“Four Essential Alfonso Cuarón films” – Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” (4/4 stars) won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, and his sweeping, gorgeous and autobiographical tale of a family and their housekeeper arrives in theatres on Friday, Dec. 7.
To help celebrate “Roma” and Cuarón (who takes visionary approaches to storytelling and cinematography), here are four of his essential films.
“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001) – When their girlfriends leave for a European trip, teenagers Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) are left to their own devices. With school out of session, the young men enjoy sleeping in, loitering, talking about women, taking drugs, and delivering bathroom humor with the zeal of fast food addicts diving into a bucket of Big Macs. This critic was an 18-year-old boy once, so admittedly, Tenoch’s and Julio’s antics do fall within one standard deviation of normalcy. Well, the two meet Tenoch’s cousin Luisa (Maribel Verdu) and invite her on a road trip to see a picturesque beach called Heaven’s Mouth. A sudden life-change soon befalls the 30-something Luisa, so she joins the boys, and this trio of free spirits explore the road, conversation and each other.
Cuarón wrote the script with his brother Carlos, and their narrative combines sexually-charged tension and interest between the leads and meticulous exposition for just about everyone who we meet. The film takes several mini-detours – for about 20 seconds at a time - to expound on the pasts and futures of random characters, and these moments help contrast the massive world that surrounds Tenoch’s, Julio’s and Luisa’s intimate spree. Meanwhile, Luna and Bernal splurge plenty of boy-clumsiness against Verdu’s internal tussle of worldly melancholy and potential optimism.
"Children of Men" (2006) - The year is 2027, and the world is in chaos. Great Britain appears to be the only place with some semblance of order, but it’s also a punishing police state where threatening men in uniform spend a majority of their time locking up immigrants in internment camps or shipping them out of the country. London isn't faring very well, as random bombs explode at local businesses and garbage litters the streets.
As of 2009, women all over the world - due to reasons that no one knows - have become infertile, and the youngest person on the planet is 18 years, 5 months and 11 days old. Without hope for the human race's continuity, civil obedience has become passé. Theo’s (Clive Owen) attitude of hopelessness reflects his surroundings. He carries a bottle of liquor inside his jacket, and his hair and clothes are unkempt as he trudges through busy streets under cloudy skies, but a friend from two decades past re-emerges and pulls him into a daring mission that could change everything.
Cuarón does a brilliant job of creating bleak circumstances that feel frighteningly believable, as he filters his camera with a grayish/blue lens and paints everything with a depressing and gloomy brush. In this world, the human race won’t be wiped out in a matter of minutes, but over an agonizing 70 years, and this painful realization is not lost on anyone.
Miriam (Pam Ferris), who is part of Theo’s mission, says, "(When the) sound of playgrounds faded, despair set in."
Can despair transform into hope?
“Paris, je t’aime”, “Parc Monceau” (2006) – This cinematic love letter to Paris includes about 18 short stories from a deep well of talented directors including, Joel and Ethan Coen, Gus Van Sant, Olivier Assayas, and Alfonso Cuarón. In Cuarón’s five-minute installment – which is one continuous shot - he follows Vincent (Nick Nolte) and Claire (Ludivine Sagnier) during their involved conversation. Claire feels stress, and Vincent cannot easily find the words to relieve her angst, and as dusk approaches, they stroll towards an unknown destination. All may or may not be as it seems, but at the segment’s conclusion, every previous moment will make perfect sense, and then you’ll want to immediately watch Cuarón’s creation again.
“Gravity” (2013) - The most technically-elaborate film of 2013 is an extraordinary piece of science fiction art. First-time astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) teams up with veteran space walker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to make some repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope. As Kowalski playfully banters and circles around - via a thruster strapped to his back - Stone tries to focus, without getting sick, on the restorations. Even though Bullock and Clooney wear burdensome, bulky spacesuits, they share instant on-screen chemistry. We like these characters right away.
With lots of good feelings and mind-boggling shots of our bright blue planet and the blackest of space, trouble unfortunately approaches around the horizon. Actually, it approaches around the Earth’s orbit in the form of space debris traveling at maniacal speeds.
“Gravity” is a lump-in-your-throat thriller, and Cuarón places our heroine and hero in impossible situations, as spectacular sequences frighten and dazzle. The movie moves at a 9,100 mph pace in a scant 91 minutes, but the action pauses during a few key scenes. During these precious minutes, Stone - a brilliant NASA scientist - finds courage and strength, and with all due respect to Bullock’s work in “The Blind Side” (2009), she gives the performance of her career here.
Don’t be fooled, “Gravity” is not just a special effects picture, but yes, you’ll repeatedly wonder, “Wow! How did Cuarón do that?”
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.