Authentic India’s Most Wanted falters as action movie

The decision on whether to formally review India’s Most Wanted, a Bollywood produced “action” movie, was difficult. Reviewers struggle to determine what elements of foreign produced films are culturally specific, and which ones are generally applicable. Bollywood movies typically fall into this conundrum for a variety of reasons (e.g., the inclusion of musical numbers in dramatic film).

On the upside, Western audiences will be treated to cinematography that captures sweeping vistas of India and Nepal. Their sense of place and custom will be jarred as they are transported into the crowded streets of Delhi, Kathmandu, and mountain side towns. They will also be forced to adjust to urbanity where four-wheeled vehicles are scarce, reserved for the wealthiest and most well connected. Most people will be riding on hot, crowded buses, or various forms of two-wheelers. They will see an authentic setting for the story. No attempt is made to project high-powered technology with fancy driving or stunts. The conditions remain grounded in the real-world technology faced by the men on the ground, including cell phones with little more capability than texting and talking.

India’s Most Wanted is inspired by the real events surrounding a secret attempt by Indian special police to infiltrate Nepal and nab a notorious terrorist — without firing a shot. The themes of bureaucratic incompetence and the heroic actions of the lead characters will not present a problem for most Western viewers; these are familiar plot lines and a staple of this genre. Western audiences will also probably find the low-tech nature of the search and capture mission refreshing. The film is low-budget by Western standards, meaning no CGI and limited practical effects. In the right hands, this can be play well. Unfortunately, “India’s Most Wanted” fumbles.

While audiences can certainly believe that the team in under imminent threat of discovery, and this will likely trigger significant negative consequences — national shame, ruined careers, an international incident that could trigger military intervention — few in an American audience will really believe the team is facing dire physical threats or death (even though they were). As narrative, the stakes are substantially lower. No amount of slow-motion video capture, dream sequences, deeply pensive camera shots with stunning sunset backdrops, or roughing up prisoners, is likely to overcome these lower stakes.

Thus, the hurdle for Western audiences will be their expectations. Action movies produced out of China, Hong Kong, Japan, and the West are fast-paced and physical. The heroes in India’s Most Wanted appear by Western eyes to be out-of-shape, middle-aged misfits. None, except perhaps the team leader, looks like they have stepped into a gym or physically worked out since their days of police training. This would be fine if “India’s Most Wanted” were a comedy, or even a “dramedy.” But movie is billed as an action-thriller. We are expected to believe the team is a serious threat capable of taking down a violent and dogmatic terrorist — which they did in real life — but on camera it doesn’t look they could job 100 yards.

The result is slow paced movie that never really rises to its action billing. On-line reviews suggest the film is doing better in India than in the US. American viewers, however, would be best to approach India’s Most Wanted as a cultural immersion more than an engaging, fast-paced ride. The movie is in Hindi with English subtitles.

Rocketman soars with fantasy and authenticity

“Rocketman,” the musical-fantasy-biopic of British pop music virtuoso Elton John, is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. Despite the well-known nature of his trials and tribulations on and off-stage, the movie keeps audiences engaged through a smooth weave of iconic songs into critical points in Elton John’s personal and professional development. What seems like an entertaining musical in the beginning, quickly evolves into a meaningful and heartfelt story of the rise and near-collapse of a pop icon.

The movie begins with Elton John’s heartbreaking origins growing up in a working-class section of the town of Pinner in Southeast England. Isolation from his detached father and free-spirit mother eventually leads him to music. At first, the film feels like a more conventional musical, mixing well-known songs penned by Elton John and his long-time co-writer Bernie Taupin with critical events in his upbringing and personal development. As the movie unfolds, however, these events (and the meaning behind the lyrics) reveal themselves as part of a well-scripted story that is tightly written and intentional. The fantasy elements bring audiences into the emotional and personal world of a young man increasingly estranged from his parents and doubts about his own self worth, even has he shows a remarkable aptitude for songwriting, voice interpretation, and musicianship.

The movie is boosted in no small part by an Oscar-caliber performance by Taron Egerton (from the “Kingsman” action movies) who also sings most of the tracks. Indeed, “Rocketman” may well be a break-out role for Egerton, establishing him has a highly versatile actor willing to take on bold roles. The movie is so well scripted and directed, I didn’t find any scene gratuitous, including what is apparently the first gay-male sex scene in a major Hollywood movie (although this is scene is tame by contemporary standards). This polished result is a tribute to screenwriter Lee Hall as well as director Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody).

Notably, “Rocketman” was produced by Elton John and his husband David Furnish. While the movie clearly reflects Elton John’s perspective, the story is reflective and doesn’t shy away from his severe and prolonged battles with addiction, the dysfunctional effects resulting from the relentless pressure to perform on a world stage, his struggles with his own sexual identity, or how his behaviors and choices fractured critical relationships. The screenplay’s vulnerability is a tribute to Elton John, deepens the story, and elevates the messages he clearly hopes his current, more balanced approach to life can convey.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin fans will find a lot to enjoy in “Rocketman.” But they will also come away with new interpretations, or appreciations, of their talent, their songs, and the meanings behind the lyrics.

Strong performances, a tightly written screenplay, and topflight directing and editing will likely keep “Rocketman” in contention for major awards despite its relatively early release in the year.

Update 6/20/2019: Check out the Facebook review: 4,093 people reached, 588 engagements, 397 reactions, 21 comments, and 35 shares.

John Wick 3 nonstop action with no story

John Wick 3: Parabellum is a direct chronological extension of the second movie (which I did not see or review), with Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run after being excommunicated from a global secret society of assassins. If all you are interested in is nonstop, well choreographed, high production value action and a ridiculously high body count, then the third installment in the John Wick series is the right movie for you. The plot doesn’t have much else, although an excellent supporting cast provides important dimension and complexity to the story.

In fact, the entire plot can probably be summed up in its subtitle, which is more accurately represented in its Latin form “para bellum,” which means “prepare for war.” According to wikipedia, the phrase is most often used coupled with another phrase, so it would read: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” John Wick does a little more than prepare for war, mainly by dropping scores of professional assassins licensed to kill him. Although thin, a plot exists as Wick tries to atone for past sins and escape his past life as a hitman.

Parabellum takes its action scenes to extraordinarily high levels as a visual art form with a refreshing reliance on practical effects over cgi special effects. In fact, the effects and fights scenes are so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie is nominated for major awards in special effects editing, cinematography, and sound. (As a martial artist, I found the fight scenes very well choreographed and appreciated the authenticity of the attacks and defenses.) Notably, the movie cast Mark Dacascos, a highly skilled martial artist, in a principal role as an assassin recruited to kill John Wick. The movie was also produced and directed by a martial artist and stuntman (Chad Stahelski). The shear number of action scenes might be a bit gratuitous, but they are exceedingly well done. Reeves is impressive in what are clearly long continuously filmed fight involving knives and guns of all types.

The movie benefits from a number of well drawn characters (presumably carryovers from previous movies) with several excellent and well-known actors, including Laurence Fishburne (the Bowery King), Angelica Huston (Ruska Roma), Halle Berry (Sofia), Lance Reddick (Charon), and Ian McShane (Winston).

I enjoyed the movie, although I found myself distracted by the body count. Just don’t expect much more than a straight up, fast-paced action movie with a lot of graphic violence.

The Kid carried by story and earnest performances

For those looking for a good old-fashioned western movie, The Kid is probably their cup of tea. The movie, directed by veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio, follows a young boy as he tries to navigate the moral ambiguities of life in America’s Old West.

Set in New Mexico territories in 1879, fifteen-year old Rio (Jake Schur) and his older sister, Sara (Leila George), are on the run after they kill their drunk and abusive father. Even though the killing would seem to be justified, their uncle (Chris Pratt) vows to avenge his brother’s death. He organizes a posse of henchmen to track them down.

As Rio and Sara flee, they find themselves caught up in Pat Garrett’s (Ethan Hawke) legendary hunt for the outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan). Billy offers them safety–an outlaw with a heart, so we think–establishing a heartfelt bond with Rio. Despite warnings from Sara Rio’s affection toward Billy grows. Ultimately, in order to save what is left of his family, Rio has to make a decision between the no-nonsense justice of law, represented by Pat Garrett, and the outlaw (with a heart), represented Billy the Kid.

The American Old West has been a fertile ground for authors and filmmakers since the beginning of the industry (probably The Great Train Robbery in 1903). The American frontier was uncompromising, a toxic cauldron of clashing values, competing cultures, big personalities, and laws only as good as those that could be enforced. Frontiersmen (and women), but their nature, are adventurous pragmatists. D’Onofrio honors the tradition and the genre. The Kid does an good job of putting Rio in the cross hairs of these conflicts as he tries to find his own compass at a point where he must decide whether to remain a boy or become a man.

The decision to frame Rio’s choices and challenges in the context of the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid rivalry was a good one. Both figures carry enough baggage, historically and within the fiction of the movie, to make Rio’s choices unclear and difficult even if he does have a clear moral compass.

While The Kid doesn’t break new ground for Western movies, the film is engaging, the performances earnest, and the plot well scripted. The movie’s pace feels more like a drama than a thriller, but those enjoying the Western genre will find it a satisfying two hours.

Captain Marvel‘s fast pace stumbles on storytelling

Captain Marvel has emerged as the first true blockbuster of 2019, bursting out of the gate by earning $153 million during its first weekend. Audiences love the movie even though my own review was a bit more tepid.

While Captain Marvel is a very good action film, like several other critics, I thought the story didn’t hold together very well. Some reviewers believed a large part of the blame (from a film quality perspective) was in miscasting Brie Larson in the title role. I actually have a different take. I think the problem with the movie was in the story structure, which complicated the role of the actor and movie editing.

What I mean by story “structure” is the way the story unfolds, both in terms of plot and character development. While I won’t go into this in a lot of detail, movies have very rigid “rules” for developing screenplays and telling stories. Unlike novels, which can take their own course, screenplays have to fit into a highly structure two hour visual storytelling frame. The classic screenplay outline encompasses three acts. The first act gives us background of the character and the “normal” world where they are not faced with conflicts. This includes the inciting incident, that point that propels the character on their journey. The second act has the lead character(s) fumbling about until they realize they need to do something different (or die, often times literally). They will experiment with different strategies and tactics, but they are grounded in their “normal world” even though they are no longer living and acting the normal world. All this builds to a clamactic scene where the lead character overcomes their primary obstacle (or villain). The third act wraps everything up. The actual markers delineating the first, second, and third acts are not formulaic; They change with the character, plot, environment, and action.

Over the first and second acts, we (readers/audience) get to know the characters. We understand their world, their basic coping strategies, and the kinds of challenges that face on regular basis. We usually bond with the protagonist and identify the villain (or who we think is or will be the villain), so we have some sense of how the story will play out. This grounds us (the reader or viewer) in the personality and challenges we expect the character to face. (For more on this, see the classic books on screenwriting by Syd Field and Robert McKee, as well as Michael Tabb’s useful recent addition.)

Most stories are also paths on the so-called “hero’s journey.” They are on a quest for some higher purpose, and to achieve that objective they will face an almost insurmountable obstacle. The obstacle is “almost” insurmountable because if our protagonist doesn’t overcome it the ending is a downer. Most people like to see the protagonist win, even if they have deep flaws.

Which brings me to Captain Marvel….

We (the audience) are introduced to her through dreams, where we think she is human, but later realize she a member of the Kree civilization name Vers (pronounced Veers). Outside the dream, she is spunky, hot headed, and strong willed. In the dream, she has experienced a trauma and is confused and dazed. Which is the real Veers? Is it a dream? Or a memory? I don’t know, and without really understanding her starting point, I was confused. Moreover, we find out that the dreams themselves are connected to some vague Supreme Intelligence. So, they might be memories. Eventually, these two conflicting views of Vers are brought together, and its logical and makes sense. In the beginning, however, I (and surely other viewers) had to dismiss “one” of the Veers because her approach to situations was so diametrically opposed to each other. In the process, I was taken out of the story, and ended up focusing on the action, not the character. As a novelist who writes character driven action adventures, I was disappointed and unsatisfied.

From a artistic point of view, I think these dueling perceptions of the motivations and behavior of Vers unmoored her character in the story, making it difficult for readers and viewers to connect to her. Brie Larson clearly had a vision for her character, and how she would play it. The vision makes sense given the arc of the overall story. But as a viewer (reader if it’s a book), I couldn’t relate to her. I didn’t understand Vers’ motivations. Without understanding her motivations, I was unable to determine what her true challenge was, let alone evaluate the gravity of the obstacles she would face.

These confusions may have been the intent of the screenwriters and directors–there were multiple in both roles–a storytelling trick to keep us hooked. If this is the case, based on the criticisms of the film and Brie Larson’s performance coming from many different quarters of the critic community, I think they were too clever by half.

Personally, I saw a lot to like in Larson’s performance. If I had been more invested in her character and understand better how to interpret her behavior as she embarks, as most superheros do, on their journey toward self-discovery, I would have been all in from the beginning.

For the record, I really like the Captain Marvel character and think it’s long overdue for a female lead character to headline a Marvel movie. I am looking forward to seeing Brie Larson reprise her role in future films.

For those interested in movies with strong female characters, here are links to my reviews of Wonder Woman, a movie that I think gets everything just about right,

More of my writing on storytelling from this blog can be found here.


Five Feet Apart propelled by poignant story of survival, love, and sacrifice

Occasionally, I am at odds with many movie critics. Such is the case for Five Feet Apart, which I think is an excellent movie (as do most regular audiences watchers). The leads (Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse) are excellent, and have palpable chemistry on screen as two teenagers in advanced stages of a genetically inherited terminal illness (cystic fibrosis, or CF).

The movie’s title derives from standard CF treatment practice of minimizing airborne infection from others with the disease by staying six feet apart. Don’t worry, the movie explains the five foot modification, and it’s the heart and soul of the movie (as good titles should be; not bait and switch). For more on CF, which is actually quite complex, see the general overview here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cystic_fibrosis

“Five Feet Apart” is much more than just good acting. Every scene is a meaningful and moves the story forward, either by driving plot or the arc of the characters. Moreover, the movie just doesn’t dwell on the victims of the disease: the story directs attention, well integrated into the plot, to the toll the disease takes on the caregivers and professionals who cope with the teenagers trying to manage their lives under the heavy weight of a terminal illness (with excellent performances by Kimberly Hebert Gregory as a nurse and Parminder Nagra as a doctor). We see unfolding before us love gained, love lost, love restored; doubt, perseverance, compromise; heartbreak, hope, defeat, determination, inspiration; all amid heartfelt struggles to find purpose and meaning. I think the screenwriters (Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) and the director (Justin Baldoni) have done a remarkable job tying together these wildly dynamic strands and threads into this poignant tale of mental and physical survival. And Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, and Moises Arias (their friend Poe) do a great job fulfilling their artistic and storytelling vision.

So, why do I think many critics missed the mark on “Five Feet Apart”? I suspect I bring a number of perspectives into the film that might put me more in touch with the target audience. As a YA novelist (four YA novels and counting), I have worked for years thinking about and putting into creative practice the personal and social psychology of teen behavior and attitudes. As an active parent, I witnessed my own children struggling with many of the issues that play out in “Five Feet Apart” (although in circumstances far less dire). But perhaps most importantly I have spent a lot of time trying to understand human sexuality and intimacy. “Five Feet Apart” gets all of this right.

So, is Five Feet Apart melodramatic? Certainly. So are teens’ lives. The difference is the melodrama is a critical (and necessary) part of growing up, and “Five Feet Apart” honors this essential element of human development. Audiences who like the movies probably see, as a did, the reality of their world in this story. Does the story meander? On the surface, yes. In terms of the story’s basic structure and drive toward the climax, no. It all fits and provides forward momentum for the story, leading the characters logically and rationally to their climactic scenes. Is the movie exploitive? No. the movie puts teens in an unimaginably (for most) heartbreaking situation that actually does play out in real life (although the prognosis for most afflicted with CF is much better than the movie implies).

Overall, I think Five Feet Apart is a fine film, one of the best I’ve seen in 2019. But be prepared: this movie is a true drama and the story’s ending is not all roses (or, to push the metaphor further a rose with many thorns).

Update 6/20/2019: Check out the Facebook post and comments: 5,72 people reached, 443 engagements, 307 reactions, 27 shares.

Birdbox boosted by strong, experienced cast

For practical reasons, I focus my reviews on movies released in commercial theaters. But several friends encouraged me to watch Bird Box (Netflix). Bird Box’s post-apocalyptic thriller theme finally tipped me over the edge. I was pleasantly surprised: I was engaged throughout movie, Sandra Bullock leads a very strong cast of actors, and the ending (if you haven’t read the book), is thought provoking.

The story follows the survival choices made by Malorie Hayes (Bullock) as she tries to lead two young children to safety after the human species has been devastated by mysterious and invisible creatures–at least we think they are creatures. All we know is that when humans look toward the phenomena, they begin hallucinating and commit nearly instant suicide. While the phenomenon is a pandemic, the source of the illness or the sudden changes in behavior is never revealed.

We are exposed to the full arc of Malorie’s story through flashbacks. The movie opens with Malorie desperately imploring her children to keep their blindfolds on, and their subsequent escape onto a river in a small rowboat. Then, we flash back to five years earlier when life was “normal.” Malorie is pregnant, but has been abandoned by her partner (or spouse). As the world succumbs to the effects of the paranormal presence, she is given safe harbor in a home. The creatures apparently cannot go into buildings. Once inside, she bunkers down with a band of other survivors, including another pregnant woman. As we expect, the survivors begin dropping through through various acts of heroism and errors in judgement.

The movie holds together, however, because it’s more than just good acting in a horror show. The story of Bird Box is also the story of Malorie. Abandoned, humiliated, and angry, she projects her anxiety, fears, and frustrations on her family, including her unborn child. In the midst of the carnage and chaos, can she heal? Is her commitment to the children out of duty, love, or a quest for redemption? Will she sacrifice her children for her own survival? These human questions and others are answered as we see her relationships unfold under the stress of her (and her group’s) attempts to survive in the face of overwhelming uncertainty and the inevitable paranoia it engenders.

Viewers have criticized the movie because the story leaves many questions unanswered. The movie, however, is Malorie’s story, and her actions and choices are driven by the context and the constraints as she perceives them. This is a post-apocalyptic thriller. Marorie, like most people faced with an event like this, will never have these questions answered. Nevertheless, audience members who prefer movies that tie up all the loose ends by the end will likely leave dissatisfied.

A big benefit: Bird Box is helped by a fine and experienced cast, including John Malkovich as a cynical survivor, Trevante Rhodes as her stalwart partner, Tom Hollander, Sarah Paulson, Danielle Macdonald, Jackie Weaver, B.D. Wong, Rosa Salazar, and others.

Fighting With My Family is a balanced blend of comedy and family dynamics

Movies about professional wrestling are not high on my “to watch” list — I’m not a fan — but I was drawn into the theater by the trailers. I was not disappointed. Well acted, Fighting With My Family is a well balanced comic blend of professional wrestling as entertainment, wrestling as business, and the clash between hopes and (dashed) dreams of those who long to be in its spotlight.“

Fighting With My Family is the story of the rise of Paige (Saraya Bevis played by Florence Pugh), a pioneering real-world female wrestler who rose from the working class city of Norwich, England to become one of professional wrestling most popular figures. She grows up with her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) in a wrestling family headed by their father Rowdy Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and mother Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey). Their parents come from the world of hard knocks, barely scraping by. Ricky has been in an out of prison, and Saraya worked the streets until they found each other and wrestling. They settled down and now run a gym where they train young boys and girls in the art of wrestling as entertainment.

Zak and Paige dream of becoming WWE stars, enamoured with the celebrities, glitz, and glam of the show. However, they take the sport and the skills needed to be successful seriously. They send in tapes to WWE in the hopes of being selected for their world tour. Finally, Zak and Paige are selected to try out. Only Paige, however, seems to have “the spark” that WWE is looking for, triggering a family crisis that requires everyone to come to grips with lost hopes, crashing dreams, and digging deep to find out what really matters.

To the movie’s (and writer/director Stephen Merchant’s) credit, Fighting With My Family deals with the consequences for the entire family of Paige’s selection. Each has to find peace with an industry that is much more complex, sophisticated, and ruthless than they see on the flash of the television screen. At the same time, the movie honors WWE for what it brings (or doesn’t) to entertainment, sportsmanship, and athletics. Even those not enamoured with professional wrestling (such as me) will come away with a better appreciation for the sport.

The acting is well done, although Paige’s character arc is not as well defined as it might be. Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden bring real chemistry to the screen as siblings whose futures and identities are tightly woven together only to be ripped apart. While Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also does a good turn as a celebrity mentor to Paige, his role seems a bit more forced into the story, calculated like the sport is highlights, to bring people in the door.

Overall, Fighting With My Family is a solid movie, although crass humor, crude sexual references, and mild profanity might be unsuitable for younger family members. It’s PG-13 for a reason.

And the Oscar goes to….

I’ve provided links to my reviews of the 2018 movies nominated for the 91st Academy Awards in the most widely recognized major awards categories. Winners are in bold italics.

I’ve focused on the categories where I was able to review most of the nominated movies. I will also update this blog post with the winners after the show.

Best Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Best Director
Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma
Adam McKay, “Vice

Lead Actor
Christian Bale, “Vice
Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book

Lead Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma
Glenn Close, “The Wife
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite
Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Sam Rockwell, “Vice

Support Actress
Amy Adams, “Vice
Marina de Tavira, “Roma
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, “The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman,” Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born,” Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite,” Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
“First Reformed,” Paul Schrader
Green Book,” Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
Vice,” Adam McKay

Cinematography
“Cold War,” Lukasz Zal
The Favourite,” Robbie Ryan
“Never Look Away,” Caleb Deschanel
Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born,” Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman,” Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Ottman
Green Book,” Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite,” Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice,” Hank Corwin

Sound Editing
Black Panther,” Benjamin A. Burtt, Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Warhurst
“First Man,” Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou Morgan
“A Quiet Place,” Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl
Roma,” Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
“Christopher Robin”
“First Man”
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Roma shines with a little help from Mexican history

At first blush, Roma is the kind of movie critics and industry types love. Most American filmmakers can probably tick off with ease the reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s film is destined to become an industry classic. The cinematography is fantastic, the frame-by-frame attention to detail is stunning, the director’s decision to film in black and white was bold, the existential approach to telling the story (using the point of view of a young domestic servant’s life — Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparacio — as a live-in maid and nanny to a upper middle class family in Mexico City) evokes empathy and reflection. The fact that Cleo is also of indigenous ethnic origin, and apparently Aparicio is the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, is icing on the cake.

For (American) audiences, however, here’s the rub: The movie is slow moving, appears to meander, and borders on boring. The film has very little action, and even less plot. Roma appears to be about the characters and their arc over the course of the film.

Not surprisingly, critics are heaping praise while audiences are less enthusiastic. At Rotten Tomatoes, 96% of critics rate Roma fresh while audiences are less enamored, with just 73% giving it similar ratings. If audiences had more backstory, their appreciation for the movie might improve. A little Mexican political and economic history, almost all of it ignored by most American reviews (which describes it as a semi-autobiographical film) helps us understand why Roma is, in fact, much more.

Roma is more than an art movie.

Set in 1970 and 1971, the movie takes place ten years after the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) started Mexico’s “Dirty War”. The government repressed leftist organizations, students, and anti-PRI political opponents as it used increasingly authoritarian tactics to maintain control. The tactics were violent, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries as the PRI become more authoritarian. Most notable for Roma’s story may the Corpus Christ massacre in June 1971, which becomes a critical plot point.

This background is actually fundamental to understanding the movie. I could see more clearly the human drama unfolding in the scenes. Cleo’s passive role (and understated acting) in the family, despite her central role as its anchor, is more fully understood. The relationship between Cleo, her host family, and her co-workers reflect the socioeconomic (and political) tensions of the time. Cleo is from a poor, indigenous village, but she works in Mexico City for a well-educated professional family. The father is a medical researcher and doctor, and the mother is a biochemist. Cleo’s role at the center of the family dynamics is put in stark contrast to her impoverished, less sophisticated and uneducated background. At the same time, we see the importance of Cleo supporting her own family through her work in the city.

Meanwhile, wealthy land owners (and relatives to Cleo’s host family) are working with, or at least complicit in, the government’s land expropriation policies directed at poor indigenous villagers and small farmers. The conflicts and tensions between rural and urban ways of life play out in important ways as the middle-class family dynamics deteriorate and Cleo is faced with a traumatic choice that will alter the future of her life and relationship to her host family. Several scenes specifically draw on the repression and chaos surrounding the events of the Dirty War, and how government policy played out in class tensions, inequities in political power, and the fragile nature of property rights in Mexico. Understanding this, Cuaron’s imagery is even more salient and crucial to the film.

I will not be surprised if Roma takes several major awards during Oscar night, including Best Picture and Best Director, most of them well-earned. While the inspiration for Cleo is in fact drawn on Cuaron’s family and his life growing up in the Colonial Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, and he no doubt drew extensively on his personal experiences growing up in the neighborhood, the film is a very subtle and sophisticated use of visual storytelling to engage in social commentary. I just needed to know more about Mexico’s political history to really appreciate full breadth of what Cuaron accomplished on the screen.