The glory of ‘Roma’

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“None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

Those words were spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the role of Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. I found Synecdoche to be maddening and inaccessible but I also felt it contained insights that were worth trying to get to (I tried to do this awhile back in this video essay with Amy Nicholson).

Despite my confusion, these lines stood out as a fundamental message of the film. We experience our lives in a much different way than those around us experience them. Everyone is the main character in the story of their lives. And it can be difficult to let other people in — to acknowledge that their lives have fullness and arcs of their own. It’s difficult not because their lives are dull, but because we barely have the capacity to process our own stories. How can we be expected to understand what others are going through?

This thought came to mind while watching Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film Roma, out on Netflix today. Roma is a semiautobiographical story of Cuarón’s childhood and of his family’s live-in housekeeper, Cleo. Throughout the film, we witness Cleo’s experiences, from the mundanity of her daily tasks to her loving care of the household’s children. At the periphery, we see snippets of external events — the family she’s employed by begins to fall apart, and political unrest spills into the streets — but as with real life, these events are just tangential to the story. They aren’t the story itself.

Roma is a technical masterwork. The camera work is masterful and intricate. Its seeming passivity as it glides and pans its way through each scene seems to be the film’s way of saying “This is real. This happened. You’re just lucky to get a glimpse at it through this tiny window. ”

The movie invites us to take a look at this person who would be a side character in another film and to experience her life in all its fullness. The result is a wonderful celebration of how we shape the lives of those around us, and how they shape us too.


A few more thoughts for the week:

Mission: Impossible – Fallout 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray Review

The Mission: Impossible – Fallout 4K Blu-Ray is a great home video package. Included in the box are three discs: A 4K UHD version of the film, which includes some of the special features like the commentaries, a Blu-Ray version of the film, and a separate Blu-ray disc that contains the rest of the special features. The biggest downside of this release is that it doesn’t match the box art for Paramount’s recently released 4K Mission: Impossible set. Really makes you wonder who Paramount is making those sets for, because in general, anyone who’s going to buy a 4K box set of all these films is probably going to watch those discs to match. Just going out on a limb there.

In terms how the feature presentation looks, it’s great. The movie’s shot and lit beautifully and loses very little in its journey to the small screen. Of course, Fallout was shot on a a mix of film and digital and this does make for an occasionally jarring viewing experience, but this is something that was present in the theatrical presentation as well. The sound mix is also great and it’s a particularly great way to experience composer Lorne Balfe’s score, which is one of my favorites of the franchise.

When it comes to special features, the highlight is the feature length commentary featuring Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie is an extremely generous filmmaker. Even before this disc was released, I’ve probably listened to about 8-10 hours of interview with him, but even so, I still Learned a few things about the production of this film listening to this commentary. And if you’re a fan of Tom Cruise, it’s great to hear his enthusiasm for the storytelling and the stunts of this film. He seems genuinely excited about the movie and grateful to his cast and crew to have the chance to make it.

On the special features disc there are a few cool things worth noting. First of all, instead of “deleted scenes” there’s a Deleted Scenes Montage. It’s a bunch of deleted scenes cut together with finished color grading and visual effects set to music. The objective of including this was just to give you a sense of all the hard work put into this film that you didn’t see. I personally would’ve preferred to see all the complete deleted scenes here, as it would’ve been fascinating to get more insight into how they decided to structure the final story. But my sense is that director Christopher McQuarrie wants us all to think of the final film as the definitive version (the “Director’s Cut” as it were) and putting in completed scenes might’ve muddied the waters a bit.

There’s also a ton of featurettes about the making of virtually ever major set piece in the film, where you learn really cool tidbits about production, like how they did hundreds of jumps prepping for the halo jump sequence, or how they needed five helicopters for that chase sequence at the end, or how they needed to airlift 150 crew onto the site for the final fight that they shot at Pulpit Rock. It’s all fascinating stuff and reminds me of the heyday of Blu-Rays when discs were just loaded with content.

But it’s not all perfect. One downside is that a lot of the special features are edited in a really distractingly frenetic way. It felt like the person making these didn’t trust they could hold the audience’s attention throughout literally an entire sentence, so you end up with sequences where they are cutting mid-sentence and you have like 4-5 people contributing to that same sentence? After awhile of watching this, it got pretty distracting. I wanted to say to the creators of this disc, “Hey, what you’re showing me is already pretty impressive. Please don’t edit this to ribbons, thanks!”

The second thing is that everything on this disc and these special features is meant to convince you that Tom Cruise risked his life to make this movie. I have no doubt that people put themselves in danger, but the special features do a lot to downplay all the safety precautions that were taken. It’s never about “Here are the 15 things we did to make sure Tom Cruise didn’t die,” it’s always about “Here are all the ways things could’ve gone wrong for Tom Cruise.”

I’m not sure if we should be celebrating the fact that Tom Cruise almost died making Mission: Impossible – Fallout? On the one hand, yes, we’re living in an age where advancements in CG have made audience skeptical of virtually anything they see on screen. And it genuinely is impressive that Tom Cruise did a lot of this stuff practically. But it’s also true that a lot of it was augmented with visual effects, and the special features barely talk about any of that at all. For me, I would’ve been much more interested in how they were able to combine both the practical and the digital, and how the director made those calls. But fundamentally, that’s not the story these features are interested in telling.

In a time where stunt people have actually died while making movies quite recently, the idea that this billionaire risked his life for us just feels like a weird message to hammer home in this piece of mass market entertainment.

Those minor issues aside, if you’re a big fan of Mission: Impossible – Fallout like I am, I think you’ll find this disc is worth your money. I just wish they had made the box art match.

Here is a list of all the special features included in this disc:

  • Behind the Fallout (Featurettes)
    • Light the Fuse
    • Top of the World
    • The Big Swing: Deleted Scene Breakdown
    • Rendezvous in Paris
    • The Fall
    • The Hunt is On
    • Cliffside Clash
  • Deleted Scenes Montage with Optional Commentary by director Christopher McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton
  • Foot Chase Musical Breakdown
  • The Ultimate Mission
  • Storyboards
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Commentary by director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise
  • Commentary by director Christopher McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton
  • Commentary by composer Lorne Balfe
  • Isolated Score Track

The Content Cycle

Max Read, writing for New York, has a good overview on how cable news, social media, and blogs have a symbiotic relationship with each other:

The Content Cycle, a phrase I did not just come up with right now, describes how content arises from the internet, is absorbed into cable television, and then gets redistributed back into the internet for the cycle to begin anew. Like the water cycle, the Content Cycle provides sustenance and habitation to a multitude of organisms, and in many ways it exists independently of human thought. Let’s walk through Problematic Rudolph as our emblematic example of the Content Cycle.

That time David Edelstein said something dumb

From the AP:

NPR’s “Fresh Air” has parted ways with contributor David Edelstein after the film critic made a joke about the rape scene in “Last Tango in Paris” on his Facebook page following Monday’s death of director Bernardo Bertolucci.

In a statement Tuesday, “Fresh Air” said the post was “offensive and unacceptable” because of what actress Maria Schneider experienced filming the scene. Schneider said in a 2007 interview that the simulated sex scene was unscripted and that she felt bullied by Bertolucci and unsupported by her co-star Marlon Brando. “I was crying real tears,” said Schneider, who died in 2011.

Edelstein later apologized and said he wasn’t aware of Schneider’s remarks. I find that unlikely given that heard about them at the time and I feel much less plugged into the film scene than Edelstein is. Still, even if he hadn’t heard about them, the joke was inarguably in poor taste.

One common mistake I see people make when news like this drops about a public figure is to assume they understand the totality of the circumstances. There are many potential reasons that NPR might want to show Edelstein the door that go beyond this tweet. But the tweet can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Edelstein’s views on cinema have been…pretty interesting in recent days (like when he longed for a time when everything, “even racism,” seemed simpler). But Edelstein has decades of work to stand on. Should one mistake cost him his job?

One thing that has really swung into focus for me recently is what a powerful responsibility it is to be able to express yourself to thousands of people so quickly and easily. Twitter and Facebook make it super easy to dash off a latent thought or an ill-considered jokes, but ultimately, they are public forums. They entice you into thinking you’re speaking to a small group of friends, when in fact, you’re broadcasting for the world to hear.

Ultimately, our words come with stakes attached, even if you write them on your smartphone while half awake in the morning, or after an all-night binge. We should all proceed accordingly.

See also: Terry Rossio and Paul Schrader.

Creed II and the problem with modern boxing movies

[Sign up to receive these posts via email. This post contains minor spoilers for Creed II]

I love underdog sports films. There’s something about the balletic performances of talented athletes, the forging of the bonds of friendship, and the triumph of a group of determined folks against all odds that just gets to me at my core.

But recently, I’ve started to think I can’t enjoy boxing films anymore.

Other sports can be problematic for a variety of reasons. Football is still in the process of coping with an epidemic of CTE. Hockey can frequently be violent. But boxing is one of the only sports where the objective is to punch someone repeatedly until they pass out. It feels like a barbaric spectacle, with many parties being enriched as a massive audience cheers two people nearly beating each other to death. Boxing movies invite you into that audience and ask you to cheer too.

Of course, the Rocky films weren’t always about the spectacle. The first Rocky in particular was about the beauty of perseverance, and focused intensely on the Rocky/Adrian relationship. As the films went on, they mirrored Stallone’s other action franchise (Rambo) and became increasingly conventional, bombastic and unmoored from reality.

The problem with Creed I and II are that they add to the mythos, but they don’t really do anything to challenge or interrogate the ideas behind the franchise. The creation of the character of Adonis Creed (played with quiet intensity by Michael B. Jordan) is unquestionably a great achievement. But neither of the Creed films engage meaningfully with any of the interesting questions behind boxing as a modern acceptable profession.

Creed II in particular posits the concept of not boxing as an event greater sacrifice than boxing. On one side is Adonis Creed’s pride and his reputation as the heavyweight champion, but with a large possibility of a crippling or fatal injury. On the other: a fulfilling life with his family. In the end, Creed makes the predictable choice. The moral of the story is that might makes right. Boxing might not fix all your problems, but if you DO box, you should win. Winning is what gives you your value.

The films are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, with fairly predictable arcs and endings. That doesn’t make them bad films, but it doesn’t make them particularly interesting ones either.


Here are a few things I’ve been reading this week:

The Darjeeling Limited Perspective

I love many of Wes Anderson’s films, but this video essay by Leon Thomas (AKA Renegade Cut) does a great job of identifying the flaws in one of Anderson’s weakest, The Darjeeling Limited.

Describing a late plot development, Thomas writes:

The brothers realize, after the first half of the movie plagued with infighting, that they have to stick together. All they were missing was a dead Indian boy. The child does the demanding work of dying tragically so that the privileged white Americans won’t have to die spiritually or emotionally. There is no joke here. The scene is played to tug at our heartstrings, and as quickly as the Indian boy is mourned, he is forgotten.

It’s all very brutal but accurate.

Michael Bay: An American auteur

As usual, I’m really appreciating Patrick Willems’ latest video essays. This past month he’s put together an ambitious two-part series on Michael Bay’s contributions to American cinema.

Some interesting observations from the videos:

  • It is extremely difficult to reverse engineer or replicate Bay’s style, which in and of itself tells you that there’s something undeniably distinct about it.
  • Taken as a whole, Bay’s films don’t really have a cohesive political point of view, and Bay practically never speaks about politics, despite how many of his films glorify the military and seem to be in the tank for “real (red state) Americans”.
  • I guess The Island probably wasn’t that bad after all.

Check out the videos above and find more on Patrick’s Youtube channel.

The storytelling language of ‘Star Wars’

Patrick Willems has put together another insightful video essay, this time on the storytelling language of Star Wars. This essay eschews any talk of storytelling decisions, focusing only on how the craft informs the audience’s experience of the film.

One thing this essay made me realize is that each of the post-Return-of-The-Sith films (i.e. the ones made by Disney) has a vastly different style, yet a couple of them (Rogue One and Solo) have had a really troubled production history, requiring new directors to be brought in. It’s a small reflection of how Lucasfilm was willing to take chances on new directions for the series, but then discovered during the execution that maybe it didn’t want to do that after all.