Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Alfonso Cuaron - Filmmaker Extraordinaire

Since 1991 Alfonso Cuaron has been making challenging, thought provoking and somewhat ground breaking cinema. Oscars were duly forthcoming for his most recent epic, Gravity, in 2013, however in the intervening 22 years he has also helmed a further eight films, some in his native tongue of Spanish, a re imagining of a Dickens classic, the criminally underrated "Children of Men" as well as helming the greatest episode in the Harry Potter franchise. This particular Director "Love In" of mine has long sat on my "Virtual Shelf" gathering dust but here finally in January 2016 is my long overdue appreciation of a true virtuoso cinema Director.

It is not my intention to provide huge spoilers for the coming nine films. Rather, my purpose is to give an overall flavour for the films as I do not want to spoil these gems for you in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderfully gifted Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations. I sincerely write all of my blogs from a fan's perspective and I also sincerely hope you enjoy.

Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991)

"The satisfied cat doesn't worry about the mouse, does he?"

Solo Con Tu Pareja or "Only With Your Partner" was released under the English translation "Love in the Time of Hysteria" in 2006, 15 years after filming was completed in 1991 and is somewhat a forerunner of Cuaron's more critically acclaimed 2001 film "Y Tu Mama Tambien" or the English translation "And Your Mama Too" (see below). Both films share a sexual theme at it's heart, but here in Cuaron's debut cinematic feature the sexual theme is explored more in a societal context and the repercussions of infidelity, loss and more importantly the health implications of casual sex in the early 1990's. In a sublime and often comedic virtuoso performance Daniel Gimenez Cacho stars as "Tomas Tomas" a wealthy Advertisement Executive who fills every waking moment indulging in his passion for casual sex, often juggling the advances of his Boss "Gloria Gold" (Isabel Benet) and his latest girlfriend "Sylvia Silva" (Dobrina Liubomirova). Tomas Tomas is a lothario and gregarious with a predilection for casual sex who seemingly takes nothing too seriously until he meets "Clarisa Negrete" (Claudia Ramirez), a young flight attendant who captures his heart. However, as the old saying goes "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" and Tomas Tomas is about to find this out in the hardest way possible.

In addition to Cacho's excellent virtuoso performance and the main character roles already noted there are further excellent portrayals from Luis De Icaza as Tomas Tomas' best friend and Doctor "Mateo Mateos", Astrid Hadad plays his wife "Teresa de Teresa" and Toshiro Hisaki cameos brilliantly as visiting Japanese Doctor "Takeshi" in this often whimsical tale captured by Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki in the first of six collaborations hence far with Director Cuaron.

In the native Spanish language with English subtitles, Solo Con Tu Pareja was written by Cuaron and his brother Carlos Cuaron and is an admirable debut feature from Director Cuaron as he strikes the balance between a serious look at the implications of casual sex whilst retaining a high degree of satire and comedy throughout. The film can be described loosely as a screwball comedy which verges on slapstick at times but through the Brothers writing there is also a high degree of surreality whilst retaining that keen, somewhat critical eye on the protagonist's sexual activities and possible implications thereon. However, the comedy is never far from the screen as Tomas Tomas delicately balances on the ledge of his apartment building tip toeing to and from apartments as he balances his need for work as well as his need for sex all the while reciting the children's nursery rhyme "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and this narrative also forms part of several inserted slides as segues between pivotal acts of the film, together with "Newton's 3rd Law" and "Altius, Citius, Fortius" amongst many others. These last two are pertinent portents for the life of our lothario and central character Tomas Tomas, as he needs to strive to be faster, higher and stronger as well as being well aware that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, especially in the affairs of the heart. In another of the film's amusing scenes whilst getting drunk with a host of Japanese Doctors with whom language is but one barrier, he laments to Takeshi "If Clarisa turns me down, it's harakiri man", but Tomas' life has many more twists and turns to take and reactions to the actions he has taken along the way.

A Little Princess (1995)

"All women are princesses, it is our right!"

Loosely based on the 1905 children's novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar nominated re-imaging of A Little Princess was the third such take on the film following the silent original of 1917 and the 1939 incarnation starring Shirley Temple, however Cuaron's film was the first he helmed that garnered Oscar recognition. In a lifelong collaborative partnership with Director Cuaron, it would be Emmanuel Lubezki's first of three Oscar nominations for his cinematography of an Alfonso Cuaron film and here he was joined by Bo Welch and Cheryl Carasik who were also nominated for their achievements in Art and Set Decoration. All of which is quite an achievement in only Cuaron's second cinematic feature, a U Rated children's tale that had already seen two previous historic releases but which twisted through Cuaron's slightly surreal lens remains as fresh and vibrant as it did on initial release nearly twenty years ago. I haven't seen either of the two previous filmed releases but here Cuaron cleverly blends a present day narrative with a yearning for a deceased parent and the absence of another together with a whole host of pertinent and affecting juxtapositions set against the fantastical tales of a young girl with an unbreakable spirit.

In a brilliant and sublime central performance is Liesel Matthews as the precocious, dreamer and teller of beautiful children's stories "Sara Crewe". Dreamer of dreams, playful and educated far beyond her tender years, Sara adores her Father "Captain Crewe" (a wonderful as ever Liam Cunningham) but with the outbreak of World War I they are torn from both their idyllic life in India and from each other as Captain Crewe is deployed to the battlefront and daughter Sara is sent to a seminary school for girls in New York. Here the first of the film's many juxtapositions are employed as Sara's school is anything but the tranquil, idyll of India. The seminary school may seem as opulent and sumptuous as the house and life she left behind in India but where Indian life was full of hopes, dreams and escapism, Sara's new life in New York is now staid, full of rules, orders and conformity within an imposing school building that is utterly joyless and run by "Miss Minchin" (Eleanor Bron). Eleanor Bron is excellent as the cold, callous and almost Cruella Deville type Headmistress and school Matriarch, and in a film of such stark juxtapositions is brilliantly juxtaposed with her sister and school assistant "Amelia Minchin" (Rusty Schwimmer). Whereas Miss Minchin is detached and cold her sister is welcoming, a dreamer and Schwimmer's performance adds much needed warmth and comedy and indeed a mirror image to that of Sara. The juxtapositions continue throughout the film as it weaves a continual narrative of Captain Crewe's horrific wartime experiences with his daughter's letters, Sara's warmth and unbreakable spirit of adventure is juxtaposed against the rigidity of the school and especially her fellow pupil "Lavinia" (Taylor Fry) a "snotty, two faced bully" but the film's starkest juxtapositions centre on Sara, her refusal to acquiesce to her new joyless existence and that of her friendship with "Becky" (Vanessa Lee Chester), a "servant girl" at the school. Firstly, the film cleverly weaves Sara's constant tales of princesses and escapism against the monotone backdrop of the school and it's inhabitants, taking the audience away from the monochrome present day to colourful, inventive and often surreal stories of joyous encounters and stories fit for princesses, but set in 1914 the film also shines a light on Sara's relationship with Becky, a poorly treated slave girl whom Sara befriends instantly as her cultural background allows her to see through the insignificance of colour or creed and their secret pacts often drive the film.

Director Cuaron has been quoted as saying that of all his films to date the one he'd most like to "rescue" would be A Little Princess. I'm unaware of the context from which that quote was taken but this film, although far from flawless or perfect is not in need of rescuing. It's charming, even delightful at times and with a real surreal edge to the storied adventures with a wealth of fine central performances from Liesel Matthews, Liam Cunningham and Eleanor Bron. The narrative has an arc that whilst it prevents from further dissection for fear of spoilers, may be a little contrived and saccharin, but is also a deeply affecting one, and one that is far from in need of rescuing.

Great Expectations (1998)

"She'll break your heart. It's a fact"

Great Expectations is a very loose adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel of the same name with Mitch Glazer's screenplay taking place primarily in 1990's New York but which also charts a life long love story from 1970's Florida to the city they just had to name twice! The film's opening Act is arguably the finest, setting both the tone and overall themes of the film as well as introducing the principal cast and whilst the film continues in the same vein when transported to 1990's New York it never quite matches the intensity and beauty of the opening Act in Florida. Great Expectations is ostensibly an unrequited and tragic love story between "Finnegan Bell" and "Estella", two very different young children thrown together by monied circumstance and played in the film's earliest Act by Jeremy James Kissner and Raquel Beaudere respectively. Estella is a beautiful yet distant and aloof young girl living with her eccentric Aunt "Ms Dinsmoor" (Anne Bancroft) in her sumptuous yet uncared for mansion named "Paradiso Perduto", a home that "Land Time Forgot" and in rooms that "smelled of dead flowers and cat's piss". Finn is an awkward, shy young boy but a talented artist whom Ms Dinsmoor can see instant promise as well as a companion for her young niece. Renowned locally for her eccentricity and for losing her mind, Ms Dinsmoor (in whom Anne Bancroft is utterly brilliant as the perma smoking, bizarrely off kilter and frankly mad old lady!) is both portentous and prescient: Finn is definitely a talented and sweet natured boy and Estella will surely break his heart.

As the film moves into contemporary 1990's New York, Finn (now in the very capable hands of Ethan Hawke) moves to the Big Apple on the back of a somewhat mysterious benefactor to pursue his art career and, as she is want to do, Estella (now in similarly capable hands in a young Gwyneth Paltrow) begins to drift back into, yet also out of, his new life and unwittingly (and seemingly) realise her Aunt's portentous prediction. Here in the film's Second Act both Hawke and Paltrow excel, with Finn now a confident and accomplished painter on the verge of his first public exhibition yet still enchanted by his "First Love" Estella, who unbeknownst to Finn is about to marry "Walter Plane" (Hank Azaria), However, it's Hawke and particularly Paltrow whose portrayals of young would be lovers who drive the film's narrative, with Paltrow dominating as the over privileged, aloof and cold Estella. She is the archetypal Ice Maiden, desperate for attention but damaged by her past and who revels in being unobtainable, flirting and teasing her first love but never allowing him to get remotely close to her. Paltrow's excellent portrayal sets somewhat of a template for all of the female characters in the film as they are all in their own way a mirror image of her cold and distant characteristics with "Maggie" (Kim Dickens), "Erika Thrall" (Nell Campbell) and "Ruth Shepherd" (Marla Sucharetza) all sharing these distant characteristics. Three further characters are worthy of note with "Jerry Ragno" (Josh Mostel) the figurehead of the mysterious benefactor, "Lustig" (Robert De Niro) a fugitive killer on the run from the Police and "Joe" (Chris Cooper). Chris Cooper in particular is excellent as ever, here portraying Uncle Joe with a pitch perfect human sensibility and fierce protection of his nephew Finn. Joe is far more than that simple characterisation and it could be argued that in a film of such cold and distant characters he is the most amiable and likeable and embracing as a substitute Father to Finn.

Despite Great Expectations somewhat cold characters and flat denouement there is much to be admired too. Regular Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezski's cinematography is hyper stylised at times, giving the film a picture book feel, from the Florida coastlines, the overgrown grounds of Paradiso Perduto through to the elegance and beauty of New York's parks and bridges. The film's soundtrack is a joyous and eclectic mix, from The Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" to Pulp and their brilliant "Like a Friend" which accompanies the film's stand out and signature scene of a nervous Finn drawing an alluring, yet frustratingly out of reach Estella. This is without a doubt the film's high watermark and perfectly encapsulates it's theme of young unrequited love in a joyous scene accompanied by a beautiful Pulp pop song. The childhood and adulthood dancing and drawing scenes of our two young would be lovers are also high points in a film that just fails to match this throughout, however when re-watching Cuaron's third cinematic feature to date, please pay heed to De Niro's portentous, if dismissive exclamation "People always say the eyes are the window into the soul". Review Finn's pictures of his young love and you may see the film's overall metaphor? A flat ending spoils an otherwise passable edition to the cannon of Cuaron's cinematic work. There was much better to follow.

And Your Mama Too (2001)

"Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea"

Y Tu Mama Tambien or "And Your Mama too" is a loose follow on from Alfonso Cuaron's debut feature "Love in a Time of Hysteria" in 1991 as it follows vaguely similar themes of sexual exploration and living a hedonistic, carefree life, however this is far superior to his cinematic debut and a firm lifelong favourite of mine. Numerous characters pervade this story but I will concentrate on the three main characters briefly below but for this film specifically I wish to keep my treatise brief, to the point and hopefully in a way that will entice you to track down a copy of this gem and view for yourself. It's firstly clearly a deeply personal film for the Director and an ode and love story to his homeland of Mexico and of Mexican life. The film can be easily summarised as a simple "Road Trip" movie and a trip to a somewhat mysterious beach and of three characters (two young impressionable men and an older lady) thrown together by circumstance and by lust and adventure. The film has a seemingly pervasive narrative strand of everyone having a past, of escapism, adventure, thrill seeking and wringing everything possible out of every experience. But I've loved this film for over fifteen years purely because it's so difficult to summarise and it's astounding, deeply affecting, provocative, funny, alarming, melancholic, shocking and not always an easy film to watch. Throw in a search for identity, a loss of innocence, sexual awakening, lies, deceit, friendship, love, lust and loss and you have a wonderful and deeply affecting piece of cinema. Your three main characters are:

Julio Zapata (Gael Garcia Bernal) A working class "Chorolastra" and "Bond of Brotherhood" with Tenoch his aims are purely to get high, enjoy life and be the teller of tall tales. This is yet another stellar performance from a wonderfully talented Mexican actor who first came to my attention in the brilliant debut feature from Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu "Amores Perros" in 2000. In the fifteen years since Bernal has starred brilliantly in "The Motorcycle Diaries" (as Che Guevera), "The King" and in Inarritu's brilliant "Babel" in 2006. Bernal is an actor that always captures your attention and here as Julio is no different.

Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna) Middle class with a sumptuous lifestyle and high profile if overbearing parents, Tenoch shares his best friend's desires to get high and wring as much out of his young life as possible. Small roles in "Milk" and "Elysium" followed his breakthrough performance here.

Luisa Cortes (Maribel Verdu) A free spirit constrained by either life itself or her somewhat ill advised choices. At 27, Luisa is far older than her young male companions & her life experience as well as world weariness show this in spades. Never comfortable, settled & always seeking the ultimate thrill, this is a wonderful performance from Maribel Verdu who would go on to star in Guillermo Del Toro's brilliant 2006 hit "Pan's Labyrinth"

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

"What do you know about Sirius Black, Harry?"

For those of you unaware of the global phenomenon that is the world of Harry Potter created by British writer J K Rowling, here is a very brief background: "Harry Potter" (Daniel Radcliffe) is an orphaned young boy following the death of his parents and living with his relatives the Dursely family in rural England. The Dursely family, along with the vast majority of the rest of the country's inhabitants are "Muggles" whereby they have no inherent magical abilities or powers however Harry does and unbeknownst to him initially he is in fact a boy wizard. Whisked away from the overbearing Dursely's, Harry is enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry along with valued friends "Ron Weasley" (Rupert Grint) and "Hermione Granger" (Emma Watson). At Hogwarts it's slowly but surely established that Harry is not just a boy wizard in the making but one of superior skills and abilities to those of his friends and foes alike, giving rise to a constant battle of wills with school nemesis "Draco Malfoy" (Tom Felton) as well as his biggest foe "He who must not be named" or for the purposes of this overview and for simplicity, "Lord Voldemort" (Ralph Fiennes). Despite the ever present dangers and those who wish to destroy him, Harry is an incredibly popular boy wizard at his unconventional school and quickly builds alliances with many of the teachers and Professors present, primarily "Albus Dumbledore" (Michael Gambon), "Professor McGonagall" (Maggie Smith), "Professor Trelawney" (Emma Thompson) and "Rubeus Hagrid" (Robbie Coltrane), whilst avoiding "Professor Snape" (Alan Rickman) at every possible opportunity! J K Rowling's vision of a boy wizard coming to terms with life without any parents in a strange and unfamiliar muggle world and finding solace, escape and adventure in a parallel world full of wizards, witches and friends spawned seven books, eight films and a passionate worldwide fan base numbered in the tens of millions which includes my very own Harry Potter, my 12 year old son who has grown up with this cultural phenomenon and whom would no doubt criticise how simplistically I've briefly over viewed a series of books and films that have spanned over 13 years! 

That is indeed a very brief background to the Harry Potter franchise, however the third film of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was placed into the very capable hands of Alfonso Cuaron to direct and the resulting film remains my personal favourite of the entire series. There are a multitude of reasons why but as I try to avoid venturing into spoiler territory, where this film triumphs above the others in the series is the Director's expert blend of five key components throughout: adventure, horror, comedy, melancholia and a vast array of visual effects together with the addition of key new intriguing characters and stand out set pieces and scenes that mark this film in the long running franchise as an absolute triumph. Being the third in a series of eight films this is the darkest so far and all the better for it, however the Harry Potter series is full of heightened adventure too and here two scenes stand out amongst many, with the thunder, lightening and rain soaked Quidditch match only eclipsed by Harry's joyful ride on the back of Hagrid's flying pet hypogriff "Buckbeak" and the comedy component is full to the brim here, commencing with Harry's angry yet comical inflation of a particularly repugnant "Aunt Marge" (Pam Ferris). Still living with his obnoxious Dursley family relations, Harry finally exacts revenge and a beautiful revenge it is too as he escapes from their clutches once more and hops aboard another of the stand out additions here, the "Knight Bus", a triple decker variant on a London bus that is anything but ordinary. The brief journey is a comedic joy as is the snowball fight later in the film and further revenge wrought on another of Harry's nemeses. As with all of the films in the series the comedy is blended without the use of actual jokes or gags per se, but more visually or affecting, be it Professor Trelawney's goggled eyed expressions through her glasses, Hagrid's touching clumsiness or Ron's continual use of the exclamation "bloody hell!" and his burgeoning and awkward romance with Hermione. Visually, the film matches any of it's predecessors or those still to follow with the Knight Bus sequence a surreal and visual joy, the "Monster Book of Monsters" a visual stand out and there are numerous more examples throughout, however every film in the series is bathed in fantastic visual effects and here the rolling staircases, newspapers, posters and paintings all come to literal life before your eyes but these only compliment the more subtle visual effects, of Harry mournfully staring out from behind the Hogwarts clock and the numerous dissolves aptly demonstrated in the "Boggart" lessons with "Professor Lupin" (David Thewlis) as we first dissolve through a glass fronted wardrobe before the scene ends with a similar reverse dissolve. There is also a further impressive use of this dissolving technique at the denouement of the Dementor scene on board the Hogwarts Express which is briefly noted below but which ends dissolving through Harry's eye.

Above all, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the darkest of the series so far with the darker narrative heightened with repeated references to Harry's parents and how he resembles both of them in various ways and for both good and for ill. Harry also has to deal with and triumph over several new foes, many of which will become a constant battle as he grows both metaphorically and with age during the coming films. Here, he is quickly entangled with "The Grim" a black dog and omen of impending death and the "Dementors", wraith like ethereal creatures that suck the life force from human beings and which is brilliantly realised in one of the film's earliest scenes on board the Hogwarts Express, a train bound for the wizard school. Fortunately for the (still) boy wizard, he is defended by Professor Lupin in what becomes this film's moral through line as their friendship develops amongst many of the film's most affecting scenes as they discuss Harry's past, present and future standing on the Hogwarts School Bridge, their joint walk through the nearby forest and crucially, Harry's singular and separate lessons in performing the Patronus charm which provides protection and a guardian against evil, invasive spirits. Harry is forever mindful of these new foes whilst battling his ever present nemeses in the obnoxious Draco Malfoy and the comically villainous Professor Snape, however a far more dangerous foe has escaped Azkaban Prison "Sirius Black" (Gary Oldman) and Harry, growing in stature, confidence and abilities, vows to kill him.

The third in the Harry Potter series was nominated for two Oscars in 2005, for John Williams' iconic and wonderful musical score and for Best Achievement in Visual Effects but despite winning neither award it is in this humble writer's opinion that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is by far the best of the franchise with inventive direction and a superb blend of horror, effects, drama, adventure, comedy and escapism that set a high standard for the five coming films to follow. 

Oh, and for fans of The Stone Roses (of which I am a lifelong member of the club) look out for lead singer Ian Brown and his bizarre, yet brief, book reading cameo!

Paris, je t'aime (2006)

"By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again"

Paris, je t'aime or "Paris, I love you" is a wonderful Director collective film of 18 short stories celebrating Paris in a sequence of seemingly unconnected "little neighbourhood romances" depicting love, desire, romance, betrayal, loss, redemption and so much more in a love letter to the self titled city of love. Boasting an international cast of both actors and directors, each short film covers a district of the city with French unsurprisingly the predominant language but with occasional English language scenes interspersed, as are beautiful iconic images of the city herself as segues between the very differing and distinct narratives. Each of these individual short stories of no more than six minutes in length cover a wide spectrum of life in the city, from a lonely man questioning himself whilst stuck in a never ending traffic jam, a melancholic man finding love again, a smitten guitar player finding the love of his life, an older couple desperately trying to rekindle their love affair one more time to a gay man seemingly falling in love with what he believes to be his soul mate through simple fate and chance. But the real beauty of this film is throughout the love, passion and respect shown to the city itself, all of the short stories have an immediate surface narrative to them that changes and evolves quickly and through a surrealist and often ultra bizarre prism, the narratives disappear into unforeseen tangents and developments that pleased on first watching and continue to do so on further re-viewings. All of the short films are pleasing to the eye as well as capturing the imagination for where these short vignettes and their narratives will take us. Especially pleasing and truly priceless are the more surreal and bizarre stories interwoven into the dedicated love letter to Paris this film clearly is, of a young boy standing beneath the Eiffel Tower recalling how his mime artist parents met, a bald headed hair replacement sales representative and his brush with a feisty salon owner and some Buddhist monks and an even a bizarre vampire story starring Elijah Wood! If you're looking for a film that will make you smile, giggle, cry, ponder and suck a thoughtful tooth on the love of your life, step right this way!

The 18 short films include an all star international cast from the aforementioned Elijah Wood as a love struck, wordless but would be vampire, through to Bob Hoskins seeking to inject love and passion back into his relationship, Maggie Gyllenhaal falling in love with her drug dealer and many other roles that plot spoilers will not permit from esteemed actors and actresses of the calibre of Miranda Richardson, Marianne Faithfull, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Emily Mortimer, Natalie Portman and Gerard Depardieu amongst many, many others. Similarly, the Directors of the individual short stories are equally A List calibre with Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) directing a sweet natured tale of immediacy and love striking like lightening and the confusion surrounding how to act on this unforeseen stroke of chance and fate, Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) directs a surreal Oscar Wilde influenced love story with fellow Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Nebraska) starring as Oscar Wilde as well as directing his own sweet natured tale of an American tourist lost and found amidst the beauty of a city she falls in love with and the seemingly immortal Coen Brothers direct a bizarre tale set inside a Metro station starring ever dependable Steve Buscemi as they put him through the wringer as another American tourist slightly, and comically, at odds with the city of love! Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola Run and Cloud Atlas) directs a wonderful vignette of a blind man's summer romance that will pull at the heart strings but each short story has it's own twisted and often surreal narrative and Christopher Doyle's bizarre sales representative, Nobuhiro Suwa's crushing tale of a mother's love for her missing cowboy and Oliver Schmitz's short story of a love struck guitar player are all brilliantly directed and highly affecting short pieces of drama.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Evocative, touching, heart breaking and heart warming in equal measure, settle down with that one special person closest to you and enjoy this two hour triumph together. You may even want to watch it again!

The one Director not yet named in this, a blog on the film's he directed is Alfonso Cuaron and here is his short five minute film entitled "Parc Monceau"

Director Cuaron captured this vignette in one continuous shot throughout with no editing or cutting whatsoever. His camera continually rolls at a distance from the two protagonists in the scene, only stopping occasionally to match the fractured dialogue of a man attempting to speak French before letting the camera continue to roll slowly beside them. Towards the end of the scene, the older man and his much younger female companion pass the camera and walk ahead towards their destination and the camera, still in one long continuous take, follows them. There are no close ups whatsoever, just a Director's camera peeking into their fractured, terse but loving conversation.

In keeping with the other short stories in this vibrant film there is a slight twist to it's narrative tale which I shall refrain from disclosing but suffice to say, Cuaron's sweet natured tale of a bumbling, late & chain smoking "Vincent" (Nick Nolte) & his younger lady companion "Claire" (Ludivine Sagnier) is a joy to behold with a very pleasing & sweet denouement.

Children of Men (2006)

"Every time one of our politicians are in trouble, a bomb explodes"

Children of Men was my first in depth exposure to the films of Alfonso Cuaron and became a firm favourite of mine immediately on release in 2006. As I write this eight years later the film's overriding themes of alienation in a post apocalyptic world, of failing social structural norms, oppressively high tensions surrounding immigration and nationhood still resonate deeply whilst shining a light on some of today's eerily similar worldwide issues. Set in the year 2027 the film is anything but futuristic with a dirty grey colour palette dominating, and with society failing in all directions there are no discernible signatures of a futuristic world to come, of flying cars, enhanced transportation, logistics or media. In it's place is a disintegrating world at war with itself, a disillusioned populace and it's immigrant inhabitants enclosed in horrific holding pens and internment camps with only the UK and London seemingly free of the riots spreading throughout the globe. The film is ostensibly rooted in London which as a rolling train billboard proclaims "Only Britain Soldiers On" and on the surface at least this appears to be the case. London is still working and sporting life, recreation and life at large still in evidence but lurking around every corner are terrorist threats, Government oppression and horrifying immigrant exclusion zones that resemble war torn ghettos. The world as a whole is dying with liberty, freedom and progression seemingly on permanent hold after 18 years of zero recorded new births that has spawned a societal depression across great swathes of the entire planet. Following the death of "Baby Diego", the World's previous youngest member, his torch has been passed to the next youngest person alive and she now carries the weight of the world's expectation and every possible hope on her shoulders. However, unbeknownst to the world at large and more crucially the authorities, a young girl loosely associated with the anti Government "Fishes" organisation is against every possible odd pregnant and needing safe passage to the "Human Project". Enter our accident prone and reluctantly accidental hero "Theo Faron" (Clive Owen).

Clive Owen is the film's headline star and excellent in his role of the clumsy and accidental hero Theo. Deeply depressed at the world that now surrounds him, Theo has tuned out from the madness that surrounds his daily life and has a ghost like, dead to the world persona that is the polar opposite of his life just 20 years ago when he worked passionately as an activist with "Julian" (Julianne Moore) and "Jasper" (Michael Caine). Suffice to say both Moore and Caine carry their respective roles well and together with Clive Owen's Theo character drive the main narrative of the film. All three characters are past/present or lifelong friends and all have an irreverent stance on life that has been shaped by their respective experiences but all three equally have a past that whilst clearly on display for the audience is rarely discussed and left to develop along with the narrative. Julian is the leader of the "Fishes", an anti Government or Terrorist Organisation (depending on how you view the 2027 News) and Jasper is Theo's release valve and much needed perspective on the world. Here Caine excels in quite an unfamiliar role for him as an aging hippy utterly devoted to his incapacitated wife, music and his vast quantities of "strawberry cough" cannabis plants! Although dead and oblivious to the world around him, Theo finds solace and comes alive only in the company of his lifelong friends however this is a rare event in his life as seemingly everything happens either behind or just out of Theo's visual range. In one of the film's major continuing themes, he may be front and centre and very much the reluctant hero but everything happens around or behind him, be it the film's signature explosion in the opening minutes through to the youths pelting the train he travels on, the caged immigrants at the train station or the graffiti billboards that seemingly track his every move. All of this happens behind Theo and it's a clever narrative strand that continues throughout. In addition to these main characters Pam Ferris is excellent as mid wife "Mirian" to the miracle Mother in waiting "Kee" portrayed well by Clare-Hope Ashitey and Chiwetel Ejiofor stands out as determined Fishes heir apparent Leader "Luke", some seven years before he would astound the world in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Three further roles are worthy of note and key participants in this intriguing apocalyptic story, with Danny Huston excelling in a frighteningly on edge portrayal of Theo's cousin "Nigel", similarly the excellent Peter Mullan portrays duplicitous Immigration Officer "Syd" brilliantly but last but by no means least is Oana Pellea's excellent portrayal of immigrant "Marichka".

One of the film's endearing traits is John Tavener's musical soundtrack and the inclusion of numerous stand out individual song tracks from across the ages. A film can often stand or fall on it's musical accompaniment and where Children of Men excels is Tavener's music choices as well as the haunting and mournful score that highlights Theo's state of mind that rises and falls alongside his inner turmoil and swinging moods. The inclusion of songs from Deep Purple, The Beatles, John Lennon, The Libertines and Donovan are inspired choices but it's the addition of The Rolling Stones "Ruby Tuesday", King Crimson's "The Court of the Crimson King" and Radiohead's "Life in a Glasshouse" that impresses the most. Ruby Tuesday is employed twice with the second rendition truly heartbreaking but spoilers will not allow for further explanation. The brilliant Court of the Crimson King sums up the film in a cliche nutshell perfectly, with Theo enjoying his chauffeur driven ride through the busy streets of London and in the midst of a London still working, still functioning and still full of pomp and circumstance despite the terrorist threats and immigrants housed in appalling conditions mere streets away, before arriving at his cousin's outlandish and art filled retreat within the refurbished Battersea Power Station, resplendent with Pink Floyd era flying pigs! As a lifelong myopic Radiohead fan, the inclusion of Life in a Glasshouse is a particularly inspired and wonderful choice for innumerable reasons. The lyrics themselves of "Don't talk politics and don't throw stones" and of wanting to "sit around and chat" and to "stay and chew the fat" despite "someone listening in" are particularly apt, as is the song's opening lines of "once again, I'm in trouble with my only friend" and "She is papering the window panes". These last examples aptly describe Theo and Julian's strained relationship (as well as their first meeting in 20 years being in a glass enclosed building with newspapers covering every window pane) however it also aptly describes the three friends overall together with the film's overriding themes of alienation, paranoia, oppression and dislocation.

Children of Men garnered three 2007 Oscar Nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (of which Alfonso Cuaron was one of the main screen writers), Best Editing (again Director Cuaron was one of the two Editors nominated alongside Alex Rodriguez) and long time collaborator and the fantastic Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Burn After Reading, Ali, Sleepy Hollow) was nominated for his intricate and exemplary achievement in Cinematography. Eight years on the film remains fresh on the screen, sharp and incredibly poignant when mirrored to today's oppressive treatment of immigrants and the vast divide in wealth between the have and have not's. Based on the best selling source novel of the same name by PD James, Children of Men remains a firm favourite of mine but with minor reservations. The film's first two Acts are strong and narrative driven before the third Act's struggle for survival, whilst affecting and well played falls a little flat. The sporadic bursts of comedy also fall very flat (aside from Michael Caine's sequences) and the AD segments of Additional Dialogue that segue between some scenes are also flat and uninspiring. However, aside from these minor issues the film remains a poignant inclusion with Alfonso Cuaron's burgeoning cannon of cinematic greats.

The Possibility of Hope (2007)

"Unfortunately, we have an economic model that thinks like a crack addict"

This 27 minute documentary is almost a companion piece to Children of Men and whilst not released as a cinematic feature is included on the Special Edition DVD of Children of Men and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The short documentary is split into five short segments (Reality, Fear, Walls, Fever and Hope) and interwoven throughout is stock footage of an ever changing world, be it via people power and the toppling of political statues and the fall of the Berlin wall, or climate change, mass migration and poverty or the effects of capitalism on both a prosperous Western culture or it's polar opposite in the third world. Also interwoven throughout are "talking head" and audio interviews with seven preeminent philosophers, scientists and authors including Naomi Klein (Anti Globalisation Activist), Slavoj Zizek (Philosopher and Social Critic), Tzvetan Todorov (Philosopher and Historian), Fabrizio Eva (Human Geographer), Saskia Sassen (Sociologist), John Gray (Philosopher and Economist) and James Lovelock (Scientist). As with many documentaries it has a fact feel to it, of the topics up for discussion as being proven fact with no room for conjecture but this is a minor criticism of a thought provoking companion piece to a highly prescient film of it's time. Each of the seven experts in their field raise interesting and insightful prognoses on overpopulation, migration, immigration, democracy and it can be viewed perhaps as a scathing attack on global capitalism and it's after effects, but more profoundly perhaps is the light shone on how fear dominates our daily life. Fear of immigrants, Government control or taxation, through to the walls that were once in front of us, the solid, immovable walls of Berlin that whilst they continue to expand in places such as Israel and Palestine or the USA and Mexico border, even these solid walls are more psychological than physical and that the walls that surround us are now invisible, the walls of fear or hope, but walls nonetheless that when we cross them we are acutely aware that we've done so and the implications therein.

Gravity (2013)

"You gotta admit one thing, you can't beat the view!"

Ten Oscar Nominations and Seven wins, 2014 was clearly the year of Gravity and in Oscar parlance it almost swept the board. Wins for the Director in the categories of Best Director and Film Editing (with Mark Sanger), the film also won for Best Original Film Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects and long time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki finally secured a worthy Oscar win for his achievement in Cinematography. Oscar wins and trinkets should not be the benchmark by which a film is deemed a success or indeed an extraordinary achievement, however in the case of Gravity it fully deserved these and every other accompanying plaudit, for the film is near flawless from start to finish of it's lean 91 minute running time and Alfonso Cuaron deserves every possible praise for pulling off the difficult feat of making a riveting and drama filled film set entirely in space and with ostensibly just one leading character such a terrific piece of cinematic escapism. My one and only regret with Gravity was not having the opportunity to see this wonderful film on the big screen as it surely deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible but several re-viewings later just add to the majesty of the presentation, editing, cinematography and especially the Oscar winning sound mixing. But just one word of caution should you dear reader not have seen this film already: If you suffer from motion sickness in any way, beware, because you may be challenged by the Director's almost non stop spinning visuals!

Written jointly by the Director and his son Jonas Cuaron with co-star George Clooney also un-credited as a further writing partner, the film is set entirely in space with only seven main characters, of which five are purely cameo or voice appearances and Ed Harris being the most recognisable and vocal as Houston's "Mission Control". Aside from this we have two of Hollywood's finest in co-starring roles with co-writer Clooney starring as irreverent, talkative and crazy story teller "Matt Kowalski" and Sandra Bullock as the nervous, motion sickness suffering newbie "Ryan Stone". The first ten minutes are a tour de force of film making as with no perceptible cuts or edits Cuaron employs a continual spinning and slowly moving camera mirroring that of the earth constantly in the background as Kowalski, a veteran of numerous space expeditions and chiefly in charge assists Stone in her first space shuttle mission as they repair and upgrade the ailing hubble space telescope. The film's opening credits announce that space carries no sound and this is also expertly employed throughout but within the opening ten minutes the sound grows louder and louder the nearer we as the audience are to the centre of the action but it's the direction, constantly moving camera and Lubezki's cinematography that immediately impresses as it accompanies an irreverent and relaxed three way conversation between Mission Control on Earth and our intrepid Astronauts before debris from a rogue Russian satellite destroys the harmony and sends an oxygen starved and panicking Stone spinning into outer space.

With her oxygen quickly depleting and rather than enjoying the "silence" Stone craves for and most enjoys whilst being in space, it's Kowalski's irreverent stories and talk of the home they're rapidly spinning around that keeps her focused on the task at hand. They need to stabilise quickly and find their way to an escape pod for their return to the homes their moral boosting discussions highlight and again Director and Cinematographer excel here with a beautiful depiction of the sun rising across the far away earth as they drift through outer space. There are many more Director inspired highlights: the painstaking realisation of zero gravity, the interchangeable camera angles and within/without style movement from inside Stone's panic stricken helmet and back out and into space and this only adds to the ultra stylish and polished picture on screen. Again focusing on the zero gravity production, Stone "swimming" through the ISS (International Space Station) is another wonderfully captured piece of cinema. It truly is a wonder to watch, absorb and take in amongst the peril, terror, panic and confusion that's a staple of successful film's set in the unknown of outer space. Another obvious Director achievement lies in making such a successful and critically acclaimed film with only two principal, albeit A-List star actors and to retain the audience's attention with so few characters on screen. Sandra Bullock received a worthy Oscar nomination for her role as Ryan Stone, the green rookie struggling to deal with her first trip into space, magnificently and although not recognised with an Oscar nomination, George Clooney is excellent as Matt Kowalski, her counter point and chief morale booster. With their only being principally two characters throughout the narrative it almost feels as though the camera, with it's inside/outside camera angles inside the astronaut's helmets as alluded to above, as almost an extra "character" in the film. It could also be argued that the enormity of space is a further character but suffice to say each provides a further character layer to an absorbing narrative. 

Without any further plot spoilers I will simply add that there are obvious comparisons to Ron Howard's "Apollo 13", "Solaris" and any host of space films from the past fifty years and Gravity is a brilliant and worthy addition to those esteemed films. Accompanying the film is Steven Price's Oscar winning musical score that is a joy in and of itself. There are sporadic uses of singular tracks of music including the highly appropriate "Angels are hard to find" by Hank Williams but the remainder of the musical score is a joyous yet strangely haunting electronic hum at times that suits the long, continuous action captured by Director Cuaron in a wonderful and inspiring film of never losing hope, never acquiescing to what fate seemingly has in store and fighting for life against all the odds. It's 91 minutes well worthy of your time.

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