The Work of Alfonso Cuarón

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Over the past two decades, Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón has made his way into Hollywood with a varied and surprisingly diverse filmography. He’s directed two kids movies, one lighthearted (1995’s “A Little Princess”) and one tonally darker (2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”); a modern adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel (1998’s “Great Expectations”); a dystopian action thriller (2006’s “Children of Men”); a Mexican road movie (2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También); and a space epic (2013’s “Gravity”). Known for utilizing long, continuous takes, wide angle shots, and negative space, Cuarón’s visual techniques are arguably his greatest quality, thanks mostly to his visionary touch and help from frequent collaborator, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Thematically, Cuarón’s films dwell on existentialism, friendship, race, class, survival, and love. Usually, the protagonists in Cuarón’s movies undergo a drastic personal change — and in some cases, a rebirth — over the course of the film, usually by going through an arduous and life-altering journey, a disruption in their daily lifestyle, or other difficult obstacles. Having only directed six films, excluding his 1991 Mexican debut “Sólo con Tu Pareja,” Cuarón is a masterful, distinctive storyteller and his films are essential to watch for film buffs and moviegoers everywhere.

“A Little Princess” (1995)

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Though I appreciated the technical and visual aspects of “A Little Princess,” I wasn’t necessarily thrilled when watching the film, especially considering its target audience is predominantly young children. “A Little Princess” definitely captures the magical realism that it seeks, imbuing a starry-eyed innocence and wonder within the script, characters, and dreamy setting. However, I felt the story itself felt familiar and somewhat flat and though the ending may have been satisfying, the payoff wasn’t quite as compelling as it should have been. Narrated and seen from the perspective of Sarah Crewe (Liesel Matthews), the privileged daughter of a wealthy aristocrat British soldier, “A Little Princess” is set in WWI-era New York, where Sarah is relocated after her father leaves abruptly to fight in the war. She is sent to an all-girl boarding school in the city, where she faces the villainous headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron). Under Miss Minchin’s authoritarian rule, Sarah sees the kind of strictness employed within the school, each girl having to follow all of Miss Minchin’s instructions (no talking at the dinner table, doing arithmetic correctly). You know, the sort of stuff that any generic villain in a kids movie would do, right? At first, Sarah continues to live her affluent lifestyle, living in a beautiful suite and being treated with more respect than the other girls. Nevertheless, Sarah cultivates a much-needed passion within the school structure, providing fascinating tales during reading time and subsequently spark the repressed interest of the girls. Unfortunately, things change for the worse when Sarah’s father was unexpectedly (and allegedly) killed in combat. Seeing Sarah now as a threat, Miss Minchin orders Sarah to become a servant, forcing her to work nonstop and share the shabby attic with the other young scullery maid Becky (Vanessa Lee Carter). This doesn’t stop Sarah from telling her magical stories and folklore, only making her closer with Becky and the rest of her schoolmates. Other than the ravishing cinematography, set/production design, and costuming, “A Little Princess” is sensible in its portrayal of Sarah and the rest of the child protagonists. There were even some genuinely funny moments! But for some reason, I didn’t find “A Little Princess” that compelling of a film. Matthews had really the only well-developed performance in the entire film, as the rest of the cast struggles under the weight of using mawkishness and sentimentality in their performances. Even Eleanor Bron made Miss Minchin into another stereotypical, one-dimensional villain, though there is one subtle scene that shows her having a redeemable quality. Perhaps the film may have aged poorly or I’m just a little too old and not as nostalgic about childhood. “A Little Princess” may not have been an amazing watch, but it’s still an admirable first effort from Cuarón.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“Great Expectations” (1998)

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I actually really enjoyed watching Cuarón’s “Great Expectations,” an updated, revisionist adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, co-written by Cuarón, David Mamet, and Mitch Glazer. However, there were certain crucial elements in the film that held it back from becoming a breathtaking cinematic achievement. For one thing, the cast is stellar and even almost perfect; it includes Ethan Hawke, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro, Chris Cooper, Hank Azaria…and Gwyneth Paltrow, who was completely miscast in my opinion (or simply did not do a good job of acting in this particular role). She certainly did not have enough romantic chemistry with Hawke, as the two played the central couple/love interests. Another thing is that the film starts out fantastically, but fluctuates tonally towards the end. Taking place from 1970s Florida to 1990s New York, “Great Expectations” focuses on the journey of the story’s hero Finn (Hawke), a skilled artist who as a child held ambitious aspirations but quickly became infatuated with the young granddaughter of an aging wealthy woman, Miss Dinsmoor (Bancroft). Every Saturday for 10+ years, Finn visits Miss Dinsmoor and her granddaughter Estella (Paltrow) and becomes more and more possessed by Estella’s enigmatic allure. Finn tries to pursue Estella romantically, but even after a brief sexual encounter, Estella rejects him repeatedly, leading Finn to move on from his past and begin planning on a life for himself. As a young adult, Finn has given up on being an artist and instead becomes a fisherman like his uncle Joe (Cooper). But Finn’s adeptness for painting and drawing comes back to him when he is asked to create an art gallery in New York City with the promises of money, success, and fame. He reluctantly agrees and thrust back into his passion for not only art, but Estella, who happens to be in Manhattan at the same time. The two reconvene, but their chances of reconnecting romantically has dissolved, especially since Estella is married to a rich, ordinary businessman (Azaria). Or so it may seem. Despite my wanting to like and even root for Finn and Estella, I couldn’t resist disliking Hawke and Paltrow as a romantic couple, as they had little to zero chemistry. Though Hawke is an impressive lead, Paltrow’s stilted line delivery and her character’s unlikable personality made it hard to enjoy some parts of “Great Expectations.”In addition to that, the subplot between Finn and mobster Arthur Lustig (De Niro) is one of the film’s weakest qualities. It attempts to showcase how Finn has grown as a character, having saved (and incidentally unsaved) Arthur from escaping prison. Despite that subplot being somewhat intriguing, it unsuccessfully loosens the tight thread of the story, causing “Great Expectations” to be uneven. But what saves most of the movie are the visuals and the editing in particular. Green plays a huge role in the color scheme of “Great Expectations,” both as an attractive mood setter and symbol of the film’s recurring themes of money, class, privilege, growth, and possibly nauseous heartache. The color can found in almost every shot and it helps indicate Finn’s character as a man struggling with making something out of his life, while trying to share his life with someone whom he loves (or at least believes he loves). As Finn said in voiceover during one of the first sequences, “Great Expectations” is not meant to an actual retelling of these events, but how Finn remembers those events from his perspective. That kind of sentiment grounds “Great Expectations” to a certain extent and gives the depth and emotional honesty it needs, even though there are a few missteps along the way.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“Y Tu Mamá También” (2001)

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“Y Tu Mamá También” is the kind of great film that is so unapologetically honest, brutally explicit, and completely engaging that you can’t take your eyes off it for a second. Sure, there are a few long, drawn-out sequences that are occasionally boring. But the majority of “Y Tu Mamá También,” Cuarón’s third and arguably best film, is built on well-crafted characters, frank sexuality, well-written dialogue (both scripted and improvised), and some social commentary to boot. Set in Cuarón’s native Mexico, the film is part coming-of-age story, part tantalizing erotic drama, part road trip movie. It features career-making performances from real-life best friends Golden Globe winner Gael Garcia Banal and Diego Luna, who portray the two hormonal teenage protagonists Julio and Tenoch. Both characters come from different socioeconomic backgrounds: Julio is from a middle-class, leftist family, while Tenoch is the son of a high-ranking political official in Mexico. Yet the two still maintain a friendship through their partying, drug and alcohol use, and general horniness. The film even opens on two graphic sex scenes, both showing the two boys each with their respective girlfriends, who are set to leave and travel to Italy for vacation. Though Julio and Tenoch promise their girlfriends to remain faithful after they leave, their horniness gets the better of them and they meet and ultimately attract the attention of an older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the wife of Tenoch’s cousin Jano. In order to get closer to Luisa, Julio and Tenoch invite her to go on a drive to see a beach called Heaven’s Mouth. Initially, Luisa is reluctant, but after a series of unfortunate events, including Jano’s drunken admittance to infidelity, she decides to join the two boys for a little vacation. Little does she know that Julio and Tenoch have no clue where the actual beach is, but they nevertheless push on and the three learn a whole bunch about one another, both through stories of fun memories and brewing sexual and emotional tension. Some may view the love triangle in “Y Tu Mamá También” as inappropriate and the execution as pornographic, but it does serve a largely artistic purpose. Luisa ultimately has sex with both Julio and Tenoch and the two boys, initially cocky about their sexual suaveness, are clumsy and somewhat too excited during sex. In addition to the film’s extremely revealing commentary on human sexuality, “Y Tu Mamá También” also showcases the political climate in Mexico and the disparity between the lower and upper classes, which are somewhat personified through Julio and Tenoch’s relationship. As their friendship begin to unravel into something much more unsettling, we understand that Julio and Tenoch are more than just a couple of horny teenagers with uncontrollable libidos. Cuarón’s daring direction may be a little risky, but he pulls it off completely and tackles a collection of plots, ideas, and characters that most directors probably wouldn’t be able to grapple with well. It also helps that the entire film is in Spanish, making it easier for Cuarón and the actors to express their thoughts about how to depict Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s journey together and the aftermath of what became an unforgettable and life-changing summer. “Y Tu Mamá También” may not be the most relatable film you’ll see, but it’s undoubtedly one that will stick with you until the very last scene, both for the story and the imagery.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004)

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It’s a strange feeling watching a Harry Potter movie for the first time in a long time. I almost had forgotten how fantastic of a franchise the Harry Potter series was, particularly due to the maturity of stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Their growth as people and as characters was especially present in the third Harry Potter film, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” the only one of which Cuarón has directed (Chris Columbus directed the first two, Mike Newell directed the fourth, and David Yates directed the fifth until the last one). Yet even in the Harry Potter series, Cuarón manages to stand out, as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has been considered by many fans and critics to be the best film of the franchise, despite it being the lowest-grossing of the eight films. While the first two HP movies were innocent (more the first one), “The Prisoner of Azkaban” represents a change of pace and tone for the series, the calm before the storm, if you will. Cuarón infuses his auteur techniques perfectly into the HP film, while still maintaining the appeal for HP fans. As an angsty 13-year-old, Harry’s journey back to Hogwarts is thwarted by the escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a Voldemort supporter and ex-best friend of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s parents. “HP3” also marks the introduction to the Dementors, which are honestly one of the most terrifying creatures in cinema that could easily have their own horror movie. Even being in CGI, the Dementors pose as Harry’s biggest fear at the moment, besides Voldemort, and asks his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), how to repel them. While he learns to grapple with fighting Dementors, Harry also searches for more clues about the mysterious Sirius Black and discovers that he is Harry’s godfather. Harry, Hermoine, and Ron go on a quest to find the truth about Black in the final climatic and trippy sequence of the film, with Harry learning more about myself than he expected. His relationship with Sirius, which changes quickly from hostile to familial, is touching and even poignant, with Oldman nailing Sirius Black’s character from the characterization down to the physical look. It’s funny how I’d also forgotten how many iconic scenes from the series occurred in “Prisoner of Azkaban.” A few examples include: the unexpectedly hilarious beginning sequence involving Harry casting a spell on his insulting Aunt Marge and blowing her up into a balloon; Hermoine calling Malfoy a “foul, loathsome, evil little cockroaches” and subsequently sucker punching him in the face; Harry screaming out “EXPECTO PATRONUM!,” one of the most epic line deliveries/moments in cinematic history. This was also Michael Gambon’s first film as Dumbledore, replacing Richard Harris, who had passed away before HP3 filming began, and has does an admirable job in portraying the Hogwarts headmaster ever since. Cuarón does the best he can do under such a heavy Hollywood production and nails it in almost every department, specifically with the brilliant visuals and seemingly impossible continuous long takes. There’s nothing much I can say, considering that “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has received enough acclaim and recognition to be considered watchable from an audience/HP fan perspective and thought-provoking from a filmmaking perspective. The plotting is a bit clunky here and there, but it’s important to note that Cuarón’s contribution to the film has made it all the better.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Children of Men” (2006)

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It’s movies like “Children of Men” that make you wonder: Could this actually happen? When I say “this,” I’m also referring to the film’s futuristic setting, where society is on the brink of collapse and almost every government in the world has become eradicated. Additionally, children are no longer part of the population due to infertility caused by unknown sources. Given the world’s current turbulent political and social state, it is likely for something as maddening as infertility to occur. Nevertheless, as stark and bleak as “Children of Men” may be, it remains a cautionary tale for how our world can break down into utter madness unless we find a way to hold onto hope. Other than a few minor flaws (mostly being the wooden acting from Julianne Moore and Clare-Hope Ashitey), “Children of Men” is a powerful, entertaining, breathtaking, and multi-layered thriller strengthened by harrowing social commentary on societal issues, heartstopping action, and some of the best cinematography in modern cinema. Set in 2027 London, which in that timeline contains the only remaining working government, “Children of Men” follows passionate rebel-turned-depressed government bureaucrat Theo Faron (an amazing Clive Owen), who gets kidnapped by a secret militia led by his ex-wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore). She needs his help in getting a young, pregnant girl named Kee (Ashitey) to the Human Project, a rumored safe haven designed to cure infertility. Along their perilous journey, Theo gets help and advice from marijuana consumer Jasper Palmer (a fantastic Michael Caine). But even then, Theo can’t trust many people he comes in contact with, including temperamental rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Through extremely intense and violent situations, Theo makes sure that Kee has her baby and that both are safely taken to the Human Project. What’s so refreshing about “Children of Men” is that it rejects all action movie tropes and conventions. The film subtly sneaks in intellectual and intelligent themes into its plot and displays those themes through uninterrupted action sequences that are almost 8+ minutes long and are too unbelievable and jaw-dropping to comprehend. Though the cause of infertility is never discussed, “Children of Men” infers that the severe issues facing the world — environmental disasters, political corruption, flu epidemics, social unrest — has lead to such insane chaos and anarchism that it must certainly bring down the population size, both with people killing one another and perhaps a general depression/listlessness of women or romantic couples. Yet among the dark tones and themes of “Children of Men,” the biggest factor that drives the story and Theo’s determination is hope and faith, which reinforces the idea that the film also acts as a religious allegory, specifically in reference to the Nativity story: Theo represents Joseph, Kee as Mary, and her baby as Jesus. The one scene in particular where Kee walks with Theo and her baby through a crowd of awed, silent soldiers and rebels symbolizes a moment of divinity and salvation, that that baby holds the key to unlocking the dry spell that has haunted humanity for however long. Cuarón again does a fine job at making “Children of Men” into something much deeper than an action flick, but that can resonate with our society even today when we are experiencing some of the darkest times in recent memory.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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The very last shot! (spoiler alert)

“Gravity” (2013)

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In my original 2013 review of “Gravity,” I mention that the film “proves to be a fantastic addition to the sci-fi thriller genre with mesmerizing visuals, intimate cinematography, and intriguing storytelling.” 3 years later, I still believe in that statement, but now have a greater understanding of what the film represents as a visual and artistic achievement in cinema. Co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonas, “Gravity” still manages to marvel, even it doesn’t quite look as great on a small computer screen than on, let’s say, an IMAX screen. There are a few flaws within “Gravity” that I noticed a second time around, particularly with Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, who is on her first ever space mission and has only trained at a space program for 6 months. Why would they put an inexperienced astronaut in space? I don’t know. But clearly, that wasn’t the point of “Gravity” and logistical stuff like that usually doesn’t find its way into the plots of sci-fi films. But small flaws and inaccuracies aside, “Gravity” delivers on every other level: Emmanuel Lubezki’s visually stunning cinematography (the first shot was 12 minutes long!), Sandra Bullock’s acting, Steve Price’s haunting score, and Cuarón’s writing. Alongside Ryan Stone is space veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is on his final mission and is helping assist Ryan into getting acclimated in the scarily peaceful environment of space. But when a field of debris hits their station, Ryan enters a long and frightening journey of survival and makes as many attempts as possible to get back to Earth safely. Other than the visuals and other compelling aesthetic elements, what distinguishes “Gravity” from other space films is its psychological and spiritual themes, the ideas of rebirth and renewal after facing adversity. It parallels to Cuarón’s previous film, “Children of Men,” but focuses on how space itself can be a lonely and isolating place, especially for someone like Ryan who is both lost and suffering from loss (this being of her young daughter). As she works her way through dodging debris, climbing into airlocks, and furiously untangling herself, Ryan realizes that the only person she can and needs to save is herself, since Matt sacrifices his life for her well-being a little before the halfway point of the movie. For claustrophobes and aspiring astronauts who haven’t seen “Gravity,” you’re in for a bumpy and unsettling ride. But for everyone else, “Gravity” remains a remarkable example for modern filmmaking and another great entry into the sci-fi space genre (next to “Interstellar” and “The Martian”).

Read my original review here.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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The Work of Sofia Coppola

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Writer-director Sofia Coppola has come a long way since her infamous acting role in her father’s 1990 film “The Godfather Part III.” As one of Hollywood’s brightest and coolest filmmakers, Coppola has a knack for visual storytelling. Each of her films is aesthetically compelling, both in their beautiful cinematography and classic soundtracks. Since most of her films have little to no dialogue, the music and visuals carry the weight of Coppola’s narratives, as well as the acting and editing. The themes of Coppola’s films involve alienation, loneliness, detachment, and dissatisfaction, which are usually embodied in her protagonists. Coppola collaborates often with her father (who produced three of her movies), her husband and Phoenix lead singer Thomas Mars (who provided background vocals on a song from “The Virgin Suicides,” made a cameo with his band in “Marie Antoinette,” and composed the score of “Somewhere”), producer Ross Katz, and actress Kirsten Dunst (who appears in three of her films). Though not all of her films are acclaimed, Coppola is undoubtedly one of the most talented film directors and screenwriters working today.

“The Virgin Suicides” (2000)

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After watching “The Virgin Suicides” for a second time, I realized how great the film truly is. Some may become frustrated by the film’s ambiguity and disturbing content — it is called “The Virgin Suicides” after all. But regardless of how it may turn people off, “The Virgin Suicides” is a mesmerizing, eerie, and absorbing drama and a fantastic start for Coppola (arguably her best work). Based on the 1993 novel by James Eugenides, the film features a dreamlike score from rock group Air, picturesque composition, and impressive acting from James Woods, Kathleen Turner, and a young Kirsten Dunst. Set in 1970s Michigan, “The Virgin Suicides” follows the mysterious, blonde-haired adolescent Lisbon sisters, who become the object of desire for a group of hormonal teenage boys from across the street. The important thing to note about “The Virgin Suicides” is not that the story is about who the girls were, but how the boys thought about the girls. The narrative being told here parallels to the film’s overarching theme of voyeurism and loss of innocence, which is referenced throughout the film via the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), who speaks on behalf the male group and recounts the time that changed their lives. The film literally begins with the aftermath of 13-year-old Cecilia’s (Hanna R. Hall) suicide attempt. As the youngest of the five Lisbon sisters, Cecilia is the loneliest and most self-conscious, but also the least clueless; she understands and observes her surroundings with a quiet, subtle sorrow. The Lisbon sisters live under the strict supervision of their authoritarian Catholic parents (Woods and Turner). 14-year-old Lux (Dunst) is the most rebellious and sexually curious of her siblings, toying with the affection of desperate heartthrob Trip Fontane (Josh Hartnett). However, as the Lisbon girls attempt to branch out from their hawk-eyed parents, especially after Cecilia’s second fatal suicide attempt, they ultimately become confined to their house. The now four sisters go with Trip and the group of boys out to homecoming, but Lux gets herself and her sisters in trouble after staying out late from a steamy midnight hookup with Trip on the high school football field. Now, the Lisbon girls have become an enigma, both for the group of boys and the audience, as they are not allowed to be let out of the house for a single moment. While the boys try to figure out what’s happening, the story reflects on the passage of time, both in the present and future. The future parts are primarily just an adult Trip, fondly reminiscing his love for Lux, whom he left quickly after their night out together. While time-lapse sequences are interspersed, we see that Lux is forced to burn all her rock records, causing her to rebel even more and have sex with strangers on her rooftop. Gradually, the Lisbon sisters’ seclusion from the world becomes even more of a mystery. The best scene in the entire film comes when the boys attempt to speak with the sisters by calling them and playing romantic songs on vinyl as a way of subliminal communication (in case their parents were listening). It’s a soft, heartfelt, and nostalgic scene, one of the lighter moments of an otherwise tragic film. Eventually, the boys plan an escape with the Lisbon sisters, which is really only seen in a dream sequence, as the group drives down an empty highway, free of restrictions like school and family. Unfortunately, that’s not how things end up and, well, you can guess what happens next. The Lisbon girls form a suicide pact and one by one, they no longer are just objects of affection. As the film’s conclusion indicates, “The Virgin Suicides” ruminates on how the boys and the rest of the neighborhood dealt with the aftermath of the Lisbon deaths. The narrator notes that while everyone else seemed to forget about the Lisbon family, the boys never forget who they were. That kind of humanism is truly what grounds “The Virgin Suicides” and makes it much more than an ordinary film. Coppola understands the pains of growing up as a young girl and shows that process with a sensitive and perceptive eye.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Lost in Translation” (2003)

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Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” is considered by many to be her best and most accomplished film, but I slightly disagree. It’s definitely an admirable piece of work and certainly has many high points, yet I was sort of disappointed with “Lost in Translation,” especially since it started out great and continued to do well until its somewhat trite ending. Coppola’s recurring themes of loneliness and alienation are definitely present here, as the story follows two Americans, aging actor Bob Harris (a remarkably restrained Bill Murray) and doe-eyed Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), staying in Tokyo. Bob is in Japan to film advertisements for a whiskey he’s promoting, having to suffer through the unintelligible words of his Japanese director and other locals. It doesn’t help that his estranged wife and children don’t want anything to do with him, adding onto his already thick pile of detachment from others. Married to a douchey photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), Charlotte is aimless and so intensely bored by everything that she ends up having a premature existential crisis. Together, Charlotte and Bob make the perfect match, as the two meet in their hotel and decide to walk through the streets of Tokyo, going to strange parties, strip clubs, and karaoke bars. Their friendship feels genuine and heartfelt, especially since Murray and Johansson have surprising platonic chemistry. They are able to infuse those internalized emotions of dread and apathy into those characters without seeming too boring or contrived. At the same time, Bob and Charlotte’s shared dissatisfaction with life is interesting to see, considering that they are both experiencing the same level of distress at different times in their lives. Even when they’re not discussing their hopes, dreams, and problems, Bob and Charlotte bond over the equally fascinating and alien world of Tokyo. In addition to the fantastic lead performances, “Lost in Translation” also benefits from another woozy soundtrack/score, breathtaking cinematography, and a general sense of weightlessness. Even the symbolic lighting is inventive, as Coppola utilizes chiaroscuro (strong light and dark contrasts) to illuminate the conflicting themes of happiness and despondency (perhaps Coppola learned a thing or two from her dad?). However, even with all these positive aspects in mind, my main problem with “Lost in Translation” was mostly with how Bob and Charlotte’s relationship culminated into a kiss in the end. I was praying that the two characters wouldn’t become romantically involved, not because they were already married to other people, but because of their notable age difference (keep in mind, Johansson was 19 when this was being filmed). It once again perpetuated the creepy old man/younger woman trope found in several romantic dramedies (Woody Allen, ring a bell?). Other than that slightly major flaw, “Lost in Translation” was a stirring and visually enthralling experience, a story of two lost souls making a connection in a place that feels somewhat disconnected.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Marie Antoinette” (2006)

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It makes sense why “Marie Antoinette” was considered divisive at the time of its release. For one thing, many people thought it wasn’t a great follow-up to the universally acclaimed “Lost in Translation,” that its maximalist approach was beautiful to watch but unnerving, that it was historically inaccurate, and that it felt empty beneath its gaudy exterior. And while most of that is true, “Marie Antoinette” is still an entertaining and appealing drama that continues to showcase Coppola’s visual, aural, and narrative talents. What “Marie Antoinette” lacks in historical accuracies, it makes up for with another powerful lead performance from Kirsten Dunst as the titular protagonist, lavish cinematography, impressive direction, and an unexpectedly talented cast (Molly Shannon! Rose Byrne! Jamie Dornan! Rip Torn! Danny Huston! Jason Schwartzman!). The film also benefits from an awesome contemporary soundtrack, which may turn some off due to its anachronistic nature. But admit it: how cool is it to hear The Strokes’ “What Ever Happened,” Bow Wow Wow’s “Aphrodisiac,” Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th,” and New Order’s “Ceremony” in a movie set in the late 1700s? The modern soundtrack also bodes well with the character of Marie Antoinette, who was all about living in the present. As the story goes, Marie Antoinette was the infamous Queen of Versailles, known as the first party-girl queen who was unintentionally complicit in the rise of the French Revolution, leading to her death via beheading. But the film primarily focuses on Marie’s journey from an innocent, puppy-loving Austrian heiress to a full-fledged, materialistic aristocrat. Coppola makes the audience sympathize with Marie, showcasing the literal and figurative stripping of her innocence, as she is coerced to wed King Louis XVI of France (Schwartzman) in order to solidify the French-Austrian Alliance. Even while living in luxury, Marie experiences boredom with her rather routine lifestyle: waking up every morning to a crowd of servants, eating gargantuan amounts of foods, attempting and failing at getting her husband to help her conceive a child. Eventually, Marie does bear children, one of whom dies a few days after childbirth. While she is shown to indulge in gluttonous acts like drinking, dining, wearing colorful outfits, and donning awkwardly tall wigs, it’s moments such as when her child dies that truly capture Marie’s despair and utter loneliness. She never wanted this life of royalty, yet it had been given to her and shoved down her throat. That being said, there are some not-so-great parts to the film, particularly its lengthiness (123 minutes, ugh) and occasionally boring sequences. There are a lot of questions one may ask after watching “Marie Antoinette”: Why was Kirsten Dunst speaking in an American accent and not an Austrian/English accent? Why didn’t they show Marie’s beheading in the end? To answer the first question: I’m sure there were certain dramatic liberties Coppola needed to take in order for the film to work and I doubt Dunst would be able to pull of a believable English/Austrian accent. To answer the second question: we don’t see an actual beheading, but one of the last scenes involves Marie going out onto her balcony and resting her head and arms on the balcony’s edge as a group of angry French protestors watch in silence. It essentially resembles a beheading, a symbol of Marie’s defeat as a queen who could not heed to the cries of the people because she couldn’t even heed to her own needs.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Somewhere” (2010)

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In contrast to the maximalism of “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola’s follow-up film, “Somewhere” featured a more minimalist approach. And despite being beautifully filmed and relatively well-acted, “Somewhere” was frustratingly slow-paced, which for some can make the film and for others break the film. It definitely treads familiar ground from Coppola’s previous films — specifically “Lost in Translation” — in its portrayal of an empty male celebrity protagonist finds solace in a younger woman. In the case of “Somewhere,” that male celeb is handsome womanizer Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and the younger woman is his cute, precocious 11-year-old daughter Cleo (a stunning Elle Fanning). Before we even meet Cleo, we get a sense of who Johnny is, based on the painstaking single take opening shot of him driving his black Ferrari around in circles on an empty road. He’s trying to get a thrill out of doing something that should be exciting, but as he stops and gets out of the car, Johnny doesn’t seem too thrilled. In later scenes, Johnny lives a wealthy lifestyle at the famous Chateau Marmont, which acts the film’s symbolic setting for both paradisal living and celebrity ennui. Johnny goes to parties and hooks up with the hottest girl there or watches two pole dancers perform in his bedroom. Though his life sounds like a flurry of fun, it’s really just noise for Johnny, whose joylessness can be seen through his passivity, monotone voice, drinking and smoking, and emotionless face. Coppola has mentioned that Johnny’s character isn’t having an existential crisis, but simply has anhedonia, which means the inability to feel pleasure. That is until he finds some meaning when he’s unexpectedly reunited with Cleo, who stays with him after her mother and his ex-wife goes missing for unknown reasons, possibly from suffering from a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, Cleo and Johnny bond as daughter and father to make up for lost time and their relationship, like in “Lost in Translation,” is genuinely sweet. He watches her ice skating lessons, lets her cook dinner for him, and takes her to Italy for promoting his movie and treats her to a mini vacation. Yet, some of Johnny’s insecurities get the best of him when he sleeps with an Italian model and doesn’t have the guts to explain to Cleo who the woman is at breakfast the next morning. Seeing Cleo’s contempt for his actions, Johnny considering refocusing his lifestyle choices and eventually stops sleeping with random women, even closing the door on a prostitute in his bed and getting burgers with Cleo instead. While the film sounds remarkable, which some parts of it are, I was impatient watching “Somewhere.” There’s no real wow or a-ha moment, but the closest it gets to that occurs late in the film, when an emotional Johnny calls up his ex-wife and tells her that he’s nothing. It’s a quietly powerful and devastating scene, reverberating towards the end when he tells Cleo that he regrets not being around her before and later driving off into the distance, only to get out of the car with the ignition on, not looking back. “Somewhere” is certainly enigmatic and I may revisit it again, but I wouldn’t say this is an essential Sofia Coppola film.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“The Bling Ring” (2013)

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Unfortunately, “The Bling Ring” is Coppola’s weakest film so far, even with captivating cinematography, a promising story, and a hilariously devilish performance from Emma Watson. It also has an aptly pop and hip-hop heavy soundtrack that includes artists Sleigh Bells, 2 Chainz, M.I.A., Rick Ross, Phoenix, and Frank Ocean. Yet not even that can compensate for the film’s extremely unlikable characters, grating performances from Katie Chang and Taissa Farmiga, and an overall uneven tone. It attempts to be a social commentary about fame, obsession, and greed in the post-modern era, which it honestly almost was. Coppola certainly was the right person to write and direct it, but somehow it fell flat. Based on true events, “The Bling Ring” follows a group of unruly, vapid, fame-obsessed high schoolers who break into the homes of Hollywood movie stars and steal their belongings for themselves and to sell to others. The leader and starter of the group, Marc Hall (Israel Broussard), is a quiet, lonely teen, the most likable and sympathetic character of the whole film. He starts out as the new kid at a San Fernando Valley high school, where, on the first day, he meets Rebecca Ahn (Chang), who introduces him to the world of L.A. artifice and vacuity. They start off stealing wallets, then cars, and then jewelry from the home of Paris Hilton. Knowing that Rebecca is his only friend, Marc struggles with his morality in order to have a successful social life. At a club one night, Rebecca introduces Marc to her girl friends: the overtly flashy Nicki (Watson), her adopted sister Sam (Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). Together, they begin breaking and entering Hollywood houses of celebrities, trying on and taking clothes, makeup, and wads of cash. As most crime dramedies go, these kids will eventually be caught and, since this is based on a true story, they are in fact indicted for their actions. “The Bling Ring” never really glorifies the lifestyle of the rich and famous, since these kids essentially absorb it up like empty, overprivileged sponges. With the exception of Marc, who takes full responsibility and apologizes, the rest of them certainly don’t learn from their actions, especially not Nicki. She victimizes herself to her advantage in order to gain exposure from the paparazzi and media, which ultimately works in her favor in the film’s haunting final scene. Yet “The Bling Ring” doesn’t feel as compelling as it should. It’s not necessarily a bad film, but it’s not a great one either.

Grade: B-

Favorite shots:

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