“Roma”

A black and white Mexican film has us watching a young domestic worker flow through life’s joys and travails as it slows us down to consider the lives of others. In doing so, “Roma” forces us to see how the sun’s eternal warmth and the cool betrayal of circumstance mesh. This is life.

Our protagonist could be from any of the decades between 1920 to 1990. “Roma” seems timeless. The cleaning up ~daily chores like laundry, dishes, the caring for children and dogs~ almost ageless until those classic cars have us zeroing in on the 1970’s. Radio and tv and the movies are present. There is sex, amusement parks, and the beach to entertain. One notices the absence of cell phones.

We begin with the sound of sloshing water. Someone is mopping a tiled floor. Fourteen buckets of rinse water are thrown down as our title surfaces. In the pooling water, an airplane is reflected from the sky. We think of lives being passed over, the underlings below. It is a great opening. Life is going to be lived, but rinsed to the essentials.

Director Alfonso Cuarón, 57, wrote and directed “Roma”.
It is semi-autobiographical, and follows the footsteps of a domestic worker, Cleo ( newcomer Yalitza Aparicio). A family portrait emerges. Ms.Sofia; her husband, Dr. Antonio; and grandma Teresa are seen at meals with the four children, Paco, Pepe, Toño,and Sofi. There is a bird, a dog, named Borras. Cleo and the young cook, Adela, live over the garage.

We soon realize that Cleo is holding the family together. The father has another romantic interest in Quebec and will not return. Sofia is a tad unhinged. The tender moments are when Cleo sings a child to sleep, plays in an imaginary game, and warmly hugs the child who asks if she has always been with them. The film is in celebration of this kind of unconditional love.

Cuaron does his own cinematography. He is unhurried.
The camera lingers. We feel the waves as Cleo, who doesn’t swim, marches through the surf to save floundering children. We see Cleo’s dead baby being meticulously wrapped for burial as if we were swaddling the infant ourselves. The martial art scenes, the earthquake, the forest fire, the holiday party, the revolutionary street foment are captured. If we watch the trailer again, we are surprised by how much has gone on.

One of my favorite scenes is at Don Jose’s ranch, where a wall of past family dog heads deck a wall. Cleo stares at this memorial and a live dog, Borras, licks her hand. ”You are mine, and I am happy for your being.” he seems to say. Director Cuaron lets us know he feels the same. Class hierarchy be damned.

“On The Basis Of Sex”

There is so much I love about first time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman’s ode to his aunt, Ruth Bader Ginsberg that this will be an easy review. “On The Basis Of Sex” has a great title, the tempo of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”, beautiful metaphors sustained, and snippets of male chauvinism that are documented both humorously and rationally.

In his bio-pic, Stiepleman centers on the middle period of the Supreme Court Justice’s life. Ruth’s husband Marty (Armie Hammer) has been diagnosed with testicular cancer; they have a toddler;and Ruth ( Felicity Jones) is attending her own classes and Marty’s while he recoups his strength. Professor Freund’s, (Martin’s Harvard Contract Law professor) dictum that “ a court ought not to be affected by the weather of the day, but by the climate of the era” becomes the overarching theme.

The beginning of the film brilliantly puts the viewers in the era, 1956. Sam Waterston is giving a welcoming speech to 500 Harvard Law initiates. Only nine are women. Waterston, playing the dean of Harvard Law School at the time, Erwin Griswold, begins with “ Esteemed colleagues and ladies”. It rankles. Griswold then asks each of the nine why they are occupying a place at Harvard that could have been given to a man. He accepts a young woman’s reasoning that she wishes to share her father’s law firm’s nameplate while he cuts other responses off. Ruth understanding his prejudices coyly responses that by attending law school with her husband, she can be a more patient and understanding wife. The women suppress their laughter. It is a great scene, and there are many more.

The documentary “RBG”, reviewed here, May 31, 2018,
made much of the supportive role Ruth’s husband played in her career. This film shows Martin Ginsberg as even more of a factor in her success and in her happiness. I loved the scenes where Hammer cooks “marrying herbal flavors’ and the scene where he cooly talks down his mouthy daughter. Loving and self-deprecating, humorous and emotionally and intellectually brilliant, Martin we come to love , too.

Jane, their daughter is played by Camille Spaeny. Spaeny was the young Lynne Cheney in “Vice”, she is only eleven years younger than Hammer,but her acting nails the thirteen-year-old, push-pull dynamic. The cast is perfection: Kathy Bates as the feminist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, Justin Theroux as Anerican Civil Liberties attorney Mel Wulf, and Sam Waterston all make their mark.

The French title of this film is “Une Femme d’Exception”, and Director Mimi Leder keeps the focus on the exceptional woman that RBG is. As we see Ginsburg triumph in court, we have tears in our eyes and want to toast her with champagne.

The 178 laws that deferentiate between genders, the right of the country to change, and the triumph of reason being the soul of law exhalts the law profession. Felicity Jones’ march up the Supreme Court steps and her morphing into RBK says it all. Oscar worthy for sure.

Enjoy the script for its liberal truisms like “How a country taxes its people directly deals with its values.” For anyone who wants to change the world, this is your inspirational film of the year.

“If Beale Street Could Talk”

James Baldwin’s 1974 novel comes to the screen with Barry Jenkins of “ Moonlight” (reviewed Nov.18th, 2016) writing and directing. I was disappointed in the absence of present day connection. Thirty-five years of stagnant progress in Black male incarceration rates is socially catastrophic. Why not add some current names to those languishing for trials and falling back on plea bargains? Jenkins would probably say there were too many. A love story that relies only on our empathy infuriates more than enlightens. I wanted to scream “Beale Street can talk…let’s hear it!”

There is anger, but it is just touched in the film. Much of the anger comes between two Black families, the Rivers and the Hunts. Our narrator Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) shares her love story. It is slow-going. There are walks in Washington Park, flashbacks to toddler bathtub play, transfixed gazes, and hours of lovers’ ennui. An almost trance-like first sexual encounter leaves Tish pregnant. The father,Fonnie Hunt (Stephen James) is falsely accused of a violent rape and jailed. Tish is left to relay her plight and seek help for Fonnie.

While her family is the epitome of love and acceptance, Fonnie’s mother and sisters are haters of the first order. Fonnie’s mother, played Bible-straight-haughty by Aunjanue Ellis, tears into Tish, “ I always knew you‘d be the destruction of my son.” She goes on to hope that the baby shrivels in Tish’s womb. Here, she is forcibly slapped in the face by her husband.

In constrast, Tish’s mother radiates a joyful faith. ”Get the good glasses…We are drinking to new life.” easily morphs into “Love is what brought you here. You trusted it then, trust it now.”

Regina King plays Tish’s wise mother. She has a lovely scene were she plays mid-wife to Tish’s water birth. She watches Tish and her grandson bond by giving them just enough space. King has strong emotions to display. I loved the scene were she fidgets with a wig readying herself to meet a Puerto Rican go-between on Fonnie’s behalf. Her lines spoken to the runaway rape victim are desperate: “ Do you think I came here to make you suffer?” and King delivers before falling to anquish. Likewise tender moments are garnered by Tish’s father, Joseph, (Coleman Domingo)as he cradles his pregnant daughter, makes her tea, and places his strong hands over her swollen stomach.

Director Jenkins likes the close-up, and a soft and hazy pallet. One of my favorite scenes has Fonnie dreaming of his sculpture work, hammering away in creative splendor, and missing his whetting stone and Tish in his arms. The fact that his innocence is not a defense rankles. Looking at someone you love through a prison screen glass is made soul-wrenching. While trial dates are postponed, Fonnie yells and then apologizes to Tish. “Do you know what is happening to me in here?” translates easily enough to the same jailhouse sexual abuse Fonnie’s friend Daniel alludes to.

The use of music as integral to life produces a memorable score. Hopelessness is never apparent. A “can do attitude” has both grandpas fencing garments. Fonnie works as a short-order cook and in a tool shop. Tish tries her luck at the perfume counter. Friends help. A bodega proprietress stands up to a rascist policeman in Fonnie’s defense, a restaurant manager gives Fonnie and Tish a white-tablecloth meal and the dance floor, and my favorite kind-person segment is when Levi shows the couple an available loft and helps Fonnie, for Tish’s benefit, move in imaginary appliances.

Harsh lives viewed through romance has me thinking that Jenkins, like Levi, ”loves people who love each other.” I was just up for a little more than doe-eyes and a series of slow, massaging scenes trying to sooth the effects of a rascist country. Love conquering all should not be race exclusive.

“Vice”

The message is clear. The American people were hooked when Vice-President Dick Cheney took over as the most powerful VP in American history. This cynical and humorous bio-pic never loses sight of this truth. And the truth is told in the most creative ways by incredible actors.

Christian Bale has Cheney’s stare and smirk down! Add the heavy gold watch on that thick wrist that can flick and cast, and we have our metaphor for power. Beware of the quiet man. He watches, waits, and then strikes. Give that man (no matter that he was kicked out of Yale for drinking and fighting) an ambitious wife, Lynne Cheney ( Amy Adams) and we have the MacBeths. One of my favorite scenes being their Shakespearean bed plotting. Adams, too, is brilliant. As a take-charge-goal-setter, Adams lights up the screen, even as her old family demons keep her fighting for control.

A cast never looked more like the people they are portraying. Steve Carell as the crude talking Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as the clueless George W. Bush, and Tyler Perry as Colin Power, and LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleeza Rice will impress. But more impressive than the acting and the physical appointments is writer Adam McKay. Half National Lampoon satire and half Michael Moore diatribe, this film is heaven for liberals about the hell of our political scene.

McKay uses a catchy format of narration. Midway through the film, we intuit that the young man speaking is Cheney’s heart donor. Bogus credits roll after a half hour, and we wish this was the end of our story. In Michael Moore fashion, this film asks Americans if they were sleeping or just working such long hours that we chose not to think about our government. Yet, Cheney is portrayed as a ghost~a powerful one.

A dark comedy, “Vice” shows Cheney working as an intern for Illinois Congressman Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld tells Cheney that two DUIs came up on his clearance papers: “ I took care of it. You owe me.” As Rumsfeld’s lackey , Cheney becomes a servant to power as Rumsfeld rises to serve in the Nixon White House, becomes Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford ( 1975-77) and under George W. Bush ( 2001-06).

In one sequence, Cheney tells his daughter that if you have power, people will try to take it away from you. Much is made in the film about Cheney’s championing of Unitary Executive Theory. In its most extreme form, Congress and the Federal Courts can not touch the President. Others argue that Commander-in-Chief refers to military and National Security matters only. McKay shows the Cheneys as power bandits.

Through the use of conservative think tanks, the repeal of balanced reporting laws, and pundits like Rush Limbaugh, McKay ferrets us through the history of the rise of the Right. When a snippet of Ronald Reagan’s speech “ Let’s make America great, again” we are meant to wince. Like in McKay’s film “The Big Short” ( reviewed here Dec. 20, 2015) he ferrets out the money trail to Halliburton and Cheney’s CEO connections and the resulting 500% increase in the corporation’s stock.

”Vice”’s visuals are stunningly clever. I loved the stack of unwieldy porcelain cups and saucers ready to topple. The tasseled loafers, the way Cheney buttons his jacket, his saunter with briefcase under his arm, all mesh with power and the horrible history of 9/11, the Iraq War, the take down of Saddam Hussein, and the rise of his replacement, ISIS. In one memorable scene, we see Alfred Molina as a waiter serving up entrees of torture to Dick and his guests. The Guantanamo archive back-up is deactivated and Cheney says ” clean to work.”

The ending song from “West Side Story” with its lyrics ” I like to be in America, Okay by me in America” follows Dick Cheney speaking to the camera: ” I will not apologize for keeping your family safe.” There are no heroes in this film, only ruthless power brokers and a nod to Cheney’s public acceptance of his daughter’s lesbianism. Incriminations reign and it is hard to be entertained by them. “Vice” is about vice.

“ Mary, Queen of Scots”

It may help one’s enjoyment of screenwriter Beau Willimon’s movie “Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018 ) if you brush up on those Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth personages before you enter the theatre. Having not read the book on which the screenplay is based, John Guy’s “Mary, Queen of Scots”, I do not know how much the first thirty-five minutes conform. But, they are deadly, cold, and dark, and that includes the screen. This being said, as one sorts out the two Tudor Marys, one being “Bloody”, and our star, Mary Stuart ( Saoirse Ronan), the film picks up and splendid acting ensues.

A brief factual history helps. Mary Stuart ( 1542-1587) is tolerant and portrayed as such. She was beheaded, and Director Josie Rourke begins here. The rest is flashback.

Our Mary is not to be confused with Mary Tudor (1516-1558) “Bloody Mary” (so called by her Protestant opponents) daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Nor is she to be confused with Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who married Louis XII of France in 1514.

Our Mary Stuart married a French King,too. And we see, via the flashback,a young eighteen-year-old widow after the death of France’s Francis II. The scenes where Ronan plays coy with her ladies-in-waiting are meant to stress her youthful sexuality, her playfulness, and lack of hautiness. She soon is swept away by her cousin’s amorous intentions and marries a second time. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley,( Jack Louden) is father of her son, James. In 1557, a year later, Lord Darnley is murdered by the Fourth Earl of Bothwell. As plotted by Queen Elizabeth’s make regents, he becomes Mary’s third husband. The Queen and her lords believed that they had to separate this marriage between two Catholics.

Margot Robbie is amazing in her supporting role as Queen Elizabeth I. She must protect her crown, and a Papist must not again sit on the throne. Her overt confidence, interwoven with self-effacing admittance of jealousy and the belief that Mary is the better woman, is well-scripted.

Mary is just as perceptive. Ronan just as brilliant in her portrayal. Her missives fly for the cousins\ sisters to “resolve our destinies”. She is honest, strong, and able to tell her husband that he is not her master, even at eighteen. Later, when Lord Darnley ( her second husband) sleeps with a man. Mary dismisses him from her bedchamber, but tolerantly tells him that she “can not fault him for his nature.”

The back and forth screen time between Mary and Elizabeth further separates any meshing of womanly accord. When they finally meet in person, we are taken by the weight of both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s decisions. Mary will not declaim her people though she asks for Elizabeth’s protection. Elizabeth and her regents believe that they must control Mary’s claim. When Elizabeth’s advisors propose civil war in Scotland to aid their cause, she tells Mary, “ I choose to be a man”.

Willimon’s television-drama sensation “House of Cards” ( 2013-2017) shows that he understands the political arena, and at forty-one, he does not dispute that woman have had it rough. The “Me, Too” movement shines through in his revisiting of history. In one card playing scene, a knife is put to Mary’s pregnant stomach. This is where men think her power grows. By the way, my favorite visual was the shadow of Mary’s bountiful profile.

“Mary, Queen of Scots” takes one to a period I don’t wish to return to, though I loved the four ladies praying at Mary’s bedside. Basically, any woman thinking and planning is seen as whimsical and foolish by “wise” men.

Mary endures gossip, name-calling, and subterfuge. She is called a “polecat”, betrayed by her half brother, the Earl of Moray ( James McArdle), and humiliated by at least one husband. Other male personages seem to be fuzzily identified. John Knox is played by David Tennant, and advisor, William Cecil, is played by Guy Pierce. Both are good in their parts, but a knowledge of English history would assuredly help in following the historical arc.

Queen Elizabeth controls her conscience by rolling paper into flowers and embroidery. She muses that “ when we are dead nothing matters”. Her sigh of “How cruel men are!” thrusts the sub-theme forward. This film seems to champion Mary Queen of Scots’ reputation. Guillotined, Mary is poryrayed as loyal, dutiful, and tolerant, rather than ambitious. She believes that to relinquish the throne is against God’s will.

We wish Queen Elizabeth did not yield so to her male regents’ bridle. When she burns her artful paperwork, she symbolically succumbs to a man’s world. The red flowers melt into blood between her legs. Another nicely graphic touch, yet makes one think that only women who give birth are true women. Robbie beautifully and understatedly emotes that “we could do worse than put her (Mary) on the throne of England.”

The second half of the film is far superior to the first. I loved the thatched wash house scene, where the pock-marked Queen plays peek-a-boo with the lovely Mary. Both women seem utterly alone. Robbie, again delivers remarkable lines: “ Your gifts are your downfall…I was jealous of your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood”.

Elizabeth was forty years on the throne. She thought women ruled better without discord, but her signing the death knell for a despairing, but resolute, Mary did not finish the deal. Mary’s son, James, became James VI of Scotland and James I of England after Elizabeth’s death. Oscars for the female leads is here reason enough to see “ Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018), and revisiting the possibilities of historical-could-have-beens is fun, too.