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.

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.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (14 December 2018)

Early on in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, main character Miles Morales, aided by his Uncle Aaron (the Oscar-Winning and excellent Mahershala Ali), creates a wall-spanning piece of graffiti art containing the words “No Expectations”, a play on Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book being read at Morales’s school. While it sets the tone for Morales’s character, it’s also something the reader should keep in mind– since the web of parallel universes and compelling characters go in so many directions anyway, it is best to go into the film without expectations one way or the other, and to let oneself be carried in the +many directions the film takes. Into the Spider-Verse is electric and dynamic, a wonderful ride of a feature. From the moment the opening credits begin, it is immediately immersive, with intense beats and bright colors that dash across the screen. Movies based on comic books are frequent, but rarely are they able to so artfully give the viewer the feeling of being transported directly onto the pages of the medium. This is just one way that the film benefits from its animated format.

The witty web-slinger has graced the big screen nine times in the past 17 years, so viewers are familiar with Peter Parker’s origin story and personality, a fact the film quickly and humorously references. However, Miles Morales is a generally lesser-known iteration of Spider-Man. Created in 2011 by the comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Morales is a Brooklyn teen with an African-American father (voiced in the film by Brian Tyree Henry, who gave a performance that brought me to tears) and Hispanic mother. Morales really feels like the kind of teen one would meet in Brooklyn. He sings along to excellent music in his room, gets embarrassed by his policeman father, tries to impress girls (such as classmate “Gwanda,” voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) and worries about finding an identity and place in the world, especially after being forced by his parents to attend a private school instead of his former public school. Relative newcomer Shameik Moore does a fantastic job at portraying an authentic, kind-hearted, bright and occasionally awkward teenager. The tone of the film changes greatly, often from scene to scene, but Moore makes sure we never feel jerked around. He keeps the film squarely grounded in humanity, even as it swings us through the trials and tribulations of a superhuman universe.

Spider-Man has often been a hero strongly tied to tales of coming of age and finding one’s identity, and this film doesn’t stray from that template. Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider (neon and stunningly psychedelic) while in the subway creating graffiti art with his uncle, one of the few adults in his life with whom he feels safe. After discovering, and struggling with, newfound spider abilities, he returns to the scene, only to find his universe’s original Spider-Man in a struggle with Kingpin, who is attempting to access parallel universes. Morales is tasked by this Spider-Man to find a way to disable Kingpin’s particle accelerator, and therefore save the universe, but this cosmic task seems very grounded with the struggles Morales faces in feeling alone and lost in his task and world. With the help of spider-powered heroes from other universes, Morales must find an identity, confidence, and strength, a struggle taken on by many teenagers (although I would argue that his race and struggles with class, as evidenced by his father’s pressure to “move up,” make these universal struggles even more relevant for a large audience). Although the teen often feels alone, he is, though sometimes begrudgingly, joined in his task by a wide cast of characters.

Each character, and sometimes iterations of the same character, have something to add to the film, and although the film is animated, rarely do they feel two-dimensional. Even Aunt May (voiced by Lily Tomlin) is a different version of the character than previously seen, more independent and resilient than films have given her the opportunity to be in the past. In a world that has seen Spider-Man on screen so many times in the last years, it’s hard to imagine a film with so many versions of the hero to allow them to be unique, but the film even allows us a version of Peter Parker very different than any we’ve seen before, described accurately by Morales as a “jenky old broke hobo Spider-Man.” Even the porkine hero Spider-Ham, voiced by a delightful John Mulaney, features in the film and manages to be at least a little more than a gag. The cast of characters from different genres and dimensions allow the film to flourish, and allow both artists and actors to showcase their skills.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is visually and auditorily stunning in ways I wish I had the knowledge to more accurately describe. It’s obvious that the film was crafted by artists who truly love what they do, and who truly love and respect comic books. Daniel Pemberton has composed one of the most fantastic original scores I have ever heard, and artists like Nicki Minaj, Post Malone and Blackway and Black Caviar do an excellent job adding to the fresh and invigorating feel the soundtrack adds to the film. The art style is also something unique for a feature film– modern 3D computer animation is combined with the traditional 2D “dot” style of comic books. This style allows the film to surpass some of the confines comic book films face in live-action format. The concept of “Spidey Senses” has never entirely worked in live-action, but in animation, is able to simply be drawn on the screen via colors and wavy lines, so that the viewers can experience it without having to rely on tired explanations by characters. Additionally, the film uses traditional comic book techniques such as panels, which are able to provide humor and emotional punches depending on the scene. Onomatopoeias scroll up and down the screen, love notes to the original art form. Scenes such as doors of a subway car opening and closing are gorgeous in ways they perhaps wouldn’t be able to be in any other medium. The film is a beautiful piece of art, an homage to comic books and wholly unique, along with being a love story to Brooklyn, to change, and to evolution.

I would argue that the world already knew from films such as 2018’s Black Panther that comic book movies can be culturally-relevant pieces of art rather than just action-filled “popcorn flicks”, but through the use of classic yet groundbreaking animation, a compelling cast of characters, and an immersive soundtrack, Into the Spider-Verse further elevates the genre and adds a unique and breathtaking work of art to its list.