ROMA (2018)

How quickly you should be moving to watch Roma on Netflix

WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for the film Roma. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read on! And if you haven’t seen it, why not? It’s over on Netflix now!

2018 was a bad year for the world but a great year for movies. So I’m going to write about some of those great movies which I loved in 2018. To read my full introduction to this series, read this.

In July of 2018, Alfonso Cuarón released the first teaser trailer to his long awaited Gravity follow up. It was a deceptively simple video. Rich, black and white cinematography captures nothing more than a floor, being flooded with soapy water by an unseen presence off screen. The title of the film, some laurels from its selection to some festivals, and Cuarón’s name were all else it contained. But that minute-long morsel disguises just how much that water would end up meaning to us by the time this movie finishes.

Some people say that Roma “doesn’t really have a plot” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Cleo, a young Mixtec maid working for a family in Mexico City in the 1970s, deals with an unexpected pregnancy from an absent father, while at the same time her boss deals with her own kind of loss, in the form of her husband walking out on them. Of course, there are plenty of side threads. But it shouldn’t matter. Sometimes, we can let a great plot cloud our idea of what is needed for a good movie. I think Infinity War got caught up with that; it had so many characters and plot points, it forgot to flesh any of them out or take care to shoot each one equally and it was clear a lot of things ended up on the cutting room floor. (I realize now this is the second post in a row in which I’ve criticized Infinity War. I promise it won’t happen again, I’m just still somewhat confused what happened in that movie leading up to the snap. Like, what was large Peter Dinklage’s purpose even? But I digress.)

Chaos reigns in Roma, with seismic events being shown with a calm, almost blasé, eye in its filmmaking

What Roma lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in world building and production design. The extreme attention to detail is absolutely mind boggling. They rebuilt Mexico City on a production lot. Those shots of Cleo and Adela running through the streets to get to the movie theater and meet with their boyfriends? That’s all a backlot, those are all extras, and every bit of that scene was built or bought from scratch to complete the aesthetic. Building the family home on a soundstage was not enough, nor was renting a home. No, they saved a home from demolition to rebuild it inside and out from Cuarón’s memory. Not even a parking lot next to an abandoned soccer stadium was enough to control his vision.

A criminally underseen featurette where Alfonso Cuarón and production designer Eugenio Caballero talk through the creating of the set pieces for the film.

Shot by Cuarón personally, the movie is a feat of cinematography. Shot in black and white, the movie is not nominated for best editing, probably because it’s not obvious editing. The movie is filled with long shots, that let you take in the whole scene without always revealing everything. Case in point: my favorite scenes of the movie.

A pregnant Cleo goes with Teresa, Sofía’s mother, and another servant to get a crib and other furniture for the baby. They park on the streets and walk, nonchalantly, through a student protest to get to the furniture store. Soon after, chaos reigns. Shots ring out on the street, and a terrified couple come in, seeking shelter. Counterprotesters come in, seeking to shoot the students. We’re so caught up, watching the brutal slayings of these terrorized students, that we barely even see the out of focus gun being pointed at Teresa and Cleo. It isn’t until Cuarón pans his camera that we see that the gunman is Fermín, the father of Cleo’s child.

This is enough to breaks Cleo’s water. At the hospital, we see concerned doctors crowd around Cleo, worried about something unnamed. They rush her into a surgery suite, frantically calling for pediatrics. In a stunning four minute and eleven second unbroken shot, we see Cleo give birth, watch doctors attempt to resuscitate the stillborn, and later see her visceral reaction as the doctor tells her that her baby girl was born dead, and then tear the lifeless infant from Cleo’s arms and wrap her in cloth. Only Cleo is in focus, in a scene that, if it didn’t give so much away, would be all that would be needed for Yalitza Aparicio’s Oscar reel. The doctors CPR attempts are out of focus, and the nurse catching the baby, sewing Cleo up, and informing her of what’s happening is unshown. But Cuarón knows that not everything being heard must be seen on screen. He is an adept enough filmmaker to know what to focus on.

The star of the movie, whose smile lights up a theater screen, your TV, your laptop screen, or even your phone screen if you so choose.

Cuarón clearly put so much thought into the movie. It’s obvious every shot, every event, the symbolic, repeated presence of water and chaos and the overwhelming ubiquity of women was meticulous. Most directors, even those of his caliber and experience, are never as sure and dedicated as Cuarón is here. And thank god for it. It imbues the movie with a sense of purpose that overcomes any deficit of plot. It gives it a timeless quality. This is not some shoddy production made in response to politics or a sense of a trend within the industry. This is a labor of love, and an ode to childhood and a time gone by that few can muster without falling into camp or debilitating nostalgia. And it’s a movie that no other mainstream, traditional studio is willing to make.

A crowing achievement for cinematography, indigenous representation, and the pros of the seemingly endless stream of money coming out of streaming services, Roma is a revelation. Like it or not, few, if any, traditional movie studios would be willing to spend this amount of money on a foreign film starring unknown and first time actors, forget about any of its other handicaps (namely it’s black and white cinematography and its centering of an indigenous woman, revolutionary for an industry which was booing Sacheen Littlefeather off the stage at the Oscars 46 years ago).

It’s possible that we’ll see harmful effects of the centering of money and talent on a few sites several years down the line. But for now, we need to know how remarkable it is that this can happen, that a foreign film can be so widely loved and even more widely seen. It has only happened once before, for a movie with a similar budget and which also received ten Oscar nominations. Roma probably never made anywhere near what it made (although Netflix won’t even release its box office numbers, its been deduced that Roma has probably made $3 million), but it doesn’t need to. It has no money to make back, no studio looking for profits or for an opportunity for a sequel. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made stars out of Ang Lee and Michelle Yeoh. Roma should have the opportunity to do the same, just in a more modern way.

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

A movie that broke through superhero fatigue and lackluster box office to become a sensation

the “hey auntie” heard round the world

2018 was a bad year for the world but a great year for movies. So I’m going to write about some of those great movies which I loved in 2018. To read my full introduction to this series, read this.

Not much more can be said about Black Panther, but here I am, saying more about Black Panther.

People get really combative about this movie and I still don’t know exactly why. Is it the fact that so many people see any award for black or female led films as mere virtue signalling? Is it the fact that it’s a blockbuster, and blockbusters these days can be pretty bad?  Or is it the dreaded and long foretold of superhero fatigue?

No matter; this movie dispels all those notions handily. I wrote a bit before about Jurassic Park as a true blockbuster of the kind that doesn’t really exist anymore. Here’s an exception. The type of movie that builds a world without being too overstuffed with information or plot (something which I think tripped up Infinity War), Black Panther is a film that brings more to the superhero movie than just “good vs. evil”. It invited discussion about black wealth, female strength, and the African diaspora vs. African Americans who are the descendants of slaves brought here against their will. More than that, it made everyone aware just how rare it was to see, not only this many black people, but a huge range of black people who are darker than tan. The movie brought us Letitia Wright, Danai Guerrera, and made people start appreciating Chadwick Boseman as more than just a biopic star.

Pick your fighter: the Dora Milaje vs. Furiosa’s army

In fact, the opposition to this film is puzzling because it seems this, and Crazy Rich Asians, are the kind of movies we should WANT. In a time of folks asking “what will it take to get you to a theater?” the answer is clear. Bring back what made the blockbuster great to begin with. Give us good stories with diverse characters and a world we want a 30 ft tall screen to immerse us in and we’ll go. We will pay $15 a ticket and $6 a bucket of popcorn when you make it worth our while. It was a movie event on a scale rarely seen these days. The film was still showing in many theaters when Infinity War debuted ELEVEN WEEKS later. As it stands right now, it’s the third highest grossing film of all time, and far and away the highest grossing film of 2018, making more than $700 million domestically. Now with a Best Picture nomination and a SAG Ensemble win under its belt, it’s clear that popular film was never a category this movie required.

While I’ve obviously done a great job summarizing its importance, you might be wondering “well, just why is it YOUR favorite?” To me, movies are more than just its technical achievements (which I’ll talk about with a later pick.) Movies often shape our world in ways beyond the screen, and the world often shapes the screen. The Birth of a Nation led to a second revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The “cowboys and indians” genre of westerns is in part responsible for the complete lack of knowledge Americans have about Native Americans. And oftentimes, who we see on screen as the heroes and villains of stories is reflective of who we see as the heroes and villains of real life.

So how refreshing that black people are finally both in their own story. Few things caused more joy than seeing all of the children and adults alike dressing up as the characters for the movie. To hear the stories from people who have lived through so much in this country’s history and to be able to see themselves displayed so vibrantly on screen. For black folks to be able to grapple with the fantasy of “what would happen if we had a rich country for ourselves, as so many others do?”

Ciara and Russell Wilson dress up as characters from the movie

I cried watching the movie. Killmonger’s death scene is one of the best of the year (and indeed, Michael B. Jordan’s performance is one of the greatest villain portrayals out there). It’s perfectly cast and well acted and is given a surehanded direction by Ryan Coogler (who, may I remind everyone, is only 31 and has decades worth of masterpieces in front of him). But beyond that, it’s baffling to me that you could reduce a movie this political and monumental to just “the visual effects aren’t that good”. OF COURSE it’s political. Few films are not. That’s why I can pursue politics as a career and film as a hobby. Oftentimes, their overlap is undeniable. They speak to each other, real life mirroring film and film mimicking real life. Movies either reflect real life or are a fantasy of what real life should or could be like. That’s what makes this movie so great to me, and perhaps that avoidance of this universal truth is what makes it so unbearable to others.

I for one, cannot wait until, in 25 years, I’m sitting in my underwater house with my children, probably hiding from our robot overlords. And I will show them Black Panther and tell them of a time where it suddenly felt, for the first time in a long time, that everyone could see themselves on screen. I’ll tell them of the jokes and celebrations and the funding drives that were put on to make sure everyone could see what was being viewed as a revolutionary, once in a lifetime event. And hopefully they’ll tell me with wide eyed awe “THIS was revolutionary?!”

JURASSIC PARK (1993)

It’s the perfect summer blockbuster. So hold onto your butts and watch this movie with fresh eyes. Or for the first time. This film holds up, and it’s a fucking delight. 

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The entrance to the park……and this post

Jurassic Park is a legend. I understand. That’s the reason we’re still allowing Chris Pratt to frolic among the creatures that are UNDENIABLY shown to be dangerous and unstable in this movie, and literally every other sequel.

However, in the 25 years of its existence, I’ve never seen it. Jurassic Park, like many Spielberg blockbusters, is one of those movies that you almost feel like you don’t NEED to see it. It’s so ubiquitous, you know what happens, right? Scientists go to a rich man’s theme park with dinosaurs, the dinosaurs escape, chaos reigns, Jeff Goldblum is shirtless, yada yada yada.

But alas, I was wrong. I did need to see it. And I want to see it again. I watched it on demand on Showtime, before it left on September 11th. Even seeing it on my big screen TV in the living room was not big enough. I see why this was at one point the highest grossing film in history. You need the big screen. This is a blockbuster of the highest order. This combines thrill and humor in a way movies these days can’t seem to balance.

See, I didn’t want to watch this because I honestly expected it to be boring. I know the dinosaurs will escape, why do I need to watch them do it? I’ve procrastinated so long on this, I OWN the freaking movie and didn’t watch it. But alas, my VCR is now broken and I must rely on premium channels’ on demand selections.

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A first run copy of Jurassic Park that sits in a storage cabinet, forgotten about by all in the household.

The fact that, even barring its status as a cultural zeitgeist, one can be amazed and delighted by this film proves its worthiness as a touchstone of the 90s.

And oh how painfully 90s it can feel. I mean for Christ’s sake, Lex gets onto the ride and is amazed by an “interactive CD ROM” and the informational video looks like the shit I got shown in 8th grade sex ed.

Sidenote: I fucking love that video, and Richard Attenborough’s “oh, I have lines here”. Actually, scratch that, I love Richard Attenborough in general. He’s a goddamn DELIGHT in this movie. He’s so confident in his creation and so happy to show it people, and this performance is FANTASTIC. It’s a performance that makes me feel sympathy for this rich white man, which is hard for a working class Puerto Rican girl like myself to do! But he’s just…god, the only word I can think of is CUTE. He’s just downright adorable.

Actually, everyone’s performance is exactly what the characters need. None of this feels phoned in or like a money grab so the actors could afford to do more indie and “quality” films. Laura Dern KILLS IT (both in her acting and in her slightly less painfully 90s outfits). Jeff Goldblum plays an asshole, and oh what a delightful asshole he is. Wayne Knight could show up in any movie and I’d say “yes! I’m so happy Wayne Knight is here!” He’s like a 90s John C. Reilly. You’re amazed how he’s in everything everywhere and you’re never not happy to see him. I really want to be Samuel L. Jackson’s cigarette. And both kids make it a true family film. The girl who plays Lex could have been Drew Barrymore’s competition in the “blonde child actress” competition, but alas, she seems to have decided to pursue a career in painting instead and we got 50 First Dates. Everyone wins!

But for me, the proof that the movie doesn’t play it safe and truly takes risks is the special effects and the set and production design.

Think of this summer’s blockbuster action movies. Skyscraper, Rampage, The Meg, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Sadly, these movies haven’t gone much further from the effects shown in this. (I mean, The Meg is such an obvious cash grab for the China market it hurts. I have a lot of feelings on that subject though).

It’s 2018 and I’m watching Jurassic Park for the first time and I’m still amazed by the dinosaurs and how realistic they look. They blend right into the landscape, and make you look with the same amazement as Dr. Ellie Sattler. It leaves you wondering “how did they do it?” while not wanting to look it up and ruin any of the movie magic. It puts modern CGI to shame. They’re not just trying to amaze (like the animals in Rampage), they’re trying to convince. They clearly spared no expense with these effects and that love and effort shows.

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Same Laura Dern. Same.

I can’t speak for the scientific accuracy of the film. I’m sure Neil DeGrasse Tyson has something to say, but I don’t want to look. (Okay, so I looked. He did talk with Bill Nye about Jurassic World. Oh, how that man loathes suspension of belief!) But who the hell cares! There’s DINOSAURS! Eating a man on the toilet! It’s fun and frightening and riveting and it’s a gumbo of all the best elements of movie magic and I want more. It’s the perfect summer blockbuster. So hold onto your butts and watch this movie with fresh eyes. Or for the first time. This film holds up, and it’s a fucking delight.

METROPOLIS (1927)

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Title Card from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Masterpiece

This review used to begin with a paragraph talking about how much I loved Kanopy, which I used to watch this film. Sadly, the NYPL recently ended offering the service to cardholders. RIP Kanopy, at least for me and other New York cinephiles.

Most movies from the 1920s are watched by film lovers as artifacts. We may love these movies; we may even draw their lessons and apply them to today’s world. But few play as if they were made IN today’s world. Metropolis is one of the few.

It’s a 2 and a half hour whirlwind, a German fever dream of what the year 2026 should look like. The greatest part of this all is how not antiquated this future looks. The machines look like a steampunk’s dream today and the city seems to be denser and containing more transit than the average large American city can dream of. If only a working class employee could simply walk to work in New York City today. Alas, we’re stuck to ride the same tracks that existed when this movie was released. But I digress.

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I can’t stop thinking about this light bulb

The cut I watched is the most complete ever, a 149-minute version with restored scenes and shots thought lost until found by the Museo Cine in Argentina. However, the print was badly damaged and it shows. You can tell which scenes and shots are only in the film because of their recovery, as they have a markedly different quality from the original German print. And honestly, the large majority of the scenes found……are unnecessary.

My biggest complaint is how long it is. Maybe it’s just my warped not-quite-Millenial-but-not-Gen Z brain that can’t sit and pay attention for a 2 and a half hour silent film. But I swear, when the Prelude ended and I saw we were HALFWAY THROUGH and just hit the intermezzo…Lord I almost gave up. But I’m glad I kept going. The final third is some of the most thrilling, edge of your seat storytelling of the silent era.

The first third of the movie is full of so many long establishing shots, almost as if Lang is showing “look what I did!” instead of allowing one to be amazed by his (admittedly impressive) set. And given the acting work put out by Brigitte Helm in the rest of the movie, it isn’t needed.

She plays so many primary and tertiary characters and gives each of them the full bodied characterization needed to pull it off. Her facial expressions as the Machine Man give her a distinctiveness necessary for the Jekyll and Hyde roles she’s playing between the Machine Man and Maria. It’s a performance that should be hailed as legendary, a performance that should be required viewing for any and all aspiring actresses. But that’s not the film’s legacy. Indeed, the visuals of the film are the longstanding triumph of the movie.

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The transformation of the Machine Man is one of the most famous moments in cinema

Going into this, I knew many of the shots that I’d see. The worker’s city, the Tower of Babel sequence, and most of all the creation of Maria into the Machine Man are enduring images of all of film history. Janelle Monae, a singer, actress, and idol of mine, created a whole EP named after the film with an even better debut album inspired by it. I was unsure if the film would meet my expectations. I mean it’s almost 100 years old, it can’t look THAT good, can it?

But it does. The collages in some of the more horror filled scenes in the second half still dizzy. The perfect synchrony in which the workers move, both during the shift change and as they march and dance during the destruction of the Heart Machine, requires a direction of brutal precision. And rumors are that the filming was brutal abound. It paid off, surely, but at what cost? I don’t want to defend a sadistic dictator of a director, those are too common still today. But the looks of the movie show how his demands for perfection paid off. The flooding of the workers city is a harrowing sight, as abandoned children pour out of the buildings. The burning of the witch is a gorgeous display of revenge, a therapeutic moment of comeuppance for this villain. But knowing how terrible this shoot was for Brigitte Helm and all of the poor children hired by Lang, it makes one feel guilty for enjoying it. One is no better than Joh Fredersen, luxuriating in the beauty at the suffering of others.

But the past is the past. And however this movie was filmed, its visual legacy is enduring. It should be showed in architecture classes as the peak of Art Deco and shown to politics classes about the role of power and labor and their relation to each other.

As a political organizer, I often find myself fascinated by the first two decades of the 20th Century. So much that we take for granted, such as the 40 hour work week, child labor laws, and the holiday we just celebrated known as Labor Day stemmed from the type of workers depicted in the film. Yet, for as much as labor has advanced since then, it’s incredible how it has remained the same. This movie could be remade today. In fact, it almost has. The relationship between Joh Fredersen and the workers is not much different between the often terse relations between Jeff Bezos and the thousands of workers who ensure that the e-commerce giant can continue its Prime promises. That relationship is brilliantly shown in Sorry To Bother YouSurely, Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift and his WorryFree act as both a metaphor for Amazon and as the spirtual successor of Metropolis’ pro-worker message.

I just wish that today, the ending message could be the most defining image. Beyond a display of technical film prowess, Metropolis is a rebuke of Germany’s post World War I industrial transformation. It’s a movie for the common worker, a dystopian future which is almost here. In 2026, will we celebrate the year of Metropolis with protests of our own? Or will the relationship between the head and the hands still be missing its heart? I fear the latter. I hope our own mediator shows up soon, but until then, Metropolis remains a relevant social commentary.

the mediator between head and hands
A Still Relevant Message in This Day and Age