Roma (21 November 2018)

In preparation for the Oscars this coming Sunday, I finally sat down to watch Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s Best-Picture-nominated Netflix original. The film focuses on a a wealthy Mexico City family and, specifically, on one of their two maids, Cleo. Amidst political chaos, the characters go through trials and trauma in their personal lives as well, and although an incredible film from Cuarón is no shock considering his past films, Roma is a uniquely well-crafted piece of art.

Because Y Tu Mama Tambien was released nearly two decades ago, it is easy to assume Cuaron has an extensive filmography. However, aside from the aforementioned, the only films of Cuarón’s in wide United States consciousness prior to Roma were 2006’s Children of Men and 2013’s Gravity. Roma, set in Mexico City, hails back to Cuarón’s country of origin. It follows Cleodegaria Gutiérrez and the family that she works as a maid for. The majority of the film is in Spanish, although at times its indigenous main character occasionally speaks in her native language.

The black and white film manages to be incredibly vibrant for all its lack of color– one is able to imagine the bright plumage of the birds that are shown, along with the elaborate clothing worn by many, the decor in the house, and the buildings on the streets. The film is able to ignite other senses as well– one can almost smell the cigarette and cigar smoke, the food, the smoke from a forest fire. One can feel the warm sun, the salty ocean waves. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what about the film does it, and perhaps it is the simplicity, but it manages to be an incredibly somatic experience. Cuarón has managed to create the type of film that truly is an entire experience, showcasing skill unparalleled by many talented directors.

The film takes place in the early 1970s, amidst political turmoil, and the majority of it shows relative calm in the forefront, with chaos weaving in and out of the background. Early on, one of the four children in the family mentions that he saw someone gunned down by a soldier, but meanwhile he and his siblings play pretend games in which they themselves wield toy guns. A later scene focuses on Cleo’s stillness as an earthquake shakes the hospital she stands in. Unrest in her marital and familial life make it increasingly harder for matriarch Sofía to remain composed and pretend that she and her family are fine. As the film progresses, both personal and political chaos become increasingly harder to ignore, and begin to take the forefront, both in frame and in idea, culminating in a quietly chaotic and lovely climax.

The film broke my heart in a multitude of ways that I was not prepared for, but I have absolutely no regrets about watching it and, indeed, wonder why it took me so long to do so. It’s a film that encourages and rewards increasing vulnerability, both in its viewer and characters, even when that vulnerability leaves one open for a more raw form of pain.

One may wonder if the class dynamics in the film are handled as deftly as they could and should be, especially considering Alfonso Cuarón himself grew up in a wealthy family in Mexico City, and Cleo herself is based on Cuarón’s family maid. The casting of Yalitza Aparicio, herself an indigenous Mexican, is an encouraging one. The actress is phenomenal, absolutely deserving of her Academy Award nomination, and the presence of an indigenous actress in such a high-profile role is an encouraging one, as colorism and racism against indigenous people is incredibly widespread, and hopefully will pave the way for further roles for indigenous Mexican women. All that being said, one does at times feel like Cleo is pushed to the side in what is supposed to be her own story, and it’s not always easy to differentiate how much of her quietness is commentary and how much of it is a missed opportunity to delve into the character’s past and her motivations and desires.


All in all, Roma is an incredible piece, assisted by a talented cast and breathtaking cinematography. Its success and Best Picture nomination further cement Netflix as a distributor of quality films, and it will be interesting to see tomorrow whether or not one of Netflix’s original movies can nab the ultimate award.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (8 February 2019)

The Lego Movie (2014) was stupendous– it was charming, creative, heart-warming, original, and contained a song that I still get stuck in my head nearly weekly. Due to the originality of the first film, and the fact that sequels often don’t live up to expectations, I was convinced The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part would be at least somewhat disappointing, especially after viewing its trailer. The Lego Movie, no matter how fantastic, has been rooted in capitalism, so it was easy to be concerned that a sequel would be purely a cash-grab after the success of original, without the heart and creativity. In reality, I left the theater feeling warm-hearted and satisfied.

The film picks up five years after the events of its predecessor, but in flashbacks relays what happened immediately after the finale of the first film. Aliens from another planet landed with the intent to destroy all creations in their past, and now, whenever Lego creations are built, they’re soon destroyed by these big-bricked Duplo aliens. Over the past five years, the citizens of what’s now called Apocalypseburg have become hardened– they sport tattoos, dark clothing, and sometimes tougher names (this includes a gritty version of Abraham Lincoln, which is fun to behold). One citizen, however, Emmet Brickowski, remains essentially unchanged from the first film. He is optimistic, friendly, and full of goodwill, even in this world of Legoland meets Mad Max: Fury Road. This bothers the eternally tough Lucy, also known as Wildstyle, who feels that he is naive, and needs to toughen up to better function in the world that they now live in. When Lucy and four other Apocalypseburg citizens are taken away by the invading General Mayhem, Emmet makes it his mission to rescue them, meeting up with super tough raptor-training spaceship captain Rex Dangervest on the way.

The original film focused on the importance of creativity, and how children don’t need to fit into boxes, and should be encouraged to express themselves in whichever ways come naturally. While seen in films before, this message is an important one, and was well-handled in the original movie. The messages of this film are also incredibly important, and it’s a positive sign that they’ll be viewed by a large audience of children, especially boys; the film targets toxic masculinity, and the idea that one has to fit a “tough loner” archetype to be a hero. It also targets the idea seen frequently in films that one has to become hardened by the traumas they experience, rather than allowing themselves to be vulnerable. A film that challenges the idea of “strength” and where it comes from us always welcome.

The first two thirds of the film are jam-packed with musical numbers, and one gets the impression that the film is trying (in vain) to match the success of “Everything is Awesome” from the first movie– a success that really can’t be paralleled. Some of the songs are catchy, but after a time it begins to feel as if the movie is trying to throw out a bunch of songs in hopes that one of them will stick in public consciousness. Ironically, the most effective song in the film is a poignant remix of “Everything is Awesome” from the first film, which also samples songs played previously in this film. It ties the messages and plot of the film together in an emotionally satisfying manner, and jumpstarts the film’s conclusion.

This is a children’s film, but still contains plenty to keep adults engaged. Bruce Willis makes appearances that are amusing but also work to advance the message of the film. Songs and dialogue contain snippets that are incredibly amusing to those with knowledge of Batman’s extensive cinematic history, and several references to recent and older action movies. The film is so full of a variety of types of jokes that it feels as if it’s easy to miss them, and that one would benefit from a second watch and listen. There are visual puns and jokes, and witty lines delivered quickly in long stretches of dialogue. The majority of names in the film contain a joke of some sort or another. One has to keep their eyes and ears open, and are rewarded for doing so with a genuinely funny, witty film.

One way this movie falls flat of its predecessor is the live action sequences. In the first film, they were used sparingly, and packed an emotional punch. In this film, they come up slightly too frequently, and come off more as a second story than one intertwined with the animated portion. A large part of the impact of the live action portions of The Lego Movie came from the unexpected factor and the originality, something that a sequel wouldn’t be able to replicate, but they still don’t feel as seamlessly integrated as they could be. For a lot of the sequences, the viewer can understand and imagine what’s going on without having to be shown it, and being shown directly takes the viewer away from being optimally engrossed in the movie. This isn’t to say that the live-action portions of the film shouldn’t be there, merely that they’d be more effective if used less often and slightly differently.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part doesn’t pack quite the punch of the original, but it manages to switch the formula around enough to make for an engaging and satisfying sequel full of laughter and loveability.

One Day at a Time Season 3 Episodes 1-5 (2019)

A Note:

I’m going to preface this review with a note instead of having one at the end.

As you may have guessed by the title, this isn’t a movie review. It goes against my plan for the entire project. I didn’t have time to make it to the theater this week due to my work schedule, and planned to catch Roma on Netflix instead. However, when I opened up Netflix, I discovered that there were new episodes of one of my favorite TV shows. Keeping up with this project is important to me, but at its core, isn’t it about increasing my overall happiness and mental well-being? Watching this show made me genuinely happy, more so than watching Roma would have, and I decided to do that. Sometimes, things just don’t go as planned. I would like to note that this review will contain some spoilers for the first two seasons of the show.

Back with a movie review next week!

~~~~

One Day at a Time, a Netflix original series based on a 1970s sitcom of the same name, premiered in 2017, and quickly became a valuable addition to the streaming service’s lineup. In many ways, it harkens back to a classic family sitcom format– yes, there’s a laugh track and everything, and the show oozes charm. However, it’s a show that differentiates itself from classic sitcoms in key ways. The family in focus is the Cuban-American Alvarez family, which consists of veteran and nurse Penelope, her mother Lydia, and her two children, daughter Elena and son Alex. The modern TV show keeps the character of Schneider, the rich and over-involved landlord of the building. The character is consistently cringe-worthy, but by season 3 he has also become nearly as loveable as the Alvarez  family themselves.

Season 3 picks up a few months after the end of Season 2; life is fairly stable for the Alvarez family at this point. Lydia is mostly recovered from a stroke at the end of Season 2. Penelope is continuing to work as a nurse while studying to become a nurse practitioner. Elena, a lesbian, is happily dating her significant other, Syd, a non-binary teenager who uses they/them pronouns. Alex is now 15, and a fairly typical teenage boy, trying to balance family and a social life.

The show follows the classic sitcom format of half-hour episodes, each with a mostly-container arc, but contains continuity and connection between each episode that make it a more satisfying overall experience than some other shows. This season seems to do that especially, harkening back to events an episode ago at times, a season ago at others. It truly feels like snapshots of the life of a family who could very much exist. The actors are incredible, and their performances add to the realism.

Also in the same vein of many sitcoms, the show has several “issue” episodes– episodes designed to bring attention to societal issues. These often come off as heavy-handed it sitcoms, and at times do walk that line in One Day at a Time, but manage to end up as poignant and timely. The episode that addresses sexual harassment and assault, and how different generations have perceived them, feels like a conversation that has surely happened in households across the country. Additionally, many of the topics are addressed as they specifically relate to queer people and Hispanic Americans. This is something that there isn’t a lot of in media, and it feels wonderful to have it at the forefront of this show.

The show also manages to incorporate several classic sitcom tropes. A lot of the plot points in the the season so far have been done and seen many times before, but One Day at a Time always manages to put a slightly new twist on them, or just make them particularly effective. Often this is due to Rita Moreno as Lydia specifically. At 87 years old, the actress is dynamic and charismatic. The entire cast excels at balancing emotional punches with humor, but Moreno is an extra delight.

The show is truly spectacularly funny, and its sense of humor surely appeals to multiple generations. The humor ranges from wonderfully excruciating puns to long setups to classic misdirection. The jokes are all carefully crafted, and while they may poke fun at individual characters, the jokes never approach offensive.

The first five episodes of this season build upon the previous seasons, while striking out in new directions as well. New characters are introduced, along with fabulous guest stars (such as Melissa Fumero, Gloria Estefan and Stephanie Beatriz. Watching the new season feels like catching up with an old friend, and it’s delightful. The remainder of the season is sure to remain a treat.

On the Basis of Sex (11 January 2019)

There’s never been a bad time to celebrate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but arguably there’s never been a better time than now. The 85 year old has undergone three broken ribs and a lobectomy in the past three months, and still remains on the court, with no plans of stepping down anytime soon. The film celebrates her individual triumphs, and the triumphs she pioneered for the American judicial system and equal rights for women.

The film’s first part takes place in 1956. It begins with a sea of men in grey suits and briefcases walking in one direction, and in their midst, a women with bouncy hair and a blue dress, eyes full of determination. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of nine women in her class at Harvard, and immediately not treated as an equal to the men in the class; the Dean addresses the bunch as “Harvard Men” and at a dinner that is theoretically to honor the women, asks them “Why are you here,  taking a man’s place?” Ginsburg herself delivers a witty and scathing retort; the film establishes early that she has never been one to be intimidated, merely exasperated.

In this first semester, Ginsburg’s husband is diagnosed with testicular cancer, a disease which, at the time, had an incredibly low survival rate. Ginsburg immediately took his place in his classes while he underwent treatment, attending the classes of two people, transcribing his papers, all while taking care of an infant daughter. It’s a story that seems too impressive to be true, except, of course, that it is.

The film goes on to highlight the struggles Ginsburg had at finding a job as a lawyer in a heartbreaking sequence, and then makes a jump to 1970, where she has been teaching at Rutgers for the last decade. The heart of the film takes off from here. The film makes Rutgers look like a bit of a dump, in a bit of an unfair move, but one that highlights why Ginsburg feels unsatisfied with where her life has taken her, especially after she excelled in law school and graduated at the top of her class. She then comes across a case that she sees as an opportunity to further the fight against sex-based discrimination against women.

Felicity Jones is lovely as Ginsburg, arguably nearly too much so, and she gives an engaging and nuanced performance. The film does at times drift into the territory of being heavy-handed, a film about “Overcoming Adversity,” but its performances, especially Jones’s, keep it grounded. The film is at its most powerful at its most human moments– close-up shots of its actors faces, conversations between mother and daughter. It’s a film about a family, and about someone trying to do what she believes is right– real people, working together to engineer change. It isn’t a story, at its heart, that is larger-than-life. It’s a story about people, and the film flourishes when it remembers that.

Some of what may be perceived flaws are hard to discern, due to the fact that the film is based on a true story. For instance, it paints the women’s rights movement and Civil Rights movement as parallel, rather than intersecting movements. The Vietnam protests are also seen as parallel, or as a plot device when mentioned at all. The importance and intersectionality of the movements isn’t addressed as deftly as perhaps was possible. True, the film has a focused story to tell, but it’s hard for me to believe that the story couldn’t have been told in a more rounded manner. Black women have always existed, and have fought for their rights both as women and as people of color. This is something the film glosses over. Nonetheless, the story it does tell is an engaging one, and inspiring.

The film is not accurate in every way, I am sure. There are inaccuracies about specific years, specific timelines. Nonetheless, I feel like I did learn a lot that I didn’t know before about the life of this incredibly justice, and I feel that the point is not pinpoint historical accuracy, but an accurate portrayal of the spirit that it took to succeed against the odds. This isn’t to say that Bader Ginsburg has had only her spirit to thank– she is white, and had the support of a wealthy husband throughout her quests– but no one can doubt the astonishing amount of determination, perseverance and intelligence that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has possessed her entire life. She would not be where she is without those, and the country itself, one is sure, would not have made quite as much progress as it (in some ways) has. This film makes for an earnest celebration of her life and work, work that she continues to do, and succeeds in highlighting an iconic American figure.

A Note From the Author:

I’m well aware that this is far from my highest quality of writing. It’s been one of those weeks were just getting anything written and semi-completed is a feat. And yes, it doesn’t help that I got my wisdom teeth out, but this week has been like walking through sludge. Today, I just wasn’t able to get out of bed until my cat prompted me. Spero helps a lot with my mental health. He’s curled up on my lap as I type this. Some days that’s enough to keep my head above water, for sure. Some days it still feels like nothing’s worth it, and some days I can’t find the motivation to do anything at all. I have an appointment with a new therapist tomorrow night, and I’m trying not to put too much hope in it, but I have tried so many therapists trying to find one who’s even close to the right fit, and I am so worn down.

This project does feel like a chore sometimes, but I think it’s important to me. It makes sure I leave the house and it makes sure I do something that feels productive. It makes sure I actually practice writing, which is a huge deal to me. Being a “writer” used to be part of my identity, but I kind of lost that somewhere along the way, and I want to make sure I start writing more and don’t stop, because it is something I love dearly.