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THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

Producer: Peter Jackson and Clare Olssen
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

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At once a virtuoso technical exercise, a stunning lesson in popular history and a moving tribute to the soldiers of World War I, Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” applies his expertise in digital restoration to archival footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, accompanied by excerpts from the later testimony of veterans in BBC interviews, to convey the terrible horrors and simple heroism of trench warfare on the Western Front. The extraordinary skills of Jackson and his team give the material a degree of texture, immediacy and visceral power that might have seemed impossible to achieve only a short time ago.

He begins, cannily, with boxy, black-and-white images of youngsters—many of them technically underage—enthusiastically appearing at recruitment centers and waving goodbye to their loved ones, and beginning training in 1914. The sequences have been digitally retimed and enhanced with 3D elements, but still appear familiarly antique. Then as we move onto the actual field of battle, the frame expands to full size, the images turn into color, and rustle and hubbub of action fills the soundtrack; at some points snatches of dialogue (deciphered by lip readers and made to jibe with mouth movements barely glimpsed) are even added.

The transformation comes as a total shock, making vivid, almost palpable, visuals that, before the application of the wizardry Jackson and his colleagues have developed in making their fantasy blockbusters, would have seemed musty and somehow quaint into an immersion in another reality. The material still feels otherworldly, but now that world is felt and heard in a way that feels new and fresh. If Woodrow Wilson famously called D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” history written with lightning, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is like the history of Wilson’s own time brought vibrantly to life in a way that teachers could only dream of before.

There will be those, of course, who dismiss the film as a stunt—which it is, in a way. But it’s a very good stunt, one that applies technology to the highest of ends: making an immensely important moment in the human past more understandable to the present.

Others will criticize Jackson’s effort for not being more like a conventional documentary about the Great War. It doesn’t get into the diplomatic blunders that caused the conflict, or specifics about leadership and strategy, or details of victories and defeats, or inquiries into how the conflict came to an end and how that affected future events. Those sorts of documentaries already exist, as witness the recent PBS series about the American role in the war.

What Jackson is after is a portrait of the experience of soldiers who fought in the trenches in roughly chronological terms, from enlistment to armistice—of course particularly the British men featured in footage preserved in British archives; and in doing so it leaves a profound impression of the amazing camaraderie of the fighters, the indignities they suffered and sacrifices they had to make on the front, and the immense losses they incurred (Jackson does not flinch from including images that show the terrible cost of the conflict in human terms). The result must have a similar effect to that “All Quiet on the Western Front” had on readers when the book first appeared, at a time when readers were still deeply affected by words on a page; most demand a more visual emotional stimulant today. Some of the most poignant moments here involve German soldiers, too—captives who are treated remarkably decently by Brits who recognize them too as pawns in the war game of their governments.

One shouldn’t omit mentioning Jackson’s collaborators in this remarkable effort: co-producer Clare Olssen, editor Jabez Olssen, digital VFX supervisor Wayne Stables, and the small army of researchers and technicians who sifted through the mounds of archival material, selected those to be included, and meticulously processed the result. Together they have created an exceptional film that’s sure to become an indispensable teaching tool, but deserves life outside the classroom as well.

ROMA

Producer: Alfonso Cuaron, Gabriela Rodriguez and Nicolas Celis
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writer: Alfonso Cuaron
Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Veronica Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Nancy Garcia, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta and Diego Cortina Autrey
Studio: Netflix

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Imagine an Italian neo-realist film of the 1950s made with all of today’s cinematic technology and you’ll have some idea of what Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is like. The result is a rapturous memory-piece, gorgeously shot and hypnotically paced.

While the title might suggest those neo-realist classics by the likes of De Sica, however, it does not refer to the Italian capital, but to the neighborhood in Mexico City where much of the action occurs. It’s the early seventies, and the focus is on an upper middle-class family. The father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is a doctor; his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), along with her mother Teresa (Verónica Garcia), take care of the couple’s four children, three boys and a girl, though the children are closer in many respects to one of the family’s maids, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Normally you’d expect such a semi-autobiographical tale to concentrate on the child who represents the writer-director, and be told from his perspective. But that’s not the case here. The focus is Cleo, and the point of view is not really hers—it’s that of a narrator, perhaps an omniscient one, looking down from above, observing her travails over the course of a year.

Those do not involve the family per se, though she’s certainly kept busy and the duty of cleaning the tile floor of the cramped garage into which Antonio’s oversized American car can barely squeeze, and which is also used as a playpen for the family’s equally oversized dog, is clearly one she does not relish. No, her great difficulty lies in the fact that she gets pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts obsessed young guy who disappears as soon as he hears that he’s about to become a father; and though she eventually tracks him down at a strange training camp presided over by a weird guru, he threatens her physically if she should dare to bother him again.

All of this happens within the context of the collapse of Antonio and Sofia’s marriage. He has found a younger woman and moves out of the house; she keeps that secret from the children, telling them that he’s off on a business trip. That doesn’t stop Sofia and Teresa from being supportive of Cleo, though a visit to a department store to buy a crib is interrupted horrifyingly by political events swirling in the country—specifically, by the Corpus Christi Massacre of June, 1971—which in turn leads to Cleo unexpectedly encountering Fermin again and being prematurely rushed to the hospital.

The last act of “Roma” proves Cleo’s unwavering dedication to her employers’ family once more when, during a trip to Veracruz during which Sofia tells the children the truth about their father, the maid literally saves two of the kids’ lives at risk to her own. She also admits something to Sofia that makes her love and loyalty to the people whose needs she serves all the more poignant.

Cuarón’s script obviously has strong elements of melodrama, but his direction deliberately underplays them—even a harrowing episode featuring an earthquake has a dire matter-of-fact quality—in favor of a lapidary, lyrical tone conveyed by the director’s cinematography, which mostly consists of a succession of beautifully composed widescreen images in lustrous black-and-white, which often ease into one another in slow pans. There are, of course, periodic intrusions of street hubbub and even violence, but more often even the sequences beyond the family are intended to evoke rather than provoke—like a New Years’ visit to a ranch outside the city, marked by a fire in the surrounding forest (that the guests work to put out themselves), which takes on an almost surrealist tone, or Cleo’s visits to the hospital, where the tone turns to a gritty realism reflective of the neo-realist school. Then there are the periodic pans into the sky above, where passenger jets are often seen slowly moving through the frame as the domestic drama unfolds below—another indication of the godlike perspective from which the story is being told.

The performances all contribute to Cuarón’s ruminative vision, with Aparicio—a non-professional—offering a subtly powerful portrait of a generally undemonstrative woman with strong emotional undercurrents just below the surface. De Tavira and Guerrero are more forceful, but never go beyond the bounds of the overall introspective framework; and the children’s background bickering, too, contributes color without becoming obtrusive.

Ruminative and quietly profound, “Roma” will draw you into its half-remembered world and not release you until its final touching moments. It will soon appear on the Netflix service, but is best experienced on the big screen, where its visual splendor and emotional resonance can be fully appreciated.