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.

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.