UPDATE: Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma" took home two early Oscars on Sunday at an Academy Awards ceremony (Reuters)
It’s easy to feel apprehensive approaching a film that has received universal acclaim. What if you’re the one who hates it (like that dumbass guy who was the only person to give “Lady Bird” a bad review last year)? The one who fails to appreciate a work that has already been crowned a modern masterpiece by the world and his significant other? To clear up any misunderstanding, I’m not talking about “Bumblebee” here but Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” – which just dropped on Netflix.
The Mexican director has made, by my count, one absolute classic in his 30-year career – his 2006 adaptation of P.D. James’ dystopian novel “Children of Men.” He’s also made one of the great coming-of-age movies in “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) and the hands-down best Harry Potter movie (2004’s “Prisoner of Azkaban”). I’m still feeling too nauseous to decide if 2013’s “Gravity” was a classic, but for sure it was a great technical achievement – vomit-inducing camerawork and all.
Clearly, Netflix had at least one eye on little gold men in Los Angeles when it green lighted “Roma,” which is also why it has just given the film a limited theatrical release across the globe. As a TV critic I opted to see it on the small screen, but it’s not hard to imagine its beautiful black-and-white images looking particularly stunning on the big screen (or as big a screen as arthouse cinemas can muster these days). I would have loved to hear it in a state-of-the-art cinema as well – somewhere that would do justice to the film’s Dolby Atmos soundscape (crashing waves, raging forest fires, droplets of water, hailstones on windows, bonkers Mexican folk songs).
This is still an immensely rewarding film to see on your TV screen or computer. You know you’re in the hands of a master from the first shot when the opening credits are superimposed on a tiled floor being washed, the standing water eventually reflecting a passenger plane passing overhead. Yet while the water becomes more and more soapy, that’s not something the film can be accused of.
This heavily autobiographical tale is set in the Mexico City suburb of Colonia Roma in 1970-71. Both the country and its featured family are in flux, although any political turmoil is placed firmly in the background of this unabashedly domestic story – which may well be the best-looking neorealist film ever shot.
Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) is one of two young maids working for a comfortably middle-class family with four children. The parents, a doctor and biochemist, are both decidedly hands-off when it comes to the kids, so Cleo is also a doting nanny and almost part of the family – albeit the one who has to try to maintain some kind of domestic order in this chaotic home. And the chaos is only just beginning.
We follow events through Cleo’s eyes (Cuarón dedicated the film to his own nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez), but “Roma” is not a film driven by plot. Very little happens for the first 30 minutes other than the viewer witnessing Cleo’s daily routine, and even the most dramatic moments later on are generally underplayed – which, perhaps counterintuitively, somehow makes the emotional payoffs even greater.
There is one scene that is genuinely heartbreaking and many that etch themselves into your mind (the film’s poster – featuring mother, maid and children hugging on a beach – is from a scene that is a genuinely iconic moment of modern cinema). The film is ultimately a touching tribute to a working-class heroine, but never in a patronizing way.
Cuarón also served as cinematographer and co-editor here, and “Roma” is clearly a story from the heart. It’s not going to do much for Netflix’s subscription figures (youngsters will probably be too busy watching “Friends” and “The Office”), but it is a film that deserves to be seen by anyone who cares about cinema. In many ways it’s a throwback to the domestic dramas of the 1950s, leisurely recounting its tale over 135 hypnotic minutes. You could display stills from the film in an art gallery. Hell, the guy even manages to make dog poop photogenic.
If “Roma” seems a shoo-in for some Oscars love next year, another of Netflix’s hoped-for awards contenders, “Bird Box,” is unlikely to be bothering the engravers. (The film debuts on Netflix this Friday.)
Any movie that sounds like a They Might Be Giants song is probably in dire need of a better title – although the film’s biggest problem is that it looks like a rather expensive rip-off of this year’s surprise hit “A Quiet Place.” The irony is that the book upon which “Bird Box” is based was penned before the script for John Krasinski’s horror-thriller got bought in 2017, but that’s showbiz – you snooze, you lose (or get Al Franken pretend-groping you; either way it’s pretty bad).
Whereas the gimmick in “A Quiet Place” was aliens and sound, in “Bird Box” it’s aliens and vision: If you happen to see this mysterious thing (which we the viewers don’t, for the most part), you immediately have an overriding desire to kill yourself. It’s a bit like viewing a Jared Kushner sex tape.
What is “Bird Box” exactly, other than the worst-titled film of the year? Well, the 2014 book drew comparisons to Stephen King and had a clear advantage over the film in being able to describe everything (in the film, we often get scenes in which we experience the less-than-riveting point of view of a blindfolded character). But here, the film is not quite a horror movie, not quite a thought-provoking drama, not quite a smart thriller and not quite a meditation on motherhood in a post-apocalyptic world. It wants to be 'A Disquieting Place' – but fails.
The story intercuts between two-time frames (the original book featured three): “Five years ago,” when the world was plunged into chaos as hundreds of millions of people started killing themselves in what the novel rather understatedly referred to as “The Problem” (it remains nameless here); and the present, when a handful of survivors try to make their way to a supposed place of sanctuary. The downside is that they must spend two days blindly navigating a small rowboat down a river in order to get there.
Our hero is Sandra Bullock’s Malorie, who in her “five years ago” form is the world’s least pregnant-looking pregnant woman. (Hollywood joke: How can you tell which scenes are set in the past? They’re the ones in which Bullock looks older.) When things turn to merde, Malorie finds herself holed up in a house with a group of random strangers – including John Malkovich as an uber-asshole; another pregnant woman (Danielle Macdonald from the 2017 Sundance hit “Patti Cake$”); hot Iraq War veteran Tom (Trevante Rhodes); and Tom Hollander as a “mysterious” stranger who proves it is still possible to telegraph things in the 21st century.
“You never, ever take off your blindfold!” Malorie screams at the beginning of the film – and there may be times when you too want to avert your gaze during some of the more banal moments. That said, there are two excellent set-pieces (one involving a “blind” drive to a supermarket; the other during the river run), which left me wishing Danish director Susanne Bier had embraced the story’s apocalyptic side more – in other words, more “Walking Dead” scenarios, less plodding dialogue and exposition.
“A Quiet Place” demonstrated how to be smart and scary with minimal dialogue (there’s absolutely nothing here to rival the “toy space shuttle” scene in Krasinski’s film) and – most importantly – made you forget its ultimately daft premise. “Bird Box” never manages to let you overlook the bird-brained implausibility of it all.