The past two months have finally seen Netflix come into its own, providing the financing for three films for its streaming service that will warm the hearts of cinephiles everywhere - Orson Welles' The Other Side of The Wind , The Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. In addition to moving into territory normally only inhabited by ardent cinephiles, Netflix also provides the opportunity to catchup with (and binge on) such totally absorbing TV series as Broadchurch, Luther, House of Cards, Homeland, and The Handmaid's Tale, as well as more recent off-beat offerings such as Maniac. The hilarious Schitt's Creek has been rescued from oblivion, playing off against Ozark nicely - they are tragi-comic flipsides of the same coin, both involving a family of city slickers transplanted to the boondocks and forced to adapt to their changed circumstances. The most obvious advantage, beside the ease of consuming such delights in the comfort of your own home, is the ability to pause, rewind, and rewatch, all without the juddering idiocy of having any advertising thrust down your throat. Old and new shows are continually being added and subtracted by a constant algorithmic churn, which means that each month there are surprise additions to the playlist, as others drop out of rotation, so it's definitely worth catching these three while you still can.
Filmed over a six year period from 1970 and 1976, The Other Side of the Wind is Welles' final film - a 'lost' masterpiece, patched together from over a decade of improvised guerilla film-making with a history so complicated that the accompanying documentary on its reconstruction is also compulsory viewing. The film was never completed due to financial problems. One of the financiers was the brother-in-law of Shah Reza Pahlavi and was the negative was locked up in a Paris vault after the Iranian revolution which deposed him. In August 2002 Showtime Network announced that a deal had been reached to finish and release this film, but when Welles' daughter threatened a lawsuit, saying she owned the film, Showtime backed out of the deal. At one point, Peter Bogdanovich tried getting a crowdfunding campaign off the ground to complete the film with Clint Eastwood and J.J. Abrams helping back it. More than $400,000 was raised but the campaign failed, again largely due to legal reasons. In May 2015, directors Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach announced that they were running a campaign to raise $2 million to complete the post production and release the film. Producer Frank Marshall (who also appears in the film) announced in April 2016 at CinemaCon that he was in negotiating with Netflix to finish and release the film, but it was not until March 2017 Netflix finally purchased the rights and started working around the clock to finish the long delayed post-production process.
Like many of Welles' movies, it
is patchy and flawed in many places, but nevertheless its
constantly unexpected camera angles, remarkable and largely
improvised performances, and extraordinary montage never
fail to astonish and impress. As Welles himself comments in
the documentary, “it's all in the editing,” and Bob
Murawksi has done an incredible job piecing together the
various fragments into a coherent whole, considering that
when the negative was released to finally edit the film in
2017, there were 1,083 film elements that had to be fully
inventoried and the majority of the movie is presented in an
aspect ratio of 1.37:1, while the film-within-the-film is
in 1.85:1. Welles' long-time cinematographer Gary Graver
(who later became an award-winning director of soft and
hardcore porn flicks) used mostly light-weight, hand-held
cameras and Michel Legrand's score smooths over some of the
more jarring segues.
In this postmodern, meta-textual movie about the making of a movie, Welles not only depicts the frustration he faced struggling to get financing for his own films, but also skewers some of the more absurd pretensions of 1960's 'art house' movies (it is no coincidence that the film's second half is mostly shot in the house next door to the one that Michelangelo Antonioni used in Zabriskie Point). The character of Charles Higgam is a based on Anglo-Australian journalist and biographer Charles Higham, who wrote two defamatory books about Welles (one of which complained about this parody), while the character of Juliet Rich is a decidedly unflattering depiction of influential film critic Pauline Kael. There is also a stormy sex scene in the front seat of a car that comes entirely out of the blue and shows how erotic Welles could be, even filming his partner and co-producer Oja Kodar, in the relatively uncensored climate of the era. Brief cameos abound, from grizzled old-timers like Paul Stewart, Mercedes McCambridge, and Edmond O'Brien, to young turks such as Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, even Claude Chabrol and his gorgeous wife Stéphane Audran. But it is John Huston's crapulous and bleary-eyed portrayal of the washed-up film director that most impresses, rather than Robert Random's mute impersonation of Jim Morrison. Old chums since their time together in the Hollywood studio system, Huston was obviously prepared to both put up and play along with Welles' idiosyncrasies, even to the extent of getting totally blotto on a daily basis. It certainly doesn't seem like he need much encouragement and only adds to the authority and authenticity of his performance. One over-arching theme throughout Welles' entire oeuvre was the Shakespearean fall from grace of highly charismatic, but ultimately doomed protagonists with pronounced tragic flaws, matched only by their immense girth and lust for life. After watching The Other Side of the Wind, there can be little doubt that this was precisely how he saw himself.
The Coen Brothers' Ballad of Buster Scruggs displays their customary flair for beautifully shot imagery, a love of language, and unexpected narrative twists. They also employ an exemplary cast of actors, all of whom contribute stalwart performances and are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. The first story in this compendium of camp-fire tales involves a adorable singing cowpoke and gunslinger played by Tim Blake Nelson, while the second gives James Franco the best single line of dialogue (“your first time?”). Liam Neesom's traveling 'entertainer' manages to convey a sense of intense menace, even though he remains barely recognisable beneath his big fur coat and says almost nothing, while the astonishing Harry Melling provides the precise opposite of his taciturnity, reciting lyrical Shakespearean speeches with an alarmed grace and precision. Tom Waits plays an archetypal prospector who penetrates deep into an idyllic and isolated valley, which he immediately starts to desecrate by digging holes for gold, grunting and muttering to himself in a semi-articulate grimace reminiscent of Dickens' Jingle in A Christmas Carol. Billy Knapp and Grainger Hines are laconic and tongue-tied saddle hands guiding a wagon train and playing foils to the slightly more loquacious Zoe Kazan, whom they find themselves accompanying across Indian territory to an uncertain future in Oregon.
The final tale is the most literary - a hilarious and haunting story that takes place almost entirely inside a stagecoach. This compression allows Saul Rubinek, Brendon Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, and Jonjo O'Neill to enjoy a field day in this grim and dialogue-driven finale, which is slowly bleached of all colour, depicting a gradual darkening of mood that eventually descends into dusky darkness and sombre intimations of mortality. After the wide open spaces of prairie, desert, and canyon lands, and the limited conversational skills of cowboys and wagon drivers, we are confined to the interior of the 'stage' in which a lively level of slightly unhinged repartee is allowed to proliferate and run rife. As always with the Coens, there is much more going on beneath the playful surface than is immediately apparent. While Edgar Allan Poe undeniably provides them with a template, earlier American Colonial gothic writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) and Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) were equally concerned with portraying frontier wilderness anxiety and the lasting effects of a Puritanical society.
The most impressive original offering from Netflix is indisputably Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, already tipped for serious Oscar contention. His first Mexican-based movie since Y Tu Mamá También returns to Cuarón's childhood memories of Mexico City, creating an emotionally charged masterpiece that is novelistic in its depth of inner life and sense of character development. It is a densely intimate drama that plays out in 1970 (posters for that summer’s World Cup, held in Mexico, adorn a bedroom wall) and what feels like real time, like a soap opera or telenovela. The title refers both to the Colonia Roma neighbourhood and to the director’s belief that Mexico City has fallen from a majestic and neo-imperial metropolis into a maelstrom of urban sprawl, criminal activity, and guttural squalor. Artfully designed with the same attention to detail as Children of Men and A Little Princess, Roma is a virtuoso evocation of a specific time and place, bristling with contemporary historical and political references that reflect the closeted domestic traumas experienced by its main characters.
Essentially a feminist parable, Roma is a story of two embattled yet resilient women whose personal lives begin to unravel in tandem after being abandoned or betrayed by their menfolk. “No matter what they tell you - women, we are always alone” is the cri de cœur that resonates throughout this ambitious allegory. Yalitza Aparicio brings a delicate stoicism to her role as Cleo, a young woman of Mixteco Mesoamerican ancestry working as a live-in maid for her beleaguered employer, Sofía (Marina De Tavira). Aparicio makes an astonishingly natural debut as a domestic worker in the upper-middle-class family home. Fernando Grediaga plays paterfamilias Doctor Antonio with aplomb whenever he comes home, an increasingly rare event. His wife Sofía was trained as a biochemist, but her emotional life is increasingly dominated by anxiety about her husband’s frequent absences. They share their roomy townhouse with four boisterous children, Sofía's octogenarian mother, and a bouncy and much cherished dog, Borras. Cleo spends her days tending to the family, constantly looking after the kids, preparing meals, washing floors, and laundering clothes. She confides in her fellow maid and best friend Adela and strikes up a romance with hunky martial-arts enthusiast Fermín, who takes her to the park and to the movies, and indulges in naked displays of his karate and kick-boxing skills.
With understated visual subtlety, Cuarón reveals how the apparently placid household is buckling under immense entropic pressure. Their tiled courtyard driveway, first seen over the opening credits being mopped clean, is habitually covered by Borras' big boluses, causing Antonio to park his black Ford Galaxie with a weary and fanatical caution that parallels his compulsive and fastidious avoidance of emotional messes. Sofía presides over her children in name only, as all the real work is done by Cleo and Adela, who are well treated, but constantly alert to racial and class condescension. Antonio's repeated disappearances on what are supposedly 'business trips' drives the increasingly stressed-out Sofía to suggest to the children it might be a good idea if they wrote to their dad, imploring him to return. Meanwhile, Cleo has to explain to her dodgy boyfriend that she has missed her period. Fermín remains as unresponsive as Antonio, leaving Cleo to fend for herself and refusing to take responsibility for his actions. Tragedy, comedy, and absurdity mingle in equal measure in this movie, along with a sense of sublime mystery unspooling in some extraordinary set pieces.
Acting as his own cinematographer and editor, Cuarón masterfully manipulates his monochromatic palette. He possesses an extraordinary ability to intercut close-ups and wide shots, combining tellingly observed, humorous, and poignant details with an epic sense of scale. Long, distended takes allow conversations and interactions to play out in real time with the camera panning sedately back and forth, or turning slowly through a full 360 degrees to reveal the all-encompassing universe Cuarón and production designer Eugenio Caballero have created. Cuarón’s lens has a weightless quality, drifting inexorably through a perplexing variety of turbulent environments, but however frenetic events may become, the imagery retains a sense of impassive serenity. The film's limpid blacks and whites seamlessly blend with CGI technology in many exterior shots, modifying and fabricating period details with a stunning sense of authenticity. The oneiric streetscapes and stunning crowd scenes that result are worthy of Martin Scorsese (who's next film is also going to air on Netflix), especially Cuarón’s depiction of the Corpus Christi massacre, in which roughly 120 people were killed by the military during a student protest. Tracking shots worthy of Orson Welles slide and snake through the crowds, at one point taking in through the doors of a cinema, where the audience watches a sequence of floating astronauts from John Sturges’ sci-fi picture Marooned (which influenced Cuarón’s exploration of deep-space in Gravity).
For all its quotidian, ground-level view of the world, there are also suggestions of the sort of metaphysical magic Cuarón conjured up in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. At times the atmosphere is positively carnivalesque, with marching bands and circus performers being shot from cannons, much like Federico Fellini's similarly self-reflexive and not coincidentally entitled classic Roma. A child who can recall his past lives announces portentously, "When I was older I used to be a sailor, but I drowned in a storm ..." Water is a recurrent element throughout the film - from the soap bubbles of the opening credits, through the breaking waves that foreshadow a scene of harrowing sorrow, to the final scene on a Veracruz beach in which these poignant thematic undercurrents are given physical form, like a rip-tide inexorably dragging its powerless victims away from the safety of the shoreline. At other times, seemingly remote and unreachable airplanes are reflected in the water below, offering the fantasy of escape to exotic, foreign locations for those who can afford to flee.
The irony remains,
however, that instead of being praised for having financed a
masterpiece, Netflix has been criticised for only allowing
only a limited theatrical release in exclusive partnership
with one US chain of distributors. Many equally important
films have been similarly constricted in the past and
Roma may in fact be reaching a far wider audience
than others, but nonetheless it certainly deserves to be
seen on the big screen. As Mark Kermode noted in his
Observer review, for all its visual splendour, it is
the movie's complex sound design - “with its bewilderingly
intricate tapestry of distant street sounds, ambient noise,
and close-up conversations” - that provides the most
compelling motive for seeking out a cinema equipped with the
best possible sound system. For a much more critical and nuanced discussion of the pros and cons of Netflix moving into the art-house film market see -