Tag: alfonso cuaron

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous.

From its pre-title sequence, where we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) playing with his wand under the bedsheets, it is established that “Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third entry in J.K. Rowling’s Potter series, will offer a wholly different vibe. Gone is the yellow, innocent glow that surrounds the halls of Hogwarts designed to embrace those from the outside looking in. Grayish blue hues are now in its place. Gone is the inviting, child-like score teasing mystery and wonderment. Instead, the music is foreboding, even capable of getting under the skin at times. Gone, too, are so-called extraneous sequences where we simply learn about minute curiosities within the world of witchcraft and wizardry, like strange artifacts and bizarre organisms that may not have anything to do with the big picture. Here, every scene must contribute to the overall narrative.

It cannot be denied it is a more mature work, certainly a step forward in terms of plot, visuals, and characterizations. In a way, it must exhibit noticeable growth—no matter how awkward—given that Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) have entered their teenage years. In the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón, with Chris Columbus now serving as producer (“Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Chamber of Secrets”), the film proves capable of delivering great entertainment. It balances fantasy, thrills, horror, and human drama so readily and so astutely that it is difficult to predict what is in store when a new day begins for the wizards-in-training.

I admired its courage for not running away from more adult-oriented themes. The death, no, the murder of Harry’s parents, James and Lily, are brought up more than thrice. In each instance, the screenplay by Steve Kloves is knowing enough to slow down and really hone in on how their deaths have impacted Harry as a young man. For example, even though he considers Hogwarts to be his home and he has terrific friends, those bright blue eyes communicate a deep loneliness. Harry longs to be loved and to be wanted by his kin, his blood. And so when Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, recalls his own memories of James and Lily, we feel Harry’s yearning to learn more from the man. Through Lupin’s recollections, Harry feels James and Lily are alive—even for just a moment. Take note of Cuarón’s affinity in employing close-ups, occasionally to the point where it feels uncomfortable. And it should. A case can be made that “Azkaban” is a coming-of-age tale.

Another highlight is the first time Hermione and Ron see their best friend cry during a trip to Hogsmeade, a village right next to Hogwarts. I loved that human emotions are not treated with the slightest whiff of embarrassment. When Harry is emotional, we feel Hermione and Ron wanting to understand even though deep down they know they won’t be able to completely given that they are not orphans. In fact, they come from good, loving families. They do not know how it is like to be treated like dirt, to be abused verbally and physically, by their flesh and blood. But they try anyway. And so that effort earns our respect—outside of books, outside of magic, outside of exercising loyalty. Ron and Hermione may not have defined subplots in this installment, but their actions are often highly informative and telling.

Threat comes in the form Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the first convict to have escaped the notorious Azkaban prison. It is said he is a murderer, and he wishes to find Harry then kill him. Funnily enough, this is the least compelling aspect of the story since there are far too many obvious red herrings. I suspect Cuarón feels this way, too. His solution is to flood the central plot with empathetic moments, as mentioned above, and terrific personalities. Notice that adults—Snape (Alan Rickman), Lupin, Black, Trelawney (Emma Thomoson), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon in place of Richard Harris due to his death)—are given more time to speak and interact. Their collective experience elevates the material, that it is not just a children’s story anymore.

There is not a trace of Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” yet it is first-rate entertainment. In fact, there is no villain here—at least, not really. The point, quite simply, is to discover the truth. As proven here, defogging secrets and lies can be more compelling than battling a man with two faces or squaring off against a giant basilisk. Despite the flood of fantastic elements, Cuarón’s fascination with humanity fluoresces, consistently on the foreground.

Gravity


Gravity (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During a space shuttle mission, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), an astronaut, receive an order from Mission Control: abort the task because space debris triggered by a Russian missile strike is on its way. The warning proves too late—significant portions of the space shuttle are suddenly in pieces and the pair come flying about in separate directions without a tether to keep them within distance of their assigned worked area. Since it is Dr. Stone’s first mission, she panics and we observe Newton’s first law of motion in terrifying action.

“Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is an exhausting experience in the best way possible. Clocking in at just about an hour and a half, the picture shows that one does not need a bulky running time to appear significant and fulfilling. It values our time, chooses to go straight to the point, and it gets the job done. The first scene sets the pace and the director is keenly aware of this. As a result, the first ten minutes is highly accomplished, allowing us to marvel at the sight of Earth and then thrusting us into horror as the shuttle—without sound—breaks like glass. It is a sight to behold.

The story could have just been about two people in spacesuits as they attempt to survive in the blackness of space. I had my doubts. What is so interesting about someone floating about and breathing heavily? Instead, the screenplay by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón plays with the audience. The medical engineer and the cosmonaut are written smart. General plans are drawn but plenty of unexpected errors and chance happenings occur. So many turns unravel that we learn to expect the unexpected. That does not necessarily mean we are ready for them. I like it best when movies are consistently one step ahead, those that demand to look us in the eye and dare us to tangle with it.

It is masterful and elegant in conveying a sense of danger. The way the camera glides so calmly as characters attempt to grab a hold of something—anything—to avoid getting sucked into a vacuum with little to no hope of rescue jolts us into leaning closer at the screen while simultaneously flinching at the possible worst case scenario. The juxtaposition between images captured and execution are melded just right.

Half of the casting works. Choosing Bullock to play a medical engineer whose first time in space quickly escalates into an unimaginable tragedy is unexpected because I am used to seeing her in comedies and comedy-dramas. Here, she shows a more serious and somber dimension to her talent. My favorite scene involves Dr. Stone howling and barking like a dog. A lesser performer who does not completely understand the character might have refused to perform the scene. After all, it probably looks stupid on paper or it might look plain silly on screen. I loved that Bullock did it and committed to it completely. To me, it is the character’s defining moment—forget the sad revelation about her past, how much she values her solitude, and how no one is waiting for her at home. Give us an alternative to convey a character’s mindset—something fresh we can chew on.

The casting that works less effectively is Clooney. While understandable that his character is supposed to be a very charming guy, one who has experienced life and always has stories to tell, I was never lost in Kowalski or felt connected to him. Instead, I saw and was constantly reminded of Clooney the big movie star. Perhaps it might have worked better if, like Bullock to Dr. Stone, Kowalski is played by someone who is either playing against-type or someone we do not recognize.

“Gravity” is cited by some alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These are two completely different movies. Both are ambitious visually. Both are willing to engage. The former is a story about survival. It takes place within the Earth’s circumference. Though some may disagree, I think it is meant purely to entertain—and there is nothing wrong with that. The latter is a story about not only our relationship with technology but also the limitations of what we can comprehend as a species. It takes place en route to Jupiter and beyond. It inspires us to ruminate.

Despite their differences, the two, in some ways, are spiritually connected.

Y Tu Mamá También


Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) were left by their girlfriends to visit Europe for the summer. Despite their promises to not have sex with other people, the two saw it as a perfect opportunity to meet other women, experiment with drugs, drink until they pass out, and live easy before school started again. But when they met a beautiful woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a wedding, the boys made up a story about going to an undiscovered beach. To their surprise, Luisa accepted their invitation, unknowing that she wanted to run away from her cheating husband and temporarily forget about her doctor’s grim news. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mamá También” is a peerless example of a sex comedy that uses sex to explore its characters’ friendships, highlight the lessons they’ve learned throughout their journey, and what it meant to be young and reckless. As most American teen sex comedy have consistently proven, it’s far too easy to use sex as a weapon of perversion instead of staring at it in the eyes and realizing, with respect, that it’s a natural and beautiful part of our lives. To describe all of the elements I loved about the picture would be an injustice because much of its magic had to be experienced. But I do have to mention one scene that, in my opinion, defined the film so perfectly. Near the end of the trio’s road trip, Luisa was talking to her husband in a telephone booth. On a mirror next to the booth, we could see Tenoch and Julio playing foosball. The shot looked simple but, for me, it held a lot of meaning. The booth was lit but the reflection was dim which I surmised was a symbol for their respective knowledge about what it meant to love both emotionally and physically. Tenoch and Julio thought they knew how to pleasure a woman. But Luisa tried to teach them that sex, or meaningful sex, wasn’t about the strength of penetration or how long a man could last without ejaculation but the growing emotional connection and investment between the two parties. The conversation in the booth had a lot of sadness and maybe a bit anger but the reflection held temporary joy by means of friendly competition. I perceived it to be a summary of Luisa and the two friends’ respective mindsets during their travel. Although the two images were different, both were about characters entering a new phase in their lives. Cuarón had a fantastic ear for dialogue and sometimes I wondered if some of the conversations were unscripted. The naturalistic acting was also enhanced by an inspired environment that looked unedited or untouched, something that we would see if we visited a seaside village right this very moment. If more coming-of-age sex comedies were high caliber as “Y Tu Mamá También,” perhaps most people would be able to ask and talk about sex and sexuality without having to be embarrassed or feel judged.