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Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Roma

Roma

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio; left) is the maid to the changing household of Sofia (Marina de Tavira; right) in Roma.

For the record, no foreign-language film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. They’ve been nominated before but never won. Roma could just be the first. It has the story and all the other ingredients to do it.

The story begins in late 1970 as the maid Cleo is cleaning the driveway to the garage of the house she tends to. The house she tends to belongs to a couple, Sofia and Antonio, the grandmother, and their four children in the affluent Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Cleo and Adela, both indigenous, are the two live-in maids. The parents see Cleo as their maid while the children look up to her and talk to her often. The driveway and garage is the place where the dog is left to stay while the family is gone during the day.

The driveway and garage is too small for the big car Antonio drives, frequently bumping into the sides and driving over the dog droppings. That even comes in private conversation as Antonio angrily tells Sofia about all the dog droppings on the driveway. Cleo notices that, as normally Antonio is not that angry. Antonio, a doctor, mentions to all he’s going off to a brief trip to Quebec for a conference. He returns days later, but says he will be going to Quebec for a few weeks. The children believe it, but Cleo and Sofia sense something is wrong. Cleo knows it because she saw his wedding ring in the drawer.

Life for Cleo and Adela does not always revolve around the household. Both have boyfriends: Adela has Ramon and Cleo has Fermin. One night they all decide to go to the movies together, but Cleo and Fermin sneak away to rent a room. Before they make love in the bedroom, Fermin shows Cleo the martial arts skills he learned with a shower pole. Fermin tells Cleo that this is what gave him, an orphaned boy, his will to live.

Some time later, when Cleo and Fermin are watching a movie, Cleo tells Fermin she’s pregnant. Fermin says he has to be gone for a bit, but doesn’t return. Cleo tells Sofia that she thinks she’s pregnant. Sofia takes her to the hospital Antonio works at. While waiting in the maternity ward, an earthquake happens. Cleo learns from the doctor she is pregnant.

Cleo and Sofia try to carry on with their lives despite their difficulties. Sofia takes her children, Cleo and Adela on a New Year’s trip to a hacienda owned by her Norwegian-Mexican friends. Before the party, we hear a conversation about recent tensions over the land. The celebrations begin with festivities and fun for the children. However just before midnight, a fire erupts in the forest. As everyone is trying to put the fire out, a man counts down the seconds to New Years Day 1971 and sings a Norwegian lullaby.

Back in the city, Sofia organizes a movie night with the grandmother, the four children, Cleo and Adela. As they wait in line, Cleo notices Antonio. He hasn’t left for Quebec at all. In fact he’s holding the hand of another woman. Sofia has known this all along, but she wants to conceal it from the children until the time is right. Though one son, Paco, does notice it. Sometime later, Adela tells Cleo Ramon has been able to locate Fermin attending outdoor martial arts classes. Cleo watches the class, and is even willing to participate (and does the blind-balanced exercise better than the male students). As the class ends, she confronts Fermin, but Fermin refuses to acknowledge the baby. She tells her to leave or he’ll beat her and the unborn baby.

Time passes and the baby is almost due. The grandmother takes Cleo crib shopping one day. However a student protest takes place. The protests turn brutal as police respond with clubbings. Then violence erupts as a group of youth — strongly believed to be the paramilitary group The Hawks — start shooting the protesters. The grandmother and Cleo seek refuge in a department store, but the Hawks enter and shoot a protester dead. One of the gunmen aims the gun at Cleo, but when it turns out it’s Fermin, he drops his gun and runs off.

The incident gives Cleo so much stress, she has to go into labor. Teresa rushes Cleo to the hospital in a taxicab, but the chaos of the massacre makes it next-to-impossible to get there. Once there, Antonio reassures Cleo in the delivery room to stay calm but leaves her with Teresa and other doctors. The doctors hear no heartbeat in Cleo’s womb and decide to operate. The baby is born a stillborn girl. None of the attempts to resuscitate the baby succeed.

Cleo tries to carry on her usual work and tries to live life again. One day, Sofia drives a smaller car into the garage, and with ease this time. She says she found a job of her own and she’s able to tend to the children herself. She tells the children that they are going on a brief family vacation to the beaches of Tuxpan as one last trip with the old car. Sofia invites Cleo to come along to help her cope with the loss. As they arrive, the mother tells the truth to her children. Sofia and Antonio are getting a divorce and the purpose of the trip is so Antonio can collect his belongings from the home. Before the trip ends, Cleo looks after the children as they are swimming in the ocean. However Cleo notices the waves are getting dangerously bigger. Cleo, forgetting that she can’t swim, swims out to try to save them. She succeeds in saving them and Sofia and the children are thankful for her selfless act. However Cleo confesses right there that she did not want her child to be born. The mother, the children and Cleo return to the house with less furniture than before but with a new sense of unity between Sofia and Cleo. The film ends as a conversation between Cleo and Adela begins.

The film is unique because it is semi-autobiographical of Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood. This film happens from 1970 to 1971: a time when Alfonso was nine to ten. The film Marooned, which was the film in the family movie night scene, was a film Alfonso saw as a child and may have inspired him to become a film maker. The film does give a lot of reminders of what it was like to be a child in a middle-class family in Mexico City. There are posters of Mexico 70, the World Cup Mexico had just hosted, on the walls. There’s the brother making fantasy (American) football saves, which was a time Mexico was just discovering American football.

However Alfonso’s childhood isn’t the central story behind Roma. The story is about two women and their lives around a pivotal turning point in Mexico’s history. Mexico experienced a lot of changes for the better and for the worse during that period of time, but it’s the changes within the women that were noticed most in the film. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman who is one of the two maids, who is the main protagonist. We also have Sofia, the matriarch of the family, as the secondary protagonist. Both have their common female roles at the beginning: Cleo as the maid; Sofia as the housewife. However things change as it becomes obvious the men in their lives are doing them wrong. Antonio leaves Sofia for another woman, and Fermin abandons Cleo upon her pregnancy. The cowardliness of both men are shown in later scene as Fermin is part of the rebel group shooting protesting students and Antonio just simply puts Cleo in the hands of doctors as he leaves her behind. However both women find their strength inside as Sofia learns she can manage things, even motherhood, on her own and Cleo is able to save Sofia’s children in a situation when she thought she couldn’t.

The film is not just about the unity of two women but of unity of two women from different classes. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman possibly from an impoverished background, who is impregnated by her boyfriend and then leaves her. We have Sofia, a Caucasian woman from a more well-to-do background, who is losing her husband slowly but surely. Both appear lost, but they later find an inner strength they never knew they had. It happens as Sofia is able to get a job and own her own car. It happens with Cleo as she saves Sofia’s children and admits her feeling toward her stillborn baby. It’s at the end where Sofia tells Cleo how she will always consider her part of her family that we see the bond of two women coming together. United in their struggles despite their class.

One unique aspect of Roma is its use of metaphors. One is the use of airplanes in the imagery and in the various poignant scenes. Another is the use of the marching band in a couple of key scenes, including the end. Another is how it was right after Cleo saves the children from giant waves that she confesses. Another is how the size of the cars in the garage are symbolic of the marriage and divorce. Another is of various scenes involving movies that tell a lot about relationships. Even the time in which it’s set, from 1970 to 1971, is considered a turning point in Mexico’s history. The marginalized were going either get nastier or protest democratically. The government and their crackdowns would only expose the police or whoever else attacked as cowards. The rich would no longer have their peace and order as the poor would seek to destroy or steal for their own gain. On top of that, women would gain more, They would achieve more freedoms over time and a sense of independence. Mexico would not be the same.

This masterpiece belongs to Alfonso Cuaron. He is the writer, director, cinematographer and co-editor with Adam Gough of this film. The film is a lot like his childhood, as he said it would be, but it’s more. It’s about the two women who find a new sense of freedom in a Mexico that was changing. He creates a masterpiece that’s as telling as Mexico and himself as it is of the characters. The lead acting went to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio and she shines. This may be her first film role ever, but she does an excellent job with her role. Interesting to know in the scene where she swims out to rescue Sofia’s children, she couldn’t swim, just like her character! Also excellent is Marina de Tavira as Sofia. A veteran actress in Mexico, she did an excellent job playing a woman in a troubled marriage who comes out stronger. The child actors who played the chilren were also excellent. I think it was Carlos Peralta as Paco who was intended to be the representation of Cuaron.

The unique thing about Roma is that this is a film most shown on NetFlix. It was screen in theatres beforehand so it does qualify for Oscar eligibility. However with it being on NetFlix, very few theatres have shown it on the big screen and there are no official box office statistics as of yet. The VanCity theatre in Vancouver was the only theatre in Greater Vancouver that screened Roma on the big screen. I had the luxury of seeing it on the big screen just days after Christmas. Those who just see it on NetFlix are missing out on an amazing experience. It is 100 times better seeing it in a movie theatre. However the NetFlix factor is very unique for a film with this many Oscar nominations and a huge chance of winning Best Picture. That NetFlix factor could rewrite the game on how films, especially independent films, are shown.

Roma is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s also a film with a poignant social message as well. However it’s very picturesque to watch and an excellent experience for those lucky to see it on the big screen.

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Animated Movies Review

2016 was a stellar year for animated movies from Zootopia to Moana to Kubo And The Two Strings to Finding Dory. 2016’s line-up gave people lots of reason to come to the movie theatres. 2017 was very lackluster in comparison. We’re talking about a year when The Boss Baby was nominated for Best Animated Feature and even the mere existence of The Emoji Movie. 2017 almost made it look like if Sausage Party were released that year instead, it would be a Best Animated Feature nominee! However the best animated movies of 2017 slowly made its way on the screen in the latter months of 2017. I was lucky to see Ferdinand, Coco and Loving Vincent: three of the best of the year.

Ferdinand

Ferdinand

When I was about to see Ferdinand, I wondered how they would able to take the small story and turn it into a feature-length picture. I myself remember an animated short made by the Walt Disney studios made decades ago that was very humorous. However I wondered how would a feature-length adaptation play out?

The story starts out well with an entertaining look, but a bit of sadness at the beginning. As it progresses to adult Ferdinand, Ferdinand is funny and charming as a husky but flower-loving bull. John Cena adds to the characterization of full-grown Ferdinand. The characters of Lupe, Una and the other bulls add to the story.

There were times I wondered how will they get to where Ferdinand is scouted out by his accidental outburst? How will it be written out? Although it’s not true to the fable, the writers were able to create a way for Ferdinand to be discovered and sent to the bull rings to fight.

Another case that had me wondering was right in the middle of the story. It had me wondering how on earth the story would have a happy ending? Of course the film needed to have a kid-friendly happy ending, but in a situation where the bull either becomes a fighting bull who dies in the ring or to the slaughterhouse as meat? Nevertheless the writers were able to make the story work with good events to the plot and not just simply drag it out over the time. Even creating an ending where Ferdinand wins over the crowd and getting them to want him to live works for the film.

For the most part, Ferdinand is not all about the type of intricate story you’d expect to find in a Disney/Pixar film. Instead Ferdinand is about creating a charming modern adaptation of the short fable with charming and entertaining characters. It succeeds in charming the audience as well as entertaining the children. Despite the story being elongated into a feature-length picture, the film does not waste time. It succeeds in being entertaining. It also adds in some other elements that gets one nervous of what will happen to Ferdinand, even if they know the story. The story works in its feature-length and will not disappoint fans of the fable. It’s also good at winning crowds too as it made a good $282 million at the worldwide box office.

coco

Coco

Very often you know the Disney/Pixar collaboration will deliver something fresh and original in its arsenal that’s able to win us over. This year, they deliver Coco. Coco is unique because it’s of a Mexican family situated in Mexico. The question is will they make something original and unique entertaining to the public?

The team of writers and animators at Disney/Pixar are known for their innovations and their frequently-successful way of trying new concepts. First there was 1995’s Toy Story: the first-ever 3D animated feature. Then came A Bug’s Life which created an engaging story revolving around insects. Then Finding Nemo not only told a story about fish, but successfully took us to another world. The Incredibles was good at teaching morals in an entertaining way. Ratatouille made an entertaining story involving a rat. Wall-E magically gave us an engaging story about two robots in love with very little dialogue. It was Brave where they not only gave us their first female protagonist, but welcomed a female writer on their ‘dream team.’ And there was Inside Out which made character out of emotions.

Coco is not just a new movie from the Disney/Pixar collaboration, but a new chapter for them. They hired Mexican/American writer Adrian Molina as the scriptwriter along with Matthew Aldrich. Molina had already been part of Pixar as a 2D animator for Ratatouille, a storyboard artists for Toy Story 3 and Monsters University, and even wrote the script for Walt Disney Studios’ The Good Dinosaur. The voice cast is predominantly of Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Disney/Pixar even hired a ‘cultural consultant’ group of three Mexican-Americans including one former CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corp to make sure they were doing a film respectful of Mexican people.

The result is a film that has garnered praise even from both critics and even Mexican-American communities. The film even received excellent reviews from Latin American film critics. The film was also a top box office winner having grossed $730 million so far. Even in Mexico, it spent three weeks at #1 in the Mexican box office and grossed a total of $57.8 million in Mexico.

Now the film itself does what Disney/Pixar films have a reputation for: taking the audience to a new world. Here they give an excellent depiction of the Land Of The Dead that looks very intricate and maybe too big, but succeeds in making sense to the viewer. Once again the animation team does an excellent job in creating this new world and even the smallest detail is done with perfection. Once again Disney/Pixar is tops in animation quality.

However there was one time I was confused by the story. I’ll admit like most, I thought Ernesto was the great-great-grandfather. I was shocked when I learned that Ernesto killed Hector with poison. It left me wondering if Miguel’s great-great-grandfather was in fact a dirty killer. Even seeing Ernesto send Miguel to die in the cenote pit left me shocked. ‘Why would Ernesto do this to his own great-great-grandson?’ It’s in the pit with Hector that we learn that Hector is really the great-great-grandfather. That was a relief. It was there where it became better sense why Miguel needed to redeem the name of the family through the spirit of Hector. The story was very well-written and very entertaining. Also the song ‘Remember Me’ is an excellent song for the movie that makes for the perfect tearjerker moment you don’t feel manipulated by.

One again Disney/Pixar delivers a masterpiece in Coco. It is as top-quality as it is magical to watch.

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Loving Vincent

Now the previous two films in which I just talked about are both the more family-friendly films. Loving Vincent is the polar opposite of both. It’s not cute, it’s less family-friendly, and it’s not even 3D computerized animation. It also didn’t even make $10 million at the box office. Nevertheless it is charming in its own ways.

The film is a plot where Armand Roulin is asked by his father Joseph to deliver a letter from Vincent Van Gogh who died a year earlier to his brother Theo. After learning Theo died, Armand looks to find the right person to give the letter to. Throughout the journey, Armand tries to get the answer to whether Vincent’s death was a suicide or not? He was released from a hospital after found to be in good mental capacity six weeks before.

Armand comes across many people in Vincent’s life. Some have positive things to say. Some negative things. All have something to say about the person of Vincent, the various people he met with or fought against, and his personal feelings before his death. This still leaves Armand confused and his question of Vincent’s death unanswered. It’s right after Dr. Gachet promises to give the letter to Theo’s widow that he learns van Gogh’s suicide wasn’t of mental agony, but to free himself and his brother. Later Armand receives a letter from Theo’s widow thanking him.

This animated film about Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t be a simple animated film. Instead this is a film in which the images were done by 100 painters trained to paint like Van Gogh. The object of the film was to create a story involving characters of people Van Gogh painted and was close to in his life across a backdrop that’s just like the paintings he painted. Basically an animated story about Van Gogh that captures the essence of Van Gogh’s art. The story may be fictional, but it succeeds in playing out like a Van Gogh painting. It even gets one that knows very little about Van Gogh’s works or his life intrigued. It even gets fans of Van Gogh’s art admiring the film for capturing the essence of the artist and his works. I also like how the film ended as “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” was playing. It would make those who never understood what the song was all about understand it better.

So there’s my look at three of the best animated films of 2017. All three are nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. All three are enjoyable in their own way.