One could make an argument last year’s Mudbound was the feature that signalled Netlfix’s prestige drama interest, readying their horses for the annual Oscar race. Roma is really the tipping point, a film with the critical momentum to suggest it could actually take the Best Picture statuette. I’d be surprised, simply because it’s much better than many of the more mainstream Hollywood films that’ve walked away with that prize. (Yes, it’s true, the Academy Awards recognizes not-so-great movies sometimes.)
Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Gravity) tells a semi-autobiographical story, a portrait of the woman who raised him, the housekeeper in his upper-middle class home in suburban Mexico City. Shot in a high contrast black and white, Cuaron locks down his camera and pans around rooms, streets, and the interior of cars, as people go about their business. His reluctance to shoot up close means his characters are often a little lost in their environments, and us with them.
But what a place to be lost in! The best cinematography nomination is a lock for Cuaron, who also lensed his picture—no Oscar-winning Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki on the project this time—and the fact Netflix only chose a limited cinema run in major centres for Roma is breaking my heart. I want to see this again on the biggest screen I can find.
His recreation of Mexico in the early 1970s astonishes—favouring wide-angle imagery to create enormous scope and scale—while his character focus, a single, fracturing family—a woman with four kids and an absent husband, and their housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio)—takes awhile to establish, but it pays off in a big way as we go along. The film is anything but lethargic, and the story of Cleo and her life as an essential part of the family, while still being their servant, is fascinating. It’s a domestic epic.
Cleo spends her days cleaning up after the family, looking after the children while she lives in a small apartment in the back of the house with the cook. When the patriarch disappears and the mother starts to fall apart, Cleo becomes even more important to what remains. She spends her free time with a young man, a martial artist, but when he realizes she’s pregnant, he disappears.
At its heart, Roma is a touching ode to mothers, but it takes time coming to that conclusion, in an immense backdrop of class, politics, youth culture revolt, city life, and family vacations. Cuaron’s style is removed from someone like Terrence Malick, but their habits of filling frames with detail and movement makes it feel as though their characters are only one small part of the whole they’re interested in, and frequently not the most important part. With Malick it’s all about wildlife, grass, and light, with Cuaron it’s architecture, dust… and light. Cuaron also meanders a little in places, indulging in sequences that don’t add up to much—here I’m thinking of a scene with a burning forest and a man in a monstrous costume—which that have more in common with Fellini’s Roma than anything Cuaron’s done previously.
But just when you start to think this is all just an exercise in keeping the film’s lead on the edge of the frame while the filmmaker indulges in his gorgeous but rambling nostalgia, Roma hits you with a couple of the most potent, moving scenes of year, where your patience with the set-up will be entirely paid off. It is a remarkable picture. Believe the hype.
I’m not a fan of Braveheart. I’ve always found Mel Gibson’s filmmaking-as-self-flagellation routine tiresome—though, for the record, I liked Apocalypto. In the years since Braveheart, it’s become something of a bellwether for the dude-bros, further pushing it into the nope column for me.
Outlaw King is something else entirely. While taking place in the early 1300s Scotland setting that also saw William Wallace’s rebellion, this is an epic with some nuance, in the direction, script, and performances. It’s the story of Scots legend Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine, somehow delivering a laconic American-styled performance while nailing the Scots accent), who starts the film in surrender to the English king, Edward I (Stephen Dillane, who was recently Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones). The elder Robert (James Cosmo, an acting legend himself. who was in Braveheart) bends the knee and encourages all the lords to do the same, but when he passes, Robert the younger foments rebellion, even as he’s agreed to marry an English girl, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh). The return to wartime doesn’t go well at first, with the nasty Edward II, Prince Of Wales (Billy Howle), looking to prove he’s a better warrior than his father. As the English fight under dragon banners, casting aside chivalry, so too does Robert, as his fighters utilize guerrilla tactics and castle-sacking to much success.
Everything about this works—the sterling chemistry between Pine and Pugh helps provide stakes for the stretches of the film when they’re separated. The supporting characters all distinctly manifest, and the political machinations provide fuel for the fighting, setting up a third act that’s pretty much wall-to-wall action. The Scottish location cinematography will make you feel for the crew and performers—it must’ve been cold out there.
The scale of thing impresses—director David Mackenzie (Hell Or High Water), returning to his native Scotland, is as comfortable with the intimate moments as he is with the powerfully staged scenes of combat, of which there are many. Certainly amongst the best films released on Netflix to date. I mentioned Game of Thrones—consider the swords, mud, and power struggles of Outlaw King opioid maintenance therapy until a fix of the real stuff is available again in April 2019.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
As this new Coen Brothers western is an anthology of six short films, I’ll talk about them all separately. It is important to note that the film begins with a book, and a dedication in the frontispiece: “To Gaylord Gilpin, who shared with us these stories, and many more alike, one night in camp above the Roaring Fork, ’til the approach of morn stained the sky, and our esteem for him stained our trousers.” A more Coen-esque thing I could not think of.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
What a delight this is: Tim Blake Nelson as the singing cowboy of the title, wearing the white duds like Tom Mix while facing off against hard men (like Clancy Brown as Joe) who look like they stepped out of a Sergio Leone picture. It’s only a little more than 10 or so minutes, but every one of them is a joy.
James Franco is an outlaw aiming to rob a bank. He finds the chattiest teller (Stephen Root) in western history—not an unexpected character trait in a Coen picture—and from there things go badly for the outlaw. This segment mines a drier, comedic vein. It also concludes with a terrific punchline.
Liam Neeson is the grizzled Impressario, and Harry Melling (grown now, but as child he was Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies) is the Artist, a legless and armless young man who entertains the punters in on a mobile stage in tiny mining towns, reciting great works of English Lit from memory. Here’s where cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel really shines, with a granite colour scheme spiked with high contrast, this is a gorgeous-looking segment, if a little thin in the plot. Full marks to Neeson and Melling for delivering all their characters’ intentions despite very few words exchanged.
“All Gold Canyon”
A quaint, adorable celebration of prospecting ingenuity, starring Tom Waits, spending days in a gorgeous valley, digging holes in the ground looking for gold. Consider this a tonic to the madness in the opening of PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. This is also lovely to see, and a great yarn. (It could be my longtime affection for Waits, and seeing him a perfect role in his current white-haired wonder is making me appreciate the entire enterprise with more affection than it necessarily deserves.)
“The Gal Who Got Rattled”
A wagon train heading across the plains toward Oregon includes Alice Longabaugh (the rattled gal, played by Zoe Kazan) and her brother, Gilbert (Jefferson Mays), and a cowboy named Mr Knapp (Bill Heck). It starts really well, with a circuitous story of growing affection between characters and a debt owed to a mystery boy, and ends in violence (with a few great line deliveries from Grainger Hines) that feels both abrupt and a little unfortunate. But by this point, the pace and essential nature of these stories is sinking in—they’re about the arbitrary, violent nature of the mythic old west, and movies about the same, but they’re all more than a little whimsical. In other words, typical Coens. This one is my favourite so far.
“The Mortal Remains”
The wonderful Saul Rubinek (who it feels like has been absent the screen for ages) is one of the characters on a stagecoach. The IMDB suggests his character is named The Frenchman, also the name of David Krumholtz back in the first segment, bringing the the anthology full circle. Also in the coach is Tyne Daly as The Lady, Brendan Gleeson as the Irishman, Jonjo O’Neill as The Englishman, and Chelcie Ross as the Trapper. Conversation is robust and unexpected, and when the stage arrives at its destination, a gothic pallor is cast upon the whole affair. This last one is a bit of head-scratcher, and might need another viewing to piece together.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and its constituent stories, some a bit more than others. Taken as a whole, it’s a little slight, with a noticeable dearth of female characters and people of colour, which is diminishing. No doubt the Coens are playing off classic western movie tropes—the presence of Native Americans is only as othered, aggressive antagonists—but it can’t help but feel a little retrograde as a result. I think I might’ve enjoyed more of a through-line between the tales, more characters like The Frenchman crossing paths and reappearing in other stories. There’s a lot of cleverness here, and a lot of humour, but is it memorable? Maybe not.
Wim Wenders still makes feature films regularly, though despite this and his impressive body of work, these days he’s more celebrated for his documentaries. He’s never had trouble with theme or symbolism or gorgeous cinematic imagery, and Submergence has plenty of all of that.
Based on the novel by JM Ledgard, the meat of the story is told in flashback—where water engineer James More (James McAvoy) and professor and bio-mathmatician Dani (Alicia Vikander) meet at a resort hotel on the coast near Dieppe. The coastline is almost as fetching as these startlingly well-photographed stars, as they visit the same half-buried bunker Agnes Varda features in her documentary, Faces Places. They banter, they drink wine, they talk about the lure of the ocean, darkness versus light, and they make love. It turns out, however, that he’s a spy. In the present day, he’s been captured and held in a windowless room in Kismayo, Somalia, while she prepares to go down in a submersible to the deepest part of the ocean off the Faroe Islands.
The bulk of the feature keeps the lovers apart, and has us pine for their reunion. The stars are a lot of fun to watch, and their chemistry is substantial—the film makes their brief, intense romance plausible—but the separation goes on too long, and deep in the third act the film tests our patience with subplots about social issues and religion in James’ story, which don’t compel, while Dani’s ocean dive feels more like treading water, narratively speaking. When symbolism overwhelms realism, especially in the dialogue, everything feels stilted, and the ambiguity in the conclusion is inexcusable.
“When we lay our heads down out here, we’re all prisoners,” says Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale). A prisoner of his own hate, really—he’s spent his career fighting the Commanche, and now, close to retirement, he and his men (including Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Bill Camp, and, affecting a French accent, Timothée Chalamet) have been tasked to transport an enemy chief (Wes Studi) and his family (including Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Tanaya Beatty) from New Mexico to Montana. On the way they find a woman (Rosamund Pike) whose husband and children have been murdered by Commanche, and a prisoner (Ben Foster) who has history with Blocker.
This gorgeously shot western (written and directed by Scott Cooper) lets the light and the landscape do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the performers shoulder the rest, especially Pike, Bale, Camp, and Studi, who’s as charismatic as he was back in The Last of the Mohicans. Here he even gets to smile, which lights up his face. The walking gristle that is Peter Mullan is also a welcome presence, if only briefly.
At one point, someone says, “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled,” which is utter banditry, the line abducted from The Unforgiven, a film to which this western can’t compare. But, setting aside its overt thematic homages and stolen dialogue, Hostiles is compelling stuff, delivering both violent genre requirements and a remarkable heart, a sadness for the damage done to indigenous people in the name of manifest destiny.
A marks off for ending Pike’s character arc halfway through the movie, turning her into someone who just reacts to things the men do, but add that mark back for putting a rifle in her hand late in the running.
Paul Greengrass is best known for being a cracking maker of thrillers—including three Bourne movies, Green Zone, and Captain Phillips. but he’s also the king of the political, real-life docudrama, having directed Bloody Sunday, United 93, and now 22 July, which stands amongst his earlier work as a credible, harrowing recreation of the events of a terrible day. A single far-right terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) set off a bomb in downtown Oslo on July 22nd, 2011, then proceeded to a teen summer camp, killing 77 citizens, most of them children.
Greengrass uses an all-Norwegian cast for his feature, with everyone speaking English. It means performers for whom English is a second language are doubly challenged, and it gives much of the production an awkward earnestness. As an audience, we have to take that extra suspension of disbelief—it’s a conceit Hollywood has planted in its audience for years, but it’s tiresome. There’s no reason these actors should be speaking English, except because it makes the production more marketable globally. I understand it’s a compromise the filmmakers are willing to make, but it lessens the impact of the work.
However, not much else does. Greengrass is a master of a certain kind of verisimilitudinous suspense. The actual violence only takes the first 20 minutes of a 143 minute drama, and the bulk of what follows is the story of the survivors, especially Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a young man who was terribly injured, and his family. We also spend time with Breivik’s legal representation, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden, the best performance here).
The film shows what the victims and their families went through—it honours the nation of Norway and its system—as it becomes something of a courtroom drama late in the running. As we wait for the next mass shooting to be reported from the United States, anything that builds empathy and understanding for the victims of violence is worthy of watching.
It also puts an unblinking eye on Breivik and his murderous manifesto. The film explicitly links the rise of right-wing populism—including Trump—with this fundamentalist behaviour. I’m not entirely convinced how well the film succeeds in doing what it attempts, but I do know not talking about small-minded, power-hungry, violent men doesn’t make them go away.