Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alfonso Cuaron – Movies Spotlight – October 2013

Alfonso Cuaron, 51, is one of the Three Amigos of Cinema along with friends (and Mexican directors) Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Cuaron is known for his ability to incorporate spellbinding and seemingly impossible technical feats into his films (usually in the form of long-take shots), often with the help of frequent collaborator and childhood friend Emmanuel Lubezki (who has shot six of Cuaron’s seven feature films). This month Cuaron has a new film in theaters – the utterly brilliant sci-fi thriller Gravity. The film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and is about two astronauts who find themselves stranded in Space after a catastrophic accident destroys their shuttle. Check out the trailer here. It is a remarkable cinematic experience.

Early Career:

Cuaron studied Philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico before pursuing film at the University’s Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematograficos. There, he made the short film Vengeance Is Mine with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki beginning a very fruitful, lasting partnership. The film was controversial, leading to Cuaron dropping out of school. Not only did he produce it in English but he also commercialized it without permission. Cuaron quickly moved into Mexican television, starting as a technician before moving into the director’s chair. He worked on the series Hora Marcada.

Breakthrough in Mexico:

After building up some acclaim for his television work, Cuaron landed a deal to make his first feature film in 1991. Love in the Time of Hysteria (Solo con tu pareja) played to both critical and commercial success in Mexico. Cuaron wrote, directed, produced, and co-edited the film. It is a wonderful dramedy about a womanizer who is tricked into thinking he has AIDS by a jilted former lover (who is a nurse). Confronted with this news, the man first attempts suicide but then he meets a beautiful woman, also attempting suicide, who changes everything. The film is marvelously shot by Lubezki. While it was never released in the States, director Sydney Pollack saw the film and loved it. He hired Cuaron, bring him to America, to direct an episode of his Showtime neo-noir series Fallen Angels.

Coming to Hollywood:

Sticking in Hollywood, Cuaron next directed his first American film A Little Princess. The film was universally praised by critics, but went mostly unnoticed by filmgoers. It is a forgotten gem of a family film though, for those looking for some really good to watch with their kids.

Next, Cuaron tackled a modern adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow (both at the height of their popularity within Hollywood circles), and featuring Anne Bancroft and Robert De Niro in support. The film does have a few strong moments, but overall it is by far Cuaron’s weakest. It just feels like his creativity and storytelling ability was brutally stymied by outside Hollywood-type creative impulses coming from those with more power and creative control (after all, Cuaron was still new to Hollywood and his name did not command the respect that it does now). Namely, the film feels like the product of Hawke to me.

Alfonso Cuaron – Auteur Filmmaker:

Maybe a little jaded by his Hollywood experience, Cuaron returned to Mexico for his next feature film in 2001. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, and Maribel Verdu, Cuaron made the wonderful coming-of-age road dramedy Y Tu Mama Tambien, this time returning to writing, directing and producing his own work. The film took off internationally, becoming one of 2001’s most critically revered releases. Cuaron even garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the film. It was also a hit in Mexico setting the country’s Box Office record for biggest opening for a Mexican film.

In a way, Cuaron then decided to return to Hollywood filmmaking (feeding of the success of Y Tu Mama Tambien) by agreeing to direct the third film in the Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – in England. However, Cuaron did not want to make just another watered-down children’s fantasy film. He wanted to make it vital, dark, and steeped in emotional realism (even if it is only a fantasy film). To do this, he wanted to change many aspects, most notably completely revamping the aesthetic look of the series (in a way undoing everything Chris Columbus had done with the first two films). While many fans were initially shocked by the changes, the series’ producer David Heyman (who has gone on to produce Gravity with Cuaron) liked Cuaron’s vision and stuck by him. The film is magnificent, completely obliterating the low standard that such films had achieved previously. This was not just a Hollywood film for kids, but a piece of art that also happened to be highly entertaining. It altered the course of the series from a quality and aesthetic standpoint (for the good) and raised the bar for all Summer/Holiday blockbusters (along with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Spider-Man 2) leading to great franchise films such as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and David Yates’s Potter films (especially The Deathly Hallows Part I and Part II). The film, like all in the series, was a box office success, but also achieved high critical praise.

Cuaron next took a slight break from features directing the segment Parc Monceau of the ensemble film Paris, je t’aime.

Staying in Britain, Cuaron began developing his next project – his most ambitious (before Gravity) – an adaptation of PD James’s novel Children of Men about a dystopian future with no children, starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine. The film never really found an audience at the box office, but critics showered it was acclaim. Cuaron again was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar as well as one for editing. The film is not only highly compelling dramatically but also aesthetically and technically stunning. Both Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men are among my personal favorite films of the past decade.

Cuaron also started his own production company called Esperanto Filmoj during the time he was making films in England. The company first made the comedy Duck Season and then the critically loved international hit Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by friend Guillermo del Toro. The film won three Oscars. Gravity is the seventh feature film produced by the company.

Future Projects:

Working with executive producer J.J. Abrams and writer Mark Friedman, Cuaron is creating a new fantasy drama for NBC called Believe. He is also writing and directing the pilot. It stars Jake McLaughlin and Johnny Sequoyah and is about a gifted young girl who is being pursued by evil elements that want to harness her power. However, an unlikely man, a convict on the run having just escaped from prison, might be her best chance to stay safe. The series will premiere on NBC after the end of the NFL season. Here is the trailer.

Career Highlights:

1)      Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991)* – writer, director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
2)      Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)* – writer, director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
3)      Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)* – director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
4)      Children of Men (2006)* – writer, director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
5)      Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)

*Editor’s picks 

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