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Sun12162018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

Five years after his Oscar-winning Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón returns with a decidedly different film in Roma. On a smaller—but no less effective—scale, Roma is a moving tribute to the female servant Cuarón grew up with during the early 1970s in the Mexico City suburb of Roma.

Cuarón, who claims 90 percent of the movie is based on his childhood memories, tells the story from the female servant’s point of view. Renamed Cleo and played by Yalitza Aparicio in an astonishing, heartbreaking performance, Cleo is the glue holding the family together as their philandering patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), abandons them.

The remaining family consists of four children, mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandmother Teresa (Verónica Garcia). They rely heavily upon Cleo, who responds with a dedicated, steadfast grace—no matter how tense the situation gets.

The situation worsens when Cleo becomes pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts-obsessed, criminally selfish man who should have the first letter of his name replaced with a “V.” Fermin is so despicable that he makes Antonio look like an absolute sweetheart.

So Cleo and Sofia are left alone. Sofia’s personal matters always happen in the background; we only get brief snippets of conversations and occurrences that allow Cleo and the family to know the father is not coming back. The abandonment of Cleo by Fermin, however, is handled in a far more blunt, and repeatedly awful, way.

Sofia has a few moments when she almost unravels, lashing out at her children and Cleo. She has a kind heart, but the pressure is almost too much to take, and it shows. On the contrary, Cleo goes through it all without becoming a burden on anyone. She carries her baby full-term, tending to the family’s children and supporting Sofia. Cleo rarely shares her personal feelings—but she does speak out in a few choice moments. Those moments are devastating.

The movie covers about a year in the life of the family, and it’s a slow build. Filmed in black and white, its every shot is a beautiful thing—which is amazing considering that Cuarón acted as his own cinematographer for the first time on a feature film.

Much of the movie happens in slow pans. It isn’t very wordy, and it adheres to a certain level of reality that could be taken as mundane at times. It’s daringly simple and somehow majestic at the same time. There are some grand-scale moments; a sequence depicting a violent student uprising is visceral and taut, while a near tragic-event on a beach is frighteningly real and fills the screen. Yet most of the movie is made up of little moments that string a life together—a dog hopping up on a dress, a kid asking for Twinkies, a car rubbing alongside the car port’s walls because it’s too damned wide, etc. Halfway into the movie, you’ll feel as if you’ve been living with this family.

Aparicio’s performance is truly remarkable. She’s in nearly every scene; she gives us one of the year’s most memorable characters—and somehow, this is the only IMDb credit she has. She will break your heart. When she tries to sit down for a second to watch a TV show, when she faces a troublesome birth on her own, when she’s yelled at for missing a few of her daily tasks … I repeat: Aparicio will break your heart.

Roma continues what it is turning out to be a breakthrough year for Netflix, which has given the movie a limited big-screen release before making it available for streaming. This and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Coen brothers are proof that the service has become a giant purveyor of original cinema goodness.

Roma is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It premieres on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 14.

Director Ben Stiller gets serious with Escape at Dannemora, a Showtime series based upon the real 2015 escape of two dangerous convicts from prison in upstate New York.

Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano are perfect as Richard Matt and David Sweat, two nutballs who get prison employee Tilly Mitchell (a terrific Patricia Arquette) to help them break out, therefore initiating a mammoth manhunt—the results of which I won’t give away here.

Matt, Sweat and Mitchell formed a very unconventional love triangle that goes to some pretty strange places. (As of this writing, four of the seven episodes have aired.)

So far, the show is pretty damned good. Stiller can’t resist the temptation to be funny on occasion, but this show is proof he can put together a great drama, too. Del Toro and Dano are equally good, each getting a chance to explore their dark sides. (No surprise: Del Toro’s dark side is a little goofier.) The series garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Limited Series and Best Performance By an Actress in a Limited Series for Arquette.

Thankfully, I’ve forgotten how this story actually turns out, so I will watch until the end and see who lives and who dies. As prison dramas go, this one is a keeper—and proof that Stiller has another whole side of his career that he can explore.

One of the directors of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary goes solo for Green Book, his first “serious” feature effort.

Director Peter Farrelly, sans little brother Bobby, gives us a film that’s essentially a remake of Driving Miss Daisy with the roles reversed, starring Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the Academy Award-winning actor from Moonlight (Mahershala Ali). It’s a feel-good movie about race relations that goes light on the grit and heavy on the sentiment.

The film is based on a true story. Mortensen plays Tony Lip, an Italian bouncer at the Copacabana who finds himself temporarily without a job as the club is getting renovated. His next gig installs him as a driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American classical pianist who is touring with a jazz trio in the early 1960s deep South.

This is a road movie, with Tony driving and Don sitting in the back. As they venture south, they talk about fried chicken, Chubby Checker and letter-writing. There is nothing in their dialogue that is remotely original or surprising, but Farrelly wisely has these two guys in the car. Without them, this film would be a total slog. The duo is, at times, fun to watch, even when the movie around them isn’t.

The titular Green Book is a guide for African Americans, listing safe havens where Don can eat and find shelter. The deeper into the South the tour goes, the lousier the accommodations for Don become. A rich man up north, Don is reduced to skeevy rooms and nothing but a bottle of Cutty Sark to get him through the night.

Segregation rears its ugly head as Don tries to do things such as buy a suit or eat in a restaurant where he’s been hired to play. This is where Tony becomes the hero, stepping in for his boss and occasionally cracking a few skulls. Yes, Tony is Dr. Don’s white knight, a man who will learn to love just a little bit more, regardless of the color of somebody’s skin; he may even use a few fewer racial slurs before the credits roll.

The film doesn’t feel like it was made today. It has the sensibility of a movie made somewhere around the late ’80s to mid ’90s. It’s a little too safe and predictable for its own good. A movie about racism should be uglier; this one tries a little too hard to not upset anybody. I have no problem with an optimistic viewpoint and a happy ending, but something about this movie, even though the characters are based on real people, rings a little false and shallow.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable to some degree. Mortensen, best known for dramatic and action roles, gets a chance to show off some comedic timing. He also put on more than 40 pounds for the role. That, coupled with a typical Italian accent, makes him OK in the type of role that used to go to the likes of Danny Aiello or the late Dennis Farina.

Mahershala is good as Shirley—so good you’ll wish the script matched the majesty of his work. Seamless special effects make it look like he can play a mean piano. (Kris Bowers, the film’s score composer, is also Ali’s piano double.)

Green Book is the sort of movie that has “Oscar” written all over it, but I won’t be trumpeting it when it’s time for the golden boys to be passed out. The movie is average at best, and I expect a little more heft from a movie with this subject matter.

Green Book is playing at theaters across the valley.

Lucas Hedges continues to establish himself as one of his generation’s best actors as a young gay man forced into conversion therapy by his Baptist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) in Boy Erased, an adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir.

Hedges plays Jared (a character based on Conley), a college student who, after a horrible event on campus, reveals to his parents that he “thinks about men.” This sends his parents into a religious panic, and they send him to a facility where a shifty preacher/counselor (Joel Edgerton, who also directs and wrote the screenplay) tries to convince him that homosexuality is a sin and the wrong choice. Jared is forced to withstand psychological torture and gradually realizes that, despite his upbringing and the wishes of his parents, he’s gay—and no amount of bullshit preaching is going to change that.

Edgerton does a respectable job of keeping all of the characters based in reality; the crazed preachers and misguided parents have depth to them and aren’t reduced to caricature.

Kidman and Crowe are both very good, but the film’s main triumph is Hedges, who continues to amaze. The movie packs a wallop, and that’s due in large part to what Hedges brings to Jared.

Boy Erased is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033) and the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Kurt Russell might be the best Santa Claus ever in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, a inconsistent but ultimately enjoyable movie that is sure to make it into a lot of holiday-movie rotations for those of us who like Christmas movies with a little edge.

Kate (the adorable Darby Camp) is dealing with the loss of her father, a struggling mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and her jerk brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis), during the holidays. She makes Santa a request video—and then accidentally stumbles upon the big guy himself as he drops by.

Russell is a comic gem here, bemoaning the way cola ads portray him as fat (the guy is in great shape) while embodying the joy and eternally happy spirit of the legend. While the movie drifts a bit in the middle—including some unfortunate, cutesy CGI elves—Russell keeps the whole thing movie forward with the power of his unique and totally new Santa.

The movie is a treat in the end, and Russell takes the big man to all new levels.

The Christmas Chronicles is now streaming on Netflix.

I’ve always hated Rocky IV. I’m pretty sure my life as a movie critic started in 1985 when my heart sank as I watched it in a crowded, overly enthusiastic theater with a bunch of friends.

Walking out of the theater, my friends were all hyped after American Rocky Balboa vanquished the evil Russian Ivan Drago. I, on the other hand, thought the damn thing was ridiculous and hokey, especially when Rocky climbed a snowy, treacherous mountain with nothing but his beard and a dream. My sour attitude rendered me unpopular at the after-movie get-together at the diner. I don’t think I touched my pie.

Now, 33 years later, the franchise says hello again to Drago (a weathered Dolph Lundgren) and his boxing son, Viktor, with Creed II, the follow up to Ryan Coogler’s excellent Creed.

Coogler has not returned; he’s replaced by Steven Caple Jr. in the director’s chair. Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are back, doing pretty much what they did in the first chapter, which is not a bad thing. Creed II doesn’t break any new ground and represents a step backward from the astonishingly good Creed, but it’s still a lot of fun.

This success actually surprises me, because the film dared to take the ridiculous story of Ivan Drago and expand upon it. While the first three Rocky movies were true sports-underdog movies with credibility, Rocky IV was a moronic play on 1980s patriotism and Cold War fears. Drago was a cartoon character, and by then, Rocky had become one, too. That final image of Rocky wrapped in an American flag had me grinding my teeth. Creed II tries to make Drago a real person, a defeated man living in shame for decades after losing to Rocky. His loss to Rocky came after killing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, so when Drago comes looking for a fight using his young, up-and-comer son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), Adonis (Jordan) can’t help but take notice. He’s got a score to settle, and he wants Rocky in his corner.

Does this sound stupid? It is a little bit, but Caple manages to continue the authentic vibe of Creed, even with the Dragos back in the ring. Lundgren actually gives one of the film’s best performances; a sense of humiliation oozes from his pores as he tries to regain former glory and the love of his estranged wife (Brigitte Nielsen). Caple and his screenwriters (including Stallone) manage to make Drago a real character rather than a stereotype.

The movie wisely jettisons the U.S.-vs.-Russia angle and just focuses on the characters. When Adonis and Viktor square off, it’s all about the two men and the sport, with no mention of democracy and communism. An actor playing Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t stand and applaud Adonis after their final fight. That actually happened in Rocky IV: Rocky got a standing ovation from the Russian leader! Nuclear war was averted! God that movie sucked!

Jordan is as convincing of a cinematic son to Carl Weathers as there will ever be, and he makes a solid boxer. The movie’s fights are as good as any in the Rocky franchise, and it looks like some real blows are landed. Like his dad, Adonis gets his ribs cracked a lot in the ring, and it looks and sounds like it really hurts.

Tessa Thompson returns as Adonis’ songstress girlfriend, Bianca. Thompson is good at anything she does, but she is saddled with the film’s worst moment, a musical intro as Adonis enters the ring for his final fight in Russia. I have a hard time believing some Russian promoter sat down with Bianca to work out her light show and sound. Meanwhile, Stallone continues to be awesome as Rocky; he was robbed of an Oscar for his work in Creed.

As a Rocky fan, I’m happier than heck that somebody found a way to keep the franchise going, even if it involves revisiting the lesser parts of the Rocky mythology. Creed II isn’t good enough to be an improvement on Creed, but it is good enough to make you almost appreciate the awful Rocky IV 33 years later. That’s a notable accomplishment.

Creed II is playing at theaters across the valley.

Writer-director Steve McQueen follows up his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave with Widows, an above-average thriller made very watchable thanks to a terrific performance by Viola Davis.

Davis plays Veronica, the wife of lifetime criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). When Harry meets an untimely end, he leaves behind a nasty debt—and some nasty people want it paid back. Veronica hatches a plan to pull a heist, and she looks to the wives of Harry’s also-dead gang mates to help her out.

Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are good as the other widows, while Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell steal scenes as father-and-son politicians. The plot is fairly standard, and you’ll see some of the “big twists” coming a mile away. That doesn’t keep the movie from being a sufficiently stylized, serviceable thriller that gives Davis her best vehicle in years.

Widows also costars Lukas Haas as a mysterious boyfriend, Daniel Kaluuya as a scary henchman and Carrie Coon in a throwaway role. This is not the sort of greatness one hopes for from McQueen, but it’s no mishap: It’s a good movie from a very good director.

Widows is playing at theaters across the valley.

Netflix is becoming a haven for the very best directors. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma will debut on the streaming service on Dec. 14 after a very brief theatrical run. Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Soderbergh all have had, or will have, projects with Netflix.

The true stunner is that Joel and Ethan Coen also teamed up with Netflix for their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film is a six-part Western anthology that fits snugly in their repertoire, which includes No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. The movie’s arrival on Netflix, after a one-week theatrical run, establishes Netflix as a true original-film force.

The film opens with a story about the title character (played by Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who is frighteningly adept with his gun, casually killing many in the segment’s few minutes. The musical ending tells us we are in true Coen territory—where weird, beautiful things can happen.

The other shorts involve an unlucky bank robber (James Franco), a sad and greedy show-runner (Liam Neeson), a wily prospector (Tom Waits), an unfortunate cross-country traveler (Zoe Kazan) and a creepy stagecoach. All of the segments are good enough that they could be expanded into stand-alone films, and all of them successfully convey the overall theme—that the old West was a tricky, dark place.

For any Coen fans concerned that this represents anything less than their usual brilliance because it’s a streaming/TV affair: Fret not. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will go down as one of the year’s best movies, as their films often do. It’s also a nice companion piece to their other fine Western, their remake of True Grit.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.

Fine performances bolster Wildlife, Paul Dano’s excellent directorial debut. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early 1960s, is sometimes uncomfortable—just as it’s supposed to be, considering the subject matter.

Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical life in Montana. Mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), stays at home while dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Mom helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life; money clearly could be an issue if life takes a wrong turn.

Then comes that wrong turn.

When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown takes place. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, while Dad spirals further into depression.

When Jerry announces that he will be joining a firefighting team—despite almost no firefighting experience—Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay at high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of running away from their problems and basically abandoning them, while Jerry sees his move as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.

The stage is set for the best performance of Mulligan’s career, as Jeanette shows signs of insecurities and mental-health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs; Gyllenhaal is also amazing. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic, with Jerry digging fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.

Dano (who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan) does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing all of this through the eyes of Joe. We see the love both Jerry and Jeanette have for their son, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things—like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem with her son—that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likable, even as they are going off the rails.

Bill Camp also gives a fantastic performance as local businessman Warren Miller (no relation to the ski-film dude), whom Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent-enough guy, discussing poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe—even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe is spying Warren’s naked ass through the crack of his door as he approaches his mother.

One of the more impactful scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he uncomfortably stares at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming disaster. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.

All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile, and Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a level of villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream: “Adolescence is truly kicking my ass.”

Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress honors, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is somebody to keep watching, as is Dano as a director. Wildlife is loaded with talent—talent that is put to good use.

Wildlife is coming soon to local theaters.

American soldiers get up close and personal with mutant Nazi soldiers in Overlord, one of the weirder films to make it to the big screen in 2018.

J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot company have come up with something peculiar here. While initial reports had this one as a Cloverfield movie, it is not: It’s a standalone film … a weird, freaky standalone.

World War II American paratrooper soldiers—led by Kurt Russell’s lookalike/soundalike son, Wyatt, as demolition expert Ford—land on the eve of D-Day in a Nazi-occupied French town, intent upon destroying a Nazi communication tower. Director Julius Avery’s flick starts off as an effective war movie as those paratroopers, including Jovan Adepo as Boyce and John Magaro as Tibbet, must escape a crashing plane and then evade Nazis on the ground.

Soon after meeting up with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), the soldiers find themselves in a safehouse. It’s a typical small house … except Chloe’s aunt down the hall is ill, and we aren’t talking whooping cough. Wyatt remains focused on the tower mission, but Boyce inadvertently stumbles upon the root cause of the aunt’s sickness: Nazi doctors are screwing with dead people’s biochemistry in an effort to create a 1,000-year army. This results in some messed-up experiments like Chloe’s aunt, but also brings about superhuman, crazy Nazi soldier zombies—with direct orders to tear people apart.

The whole Nazi-zombie thing has been done before, but never with such authentic style and gory aplomb. Avery deserves credit for a nice slow burn as his movie goes from army-mission adventure to Sam Raimi-style crazed horror when Boyce discovers strange cocoons inside an old church.

The first legitimate appearance of a full-blown, raging dead Nazi is a good, super-scary time. There’s also an unfortunate incident with another guy that involves collar bones shooting out of his skin due to massive contortions; I must give high marks to the makeup-effects team on that one. Avery made a concerted effort to use practical special effects rather than CGI, so much of the film’s gore and gross stuff is made from scratch. This is a good thing, because when the film does use CGI, it doesn’t look great.

Pilou Asbæk is a memorable villain as a Nazi officer who winds up mutated without ever dying. He’s the ultimate Nazi/zombie/superhuman/dickweed, with a face that reminds a bit of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. He apparently went through five hours of makeup for these scenes, and that was time well spent: He totally sucks in a good way.

There’s talk of remaking Escape From New York. I hope they don’t do that, but if they do, they should quit screwing around with casting the likes of Gerard Butler as Snake Plissken, and just give Wyatt Russell the job. He’s the son of Kurt and Goldie, and he’s got his dad’s superior jawline and an identical speech cadence. His determined demolition expert here is a nice balance of hero and total asshole—a mix his pop also does well.

Adepo is the person with the most screen time, and his Boyce is a good, slightly unreliable and nervous central character. Ollivier has a nice moment with a flame thrower that reminded me of Ripley in Aliens. Magaro is so authentic as a New York native World War II soldier that you might wonder if he arrived on set via a time machine.

It’s interesting to see something like Overlord coming outpost-Halloween, when Oscar favorites and holiday films dominate the new releases. The movie doesn’t score major points for originality, but it’s nonetheless a good time for those of us who enjoy seeing bad things done to Nazis.

Overlord is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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