Movie Review ~ Roma


The Facts
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Synopsis: A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Nancy García García

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: In a strange sign of the technological age we’re living in now, one of the most epic cinematic accomplishments of the year will likely be seen by most people first on their televisions, iPads, or (yikes) their smart phones.  Though it was given a small theatrical release for a few weeks and can still be seen in cinemas for those that live near a metro area, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma debuts for everyone else today on Netflix.

Taking place over the course of a year in the 1970s, Roma is Cuarón’s loosely autobiographical look back at his time growing up in Mexico City and the relationship his family had with their housekeeper.  Throughout the year we track the family as they go through growing pains and internal fractures, all seen through the eyes of Cleo, their maid.  As played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, Cleo has a quiet grace that suggests a world-weariness when it comes to practical matters but a striking naiveté in matters of the heart.  Over the year we get to know her, Cleo will experience her own journey (literally and figuratively) as she navigates the treacherous terrain and emotional complexity of first love.

The family takes up most of the air during the scenes inside the house but anytime we venture outside their gated walls the film explodes with sounds and sights, vividly relayed in Cuarón’s own gorgeous black and white cinematography.  There’s a freedom to these sequences that parallel the more staid existence of Cleo’s life tending to the family.  Her employers and their children are never cruel in a stereotypical movie way to her and often treat her like she’s a family member.  All tread a fine path that blur the lines between employer and employee, culminating in an emotional climax you think is the end of the film but leads into a finale Cuarón uses to drive home a bittersweet reality.

As a follow-up to his Oscar-winning work on Gravity, Roma is a bold move for Cuarón.  Not only has he taken a huge risk by teaming up with Netflix at a time when the internet service is vying for a place as a legitimate movie studio but he’s telling a deeply personal tale that doesn’t have the same commercial prospects as his previous work.  He’s cast a lead with no prior acting experience (Aparicio is a true revelation) and delivered a 2+ hour black and white movie entirely subtitled for home consumption where people’s attention span isn’t at its most focused.  Yet it’s this kind of risk-taking that has made Cuarón such an accomplished craftsman over the years and why Roma works on every level.  From the opening shot to a nerve shredding sequence ¾ through the movie that I won’t spoil for you, to the very last credit you see, this is Cinema with a capital C.

Big screen or small screen, there’s little doubt this is one of the finest movies of 2018 and one that deserves your full consideration no matter how you choose to take it in.  I was lucky enough to see it on a huge screen without outside distractions so was able to take in the sheer size of Cuarón’s masterful vision of his youth.  I’m interested to view it again on my television to see how the experience changes things, if at all.  I suspect the small but mighty performances might play even better at home while some of the majestic shots Cuarón devised might lose some impact.  If you can get to the theater, I strongly suggest making the effort.  If you can only see it from the comfort of your own home then please turn off all the lights, turn your phone off, and let the film take you away for 135 minutes.  It’s worthy of your undivided attention.

31 Days to Scare ~ Gerald’s Game

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The Facts
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Synopsis: While trying to spice up their marriage in their remote lake house, Jessie must fight to survive when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her handcuffed to their bed frame.

Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Stephen King’s novel Gerald’s Game was first published in 1992, film adaptations of the authors work had already been buzzing around for a while.  Most of King’s early books had already found their way to the screen and the well was beginning to run a little dry for marketable projects a studio could push into production.  While a King renaissance was still a few years away when his short stories were mined for more dramatic material, a few of his early ‘90s novels fell through the cracks.  With its relatively small cast of characters and abundance of inner voice monologues likely deemed too tough to adapt by studios looking to fast track flicks, Gerald’s Game kept falling to the bottom of the pile, even as lesser works got their fair shot at the big screen. Originally part of a larger planned work that included the story that became Dolores Claiborne (which found its way to the movie theaters in a drastically underrated 1995 production), Gerald’s Game finally gets its moment to shine in a first rate production courtesy of Netflix and writer/director Mike Flanagan.

It’s a beautiful day for the Burlingames as their arrive at their lake house nestled far away from neighbors and the outside world.  Hoping for a romantic weekend away to add some spice to their marital bed, every detail has been thought of.  Jessie (Carla Gugino, San Andreas) has packed a sexy new slip and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, Endless Love) brings along two shiny pairs of handcuffs.  An unexpected turn of events leaves Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie tethered helplessly to two bedposts, her screams for help echoing silently across the waters.  With no one set to arrive for days, thirst and desperation set in for Jessie…especially when she receives several visitors both real and imaginary.

Revealing more than that would ruin the game King has devised and Flanagan has finessed with King’s blessing.  Flanagan made wise choices in removing some of Jessie’s inner voices and/or consolidating them to a singular person.  The seemingly happy couple had demons that are explored over the course of the film, especially Jessie who suffered a trauma as a child that wound up affecting the choices she made for herself.

Over the past several years with films like Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and last year’s Netflix gem Hush, Flangan has demonstrated a real knack in crafting movies with good atmosphere and nice scares while digging surprisingly deep into the psyche of his characters.  Jessie is a multi-layered creation, thanks not only to Flanagan’s creative way of telling her back-story but in Gugino’s bold portrayal of a woman in crisis.  She’s matched well with Greenwood, first coming off as a genial workaholic husband before showing a more sinister side as his sexual proclivities turn aggressively frightening.  Even in death he has a hold on her, as evidenced by Flanagan letting the dead speak as one of Jessie’s imagined houseguests.

This is a Stephen King tale, though, so expect some nifty twists and turns as the action unfolds.  While Flanagan creates some remarkable tension, he isn’t hoity-toity enough to shy away from a good old fashioned shriek-inducing scare or moments of gooey-gore that had me covering my eyes.  For eagle-eared King fans, there’s also a nice little morsel that ties this film to a previous King adaptation in a most enjoyable way.

Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games when it comes to the ending.  Perhaps showing that the material couldn’t quite stretch past the 90 minute mark, Flanagan has a few finales to contend with here and none truly satisfy.  Both convenient and confusing, the final fifteen minutes are a bit of a muddle that fall well short of the superior first 2/3rds of the film.  It’s not weak enough to destroy the good-will Flanagan has roused in his audience, but a decent amount of it does evaporate.

With the pool of quality genre films getting low, Gerald’s Game is a fun addition to the good pile of available content you can stream and enjoy.  Gugino’s performance is aces and even with the few missteps mentioned above, as usual Flanagan acquits himself in the long run.  Definitely worth checking out.

31 Days to Scare ~ Circle

circleThe Facts:

Synopsis: Could you trust a jury of your peers with your life? The contestants of a mysterious death game must make harrowing decisions as they strategize for survival in this psychological sci-fi thriller.

Stars: Michael Nardelli, Allegra Masters, Molly Jackson, Jordi Vilasuso, Rene Heger, Julie Benz, Lisa Pelikan, Matt Corboy

Director: Aaron Hann, Mario Miscione

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Ready for a bit of fun?  Circle is another of those neat-o finds on Netflix that intrigued me enough to add it to my queue and fire it up on a rainy day.  It’s a risky endeavor setting your entire film in one room with an ever-dwindling cast of unfamiliar faces but writer/directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione go all in and wind up with a surprising and surprisingly entertaining little thriller that feels like an extended episode of Night Gallery, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits.

Fifty seemingly unconnected strangers wake up in a strange room positioned in a circle with several rows.  Why they are there or how they got there no one can say but this room has secrets that are revealed slowly throughout the movie.  The room also has a set of rules the group needs to figure out before time runs out.  Step outside of the circle, you die.  Stand still where you are, you may die.

Every few minutes a warning signal is sounded, alerting the group that another of them is about to lose the game and their life.  After the first few people meet their untimely ends, the crowd starts to slowly figure out how each victim is selected and it soon becomes a game of survival as they have to decide collectively who is worthy to live another round and who should be sacrificed for the good of the group.

What keeps Circle so watchable is the unknown.  Since the cast is comprised almost entirely of unknowns (save for a few character actors) you never know who is going to make it from round to round.  Just when you think a hero or heroine has emerged, the film switches things up and what you thought was happening turns out to be false.  In other movies, this trickery would be unforgivable but in the context of the game at the center of Circle, it makes for fascinating viewing.  Amazingly, Hann and Miscione even manage to stick the ending, bringing the film to a satisfying conclusion.

Simple in construct but complex in execution (pardon the pun), Circle can be seen as a bit of a social experiment.  Will the people deemed “worthy” be saved by those that society may turn its back on?  Will the strong survive or will they be the first to go?  How about young vs. old?  Male vs female?  The rules remain the same but the contestants are the ones that keep changing the game.  And you won’t be able to change the channel.  Circle is a good choice for those that like to keep guessing at the outcome and don’t mind being wrong.

Movie Review ~ Virunga

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of brave individuals risk their lives to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas; in the midst of renewed civil war and a scramble for Congo’s natural resources.

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Browsing your Netflix queue you may lock in on Virunga’s cover image, that of an imposing mountain gorilla and young baby sitting in front of an armed solider and have thoughts of other monkey movies pass through you head. There’s a bit of false advertising going on if you think that Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar nominated documentary is just about the protection of the gorillas in the Virunga National Park situated in the African Congo because in reality the film is an engaging look at larger conservation efforts underway at this pristine national park.

Established in 1925, the park was intended to be a sanctuary for the endangered wildlife population being driven out of their natural habitat by land developers and oil companies. Poaching has become a serious problem with the illegal killing of these protected animals as a way to undermine the necessity of the park and acting as a gateway to have the park become less and less expansive.

Following several stories/people that pass through the park, Virunga puts a lot of information out there in quick succession about the history of the Congo as it brings us to the present problem at hand. We meet the various people working to protect the land and all that live and make a living within, from a kindly man that works in the gorilla sanctuary to the rangers that risk their lives stopping the vicious poachers.

All well and good for a portrait of life but the film goes a step further by bringing to light investigative journalism that points to oil companies taking extreme measures to ensure their place in the front of the line for tapping into new oil deposits purported to be under the land deemed protected. A French journalist risks her neck to meet with shady sub-contractors that may or may not work from multi-billion dollar corporations while a family-man ranger wears a wire and secret camera to catch officials attempting to bribe him for looking the other way.

It’s hard-hitting, eye-opening stuff, shining a light on problems that exist half a world away. It’s no shocker that noted conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) hung his hat on Virunga as an executive producer, it’s exactly the kind of slick product the actor has focused his humanitarian work on in the last decade.

Even if it can feel a bit catch-all at times with its moments of breezy gorilla antics giving way to a breathlessly tense journey through an active warzone, Virunga feels both affective and effective. Make sure to stay until the last credit has rolled.

Movie Review ~ Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on legendary movie-poster artist Drew Struzan.

Stars: Drew Struzan, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Sam Witwer

Director: Erik Sharkey

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  You may not know the name Drew Struzan but if you’ve seen a poster for a movie in the last 30+ years you most definitely have seen his work.  In a new documentary (available on Netflix) director Erik Sharkey charts the rise of Struzan through his humble origins as a starving artist (literally) to his early work designing album art for musicians and eventually into his legendary period of churning out some of the most iconic poster images in the history of film.

Along with his contemporaries John Alvin and Richard Amsel, Struzan’s poster designs are world famous for their complexities and innate way of telling you an entire story within one single image.  Unlike the majority of posters today that are Photoshopped to death with poor construction, Struzan’s hand-painted works are sometimes better than the movies they are advertising.  There’s a beauty to these paintings that can’t be mimicked by modern technology which makes the work he does all the more valuable.

Though I don’t usually add extra photos to my reviews, here is a small preview of some of Struzan’s body of work.  Can you name the movies these teaser images come from?

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While the documentary covers all the bases on where Struzan came from and how he came to do what he does so well, the film is painted with broad strokes that manage to be informative while keeping the viewer at arm’s length.  That’s partly, I suppose, because Struzan seems like a straight-forward guy that has had little of your typical Hollywood conflict.  Soft-spoken and humble, aside from a lawsuit involving paintings that were stolen by an associate of his there doesn’t seem to be anyone that has a bad thing to say about him.

What’s more, Struzan comes off as a genuinely nice guy, a family man that chose to stay home in his early days with his wife and young son while his colleagues partied like rock stars with their rock star clients.  Struzan alludes to a painful childhood raised by parents that “didn’t like me” and locked him out of the house when he returned from his first semester away at college.  Not much more is said of this and I’m guessing Starkey didn’t push Struzan on a subject that obviously has some pain attached to it.

With interviews from many of the stars and directors Struzan has provided art for, the documentary is a mostly just a genial piece of pro-Struzan propaganda and I’m totally OK with that.  If it comes off feeling like you’re simply paging through one of Struzan’s impressive coffee table books with voice-over narration from the man himself, it doesn’t matter because it still makes for worthwhile viewing.  A must watch for any true cinephile.

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