Roma

A middle-class Mexican family in 1970-1971 undergoes a lot of changes amidst the riots and earthquake, as seen from the perspective of their Indian maid. This is the kind of movie The Boy and I used to see a lot a few years back: It’s kind of a movie for cinephiles (apart from any regional or nostalgic appeal), and one of those movies that grows on you.

The basic story is that Cleo is a young Indian woman (we never learn her age) from a poor village who cleans up after the four young children and the extremely prolific dog of a quarreling middle-age couple. She has a boyfriend who gets her pregnant, but even as the family is falling apart, the mother is helping the (terrified and abandoned) girl out. The mother is struggling with her wayward husband, and Cleo struggles with the prospect of being a single mom.

I think they're Swedish.
This involves shooting things with her Swedish relatives, I guess.

This movie is very slow-paced. It’s not really done in a high drama style: A lot of things play out in real time.The only music is ambient. Meanwhile, the camera is kept at the same level and strictly perpendicular to the characters, making the audience feel like they’re there watching it play out. The black-and-white cinematography is nice, and sometimes strikingly beautiful, but there isn’t a lot of noir-ish lighting and, as mentioned, the angles are kept flat.

What keeps you interested are the real-ness of the characters and some concern for their fate. Which of course won’t work for everyone, but did for us. At the end of the second act, there’s a kind of gut punch—well foreshadowed to be sure, but still effective—and I was joking with The Boy that my indie-film PTSD made me worried throughout the third act that far worse was going to happen.

Pseudo-biographical.
I think Cuaron is represented by the oldest of the boys.

If you’ve seen a lot of arty films, you know that the downer ending more than occasionally gives way to the grotesquely morbid dark carnival of horror, and because I had come to care about the characters, I was a little worried we were going to get a “And then they all got Ebola and died.” The fact that this was autobiographical for Cuarón  was not entirely reassuring, since certainly stories get exaggerated in the re-telling. My only real reassurance is that Cuarón is not a hack.

Anyway, the third act is dramatic but not lurid, and satisfying. You don’t end up feeling bad that you spent two-and-a-quarter hours with these people. They’re not perfect but you like them and are rooting for them. But you do have to rev down for the ride.

Oh! I didn’t give a penis warning for Mandy and some people appreciate those, so let me just say there’s a penis in this one, too. A martial arts penis.

That's a Mona Lisa Smile.
Here, Cleo is looking at the martial arts penis.

Mandy

Finally! A movie based on Barry Manilow’s 1975 #1 monster pop hit “Mandy”! You probably remember these classic lyrics:

Oh, Mandy!
They came and they took you and burned you
So now I’m forging an ax
Oh, Mandy!

Or, as The Boy has it: “If Nicolas Cage forging his own axe isn’t enough to entice you into the theater, this probably isn’t the movie for you.”

Happy endings!
It’s got a choppy end, a pokey end and a stabby end.

I was going to open the year with a 2018-in-review style offering, but half of our 120+ screenings (the lowest since 2010) were classic revivals, and half of what was left were mainstream Korean and Chinese cinema. It was a bad year for Hollywood by my lights. This movie, for all its faults (and narrow audience under the best of circumstances) nonetheless has a lot more heart and soul than the top 10 2018 movies combined.

By the time we had heard of it, it had already been pulled from its widest release (about 250 theaters), but was popping up at midnight showings and revivals around the city. This week, it turned up at the Downtown Independent as part of double-feature of Panos Cosmatos (director) films, including Beyond The Black Rainbow. If you know Red Letter Media, Jay Bauman is a fan of both films, and Mike Stoklasa…less so. (Taste-wise, as far as weird horror, I tend to fall between the two of them.)

So, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: This is a movie that combines a popular ’60s-’70s era genre, the crazy cult (sometimes with, sometimes without actual supernatural connections) that kidnaps and/or terrorizes some normies with a revenge flick. In the first half, a logger and his girl are living a peaceful (but eerie) life in a small cabin in the woods, when the girl happens to be spotted on the side of the road by the leader of a small cult which apparently travels the countryside getting (and occasionally sacrificing) new recruits. The leader becomes obsessed with her and summons demonic biker mutants to help the clan invade the hapless couple’s home. In the second half, the logger seeks revenge on the demonic biker mutants and cult.

Notable entries in this breed include Wes Craven’s first film, Last House on the Left and Who Are We Kidding? This Is An Awful Genre Full Of Crap.

Can't they just have a nice minivan once in a while?
It’s always bikes and vans in these movies.

The first thing that hits you about Mandy, though, is an earnestness combined with no small level of skill, somewhat reminiscent of Evil Dead. The movie sets the tone immediately—well, first with a King Crimson tune playing over a really long opening credits sequence of the sort that hasn’t been seen much in three decades—but then with Red (Nicolas Cage) felling a tree in a color-muted forest and driving home while President Reagan opines about America’s rejection of pornography and moral degradation. The year is 1983. Red turns the dial away from the Gipper (to his ultimate misfortune).

His wife, Mandy (whose name I swear we don’t hear until the cult leader intones it 40 minutes later) is an artist and, if her t-shirts are to be believed, a fan of the darker musical arts like Black Sabbath. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go, The Death of Stalin) has a scar on one side of her face going down from her left eye, which is never explained, and she apparently draws fantasy art, which we never see but which really impresses her husband.

They’re happy, after a fashion, though a pall hangs over them that is not entirely attributable to the score by frequent Denis Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson (to whom the film is dedicated). It’s almost as if everything has already happened and they’re powerless to stop it. This part of the movie is filmed with a lot of basic camera effects: Double-exposures, trails, color…uh…de-correction. The camera pans up to the sky occasionally revealing a heavy metal album cover.

Hard as it is to believe that.
This window is never smashed, somehow.

Actually, the whole movie could be described as a series of heavy metal album covers. In the second half of the film, which actually eases up on the psychedelic camera effects, there is animation that feels like it’s straight outta the 1981 movie Heavy Metal, presumably as dreamed by Red. Why? Well, why not? (I mean, I’m guessing that’s what Mandy’s art—that we never see—looks like, but that’s not really an explanation.) But this is just one of many “why”s.

Why, when Red tracks down the demonic mutant bikers in the house they’ve invaded, is there a smoke-filled bottomless pit adjoining the kitchen, down which one of the bikers falls never to be seen again? Why does the cult operate out of a giant empty barn with a huge cross carved in the back, but also a surprisingly deep underground cavern? Why does the clandestine drug chemist not only know exactly what Red wants without Red ever speaking a word to him? And why is he so swayed by Red’s unspoken argument that he lets out his caged tigers in shame? Are the demonic mutant bikers actually demons and/or mutants? What is that liquid they demand as payment for their services, the merest taste of which utterly disorients Red?

Why?
Wait…wut?

If you care about these questions, this isn’t the movie for you. These things happen because they’re cool, and we all know how this story plays out so why belabor the action with boring details? The movie teeters on the edge of pretentiousness but then pulls back with deliberately goofy moments: Red and Mandy are enthralled watching Don Dohler’s “Night Beast” on their 12-inch tube TV; Red has a showdown with the beefy cult baddy in the form of a chainsaw duel—something I haven’t seen since Motel Hell; At the moment of deepest despair, with Red realizing Mandy is gone, there’s a startlingly plausible but really gross commercial for Cheddar Goblin macaroni ‘n’ cheese (directed by the guy who created “Too Many Cooks”); the movie has a few “chapter titles” all done in unabashed ’80s metal fonts; even the climactic gore effect is practical and right out of the ’80s.

I don’t know if I’d say the movie was fun so much as it is a lot of things from the sublime to the ridiculous and it embraces all of them.

Drugs are a hell of a thing.
Nobody ever watched “Night Beast” like this.

Great performances all around: Cameo by Bill Duke, essentially reprising his Predator role. Linus Roache as Charles-Manson-by-way-of-Jame-Gumb. Andrea Riseborough manages a nice mix of haunted and haunting, vulnerability and strength. Everyone’s weird and creepy, which is appropriate.

And of course, Mr. Cage. The movie exploits Cage’s range, from his genuinely touching grief over the loss of his wife to his blood-soaked wild-eyed staring at things that aren’t there, which can’t help but draw laughs.

I can’t recommend it to everyone. The pacing was rather slow, all things considered. It is visually chaotic (though far less so than Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). It is the platonic essence of a really bad genre that succeeds to the degree it does with sheer energy and artistry. But it ain’t formulaic—and in that sense it’s a cure for what ails us in current cinema.

I mean.
Also, happy ending!

Fargo (1996)

Fargo has come up a lot on this blog over the years, serving as a kind of touchstone for regional movies about the midwest (like Thin Ice and Frozen River) and just being culturally iconic enough to be a plot point for other movies (like Kumiko, The Treasure Thief), but this is the first time we’ve seen it in the theater since it came out, and the first time The Boy saw it all the way through.

Trivia as boring as it is irrelevant.
This statue exists but not actually on the way to Brainerd, I guess.

It’s a good movie. Tight. It cemented the Coen Brothers as legitimate auteurs in Hollywood Establishment, though they personally seem to change nothing about themselves, any more than they did when Miller’s Crossing first got really favorable critical notice. They followed this up with a little flop known as The Big Lebowski which Siskel & Ebert excoriated because (and I am not making this up), Fargo was about poor people and The Big Lebowski was about rich people.

Your periodic reminder that movie critics are have the same gut reactions to things regular moviegoers have and then backfill them with nonsense to make it sound like they know what they’re talking about.

I swear.
Unrelated picture.

Fargo begins with a lie about the movie being based on true events, which at this point in my understanding of the Coens I’m attributing as part of their overarching philosophy that nobody knows anything. Nobody knows what’s going on. And nobody knows cause and effect. Or perhaps just, “We plan. God laughs.” (Hail, Caesar! is the only exception tot his I can think of.) This little blurb at the front of Fargo becomes the vignette about the dybbuk in A Serious Man.

The story is that Jerry Lundergaard needs a lot of money. (One of the more tantalizing questions in cinema history is why he needs the money. He has no apparent drug habit, no side-girl, no apparent gambling debts. It’s almost as if his moral failings are innate, which raises in itself a lot interesting questions.) His father-in-law has a lot of money but (rightly) doesn’t really trust Jerry much at all. So he gets in touch with a shady guy named Carl to arrange for his wife to be kidnapped. Carl has a pal Gaear as an accomplice, but Gaear is kind of a loose cannon, and a lot of people end up dead before the  story’s over.

The first murders occur in Brainerd, where it falls to local sheriff Marge Gunderson, 7-months-pregnant, to solve the case which takes her from the Twin Cities all the way to the titular Fargo. Marge is really the main character here, representing the entire “Minnesota nice” culture. In fact, the key to this movie is a part that has puzzled me from the second or third time I saw it.

Besides the innate humor of very non-white people having regional accents?
What is going on?

This is a tight movie. Everything in it has a purpose. Sometimes, you can say, defensibly, that a scene serves to demonstrate character, but that’s a little flabby, so I was never happy with my understanding of this sequence where Marge meets up with an old high school classmate, the twitchy Mike Yanagita. Mike’s Minnesota-Nice breaks down as he sheds tears over his deceased wife, and the kind-hearted Marge is moved to comfort him. Shortly after, she discovers that Mike’s got mental problems. He was never married to the woman—and she isn’t even dead and Marge should give her a call.

I never could figure this scene out. Mike’s connected to nobody in the film. Nothing happens in that pair of encounters that forwards the plot, like when Marge and her husband are at the buffet and someone walks in a police report. I had heard someone (Frances McDormand, I thought) suggest that Marge was sorta feeling the waters out for an affair, but apart from primping her hair as she walks in, there’s not just no indication of that, there’s negative indication of it, as every slight advance from Mike makes Marge visibly and (gasp!) even vocally uncomfortable.

I think the hair primping is a sign of Marge’s (ever so slight) flaws, but I think what we’re seeing is pride. Marge is worried about how she’s doing in life, with her painter husband vying to get his painting on a bird-theme set of stamps and her first child on the way. But there’s no lust there.

Darn tootin'.
Getting the three cent stamp is pretty darn good.

But now it seems so obvious: Marge has come to Minneapolis to see Shep, and that leads her to Jerry’s car dealership. Jerry’s answer to the question about missing cars is glib, and he’s agitated by it. But because of the whole Minnesota-nice thing, she just takes him on face value. It’s her discovering that someone might lie about something in order to manipulate her that makes her go back to the car dealership. That in turn rattles Jerry’s cage enough for him to flee the interview, and accelerates his final doom.

This is underscored by Marge’s final words to the murderous Gaear: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” She doesn’t understand it. Not just her, but every Minnesotan who deals with a real monster—like the waitress smiling at the distraught Jerry, the hapless parking lot attendants Carl deals with, and so on—is nonplussed by fairly common rudeness and can’t really grasp an awfulness that goes beyond that.

As with all Coen brothers movie, we loved it and multiple screenings are worthwhile.

In The Big Lebowski, his last Coen movie, he is cremated.
Steve Buscemi ends up in increasingly smaller pieces at the end of each Coen movie.