Movie Review: Roma

Set in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City, this film centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker who assumes the roles of maid and nanny in a hectic household, much like the one that director Alfonso Cuarón grew up in.

Roma has been described as Cuarón’s love letter to Libo Rodríguez, his childhood nanny. The film is dedicated to Libo.

Cleo’s affection for the four boisterous children is evident throughout the film. She nuzzles them awake, lends an interested and sympathetic ear, and sings them to sleep. And somehow she also finds the time to do laundry, tidy the rooms, help fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) with the cooking, carry luggage, and clean the alleyway where the family dog (Borras) runs loose and defecates.

The four children adore Cleo; in particular, the youngest child Pepe (Marco Graf), who has an active imagination. Possibly a stand-in for Cuarón?

The adults in the household are more restrained, conscious of the socioeconomic differences that exist. While they are fond of Cleo, they also take her for granted. She is both an insider and an outsider. But when Cleo discovers she is pregnant and alone, her employer Sofia (Marina de Tavira) sympathizes and arranges for health care.

Sofia’s marriage to Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is also unraveling. Restless and unhappy, Antonio leaves his family, claiming to participate in a research project in Quebec. Later, we learn that he has moved into another woman’s house in Mexico City. In one poignant scene, Sofia asks her children to write letters to their father, asking him to return.

Humor is found in the most unexpected places. Both Sofia and Antonio lack the skills to properly navigate their enormous Ford Galaxy. They manage to scrape the sides of the car in their own alleyway and, in another case, involve two other vehicles on a busy street. In a later scene, a group of exercise fanatics struggle to stand on one leg.

Alfonso Cuarón wrote, produced, directed, and shot this film. His passion and attention to detail are evident in each scene. Everything from the haircuts to the clothes to the furniture to the cars to the Mexico World Cup 1970 poster has been selected with care.

Filming in black-and-white adds to the authenticity. I could easily imagine myself walking down those busy streets in Mexico City. As for the violent scenes…they appear even more real. Cuarón has included a dramatization of an actual historical event, the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, in which soldiers gunned down protestors and pursued them into their hiding places.

Having already received Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Motion Picture—Foreign Language, Roma is a major contender this awards season. As for the Oscars…I predict another Best Director award along with Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Film.


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Movie Review: Green Book

Simply riveting.

Writer/director Peter Farrell has succeeded in weaving humor, tenderness, and righteous indignation into this dramatic tale based on the real-life experiences of Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip and Dr. Don Shirley.

Tony Lip, a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a Black classical pianist, from Manhattan to the Deep South. Normally, a road trip that could be described as pleasant, this particular journey is fraught with danger.

In the early 1960s, segregation was still very evident, especially in the Southern states. To survive and thrive, Tony and Dr. Shirley must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to “safe” establishments for African-Americans.

At the start of the film, Dr. Shirley struggles to establish boundaries while Tony talks non-stop and displays a ferocious appetite that must be constantly satisfied. When Dr. Shirley asks for quiet time, Tony pauses momentarily and then launches into another monologue. The two men are polar opposites who would never have connected under normal circumstances.

Meal times bring out their differences. One of my favorite scenes involves Tony’s delight at discovering Kentucky Fried Chicken in the state of Kentucky. At first revolted by the food, Dr. Shirley slowly acquires a taste for it and then follows Tony’s example, tossing the bones out the car window.

Over the eight-week trip, a friendship develops between the brash, extroverted bouncer who is well-grounded in his life and the lonely musician who is still searching to find himself. At one point in the film, Dr. Shirley laments: “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough; what am I?”

Racist attitudes intensify as the duo travels into hostile territory, where the laws vary from state to state. In one city, Dr. Shirley is not allowed to eat in the hall dining room filled with patrons who had paid to watch his performance later in the evening. A clerk in an upscale establishment would not allow Dr. Shirley to try on a suit he planned to buy.

I was unnerved by one scene where Dr. Shirley ventures out on his own and ends up in a precarious situation, involving another white man and two policemen. Tony intervenes and persuades the officers to release Dr. Shirley. The following day, Tony reassures Dr. Shirley: “I know it’s a complicated world.”

Mahershala Ali delivers a superb performance as Dr. Shirley. Having already won Best Supporting Actor awards at the Golden Globes and SAG ceremonies, he is a shoo-in for the Oscar.

Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the tough, uncouth bouncer is spot-on. He has mastered all the nuances of the character and provides much of the comedic relief. He has received three Best Actor nominations: Golden Globes, SAG, and Oscar.

Photos of the actual men in the closing credits add to the authenticity of this larger-than-life film. Their friendship lasted until their deaths in 2013; Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga died within months of each other.

An extraordinary film that will linger in consciousness.


Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

So much to like in this adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel: superb performances, hauntingly beautiful music, and extraordinary cinematography.

The young lovers, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), are filled with hope and optimism as they dream of a future together. The opening scene where they stroll by the river captures the tenderness and authenticity of that love. Unfortunately, their plans are derailed when a racist policemen with a grudge falsely accuses Fonny of raping a woman who has fled the country.

Using a non-linear timeline, writer-director Barry Jenkins succeeds in capturing the emotional intensity of the storyline set in early-1970s Harlem. The well-crafted scenes follow a seamless order, one determined by the thoughts and feelings of naive, nineteen-year-old Tish, the narrator of the film, as she awaits Fonny’s trial and the birth of their child.

One of the most powerful scenes involves a meeting between the two families. After hearing the news of the upcoming pregnancy, Fonny’s Bible-thumping mother and judgmental sister lash out at Tish. Horrified, Tish’s mother (expertly played by Regina King) defends her daughter as she calls out the hypocrisy of the women.

It is not surprising that King has already received a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She dominates all her scenes, displaying the intensity of a mother’s love for her child and grandchild. When she travels to Puerto Rico to confront Fonny’s accuser, she digs deep and uses all the inner resources she possesses.

I particularly enjoyed the extended long takes: Tish and Fonny talking through a thick pane of glass at the prison, cigarette smoke forming a sculpture as Fonny carves his own work, Tisha and Fonny exchanging soulful glances in close-ups.

A timeless romance, but also a family drama and social commentary of the period.

A must-see film!


Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex

Written by Daniel Stiepleman (RBG’s nephew) and directed by Mimi Leder, this biopic provides an intimate portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s marriage, family life, and early career years.

Felicity Jones plays Ruth, and Armie Hammer takes on the role of her loving husband Marty. While some reviews have suggested that Jones was miscast in the leading role, I believe that she did an excellent job of portraying the tiny and tenacious woman who helped overturn a century of gender discrimination.

From the start, we are privy to the challenges Ruth encountered at Harvard Law School. Undaunted, she didn’t hesitate to snap at the law school dean, glare at male professors who didn’t call on her in class, and correct her fellow male students. She was the well-prepared student who always knew the answers.

Even more extraordinary are the glimpses into her egalitarian marriage. Marty was the consummate loving husband who supported and encouraged Ruth, nurtured his children, and even cooked dinner!

Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ruth encounters blatant sexism as she struggles to find work in New York City. At home, she laments: “I wasn’t what they were looking for… A woman graduating top of her class must be a real ball-buster. I worked hard, I did everything I was supposed to do, and I excelled.” Unable to practice law, she accepts the only position offered: college law professor of gender laws.

The film then jumps to the early 1970s where Ruth is increasingly frustrated by her inability to fight for gender rights in the courts. At home, she and her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) squabble while Marty acts as a peacemaker.

When Marty, who is now a successful tax lawyer, comes across a case of gender bias against a man, he offers it to Ruth, who jumps at the opportunity to expose all the outdated laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.

The second half of the film focuses on this case, which concerns the taxation of a Colorado bachelor caring for his elderly mother. At times, the material is dry, and the legal jargon can be difficult to follow.

But Ruth’s commitment to change and dogged determination are inspiring.

When she encounters the skepticism of renowned political activist Dorothy Kenyon (expertly played by Kathy Bates), Ruth responds: “Protests are important, but changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change.”

She endures and learns from the criticism of her longtime friend and ally at ACLU (well played by Justin Theroux). After a less than auspicious start in the Colorado courtroom, Ruth rises to the occasion and delivers a dramatic oral argument about the need for “radical social change.”

A must-see film!


Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Fifty-four years have passed—the largest gap between an original movie and its sequel—but the time is right for another dose of Mary Poppins.

Set during the “Great Slump” of the 1930s, the film takes place 25 years after the original. The Banks children, Jane and Michael, played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw, are grown up and still living on Cherry Tree Lane.

Having suffered the loss of his wife and left to raise his three children, Michael receives an unexpected blow when he discovers that his house will be repossessed within five days.

Enter Mary Poppins, expertly played by Emily Blunt.

Delivering a spoonful less sugar and a pinch more spice than Julie Andrews (the original Mary Poppins), Blunt captivates us from the start. After a graceful landing, she proclaims herself the children’s nanny and sets about reforming the household. Her singing and dancing are impeccable. In a recent interview, Dick Van Dyke suggested that Blunt’s sterner approach is much closer to author P.L. Travers’s vision.

“Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda nails the part of East End London lamplighter Jack. Determined to master the Cockney accent, he worked extensively with a dialect coach while filming Mary Poppins Returns.

I was thrilled to see Dick Van Dyke in a brief cameo as banker Mr. Dawes Junior. Still spry at age 92, he delivers a short monologue, jumps onto a desk, and starts dancing. Definitely the emotional peak of the movie.

The all-star lineup includes Colin Firth as a wolfish banker and entertaining cameos from Meryl Streep and Angela Lansbury.

With four Golden Globe Nominations—Best Actor, Actress, Film, Original Score—Mary Poppins Returns is a strong contender in this year’s award season.

Simply delightful or as Mary Poppins would say: “Practically perfect in every way.”


Movie Review: Vice

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as I watched Christian Bale deliver a stellar performance as Dick Cheney. The transformation is a remarkable one: Bale gained forty pounds and adopted the mannerisms, subdued voice, and lumbering gait of the former vice president.

It is not surprising that Bale has been nominated for a Golden Globe. In fact, Vice has six Golden Globe nominations—Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay, Motion Picture— and is poised to dominate the upcoming award season.

Amy Adams boldly portrays Lynne Cheney, effectively capturing the former Second Lady’s superior intellect and ambition. Without her not-so-gentle prodding, Dick Cheney would not have evolved beyond his two DUIs and limited prospects in Wyoming.

Determined to keep Lynne in his life, Cheney agrees to straighten out. At first, quiet and unassuming, he gradually develops a taste for power and an ability to read people.

I was both fascinated—and repelled—by the manipulative skills that enabled Cheney to rise from congressional intern to White House Chief of Staff to CEO of an oil-field services company to vice-president. Persuading a presidential candidate to abdicate major responsibilities is a testament to his well-honed skills.

While supporting actors Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell deliver excellent performances as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, their roles are not as fleshed out as Bale’s.

Writer-director Adam McKay weaves in humor and irreverence with flashbacks to pivotal events throughout the six-decade span of the film. References to American Idol and Survivor collide with footage of torture and bombings. Spoiler alert: Halfway through the film, McKay teases us with a false ending, one that would have pleased many of us.

A thought-provoking film!


Movie Review: The Old Man & The Gun

This story is mostly true.

And so begins an entertaining film based on the real-life story of Forrest Tucker (beautifully played by Robert Redford), a lifelong criminal who specializes in bank robberies and prison escapes. This polite, charismatic thief is the leader of the Old Timer’s Gang, a trio of criminals that includes Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits).

Set in the early 1980s during one of the Gang’s last crime sprees across the American southwest, the storyline alternates between actual bank robberies, police chases led by Texas detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), and Tucker’s low-key love affair with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widow he picks up on the side of the road.

While crimes are planned and committed, there is no real violence. Tucker owns a gun, but he doesn’t fire it. Instead, he charms tellers and bank managers into handing over their cash and then leaves with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Afterward, the victims comment on Tucker’s gentlemanly behavior.

Writer/director David Lowery succeeds in maintaining a lighthearted tone throughout most of the film. I especially enjoyed watching Jewel and Tucker flirt and spar during their dates. But the scenes with Casey Affleck move very slowly. I believe he was miscast as the detective obsessed with capturing the Gang, in particular Tucker.

At age 82, Robert Redford still manages to command the screen with his mature presence and mega-watt smile. Unfortunately, The Old Man & The Gun is his last film. In August, Redford announced his retirement from acting.

A must-see film and a fitting farewell to a movie legend!