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Friday Flicks: A Mexican Drama, a Britcom and a Psycho

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: December 2018
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Opening this weekend...

Roma poster

Roma—The title refers not to Italy's Eternal City but to a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City. It's the setting for much of writer-director Alfonso Cuaron's semi-autobiographical drama, set in 1970-71 and shot, with the director doubling as cinematographer, in exquisite black-and-white.

The cluttered but attractive, expansive house in which the story unfolds is home to a doctor and his family. But the focus isn't on this guy, who moves out near the beginning, nor on his devastated scientist wife, nor on any of their four slightly spoiled, squabbling but not unpleasant kids, one of whom presumably represents the young Cuaron. Our protagonist, rather, is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of the two live-in maids.

The quiet, angelic-looking Cleo, who speaks her indigenous language with the other Mixteco maid, finds herself pregnant by a cousin of the other maid's boyfriend. Cuaron traces the course of her pregnancy over that fateful year, against the backdrop of the country's land expropriation unrest under Echeverria. The poignant personal episodes are played out neo-realist style alongside epic-scale scenes—a wildfire, a strange outdoor martial arts class, and the Corpus Christi Massacre.

Cuaron made a splash in 2001 with Y Tu Mama Tabien and went on to international acclaim directing films like Children of Men, Gravity and the best of the Harry Potter movies (2004's Prisoner of Azkaban). Roma, a return both to his native country and to his childhood, is one of the best movies of the year. Cuaron's stately, slowly panning or tracking camera tempers the nostalgia with a reserved tone, so that the film's emotional high points may sneak up and clobber you.

It's also hard to underestimate how much of the movie's success came from Cuaron's uncommon luck in his leading lady. A student teacher and novice to acting, Aparicio manages to give Cleo a stoic dignity without robbing her of emotion, heartbreak, even playfulness. Her radiance is such that some of Cuaron's imagery—like the movie's signature shot, toward the end, of the family huddled on a beach, with Cleo at the center—have almost the look of classic religious art; an ecstatic spiritual beauty.

Opening at Harkins Camelview.

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Swimming With Men—Steve Coogan's frequent foil Rob Brydon stars in this Britcom, which tries, roughly, to do for synchronized swimming what The Full Monty did for stripping; that is, to milk it for thehilarity of seeing pasty paunchy middle-aged British guys try to do it.

Brydon plays a numb-with-boredom corporate accountant who melts down when his wife (Jane Horrocks) is elected to public office. Irrationally certain that she's having an affair, he storms out, takes a room at a hotel, and catches the attention of the misfit synchronized swimming team at the local rec center where he swims for exercise. His mathematical mind helps the guys to solve a technical problem in one of their routines, and in response they dragoon him onto the team. The story leads them to compete in a climactic tournament in Milan.

The idea that men, especially ungainly, Average-Joe men, participating in that curious sport is inherently funny goes back at least as far that Saturday Night Live sketch with Martin Short and Harry Shearer in 1984. It's good for a few laughs here, too. Aschlin Ditta's script was inspired by a Swedish men's team supposedly founded in response to their feelings that life was meaningless. Ditta and journeyman director Oliver Parker keep their existential side a bit more manageable—except for the young guy, who's constantly in trouble with the law, these fellows are just having one sort of mid-life crisis or other. The least saggy of them, a divorced dad played Rupert Graves, yearns for the beguiling young coach (Charlotte Riley).

The film is agreeable enough, with good performances and some truly witty one-liners, but the plot points are predictable, and in the end it pushes too hard for a feel-good finale that doesn't quite add up. It also lacks the undercurrent of economic desperation that gave The Full Monty a hint of dramatic weight. Swimming With Men stays afloat, but at best it's bronze-medal material.

Opening at Harkins Shea.

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"Psycho Day"—For Phoenix-area film buffs, December 11 is an oddball local holiday. It is, you see, the date that appears over the downtown Phoenix skyline at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho; Christmas decorations can be seen on the streets in the movie's early scenes. So FilmBar, situated not far from the area seen in that opening shot, hosts a showing of the film at 7 p.m.,with an introductory lecture by BS Movie Podcast host Shelly Grant.

If you've never seen it, you probably should go; even allowing that it's one of my favorite movies, I don't think I'm overstating that it's an essential, both for film geeks and even, maybe, for nostalgic Valley residents.

Go to thefilmbarphnx.com for details.