Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

2018 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition that comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).
Roma: If you've been longing for a film in the style of Italian Neorealism, Roma has you covered. Named after a neighborhood in Mexico City, it's a semi-autobiographical film from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón focused on Cleodegaria Gutiérrez, "Cleo" (Yalitza Aparicio, in her film debut), one of two live-in servants for an upper middle-class family. The father, Antonio, is a doctor; he and his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira) have four young children, and Sofia's mother Teresa also lives with them. The family can be kind to Cleo, but Sofia does yell at her occasionally. The children adore Cleo, though, occasionally fighting for her attention. On one of their days off, Cleo and Adela (the other live-in servant) meet up with their boyfriends. Cleo's boyfriend, Fermin, studies martial arts and prizes appearing strong. (A deadly serious kata he performs winds up being hilarious; you'll see.) But when Cleo tells Fermin she might be pregnant, he vanishes. Despite worrying about being fired, Cleo confides in Sofia, who promises to help her out.

Like many Italian Neorealism films, Roma is less about plot and more about characters and moments. The storytelling is unhurried, episodic and lyrical, with great black and white cinematography and a lovely, subtle sound design layered with the everyday sounds of life in a home, a city and the countryside. Most of the film consists of simply following Cleo, who's kind, patient and maintains a quiet dignity despite a series of setbacks. Films about servants, let alone an indigenous woman, are fairly rare, and I found Roma interesting and refreshing in that respect. The film's got a political aspect simply by telling Cleo's story; she's got relatively low social status, isn't always treated well, but occasionally seems prized by others. Scenes range from the funny to the surreal to the harrowing and powerful; the climactic scene is gripping stuff, with a strong performances by Aparicio and a long, unbroken camera shot given escalating power by the sound design and situation. Art house films in this style aren't for everyone, and I still prefer many of the Italian Neorealism classics, but I enjoyed this one and found it a welcome change of pace from typical Hollywood fare.

First Man: If you're looking for a conventional biopic or a rah-rah America film, you'll want to skip First Man, which juxtaposes the personal life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) with the race to the Moon. Even in an age of stoicism, Armstrong stands out as being intensely, even aggressively private, pushing away people who try to reach out to him after the tragic death of his young daughter to illness. Meanwhile, in his professional life as an astronaut, Armstrong endures extreme conditions while appearing mostly unflappable to others, even if we're privy to his sweating and fear. The flight and test scenes are often riveting, with great sound effects work ratcheting up the tension.

This is not a good choice for a first space race film, but a rich one for audiences who know the basic story and have already seen, say, The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, From Earth to the Moon or 2019's superb documentary, Apollo 11. Director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer eschew triumphalism (which earned them some criticism), focusing instead on Armstrong's internal struggles. Brit Claire Foy gives a strong performance as Janet Armstrong, Neil's no-nonsense wife; Neil probably fears tangling with her more than any of the dangerous rigs he climbs into. (Foy's accent is a bit dodgy but the tradeoff is more than worth it.) The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler and Shea Whigham being standouts. Meanwhile, Gosling gives a fine, subtle lead performance as someone trying to be stoic, with occasionally strong emotion being held under ferocious control; the dynamic gives even mute moments a charged energy. Chazelle and Gosling last worked together on La La Land (reviewed here), and this is an impressive change of pace. I understand why some audiences didn't care for First Man. But I found several of the flight scenes gripping and some of the personal moments moving.

The Death of Stalin: The Death of Stalin is not for all audiences, but a certain crowd will adore this jet-black satire based on real events. If you have the fatalistic Russian sensibility to see the dark humor of seemingly random reprieves from a totalitarian regime's capricious arrests and executions, this is the movie for you. Director Armando Iannucci, known for The Thick of It, Veep and In the Loop (the fifth film reviewed here) casts comedians in most of the roles and has them use their own accents, reasoning that the Soviet Union had many regional accents.

The plot: The opening sequence is a concert performed under duress for Soviet leader Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), which amazingly, really happened much as depicted. Shortly thereafter, Stalin has a stroke, sending the upper leadership of the Soviet Union into a panic. Deputy Premier Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is insecure and a bit of a dolt, so into the power vacuum steps Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin's nefarious, scheming chief of secret police and member of the central committee. Beria's chief rival is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who races to recruit allies against the dangerous Beria. The ensuing struggles among central committee members, Stalin's two adult children and the military feature competitive ass-kissing, the absurdities of bureaucratic infighting, and astounding contortions to maintain ideological purity in shifting circumstances. (A speech by Molotov, played wonderfully by Michael Palin, is an absolute gem in the last category.)

I was a bit skeptical of Steve Buscemi playing Khrushchev, but he's fantastic, with the energy and fast tongue to keep the whole affair moving. Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale is another standout as the menacing, canny Beria, and I thought he should have gotten a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (He also reminded me a bit of Dick Cheney, both physically and in style.) Jason Isaacs makes a memorable late entrance as macho General Zhukov, no fan of Beria. But the entire cast is great, with memorable performances by the aforementioned Tambor and Palin, as well as Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine and Rupert Friend. Some of the scenes are intentionally disturbing – this is a world of executions and potential coups, after all. You're also more likely to appreciate it if you know a little Soviet history. But if you like both Orwell and dark comedy, you'll probably enjoy this one.

They Shall Not Grow Old: They Shall Not Grow Old serves as a superb primer on World War I for unfamiliar audiences and offers welcome depth through first-hand accounts for audiences who know something about the subject. The Imperial War Museums of Britain contacted WWI enthusiast Peter Jackson about making an unconventional documentary with their unreleased footage. Jackson's team first did some tests to see if the footage could be restored digitally, and found that it could, in some cases quite radically. Jackson and his team then went through over 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of BBC interviews with WWI veterans to choose the pieces to craft the movie. They even consulted forensic lip readers to figure out what soldiers were saying in some clips. The narrative shows young British men being recruited and trained, going to fight in the trenches in Europe, and a sobering advance over the field of battle. You'll also learn a lot about what they ate, small pleasures and the harsh realities of life in the trenches; only a few interviewees offer an everything-was-dandy account. Much of the footage is colorized, and some of the restoration makes the faces look somewhat washed-out and plastic, but overall, it's a very effective approach. The storytelling is so smooth it's easy to take for granted the tremendous amount of work it took to pick the right footage and the right audio clips in the right order; the film has no conventional narration. In the making-of doc, Jackson briefly mentions all the wonderful stories they couldn't fit in; the naval experience; the experience of women on the home front working in factories for the war effort; the experiences of racial minorities; and the stories of nationalities besides Britain (British commonwealth countries get a little screen time). You can just watch They Shall Not Grow Old and get sucked in, but I found myself marveling at the craftsmanship throughout. The sound design alone is masterful and helps pull us in (chatter, nature sounds, sound effects recreated from real WWI guns and artillery pieces), but this is impeccable work all around. It's also valuable, digestible history built on first-hand accounts versus official, sanitized versions. Unfortunately, They Shall Not Grow Old was released too late in 2018 to be eligible for the Oscars and because it's a 2018 film will not be eligible with 2019 films. But everyone involved with it should be proud of this achievement.

Personal notes: I wish World War I was studied more in the U.S. and better remembered; we prefer to remember WWII because we were more clearly the good guys, and WWI lacks such a storyline to distract from its horrific battles and many unconscionable political and military decisions. When I went to see They Shall Not Grow Old in the theater, I was heartened to see the audience had a wide age range, with elderly couples, middle-aged viewers and also a college-aged crowd. One young man in his 20s had seen it already and dragged his friend to it; they were talking about enthusiastically afterward. When the film started, Peter Jackson introduced it and stated they would play a making of documentary after the film itself. Nearly everyone stayed for what was about 45 minutes more. That's both a recommendation and encouraging.

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