Roma (2018)

Roma

The family’s maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is closer than blood

It should come as no real surprise that a lot of the original films by Netflix are not that good. Some (at least ones I have seen and heard of) are pretty terrible. I would say that Roma is not one of them, but that is a putrid understatement. Here is one of the best films of this or any year, and to say it is not worth seeing because it is not in english or in color would show how shallow you are as a movie goer.

Like many brilliant films, Roma is both simple and complicated. It tells the story of a maid named Cleo (a stellar performance by Yalitza Aparicio). She lives in Mexico City during the 1970s, making her living as a maid for a middle-class family consisting of four children and a grandmother. Something happens in Cleo’s life that she is unsure how to respond to, and turns to the family’s mother Sofia (a rather overlooked performance by Marina de Tavira), who is struggling with the absent father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). Their relationship is one of the corner stones of the film. The rest is worth finding out for yourself, though I will mention that the film’s true star is its director Alfonso Cuaron (whose last film, Gravity, won him the Oscar for Best Director).

Drawing from his own personal experiences, there is an oozing of authenticity in every frame of the film (more on the look of the film in a bit). There is a sense that Cuaron (who also wrote the script) went through nearly pain staking detail in every crevice of the story, making us feel like (at times) we are not even watching something fictitious at all.

Now on to the visuals. This is undoubtably the most beautiful film of 2018, and paints pictures better than anything CGI could even dream of. I admit I was a little surprised to find that Cuaron did the cinematography (I assumed it would be his collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the three-time Oscar winner of Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant, for 2013-2015). Yet as stated before, he pays close attention to every detail. It reminded me of works from masters like John Ford and Yasujiro Ozu. He even makes a scene of cleaning up dog crap look gorgeous.

Parents, this is not a movie for kids. There is graphic nudity (frontal male), though not sexual, and a good amount of swearing and some violence. High School and above.

There is so much glorious work in this film that I want to talk about but know that it is best for you to find out (there is one scene in a hospital that is more intense than any of its kind I have ever seen). The only bad thing about this being a Netflix film is that it may pressure you to just see the film on your computer (or worse, a cellphone). This movie was made to watch on as big a screen as possible. As my good friend Kenneth said, “Friends don’t let friends watch Roma on a cellphone!”

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinema Paradiso

Young Toto (Salvatore Cascio) blooming into his love for film.

Recently, a good friend (and film critic) mentioned how every film goer has blind spots. In other words, certain movies just escape us and we miss them one way or another, unless we seek them out. That being said, I am still furious with my past self for not having seen the masterpiece Cinema Paradiso sooner. I can’t fathom how anyone would call themselves a movie lover and not want to see this film.

Set in present day (the movie came out in 1988, winning the Oscar for Foreign film), we meet Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), who has just been informed that a man he knows, Alfredo, has died. The funeral is tomorrow in his hometown, where he has not been for thirty years. In a series of flashbacks, the movie shows his life up to his decision to leave his home town and pursue his true passion: film.

As a child during World War two, young Salvatore (“Toto”) has one escape in his life of school: the local cinema. He soon befriends Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the protectionist, thought it is not easy. Toto learns the ins and outs, and then some.

Ok, you can get mad at me if you want, but I don’t want to give anything else away. All I knew about the movie (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore) going in was that it was about movies and was in subtitles. Sure, I felt I would get a lot of references, see some romance, and maybe even laugh a little. What I did not know was how moved I would be. Those who know me best know that it takes something special to make me cry (not just during movies). There was nothing to prepare me for the emotional impact that I was going to have at the end of this film, and what an impact! After spending so much time with Salvatore, seeing him grow up, learning life lessons, I guess the tears were inevitable. (It also does help when you have a majestic sweeping score by the hugely talented Ennio Morricone).

Parents, the version I saw was the PG version (a later, more mature version was released, unseen by me). The PG one had some swearing, thematic material, and sexual material (one movie being shown shows a woman’s bare back, and boys in the audience are clearly masturbating, though nothing is shown). I would say High School and above.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, Cinema Paradiso is one of the very best movies about movies. It shows one of the key elements of magic that movies have always possessed: the element of escapism.

Molto bello.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

Ip Man (2008)

ip man

Ip Man (Donnie Yen) vs 10 opponents…

I have to confess that the older I get, the more cynical I appear when friends tell me about movies I should see.  It is not that I don’t care about other opinions or tastes. It is more that I know my knowledge and expertise at cinema is more than likely more evolved than that of a normal movie goer (or fanboy/fangirl). That being said, a lot of times when people offer me suggestions on films, I may reply that I have not seen them.

“What? I thought you were a movie guy! This movie is a classic! A great movie.”

(I often think to myself if they sometimes know what the term “classic” means, but never mind).

This leads us to Ip Man (2008), a movie that tells the story of the title character (played by Donnie Yen, who, pardon the pun, gives a near knockout performance) that, before seeing the movie, I thought was just some lame title for an asian superhero who was really good at martial arts. I was wrong. There was no way I would go into this movie knowing it was actually based on a real life person who would eventually train the legendary Bruce Lee.

The story takes place in 1930s China, where Ip Man and his wife Cheung (Lynn Hung) live in somewhat blissful harmony along with his young son. There are a number of Martial Arts schools in the village, but none can compare to Ip Man (how else to explain a guy who can knock the holster out of the revolver with one finger?) The film starts out with one master trying to fight Ip Man, but to no avail.

The one thing that Ip Man does not appear to have a love for is teaching, despite all the young men wanting to learn. Even the Northerners who rudely come in, trying to showboat their skills, are no match.

The movie eventually shows us the invasion of Japan in 1937, leading to even Ip Man having to find work shoveling coal. Eventually, the Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a fan of martial arts, wishes to fight Ip Man after seeing him in action.

Now let us talk about the action in this film. There is no secret that Hollywood is known for making countless (and I mean countless) number of movies that rely on special effects (which is what most people want to see). While I am not saying the artists that make special effects are not talented, it is clear that fight scenes such as those in Ip Man are much more appreciated. It gave me the feeling I had when I watch legendary dance choreography from the likes of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. The scenes are so intimate that you just know those fighting are trusting the others not only with the movie, but their own lives.

Parents, the movie is rated R, but is one I think could be easily ok for kids in the PG-13 range. There is no sexual content (the only nudity is of a young man’s rear end that is played for laughs, lasting only about two seconds). The swearing is not very heavy (at least that much more than a PG-13 action flick). It is mainly the violence, which is no more so than that you would find on TV shows nowadays. Middle School and above.

Possibly the most surprising thing about Ip Man is that the makers knew not to rely heavily on the fight scenes. They use it mainly to enhance the story, which is what all good film makers do. Ip Man already has two sequels (another is in the works), and I plan on watching them right away.

Overall: Four Stars

Hero (2002)

Hero

Jet Li is literally untouchable as Nameless…

The first real martial arts movie I remember being introduced to was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), one of the very best the genre has ever offered. Afterward, we got other great movies like Hero, which, although not as good as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it still is a wonder to behold.

I have no idea if the martial arts are all choreographed in this film or not, but the movie is so gorgeous to behold that the story seems almost superfluos (its alternate time lines are the only thing negative about the film). Hero tells the story of a warrior (Jet Li) who is known as Nameless. He is brought to the Qin Emperor (Daoming Chen) after his completed assassinations. The movie is basically how those came to be. The movie also stars such actors as Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang (also in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Donnie Yen (who is now known for 2016’s Rogue One).

I am not sure if Hero is the first movie one should see if they are hesitant about seeing their first martial arts film, but it is more than enough to quench the thirst of any hardcore fan of the genre. How else to explain a scene where (for about seven seconds) we see a sword fight where the two combatants seem to almost be playing ping-pong with water drops?

Parents, the PG-13 rating is due mainly to the violence (though none of it is gory or bloody). There is also one scene of sexuality to skip (though no actually nudity is show below the neck). Basically, the rating is justified.

The best thing that can be said about Hero (as well as all martial arts films) is that it shows the art of fighting (of being martial) is not just about the scenes, editing, or special effects. It is so much more deeper: the poetry, emotions, life, and serenity of it all. It is truly a delicate art.

The way movies should be treated, when you think about it.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Let the Right One In (2008)

let-the-right-one-in

Eli is far from the typical girl next store…

This movie has you from the get go. The first scene shows a snowfall, but it looks like the black screen is steadily falling apart. It is rather spellbinding, just like the rest of the film.

I have not seen a lot of vampire movies, but Let the Right One In (along with its remake Let Me In from 2010, which is almost as good) is surely one of the best ones. It shows vampires as beings who have a problem, but do not relish in the fact that they have it. It is not a superpower, but a sickness of epic proportions (as shown in the original Nosferatu, still the greatest of vampire movies).

The Swedish (yes it has subtitles, get over it) film tells the story of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a 12-year-old boy growing up in the 1980s. His parents are separated (he spends most of the time with his mom) and is basically a loner. He is picked on constantly at school. One day, a new girl moves in next store, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Right off the bat, she says “We cannot be friends.” The chemistry between these two 12 year olds (though Eli is not really 12) is more realistic than most “chemistry” in movies based off of a Nicholas Sparks book. Sure, Eli is a vampire (the picture above may have given that away), but Oskar only sees a soul going through the same things he does. It is one heck of an authentic friendship.

My only qualm with the film is it spent a tad too much time with the adult characters. Really, the only one I felt we needed to see much of was Hakan (Per Ragnar), the father like figure of Eli, who “supplies” her with the blood she needs. The other adult characters are interesting enough, but much of their screen time had me wanting to go back to the relationship between Oskar and Eli.

Parents, I cannot think of any other film about 12 year olds that is not for 12 year olds. Obviously, the film does have violence and gore, and some swearing (an F bomb here or there). There is also a scene where Eli undresses and gets into Oskar’s bed with him. It is nothing really sexual. There is also a very brief (and I mean very brief) flash of nudity (it comes after Oskar tells Eli about his mom’s dresses), but again nothing sexual. Still, the R rating is justified, so only High School and up.

I have stated before that I am a sucker (pun intended, since it is a vampire movie) for puppy love, and there is no doubt this movie nails it. There are not many movies that can explain horror, romance, drama, and art, and Let the Right One In does so flawlessly.

I found myself wanting a friend like Eli when I was twelve. Someone I could talk to when no one listened (or I did not want to talk to my parents). Someone to give me advice. Someone to help me out of a jam with bullies.

You know, minus the whole blood sucking part.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

 

 

 

 

City of God (2002)

Rocket sees what he has gotten himself into in "City of God".

Rocket sees what he has gotten himself into in “City of God”.

Crime has always been a great topic and setting in films.

Going back as far as the 1930s with James Cagney to The Godfather to Goodfellas, cinema crime flicks have been some of the best around. One that has been overlooked is City of God.

Set in Rio, it is based on a true story of how, growing up in the suburbs, kids can get into crime so easy it is beyond horrifying. It centers on Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a photographer who gives the background of characters he has had contract with in his life. One of them is Lil Ze (Leandro Firmino), a crime lord of epic preportions. To say he likes killing people is a gross understatement. He has a best freidn, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), one of the most likable “hoods” in cinema.

What happens to them is up to you to find out. What makes this film so brilliant is the filmmaking. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, it was his first film he made, ranking it with rookie outings like Citizen Kane. It is that good.

Parents, this is not for kids at all. It has violence, some sexuality, and swearing. High School and above, for sure. Still, for those who can handle it, I highly recommend it. It is one of the best foreign films of the new century.

Overall: Five Stars

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

A simple story of survival, yet it is so much more...

A simple story of survival, yet it is so much more…

I never thought I would say this, but I finally found something negative about the output of Disney.

Sure, the people at Disney have been the cornerstone of children’s entertainment (and really, entertainment in general) for decades, but it seems to have made the general population think that animation is only for kids, and not for the older folks in the home.

Enter the masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, which is so effective I feel it was probably truly ahead of its time when it was released. It tells the story of two siblings: teenager Seita and his little sister Setsuko (about four or five years old). They are growing up in Japan, in the carnage of World War Two. That is really all there is to the plot, but as far as the emotionality of the film, it goes deeper than you would imagine.

I have stated before that I am not one who cries much during movies: I feel films have to earn the tears they want the audience to shed. This film earned every single tear that I shed, and there were plenty of them. Seita and Setsuko are two of the most tragic, yet most loving siblings you will ever encounter on celluloid.

Parents, the film is not rated, but (as I viewed the film) I felt it should be a good solid PG-13. There are moments in the film that will remind you of how heartbroken you were in animated films like Bambi, Dumbo, Up, and the end of Toy Story 3. That being said, Grave of the Fireflies deserves its own spot along some of those films as one of the best animated films ever made.

Overall: Five Stars *****

Ponyo (2008)

PONYO Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas lend their voices as new-found friends in PONYO

PONYO
Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas lend their voices as new-found friends in PONYO

A child really is the best example of how to love.

When a child smiles at the littlest thing, or gets a new pet, it tugs at any adult’s heart strings. That kind of love is wonderfully shown in Ponyo, another hit from Studio Ghibli.

The film (which is based off of the original story of “The Little Mermaid) centers around 5 year old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, the youngest of the Jonas brothers), who discovers a magical gold fish he names Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). Together, they go on an adventure that is both magical and life changing (which, when done right, is always a joy to behold regardless of your age).

Others in the cast include the great Liam Neeson as Fujimoto, Ponyo’s demanding father. Also well cast is Tina Fey as Lisa, Sosuke’s mother, who is upset at the fact that her husband, Koichi (Matt Damon) is always at sea.

The animation of anime is always uncanny, and there is no exception here. What makes Ponyo stand out even more is the story. Parents, it is essential for kids to know to love others, regardless of appearance. Even if the entity is a fish.

Overall: Four Stars ****

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Two girls wait in the rain with their new neighbor, Totoro

Two girls wait in the rain with their new neighbor, Totoro

There is a ten-year old girl in my church named Amanda, and every time I say the word “Totoro” she lights up. She, like everyone I know who has seen this film, adores Totoro.

I think we have all, at some point, had a Totoro in our lives, someone (or something) we can go back to for us to feel like kids again, and regain our happiness and innocence. Think of “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane, but in Anime.

My Neighbor Totoro is easily one of the best animated family films ever made. It tells the story of two sisters: Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and her younger sister Mei (Elle Fanning). They are moving to a new home with their father (Tim Daly) as their mother is sick in the hospital. They come across their neighbors, Nanny (Pat Carroll) and her grandson Kanta (Paul Butcher). It is clear, but (and this is a hidden success of the film) not acted upon how their may be potential puppy love between Kanta and Satsuki.

Eventually, the girls (who have one of the best sister relationships in any movie I have seen) meet Totoro, a big fluffy creature who may be the most huggable creature in film history. He is not in the movie all the time, but he is in the movie at the right times, like any great neighbor or friend.

Parents, there is one scene that may seem weird (at least to non-japanese audiences). The two girls take a bath with their dad. There is some rear nudity, but really, nothing bad at all. This truly is the movie to introduce kids (and their parents) to anime.

My only issue with the film is the run time. I would have loved, LOVED, for this film to have gone longer. I would even want a sequel (and it is hard to pull off a good sequel, especially an animated one). As for the animation, it is beyond breathtaking. It shows the world where there is some comedy, some danger, some depression, some heart ache, but all life. It is a film that reflects who we are, and more.

Overall: Five Stars *****

White God (2014)

Lily (Zsofia Psotta) and her dog Hagen have some tough times ahead in "White God".

Lily (Zsofia Psotta) and her dog Hagen have some tough times ahead in “White God”.

Recently, I got into a conversation with my older brother about movies staring dogs, and he said he could not think of a single good movie with dogs. Now that I have seen White God, I may have a film to challenge him.

White God tells the story of 13 year old Lily (a strong newcomer named Zsofia Posotta) who is forced to live with her father (Sandor Zsoter) as her mother goes off on a three month trip. Her only companion is her dog, Hagen. This dog is not well liked at all by her father, let alone anyone else in the film. After being caught taking him to band rehearsal, the father gets angry enough to leave the dog on the side of the road.

What happens after? Well, I won’t say. I had no idea the film would take the turns it did, and I am grateful I did not know ahead of time. What I will say is the film is NOT for kids. Parents, there is a LOT of violence, and I will leave it at that. High School and above.

The film is also unique in its use of dogs (none were harmed in the making of this film). You see the treatment of dogs and wonder why certain people do what they do. I know I was wondering the same. The film has some strong scenes, most of which are shot beautifully. There is one scene where a dog does some of the best acting you will see by an animal on film. I won’t say when, but it is a face given as if saying “What have I done?”

There are also great parallels given between Hagen and Lily. Hagen is living on the streets, realizing the blunt realities of life, and Lily is entering her teenage years. We see Hagen go from a scene of utter brutal life lessons to one of Lily learning one of her own. It is quite effective (it reminded me of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.)

For the record, I do love dogs. I made it clear to myself that, when I came home, I would love up on my dog. You may feel yourself doing the same.

Overall: 3 and a Half Stars ***1/2