Roma

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* * * * *

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a masterpiece, operating at the highest possible levels of artistry of storytelling and technique. Let me join the global chorus of critics urging you to see it at the cinema as it enjoys a “special theatrical run” before landing on Netflix, where it will remain brilliant, but lose its grandeur. This is a milestone of a movie, an epic, an event.

Cuarón is one of the world’s great visual directors: just witness Gravity and Children of Men, both of which were shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzki, who is, I understand, considered by many cinematographers to be their finest living peer. On Roma, Cuarón is his own cinematographer, and his work in this department is astonishing. Formally constructed in black and white widescreen, most sequences in the film begin with or prominently feature substantial tracking shots filled to the brim with action on multiple planes, all contributing to a portrait of the film’s central setting, Mexico City in 1970, as vibrant and energetic and often chaotic and wild. Incredibly intriguing details – a human cannonball, relentless aircraft, marching bands – constantly fill in the greater depths of the frame, cascading upon each other and providing us with multiple layers of meaning, for the film we are watching is both minutely autobiographical and intensely poetic. Everything we see is from Cuarón’s own childhood, but poured into the richest two hours and thirteen minutes of the year; if events, at times, seem almost too dramatic to be true, that’s because we’ve made the deal to witness them as a movie, and Cuarón’s agreed to condense them.

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Roma is the story of a year in the life of Libo, Cuarón’s nanny (and one of his household’s two maids) when he was a boy. It was a dramatic year for both Libo and the household, and Cuarón has stated that he wrote the film from direct memory, then sought to re-create those memories as authentically as possible. Thus, he sourced almost all the furniture in the house in the film from relatives of his scattered around Mexico; whenever possible, scenes were shot where they actually took place; and he and his extraordinary production design team have strived to make every single moment look as close to the memory in Cuarón’s head as possible. The result is breathtaking: the performances and design are grounded in absolute realism, while the cinematography is artful and precise. This gives the film a true timeless quality; were someone to show it to you in 2028, I’d wager you’d have no real way of guessing, to the nearest ten years, when it was actually made.

The film is epic and intimate; in the seemingly simple story of Cleo (the stand-in for Libo) and her unusual year, we are driven to contemplate huge issues and major themes: class and ethnicity, the nature and dignity of work, what actually constitutes a family and parenting; what it means to love. It is a film of constant compassion and absolute humanity. It is totally, essentially personal to Cuarón, but it is also fundamentally universal. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

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Thanks to the Randwick Ritz in Sydney, where I was able to see Roma in its essential environement: the cinema.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

* * * * 1/2

The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.

The stories were originally going to be broken up, and producer Netflix was originally going to package them separately, as a TV series. I don’t know what discussions lead to the current format, of a single feature film, but suspect it may have to do with the stories’ disparate running times. The shortest feels around ten minutes, the longest at least half an hour; a TV series so comprised would have been radical, and perhaps ran the risk of being off-putting. As it stands, the experience of watching all in one sitting, as I did, is enormously rewarding, as the stories are well placed to thematically resonate and enrich each other.

The first, titular story, and the one that follows, are both very very funny and pretty violent, and seem designed to deconstruct the myth-making, “balladeering” of the old west. But as the film goes on, the stories grow in length, deepen in characterisation and darken in mood, and, while the sudden threat of fatal violence remains ever-present, the thematic focus shifts to language, such that the final story is essentially all dialogue, and all about words.

The Coens just love words with this film, and you’ll love them loving them. The lovely conceit of the whole seems to be that, while the American western frontier was coarse and rough in action, it was dignified and stately of tongue. This theme is spectacularly illustrated in the film’s final minutes, which fuse New World frontier law with Old World stately decorum while also nodding to an entire, hidden realm of unorthodox lifestyles. The final face we see is fearful, not just of potential violence, but of a love that dare not yet speak its name, and of society itself.

WELLES FEAST

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND ****

THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD ****

It’s difficult to know, objectively, how exciting the simultaneous release, on Netflix, of Orson Welles’ finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind and a documentary about that film’s production, They’ll Love Me When I’d Dead, will be for the general movie watcher. For me, it’s manna from heaven. If cinema is my love, Welles has been my obsession. I’ve read more books about him, watched more documentaries about him, just thought about him more than any other artist. And I’m not alone. Welles inspires devotion, because he was just the biggest, baddest, raddest, most ball-bustingly bravura filmmaker there was. He huffed and he puffed and blew all the doors down.

Of course, his very grandiosity, the thing about him that makes him so compelling, made him a pariah to some, and his story, no matter who’s telling it (I recommend Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson, This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, Put Money In Thy Purse by Micheál MacLiammóir, and Run-Through by John Houseman, although there are scores more, including a mammoth multi-volume extravaganza by Simon Callow) always includes Hollywood’s abandonment of him, and his years in self-imposed exile, raising money and hell all over Europe and the world, starting many projects and tragically leaving many unfinished.

The most famous and infamous of these, the Golden Fleece, is The Other Side of the Wind, except that now, thanks to a smorgasbord of Jasons, it is, actually, finished, and you can, miraculously, push a button and watch it. But first, watch Morgan Neville’s extraordinarily entertaining documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, also on Netflix, or read (and read?) the book that inspired it, Orson Welles’s Last Movie by Josh Karp, which is similarly delightful and inherently more detailed.

Then, once you’re up to speed on all the shenanigans, watch The Other Side of the Wind. It’s one of the more meta cinematic experiences you’ll ever have, for reasons that are self-evident, and plainly discussed in both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Karp’s book. The story of a Wellesian director, Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, on his 70th birthday, having a party and trying to finish his latest film, it’s a stylistic tour-de-force first and foremost, a flashy, breezy and often very funny satire on the movies and reflection of Welles’s own predicament. If you’ve seen Welles’s superb cinematic essay F For Fake, you’ll recognise his editing style (and his leading lady and girlfriend, Oja Kodar), here taken to extremes. The cinematic conceit of the “main” storyline is that almost everyone at Hannaford’s party has some form of movie camera, and the film we’re watching is constructed from their footage, so the grain shifts, sometimes we’re in black and white, and very few cuts last longer than a couple of seconds. It’s propulsive and vibrant and edgy and fresh and unmistakably the work of Orson Welles. He had a true cinematic voice and it’s fully on display here.

We’re also treated to a hefty selection of scenes from Hannaford’s unfinished film – a film-within-the-film – also called The Other Side of the Wind. This is shot and edited in a completely different style (including in a different aspect ratio), being, within the film’s construct, not “Welles’s” work but “Hannaford’s”, and Hannaford, it turns out, is trying to connect with the late-60s / early 70s cineaste crowd by making an Antonioni-esque film. Thus the footage we see is a parody of Antonioni, and if you needed confirmation of that, the house Welles shot Hannaford’s party in is the house next door to the house Antonioni blew up at the end of Zabriskie Point. Now you see how deep the games go?

This footage – the film-within-the-film – is astonishing, for many reasons. It is intensely erotic (something rare for Welles), famously so thanks to the influence of co-writer Kodar, whom Welles adored and who obviously influenced him deeply during this period of his life. It is gorgeous, intricate, and often very creepy. If the main storyline is fascinating for its autobiographical take on Welles and his relationship to Peter Bogdanovich (playing a Peter Bogdanovich-type called Brooks Otterlake!) and young hip Hollywood (Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington and Claude Chabrol are all at the party, among others, and Susan Strasberg plays a version of Pauline Kael called Julie Rich), the film-within-a-film is fascinating to experience. Almost entirely free of dialogue, it is spellbinding, captivating, better than most of the films it so wickedly parodies.

If you love Welles you’ll be seeing both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and The Other Side of the Wind. If you’re new to Welles, give ‘em both a try. Regardless, watch the documentary first. It makes the film itself a vitally richer experience.

TV: Big Mouth, Norsemen, Trust

Two extremely clever, original and defiantly edgy half-hour comedies return to Netflix for their second seasons. Big Mouth, from creator Nick Kroll, is an animated look at every uncomfortable, mortifying, terrifying aspect of puberty. A group of American teenagers are going through it, egged on by their own, literal, hormone monsters; masturbation, menstruation and everything else is covered in graphic and lurid detail, with mostly very funny results. Deliberately over the top, everyone whose been through all this mess can relate, but some may not want to go back there; it could be just too painful.

Meanwhile, Norsemen is a Norwegian spoof of that country’s Viking history, and often extremely funny. It’s the closest show I’ve ever seen to old-school Monty Python humour: dry, absurd, and played straight. It’s also in English; somehow, that makes it funnier and more charming (and a Norwegian friend of mine agrees). The series doesn’t shy away from the Vikings’ predilection for invasion, pillaging and rape, and there is occasional gore, but always deployed for humorous effect. There is also intrigue, a love quadrangle, ancient ritual, a psychotic villain and stunning locations. The large ensemble cast are all superb; many of them have been seen as cops, politicians, soldiers and bad guys in Nordic noir, and it’s a delight to see them here, being delightfully, unapologetically silly. Terrific.

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Trust (FOXTEL) shares a lot of story DNA with Sir Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World from last year. Both take J. Paul Getty’s response to his grandson John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in Rome in 1973 as their general plot, and there are certainly similarities; in both, the rich old man is portrayed as a miserly controlling creep, and his seat of power, a mansion in England, is a prime location in both. But Trust, at ten hours, obviously has a lot more room, and on the basis of the first two episodes it is clear Boyle’s going to use it. He’s always been interested in money and its effect on people, and J. Paul, played exquisitely by Donald Sutherland, gives him a marvelous monster to sic amongst a large cast of family and employees (J. Paul, like many of the über-rich, didn’t have friends), each of whom is subservient and sycophantic to, rebellious against, or disgusted by him to varying degrees. The production design is stunning and the story massively entertaining (and quite lurid). Typical of his work, Boyle is superb at character delineation; this is a big universe but everyone is exquisitely and clearly defined. It’s also funny, a lot more than Scott’s somber movie.

Bojack Horseman S5, American Vandal S2

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It’s a great, nay, a tremendous pleasure to report that Netflix has dropped new seasons of Bojack Horseman and American Vandal and both live up to extremely high standards previously set. With Bojack, this isn’t unexpected; it’s already racked up four consistently excellent seasons. If you’re not familiar with idiosyncratic creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s surreal animated fantasia, it’s about a Hollywood television actor who was huge in the 90s on his own sitcom and now floats around, buffeted and comforted by plenty of money, booze and friends but troubled by a million doubts, fears, anxieties and, at least in seasons past, honest-to-goodness depression. It’s extremely funny, beautifully drawn and animated, perfectly acted (Will Arnett plays Horseman) and a sharp LA satire, but where it really kicks goals is in its ambitious tonal reach: it’s not afraid to play melancholic notes, nor reach for true pathos and occasional tragedy. Frankly, it got a bit too depressing for me at times last season, but this season there’s more fun and zip in the air, buoyed by Bojack’s new lease on life: he’s drinking a little less, taking care of himself a bit more, and has a new starring role on a “prestige” show that may just put him back in the game in a major way. By the way, Bojack is half man, half horse or something like that; the technicalities don’t matter, as the entire universe of the show is populated by humans, animals, and a million variations in between. You can dive right in, but if you have the time, definitely start from Season One.

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American Vandal potentially faced less chance of repeat success, essentially because Season One was such a self-contained, satisfying jewel. It was a perfect satire of the new style of binge-worthy prestige true-crime shows such as Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Staircase, with a healthy whack at the podcast Serial as well. It mimicked the style and tone of the opening credits, the theme music, the camera angles, the blend of archival, interview and new footage (including the obligatory drone-overs), the pacing, the drip of information, everything. But then, in a coup de TV, it also provided a compelling story that made you want to find out who did it; the characters were superbly drawn, the mystery deep, the plotting intricate. And all stemming from a base crime – the drawing of a bunch of penises on a lot-full of parked cars at a high school.

Season Two had the potential to be totally irrelevant, and the first ten or so minutes of the first episode were ominous. The setting had switched to a private high school, but the crime remained base, this time involving a lot of poo. Not to worry. Just like the first season, this story very quickly starts multiplying, branching, expanding and soon becomes massive, engrossing and very, very addictive. It even, extremely cleverly and rather subtly, starts to engage with current American politics. The gimmick still works, but the suburb storytelling is what will grab you and glue you, once you get past all the poo.

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Cagney and Lacey (Netflix)

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As the terrifying massive ratings for the recent debut of a new season of Roseanne demonstrate, everything old remains new again. We don’t necessarily need any of these retreads, which also include Will and Grace and Dynasty and upcoming Murphy Brown, but as long as we watch them, we’re going to keep getting them.

Depending, I suppose, on the age, availability and gameness of the original cast members, some of these shows are “revivals” – Roseanne and Will And Grace feature their original casts – while some are “reboots”. Cagney and Lacey, on CBS All-Access in the US and Netflix in the rest of the world, is a mix of the two. The characters are meant to be the same, but they’re played by new actors; admirably, the show bucks most trends by casting new actors who are not only far more established than the original cast members were, but are as old – or older – than the characters themselves would have become.

Helen Mirren is two years younger than Sharon Gless, who originally played Cagney, the blonde, single, career-minded cop partnered with Lacey, played by Tyne Daley in the original and here played by Judi Dench, who, at 83, is eleven years Daley’s senior. It would have been very easy for Netflix to cast two “hot” twenty-somethings, so kudos to them for allowing these two characters to age (and so gracefully). Perhaps we have the astonishing success of Gracie and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, to thank?

The casting of the two Dames is quite a coup; who hasn’t hankered to see them in a vehicle together? Unfortunately, this is pretty much the wrong vehicle. Dench takes to Lacey’s boozy swagger with gusto (if a bit too much Brooklynese) but Mirren, unfortunately, seems all at sea as Cagney. Gless was always the “femme” to Daley’s “butch”, but Mirren seems determined to go another way with her interpretation, presenting a Cagney every bit as grizzled and gutsy as her partner (she also has a much harder time with the accent). Sure, time has passed, and both of the characters have every reason to be hard-bitten, but the similarity of the characters – a fault obviously partially to blame on the script – robs the series (I’ve seen the first four of ten episodes) of one of the original’s most distinct flavours, which was the the difference between the two. Mirren and Dench, as older versions of two distinct women, seem to have grown into one. Or perhaps, the series is saying, all Cagneys become Laceys over time.