The Work of Alfonso Cuarón


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)


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)


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)


“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)


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)


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)


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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One thought on “The Work of Alfonso Cuarón

  1. Totally agree that his HP was the best of the series. I feel he was one of the few directors that understood what the book was about, rather than just translated its plot to the big screen. The way he expanded on the themes and motifs in the book – as well as adding his own – really brought more to the story than I think was ever there on the page (ironically, it was my least favorite book, and I remember nothing but antics at home and boring Quidditch matches). And he got the best performances out of the cast to date. Too bad the other films were such slavish adaptations.


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