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.

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.

Announcement

When people find out you’re suicidal, they usually try to figure out a reason why. If there isn’t an obvious one, they try to figure out factors to keep you from going through with it– support systems, sure, but also hobbies. “I like to read, and to write,” I told numerous professionals during my hospitalization this autumn as they stared at me expectantly over their clipboards. “I like… movies. I like to watch movies.”

I was first diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was thirteen years old. Like with being suicidal, people tried to figure out a cause, but there didn’t appear to be one. I had supportive and loving parents who had had an amicable and non-traumatizing divorce over a year ago. My middle school experience was not much more difficult than anyone else’s. I had friends. Nevertheless, I was angry and sad and bogged down for months on end. I hated myself. I was started on Prozac two months after my diagnosis, the medication I remained on for the next six years, before switching to Zoloft and finally Cymbalta. I also remained in therapy.

Getting a shy, sad teenager to talk about their deep feelings and insecurities was not an easy feat, but getting me to do so in therapy was even more difficult. However, my therapist Harriet quickly discovered a way to get me to open up; at the beginning of our sessions, or when we reached a wall, she would ask me if I’d seen any movies lately. Usually I had. I wanted to be a film critic until sophomore year of high school, and even after I decided to go into nursing, movies remained something I was passionate about. So I would spend a few minutes talking to Harriet about movies, and often the topic would fairly naturally shift into more serious subject matter.

Along with being something I love, movies have been a way for me to gauge the severity of my depression. I remember sitting in the theatre watching A Quiet Place early this year and thinking, “I know myself, and this should be making me sob, but I don’t feel anything. I’m just numb.” That was a marker to me that things had gotten bad.

My love of movies has been with my longer than my depression has. As a toddler, I was discussing gender roles and workplace practices in A Bug’s Life with my mom. For most of my childhood, I read Entertainment Weekly religiously. I remember begging my mom to let me stay up long enough to watch all of the Oscars as early as 2005, when I was nine years old. My family has participated in Oscars ballots for over a decade.

I will never be a professional film critic. However, I can still review movies, from a novice perspective. So that’s what I’m going to do. 52 times, in fact, one movie for each week of 2019.

This quest, which I’m calling Cymbalta Cinema, serves a few purposes. One of these is that it gives me something to work on, and strive toward. For most of my life, I’ve been in school, working to graduate high school, and then college. Now that I’ve accomplished those goals, as much as I adore my job, it’s been hard to find things to work toward and to keep myself going day to day. Watching and reviewing one movie a week gives me something to work on, and also ensures that I’ll be out of bed and up and about at least once a week– often with friends, hopefully! The second purpose to bring awareness to mental illness. It’s a struggle a lot of us face, and too often in silence. It’s something I’ve been hesitant to talk about. There are very few people I told about my hospitalization this fall. There are very few people who know the extent of my depression. And I feel that that silence perpetuates a stigma. Far too often I’ve heard co-workers on my floor refer to the psychiatric patients on our unit as “crazies.” If I said anything about my struggles I’m sure they’d say “oh but you’re not like THOSE people” as if there’s something wrong with having a mental illness. I’m not ashamed that I have depression, that I take medication for it (Cymbalta, 90mg a day), and I’m not even ashamed that I had to be hospitalized so that I wouldn’t kill myself. I want to get better, and I’m working on it. Recovery is a process, and it sure isn’t linear.

So, I came up with Cymbalta Cinema. Starting in January, I’ll be seeing a movie a week and posting and sharing film reviews every Saturday. If you could follow along and read a few reviews, that would be incredible. Projects like this are easier to maintain if there are people holding me accountable. I’ll be posting the reviews here, and sharing on social media. At the very least, thank you so much for reading this far. That in itself means a lot to me.