‘Roma’: a study of compassion

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Roma” (2018) observes the smallest, and largest acts of compassion and care that can hold a family together, no matter the bleak circumstances that may confront it.

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s crisp black-and-white imagery captures the beauty of the most seemingly mundane activities; activities that mean the world to a family, whether or not they choose to acknowledge it. 

The film centers around a family in Mexico City in the 1970s — and their maid, Cleo, in particular — as it endures both internal and external hardships. 

Much of “Roma” is a fly-on-the-wall observation of these simple activities. Washing a dish, cooking an egg, watching the television with loved ones at your side, singing with a child before they fall into slumber, the sound of lights clicking off at night — Cuarón makes these small moments a fixture of his film, incorporating some of the most immersive sound design of anything released this year. 

The cinematography — impressively handled by Cuarón — elegantly captures the busy streets of Mexico City, the rolling hills of the countryside, the sun-soaked beach and the busy and the crowded home kitchen as the family prepares for the day.

Though much of the film is a record of these small, beautiful moments, sad realities begin to burrow their way in, as Cleo — the linchpin holding this family together — begins to endure some changes, as does the family itself. Much of what unfolds is hard to watch, though the film never looses its appreciation for the little things. 

Yalitza Aparicio delivers one of the most stunning performances of the year as Cleo. It is quiet and understated, with windows of joy and moments of devastating sadness throughout. Her emotions are rarely displayed on the outside, but much of it in conveyed in the eyes. And when it is displayed on the outside, and is impossible to turn away from. 

“Roma” is currently available on Netflix.

Status: Strongly Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

“Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” Diversifies

Brandon, Will, Jared and Jackie discuss and pitch a sequel for Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” in Ep. 6 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses “Roma,” “Vox Lux,” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. It contains some expletive language.

‘The Favourite’ Diversifies

Brandon, Will, Jared and Jackie discuss and pitch a sequel for Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” in Ep. 5 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses “Minding the Gap,” “You Were Never Really Here” and “Sorry to Bother You,” as well as films that they are looking forward in the remainder of 2018. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. It contains some expletive language. 

‘Minding the Gap’: the doc of the year

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” is a standout in an already impressive year for documentaries, weaving together the stories of three young men passionate about skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois, over a period of several years.

Liu — both the filmmaker and an active player in the story — unfolds the different paths the three friends take, but focuses on the similarities that brought them together and magnetized them to the challenging, painful activity they love. 

“Minding the Gap” includes some of the best skateboarding sequences ever put on film. The camera glides smoothly with its characters down empty streets, through parking lots and up and down half-pipes, giving the viewer just a slice of the soaring ecstasy that keeps these skaters getting back up, no matter how intense the fall.

Though the skating sequences are executed brilliantly, the film is far more focused on the broken homes and shared traumatic experiences that led these men (children at the time) to seek solace at the skate park.

Liu fabulously bridges the gap (or, perhaps, minds it) between filmmaker and subject by establishing himself as both early on, even including some interactions where he clarifies from behind the camera that the person being filmed can address him as a person. 

Some of Liu’s moments as a participant are the most powerful. During a scene in which an important confrontation is taking place, Liu seems to almost hide behind the camera and lighting equipment, as if he wishes he could be a third-person observer instead of enduring the difficult emotional situation he finds himself in.

The film also manages to serve as a lens through which men view masculinity, responsibility and family as time goes by and the burdens in life become heavier. New paths are forged and then retreated, pivotal decisions are made for better and worse and independence is sought. It’s young adulthood in a nutshell, and for these characters who have not had the smoothest path in life, it’s tough (as it is for all of us).

One does not have to be a skater, or part of the skateboarding community, to enjoy this film. It is currently streaming on Hulu.

Status: Strongly Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ Diversifies

Brandon, Will and Jared discuss and pitch a sequel for Phil Johnston and Rich Moore’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” in Ep. 4 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses their AFI Film of the Week “Network,” the Coens’ latest “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the pros and cons of more significant films skipping a theatrical run, and the Netflix cancelation of “Daredevil” and other Marvel series. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. It contains some expletive language. 

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: spurs, saddles and death

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) offers six explorations of mortality in the format of separate vignettes, allowing directors Joel and Ethan Coen to explore many sides of the same die (no pun intended). 

During these stories set in the Old West (post-Civil War),  a very characteristic through-line of dark humor, dire circumstances and general melancholy is executed with the film-making mastery that the Coen name now implies.

Beginning with a story featuring the jovial, singing, mass-murdering cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the film carries on to an incompetent bankrobber (James Franco) and his struggles with the law, a bleak arrangement between a physically disabled performer (Harry Melling) and a traveling showman (Liam Neeson), a prospector (Tom Waits) and his search for a pocket of gold, a young woman  (Zoe Kazan) and man (Bill Heck) searching for a new life in Oregon, and a small group of citizens on a carriage ride to the unknown. 

The Coens navigate the sweeping landscapes of the Old West stunningly in their second collaboration with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. From capturing the vastness of the open prairie to the sun-glazed beauty of a small clearing in a forest, the stories unfold over the many terrains of the place and time. 

While nihilism seems to be at the heart of the film, much of it is executed with a twinkle in the eye. Like many of the past Coens’ works, the film sometimes chuckles at the meaninglessness of it all, while sometimes just letting it crawl up your skin and live with you.  But in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” instead of marinating over it while the credits roll, you’re on to the next short. 

And when the credits do roll, the distractions end, you’re left contemplating all six stories at once.

The film wades into romance territory — not a common Coen trait — with “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” In the short, a romance blossoms with a foundation of practicality and mutual benefit, doomed to the whirlwind of needless tragedy that life on earth so frequently throws at us (as do the Coens). 

The performances throughout are powerful. Tim Blake Nelson’s cartoonish portrayal in the opening “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” provides a mostly comical introduction to a film that travels to very dark places. 

Melling delivers the most heartbreaking performance in “Meal Ticket,” conveying a confident and poetic voice during his performances, but displaying the most meaning offstage with just his expressive, longing eyes.

Tom Waits is gold (again, no pun) in “All Gold Canyon,” which is the most pleasant of the vignettes.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently streaming on Netflix.  Give it a go.

Status: Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley

 

The Harry Potter films: ranked

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of re-watching a series that has impacted my generation like no other pop culture relic. Not only do these films hold up magnificently well, but one could argue that their lessons become more and more relevant the older we get. 

The “Fantastic Beasts” sequel inspired the re-watch, and I was reminded of better times in the world of wizards and witches. I was also reminded of how impressive these films truly were; how many other series maintained such a level of quality (an improved quality in many instances for me) through seven sequels? The list is, indeed, VERY short.

Below, I’ve ranked the films from my least favorite to my favorite, though I should note that I am ultimately a fan of all of them. Watching these films was a blast; ranking them is another story. It’s like choosing between children. 

8. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005)

The last place choice was one of the easiest for me. “Goblet of Fire” is a very busy movie from start to finish, with some truly chaotic action sequences. The Yule Ball is a wonderful sequence, but there could have been more of it. It’s a film with too much to do in too little time. Status: Recommend 

7. “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part  2” (2011) 

I know, I know, hear me out. “Deathly Hallows Part 2” flies through what was so delicately set up in “Part 1,” and sprints its way to the final climactic battle, which is an epic feat. I’m not suggesting that this film should have been four hours (maybe), but many important plot points are handled with ease and convenience. Status: Recommend

6.  “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007)

David Yates’ first outing is an impressive one, as we get an introduction to what the series will be for the next three films. The final battle in the Ministry of Magic — namely Dumbledore and Voldemort literally fighting the elements — is spectacular. Status: Recommend 

5. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban” (2004) 

This film is the favorite of many and its easy to see why. It’s directed by auteur Alfonso Cuarón, features a wonderful performance from Gary Oldman and introduces some of the darker elements to the series in a digestible way. While the tone, for me, is sometimes inconsistent, its a terrific film. Status: Strongly Recommend

4.  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)

This film is where the magic it is. If John Williams’ whimsical score and Chris Columbus’ colorful fantasy frames don’t send tingles up your spine, what will? The world building for everything falls on this film, and boy does it deliver. Status: Strongly Recommend

3. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) 

“Chamber” does more of the what the first one did, while weaving in a fascinating mystery, and seemingly higher stakes for everyone. Status: Strongly Recommend

2. “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” (2009)

As the series and the stakes build, Yates manages to descend the it further into the darkness, while holding on to a quirky sense of humor. The film captures the beauty and sadness of growing up, even in the most unique and grim of situations. The film moves quickly, and the ending proves to be one of the most powerful in the series.

1. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (2010) 

If “Half Blood Prince” captures the beauty and sadness of growing up, “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” totally lives in it. The film at times flows like a stage show, bringing the viewer uncomfortably close to its three protagonists. The film also captures the insecurities, emotions and fears of its characters in a way that few blockbusters do. This is a best case scenario of the classic studio “split-one-into-two” premise. We end up with a film that is entirely unique in pace, tone and format. 

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.



‘Widows’ Diversifies

Brandon, Will and Jared (with appearances from Jackie) discuss and pitch a sequel for Steve McQueen’s “Widows” in Ep. 2 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses their AFI Film of the Week “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” “Red Dead Redemption 2” an upcoming “Deadpool 2” re-release, the Netflix release of “Avengers: Infinity War” and some of Will’s takes on the current state of the WWE. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. A written review for “Widows” is available here

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