But my personal favorite has to be the scene in the hospital, as a new mother lies on a hospital bed with her newborn child in the background — I don’t dare spoil any more than that.

As for the story… well, I can tell you that this is a “slice of life” movie, in which compelling character arcs take priority over a structured plot. Our protagonist is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid and nanny for a well-to-do family in Mexico City, circa 1970. For good measure, the back half dramatizes the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971. I’m loathe to go into too much detail about Cleo, her friends, or the family she works for, because watching their lives unfold is probably the most surprising and enjoyable aspect about this film. However, given that sparse info about the premise, you can probably guess that class disparity is a central part of the movie.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a typical Cinderella story, but that’s not exactly what happens. Yes, Cleo is overworked and underpaid. Yes, the children she looks out for (played by Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, and Daniela Demesa) can be a spoiled bunch of loudmouthed and destructive spoiled brats. Yes, the married couple that employs her (played by Fernando Grediaga and Marina de Tavira) can be superficial and condescending assholes making unnecessary drama for themselves and everybody else out of their own petty bullshit.

On the other hand, we can plainly see that Cleo has enough money and free time to make a robust social life for herself, so clearly her job and employers haven’t run her into the ground too hard. What’s more, in spite of the family’s more difficult and argumentative moments, this upper-middle-class family clearly has genuine affection for their live-in maid, with a sincere and deep-seated interest in her well-being. Even better, the love and respect are mutual — in the movie’s de facto “climax” (the plot is so loosely structured that talking about it in traditional terms would be moot), Cleo goes above and beyond for these kids in a way that couldn’t be bought with money. Last but not least, the family’s internal drama shows how even well-to-do people with stable careers are only one bad day away from losing everything and living among the lower class.

All of this amounts to a movie that focuses on disparity between economic classes while also showing the common ground between them. In this political climate, that’s a bold choice. Yet because the film develops such beautifully authentic and fleshed-out characters, focusing on the kind of love and empathy that crosses socioeconomic borders, the film taps into something so universal and uplifting that it totally works.

Of course it also helps that the film is subtle. In fact, the movie is so subtle and packed with so much visual storytelling, there could be any number of ways to interpret the various metaphors and ideas on display. Yet the movie gets away with being ambiguous because Cleo and her story thread are strong enough to carry everything. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of Profesor Zovek (a comic relief character played by Mexican wrestler “Latin Lover”) and I couldn’t tell you what’s with all the airplanes flying overhead. But I did walk away from this movie feeling like I actually met someone, and glad I did. And for “slice of life” movies like this one, that is easily my most important metric for the film’s quality.

On a couple of miscellaneous notes, I adored the filmmakers’ choice to shoot in black and white. Given that the movie was heavily inspired by Cuaron’s upbringing in Mexico City, the monochrome presentation effectively drenches the film in nostalgia. Also, it’s worth noting that one scene features an extended sequence of full-frontal male nudity while the female in the scene is entirely covered. Certainly a bold choice, but if there’s anything that chips away at the sexist and ridiculous double-standard concerning male and female nudity, I’m all for it.

Roma is a work of cinematic high art, for better and for worse. There are a lot of bold choices here, and not a lot of easy answers. The plot is intentionally void of structure, everything that makes the movie worth watching is in details that could only be consciously appreciated by those with a firm grasp of filmmaking theory, and lest we forget, it’s a foreign-language film shot in black-and-white. All of this will be enough to turn away casual filmgoers. And it’s their loss.

Even if you think this isn’t your type of movie, I urge you to please give it a shot. Those with the patience and the know-how to dive deep into every shot will find themselves amply rewarded. And even those who don’t will be treated to a heartfelt story with sympathetic characters, surrounded by the most efficient and detailed world-building I’ve seen since Casablanca.

To repeat, I just compared a movie to goddamn Casablanca in terms of visual storytelling and world-building. I hope that tells you how strongly I recommend this one.

Creed II

Posted December 15, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Here’s a classic Hollywood problem: A movie comes from right the fuck outta nowhere to be a crowd-pumping, critic-pleasing, box-office-smashing, Oscar-courting chunk of awesome; and now somebody has to make a sequel. Trouble is, how do you craft a follow-up to a movie that clearly wasn’t built for a sequel, and frankly had no business being as good as it was in the first place?

In the case of Creed II, the filmmakers started by letting Ryan Coogler fly the coop, recruiting debut director Steven Caple Jr. and a different suite of writers (namely Cheo Hodari Coker, Sascha Penn, and Juel Taylor) to bring in some new blood. Though of course Sylvester Stallone stayed on as one of the writers. The second step was to lean heavy into the nostalgia angle, bringing in Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his most iconic role) to pit his own son (Victor, played by Florian Munteanu) against the younger Creed. They even brought in Brigitte Nielsen to reprise her role as Ivan’s erstwhile wife. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To start with, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, in what’s already become his signature role) is now the heavyweight world champion. What’s more, he’s just proposed to his girlfriend (Bianca, played once again by Tessa Thompson) right when her music career is taking off and just before she gets pregnant. (The trailers already gave that part away, so I’m not counting it as a spoiler.)

On the one hand, all of this seems counter-intuitive. The Rocky films are underdog stories, after all, and it’s hard for the protagonist to be an underdog when he’s got everything. But then there’s the flip-side to having everything: Our protagonist has everything to lose. Plus, when Creed is against an opponent who outclasses him, he’s still an underdog.

This brings us to Drago and son. Turns out that when Ivan took his high-profile loss against Rocky all those years ago, he became a social pariah. His wife left him, his country abandoned him, his career was over, and so on. As a direct result, his son was shaped into an instrument of revenge. He’s angry at the world, born into a world that hated him back, raised so that fighting is all he knows and does. Victor is a monster, a bona fide psychopath who cares about absolutely nothing except winning the world heavyweight title, destroying everything Rocky cares about, and redeeming the Drago name.

All the while, the world is watching to see the blood feud of Creed vs. Drago: The Next Generation. Everyone is waiting to see if history repeats itself or if it will be rewritten. Will Creed keep his title as the heavyweight champion of the world? Will his daughter (who might be born deaf, by the way) have to grow up with a dead or crippled father? Will Rocky have the guts to get in Creed’s corner, knowing that he might have to watch two generations of Creeds die on his watch? Will the Dragos… um…

Yeah, here we start to get into problems.

Look, there’s no getting around the fact that Ivan Drago was never really meant to be anything more than a metaphor. He was the cold, impersonal, overpowering strength of the Soviet Union, nothing more or less. There’s a reason his “I must break you” line is so iconic — he only had nine lines of dialogue in the whole movie! That’s a perilously thin foundation to build a character on, never mind two. So naturally, when the filmmakers try to build on the two Dragos, it only serves to demonstrate how hollow these characters are, especially in contrast with the more developed and three-dimensional characters in Creed’s corner.

To wit: If Creed wins — hell, even if he survives — it further proves that he is more than his father, having conquered and outlasted something that killed Apollo Creed. If Drago wins… then what? Seriously, Victor strikes me as someone who couldn’t function unless he thinks he’s the underdog. I almost wish he had gotten the heavyweight title, just to see if he had any idea what to do with it.

As for Adonis Creed himself… well, there’s really nothing here you don’t already know. He’s still a walking caseload of daddy issues, still trying to find his own way forward in the shadow of his father’s legacy, still afraid of dying on the mat like his father did. The key difference, of course, is that while Apollo Creed’s death was a heavy shroud hung over the entirety of Creed, it hangs even heavier on the sequel. This is Adonis confronting his father’s demise head-on, in every conceivable way, as everyone in the world (meaning Rocky, the Dragos, the sports commentators, the audience, EVERYONE) makes every possible comparison between Adonis fighting Victor and Apollo fighting the man who would eventually kill him.

There’s some other stuff going on, but none of it’s terribly relevant. There’s a useless recurring subplot in which Rocky tries to reconnect with his son (Milo Ventimiglia, reprising his role from earlier in the series). Russell Hornsby shows up as a boxing promoter, but the guy is wasting his charisma on this totally thankless and useless role. Ditto for Phylicia Rashad, far and away better than the material she’s given as Adonis’ mother. The stuff with Adonis’ new daughter is sweet, but ultimately serves no purpose aside from raising the stakes. 

That’s really what it comes down to with this movie: raising the stakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful for the movie to have such palpable life-or-death consequences for everything that happens, and it’s good that the dramatic tension is so much more thick than it was in the prequel. It also helps that the boxing sequences are all aces, with visceral sound design, expert use of slo-mo, and masterful storytelling through action. Hell, even when the scene is of two characters talking, the filmmakers use just enough hand-held camera to keep things interesting without getting distracting.

But aside from these shallow improvements and superficial differences, there’s really not much new here. When you get right down to it, Adonis is still trying to be the greatest boxer he possibly can be while the rest of the world keeps pushing him into his father’s shadow, and Adonis himself has to decide if he’s okay with that. Rocky still has to figure out if he should give in to old age and retire quietly, or if he still has any measure of gas left in the tank. So their personal insecurities cost Adonis a fight, the two of them spend the rest of the second act trying to get back up until they’re ready for Rocky to help Adonis through the training montages, you know the drill. All of this is rehashed from the first movie, and from most of the franchise as a whole. It certainly doesn’t help that the Dragos have nothing significant to contribute, and all of Bianca’s character developments only serve to build on Adonis. That said, Tessa Thompson is still a powerhouse, capable of delivering a highly memorable female lead in a heavily male-centric movie and franchise.

I want to be clear in stating that Creed is a good movie. It’s competently made, the performances are all solid, the boxing scenes are great fun, and the franchise’s underlying themes are still as potent and timeless as ever. There’s really nothing in here we haven’t seen before, aside from the higher stakes, but that’s enough to make a huge difference in terms of dramatic tension and character development.

Stallone announced recently that he’s retiring the Rocky character, so there’s definitely a chance that big changes could come with the third movie. I’m all for it. So far, this whole franchise has been about Adonis Creed learning how to bury his father and find his own way forward; and the sooner he finally does that, the better off we’ll all be.

You won’t be missing anything if you wait for home video, but if you can catch it on the big screen for a discount or a second-run ticket, go for it.