Posted on March 20, 2019 under Empties
I feel like this round of garbage accumulated very slowly and then very suddenly. I ran out of a bunch of staple products within a few weeks, which made my wallet sad but which was nonetheless satisfying. I note that I have not used up any haircare products over the last three months, but there is a lot of skincare in here.
The Body Shop Coconut Body Butter x2: A very classic Clem move is buying three tubs of Coconut Body Butter at the beginning of winter when The Body Shop is doing 3 for $30 or buy 2 get 1. This is the only body butter I use, because the coconut oil makes it better than all the other ones. I go through it pretty quickly; I’ll probably polish off the third tub within the next month, at which point hopefully the weather will be more conducive to some lighter body creams. Obviously I will repurchase when November rolls around.
The Chemistry Brand Hyaluronic Concentrate: This was better in the fall when I first started using it; by deepest winter it was very necessary to layer it with something heavier. At $30, it’s pretty pricey for a hydrating body gel, especially when you’re me and have dry, scaly legs and arms. I won’t repurchase.
La Roche-Posay Respectissime Waterproof Eye Makeup Remover: Look, I tried to cut corners and bought the Marcelle eye makeup remover when I used this up, and I regret it. It is not as good and it irritates my eyes. I will never stray from LRP again.
Biotherm Biosource Total Renew Oil: I love a good oil cleanser. This was a good oil cleanser. It’s also $37 for 200ml. I would rather pay $19 for The Body Shop’s 200ml cleansing oil. (Just kidding, you know I never pay full price for anything at The Body Shop, nor should you.)
Marcelle Ultra Gentle Cleansing Gel: I have been very loyal to this cleanser for a few years now. It’s gentle, it’s effective, and it’s cheap. I now have two of these in my bathroom: one on the counter and one in the shower. That’s how you know it’s very real between us.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Caring Wash: Another gentle gel cleanser. I liked this a lot, but it’s $22 for 200ml to Marcelle’s $13 for 350ml, hence why Marcelle has replaced it in my shower.
Vichy Idélia Serum: This is leftover gratis from literally two years ago. That’s the way it is when you work in cosmetics. Anyway, this serum felt nice and gave my skin an instant glow, but the plant-based antioxidant ingredients aren’t really worth the high price tag.
NIOD Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex: Okay, this product also has a high price tag, but I love it so much. It has ten times as much hyaluronic acid as The Ordinary’s HA + B5, and the texture is far superior. It has made such a difference to my skin this winter – I’ve been only slightly dry, with absolutely no flakey patches. I’m eventually going to investigate if Hylamide’s hyaluronic acid serum is a reasonable middle ground (and at $18 a lot more affordable), but I admit I’ve already cracked into a new bottle of MMHC.
The Ordinary 100% Plant-Based Squalane: A nice lightweight facial oil, but not my favourite since it doesn’t have the added benefits a lot of other oils do besides surface hydration. Last spring I travelled with squalane as my only facial moisturizer, and it worked well under makeup and gave me sufficient overnight hydration. I ended up using up most of this bottle on my arms and legs, because I’m not really using oils in my facial skincare routine these days.
The Ordinary “B” Oil: I used this up on my arms and legs, too. I think this oil blend is a nice idea for the indecisive, but I’d rather receive the full benefits of one oil. I’m pretty happy with my oil-less face routine, but marula will be the next one I try when I want to change things up.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA: I’ve gone through a few bottles of this now! I really like LA as an effective but gentle alternative to glycolic. I have very tolerant skin that does fine with glycolic, but lactic is a little more dry-skin friendly. I don’t like to have too many actives in my routine so I’ve retired this in favour of a vitamin C for the time being, but I’m sure I’ll go back to it at some point!
NIOD Survival 30: Dude, this is by far the best facial sunscreen I’ve ever tried. I was very much on the Vichy and La Roche-Posay train for a while, but Survival sits way better under my makeup. The pump tends to get clogged and spray product out a little aggressively, which is a bummer, and it’s obviously not cheap. But I’m firmly on this bandwagon. The texture is second to none (at least none that are readily-available in Canada), and I love that it’s packed with antioxidants for well-rounded protection.
NIOD Hydration Vaccine: This is a silicone-based barrier meant to prevent moisture loss from the skin. Supposedly it can be used AM and PM, but I don’t think this would sit nicely under makeup. I used it pretty much every night in the winter and I think it helped a bit – but I have so many hydrating products in my routine that I think I would have been fine without it. I probably won’t repurchase this one, but it was fun to try.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Fluide: You can probably see that I have transitioned much of my skincare over to Deciem, but I’ve never been a fan of the Natural Moisturizing Factors. I am sticking with the LRP Toleriane line! I’ve tried every moisturizer in this line (I think), although when I bought this I definitely meant to get the regular Ultra. As a daytime moisturizer I think Toleriane Ultra is absolutely fantastic; this lighter version is nice, but I could have done with richer hydration during the coldest months. Totally my fault, and still a great product.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Sensitive Riche (sample): This moisturizer brought me into the Toleriane world, and I am so grateful for it. This is great for very dry, sensitive skin. I find the Toleriane Ultra works a bit better with makeup, but I am still a huge fan of this one.
Abnomaly Petrowhat? in Milk: This is a squalane-based alternative to petroleum jelly ointments. Unfortunately, I really did not care for it, and ended up using it up on my elbows, where I’m not sure it did any more than it did for my lips. However, you can see I did my best to not waste a drop of it.
CoverGirl The Super Sizer Mascara (Waterproof): I have now embarked on a doomed journey to replace my beloved discontinued Clarins Truly Waterproof. This mascara held a curl and built volume nicely, but it didn’t give me the ultra-long feathery effect I crave. It also smudged a bit under my eyes, which makes me wonder why I put myself through all the pitfalls of a waterproof mascara anyway.
Bare Minerals Prime Time Foundation Primer (deluxe sample): This is a very standard silicone-based primer, which is to say it did absolutely nothing for me and I had no thoughts on it.
Glossier Priming Moisturizer (sample): I guess this belongs in the skincare category, but I put it here to round out this sad little offering. My brief impression of this product is that it’s pretty hydrating and sits well under makeup, but there are a lot of moisturizers that tick those boxes and I’d rather stick with one I don’t have to specially order.
Orly Nail Lacquer in After Party: This is a very fun nail polish with black, navy, and purple microglitter. I distinctly remember ordering it to my first year dorm room, which means it’s at least six years old. I’ve used it a lot and now it’s very gummy and gross and it’s time to say goodbye. It was gorgeous, though.
Sally Hansen Gem Crush Nail Color in Lady Luck: I honestly don’t know how this survived the great nail polish declutter of 2017, because it is gaudy as hell in a way that does not appeal to me. (I mean, I love some gaudy things, just not this.) It’s also completely dried up and gross. Bye.
Sally Hansen Diamond Shine Base and Top Coat: Not as good as my trusty Sally Hansen Miracle Gel top coat, the subject of one of my earliest blog posts. (Please see the first image in this blog post for evidence that I indulge my love for gaudy things frequently. That hideous ring cost me $0.37 at H&M.) I have since corrected this error in judgment.
Quo Blending Sponge: This used to be my favourite blending sponge, but they have definitely reformulated it. It has way less give and it soaks up a tonne of product. I’m currently using another one which I bought simply to ensure that this one wasn’t just a dud (it was not), and then I’ll have to find something else.
Now I’m going to throw this all in the recycling bin and start anew!
Posted on February 28, 2019 under Books
Okay, more book reviews! This month I read 9 books, taking the 2019 total up to 17. There was quite a bit this month that underwhelmed me, but there were some winners too.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
A 10th-century Bohemian king wishing to escape death flees to India in search of immortality. He and his wife spend hundreds of years living their best lives and concocting an incredible perfume. In the late 20th century, the perfume in its original bottle has made its way to a divorced waitress in Seattle via her adoptive mother who runs a perfumery in New Orleans. The king, who has been separated from his wife for centuries, believes the key to reunion lies in finding the bottle. This is a darkly funny novel, sort of in the style of Vonnegut if Vonnegut were prone to overwrought metaphors and Orientalism and overt sexualization of women of colour. The immortal king prizes individualism, which is ironic given both his extreme attachment to his wife and the fact that the novel depends on the interconnectedness of people throughout a thousand years of history. There were parts of this book that I found enjoyable, and I thought it came together well at the end. It’s clever and amusing (a “romp”, some might call it), and I get the appeal. But it took me a long time to read for a 350-page novel, and I didn’t fully connect with Robbins’ writing style.
Against Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag
Reading this book, I realized that I like Sontag’s writing style more than I like her ideas. Some of her essays knock my socks off; I still think Illness as Metaphor / AIDS and its Metaphors is wonderful, and some of the more generalized essays in this collection were interesting. But a lot of her more specific art criticism is tedious, and I often found myself taking a slightly different critical position. “Notes on ‘Camp'” remains a thorn in my side; she articulates the aesthetics of camp so clearly and brilliantly, but, well, I didn’t spend a large portion of my master’s dissertation vigourously refuting her central claims in that essay for nothing. (Camp is political!) I don’t know if I should be irritated by her obsession with the art of European men or happy that she directs so much scorn towards them. She wrote some amazing zingers directed at men, which almost makes the whole thing worth it.
Lanark: A Life In Four Books by Alasdair Gray
A landmark in Scottish literature, Lanark is made up of four books presented out of order. The first and last concern the titular character as he attempts to navigate a surreal, dystopian afterlife which is probably hell; the middle books follow Glaswegian Duncan Thaw from childhood to his postwar life in art school. These sections are naturalistic and brilliantly-rendered. I think I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories about artists, and the Glaswegian content was glorious. Thaw’s afterlife was so genuinely bleak and disturbing in a way that I haven’t often encountered – and not because anything so terrible happens but because it’s characterized by endless bureaucracy, which is holding Lanark back from taking any real action while simultaneously being the only thing moving him forward. I haven’t read a book this atmospheric in a long time. There is such a playfulness with the form of literature, especially in the epilogue (which is slotted in three chapters before the end of the book). There’s definitely a permeating misogyny running through this one, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because of the author or a function of Lanark/Thaw’s rather unsympathetic character. I’m inclined to say it’s the latter, as the male characters in the book are uniformly terrible in a very deliberate way. There are a lot of themes in this one that I’ve noticed some earlier Scottish literature: the idea of doubling of the self, the suggestion of the devil’s presence, the ambivalent grappling with morality. (I’m mostly thinking of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.) This is a long, dense one, but I found it enchanting (in a very disturbing way) and I’d highly recommend it.
Final Girls by Riley Sager
In her sophomore year of college, Quincy Carpenter was the sole survivor of a violent attack on her group of friends. The media named her a “Final Girl”, alongside two other women who survived similar massacres. I was really excited to finally get to this one, because I’ve been known to enjoy a female-fronted thriller and because the premise is so delicious. I’m a huge baby about horror films, but I still find them absolutely fascinating. They’re so ripe for interpretation, and some of the best film criticism concerns the genre. (I took a class on horror during undergrad and I still think of it very fondly.) I thought this book was going to subvert horror tropes in an interesting way. I should have known from the beginning that Sager’s understanding of the horror genre is shallow at best; Quincy explains that the “final girl” is a trope used by “film geeks”, when in fact it was actually coined in an academic context by Carol Clover in the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (I mean, film buffs use it too, but there’s a lot more to it than that.) (By the way, last year I was talking about the final girl trope with this guy who was trying to refute it as if I were making it up on the spot, and I was like, “No, it’s a real thing, I took a class on horror in undergrad,” and he didn’t believe me until another guy backed me up and that’s basically what I imagine the majority of horror buffs to be like.)
In general I found basically nothing to redeem this book. I wasn’t expecting it to be a work of literary genius, but I thought it would be fun. But it wasn’t! While it was very trope-laden, there was no element of subversion. Here is an incomplete list of horror tropes that this book partakes in unironically: the final girl (morally pure, “not like other girls”, not reliant on men, unisex name), the cabin in the woods, the hard-partying sexually-active girl dying first, the mysterious stranger arriving out of thin air… Yet this book has no sense of the irony, humour, or intelligence required to make it a successful satire. It only has cardboard characters and a few unsatisfying cheap twists. Quincy is the blandest character in the world and no amount of repetitive Xanax abuse could make her interesting, nor could the constant insistence that she survived a massacre because she was somehow special or morally-superior. The pacing was far too slow for this book to be thrilling or even a bit tense. It was just flat and stupid, and the ending was infuriating. A twist only works if it’s been set up carefully. When it’s conjured out of thin air, it’s just garbage.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
In the mid-60s, eccentric alcoholic Eliot Rosewater feels (rightfully) guilty about the massive fortune he is set to inherit and dedicates his life to extravagant philanthropy lavished on a small town in Indiana. Meanwhile, a young lawyer assigned to help manage the Rosewater Foundation’s vast wealth sees opportunity in having Eliot declared legally insane and transferring his wealth to his distant cousin, a working class insurance salesman in Rhode Island. This appears to be Vonnegut’s most overtly political book in that he very clearly takes the stance that extreme wealth is unethical. (Well, I guess the anti-war message of Slaughterhouse-Five is up there, too.) Central to the novel is the idea that some people have no use (meaning they do not generate wealth) but that they deserve help and love anyway. As always, there is so much humanity in Vonnegut’s dark humour and absurdism. The ending of this one is hilariously satisfying in a way Vonnegut so rarely is. This is top tier for me – and now I only have three Vonnegut novels left to read. I’m hoping to knock those off before the year is out!
The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading, edited by Eileen Myles and Liz Kotz
I thought this would be a lot more angry and political, but it turned out to be experimental and touchy-feely and kind of crunchy, which I guess is the other side of the 90s lesbian coin. There were some pieces in this book that were extremely well-written and resonant, but a lot of it felt tedious. I’ll admit that I have never gotten into poetry (which is possibly a strange and nonsensical thing to say, but it is what it is), so there is that, but I really don’t think that experimental crunchy touchy-feely 90s lesbian poetry was ever going to be what got me into the genre. I was ready to be mad and political, so this just left me disappointed.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
In the mid 1990s, a precocious eighteen-year-old named Selin begins her studies at Harvard. In her Russian class, she makes two Eastern-European friends: Svetlana, who is larger-than-life and charismatic, and mathematician Ivan, who is withdrawn and mysterious. Selin is drawn to Ivan and begins a bizarre email correspondence with him. My stance on books generally is that if too much time is dedicated to handwringing over men I’m not a fan. However, things are a bit different when the book meticulously picks apart a certain type of male pretension and self-aggrandizement at the expense of women. Selin is such an interesting character; in less capable hands I think she would have been unbearable, but there’s an earnestness to her pretentiousness that makes her endearing rather than grating. Selin’s anxiety that she has no opinions echoes some of my own insecurities at the beginning of my undergraduate career. Batuman’s thoughts on language are fascinating: how it shapes our perspectives, how it fails us, how we struggle to articulate ourselves in languages that are not our own. This is a funny, touching, wonderfully-articulated novel that somehow manages to fully realize its ambitious scope.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
The cover is the best part of this book.
In Montego Bay, thirty-year-old Margot works at a hotel (and as an escort) to make ends meet. She wants to send her fifteen-year-old sister Thandi to medical school so that she may have a better life than Margot and her mother. Thandi, however, is more preoccupied with the boy she has a crush on and with her attempts to lighten her skin; she wants to be an artist, and though she’s a conscientious student, she finds the mounting pressure to make something of herself stifling. Margot, whose family does not know that she is a sex worker, is also hiding the fact that she is in love with a middle class woman who lives in their neighbourhood. When a new resort threatens to displace the community, Margot sees opportunity. The premise of this novel is great, but unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the execution. The characters are so unsympathetic it’s hard to care what happens to them; Margot especially does some truly terrible things while maintaining a martyr complex. There are a lot of themes here that interest me: colourism, same-sex relationships in extremely homophobic societies, intergenerational/inherited trauma, tourism as neocolonialism, sex tourism. I just didn’t feel that any of these topics was engaged with successfully; no meaningful conclusions were reached. The primary story was the dynamic between the two sisters, so when the novel shifted perspectives my attention wandered. This novel was set in the mid-90s, but the setting didn’t seem particularly developed, unlike The Idiot (which is unquestionably set in the 90s). The writing felt to me like it was trying very hard to be lyrical, but to its detriment that effort was very visible. In general it felt underdeveloped, and I found very little I liked. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (though much longer) way more successfully works through themes related to Jamaican history and identity; Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is an excellent longform essay on the Caribbean tourism industry as neocolonialism. This book failed to come close to either of those.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
After adoring Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, I have been trying in vain to find another one of her novels that fully realizes that potential. Swing Time is the closest I’ve found, though it seems to have generally received lukewarm reviews. An unnamed narrator takes us through her childhood in council flats in North London, a period marked by her ambitious, idealistic mother’s activism and her fraught friendship with a talented dancer named Tracey. As an adult, the narrator becomes the personal assistant to the philanthropic yet wrongheaded Australian mononymous pop star Aimee. The narrative moves between the narrator’s childhood in the 1980s to her career in the aughts as she helps Aimee construct a school for girls in a West African village. (The consequences of this foreign aid venture are explored quite believably, I think.) There’s a lot going on here, and I’ll admit that I didn’t necessarily think the village storyline meshed with what I thought was a captivating account of working class childhood. There aren’t really any likeable characters here, but I really enjoyed how the narrator was consistently drawn to difficult women: her mother, the charismatic yet cruel Tracey, Aimee. The shifting dynamics between the narrator and Tracey were rendered brilliantly, and I thought the complicated relationship between mother and child was touching. I really enjoyed the structure of the plot: because it moves back and forth, we are often told about an event in passing before it is shown. (I think the title is a reference to this, though of course it also refers to the film of the same name and the recurring theme of dance more generally.) Zadie Smith can turn a phrase like no one else; I consistently admire her writing, though her storytelling isn’t always perfect. The ending of the book felt like a bit of a letdown, like the whole novel was building to something that turned out to be fairly tame. (Also how I felt about the ending of NW.) Though Smith didn’t quite stick the landing for me, I enjoyed this book a lot more than NW and On Beauty, and this has given me hope that her upcoming novel might be the masterpiece I believe she has in her.
This month I would say my favourites were God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, The Idiot, and Swing Time. Some real misses in here, but next month we can start afresh and hope for more hits.
Posted on February 20, 2019 under Reviews
With the Oscars around the corner, here’s another batch of reviews of some films I’ve seen recently in my quest to be a knowledgeable Oscar viewer for once. The films I’ve seen in 2019 have generally been a lot more enjoyable than the ones I watched in the fall, though I have criticisms of most of them!
Mary Queen of Scots, dir. Josie Rourke
This film was a mess. It could have been far more enjoyable if it had leaned into its messiness, but instead it was a strange, hollow narrative with some great performances from Saoirse Ronan (with a slightly-questionable Scottish accent) and Margot Robbie (who did a valiant job of pretending she was ugly). The political drama at the centre of the film was not particularly well-realized. There were hints of a camp consciousness that I really wished the film had explored further, particularly in Robbie’s Elizabeth. There was so much promise in her increasingly bizarre appearance coupled with the scene in which she makes paper crafts while drinking wine as her nemesis has a baby. However, the film as a whole never lived up to that potential. It was still kind of enjoyable in its messiness, particularly in the absurdity of Ronan’s Mary being cast as a gay ally. Also the part where Elizabeth snatches her own wig. I saw this one with my coworker and her roommate, and when it was over we sat in silence for a moment before saying, “I don’t know what just happened.” It was simultaneously insane and boring. (Really, it was mostly boring with some insane moments.)
If Beale Street Could Talk, dir. Barry Jenkins
This was my Oscar pick until it was snubbed quite thoroughly, but I will not dwell on that! (Though it really is terrible.) Screen adaptations are always a tricky beast, and I imagine the pressure of adapting James Baldwin’s work must be immense. I probably would have side-eyed this project had it been done by anyone but Barry Jenkins, who managed to capture the tenderness of the novel while staying faithful to the particular advantages of film. (The cinematography was absolutely beautiful, and the use of colour symbolism was a gorgeous touch. The costume design was just wonderful! Oh, and the score – so lush and evocative.) The love story at the heart of the film is as touching and fully-realized as in the novel, but Jenkins engages with the political aspects of the story a bit more overtly. In particular, the film mixes in archival photographs of police brutality and Black prisoners over Tish’s narration in order to situate the story of Fonny’s unjust incarceration within the climate of systemic racism. It’s hard not to speculate that this political message (and exclusive focus on complex Black characters, of course) might have prevented this wonderful film from reaching the mainstream success one would expect of a project directed by a man who just won the Oscar for Best Picture two years ago… Anyway, please go see this one. It’s just beautiful.
Vice, dir. Adam McKay
While Vice definitely verges on self-impressed at times, the outstanding performances by Christian Bale and Amy Adams make it hard not to enjoy. Bale is obviously transformative, literally unrecognizable in this role. Amy Adams’ performance is subtle and nuanced; she plays Lynne Cheney as a sweet, agreeable woman with a venomous hunger for power lurking just below the surface. Some of the other performances, while enjoyable, are a bit broad (Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush in particular, though the resemblance is uncanny). I won’t spoil it, but the reveal of the narrator’s identity feels forced for the sake of cleverness. (Indeed, this is a fictional invention on McKay’s part.) The scope of the film is ambitious, which leads to an erratic feeling. There’s Cheney’s personal life (especially the friction between his political ambitions and the fact that his daughter Mary is a lesbian), there’s his ascent to power, there’s the wider historical context. It’s trying to do so much that it fails to fully realize any of its aspirations. The ultimate political message of the film, delivered in a direct address monologue, is that if Dick Cheney abused his power while in office, the American people wanted it. It’s a tempting idea: that decades of democratically-elected politicians chipping away at civil liberties with the full knowledge of the people have delivered us to this point in history. But the reality of the Bush-Cheney White House, as well as the current administration (which the film certainly wants us to draw parallels to), is not so cut and dry. The blame for the political climate cannot be placed squarely on the shoulders of the American people. What about the imperialism that created America in the first place, the capitalism at the heart of the political system? It’s a film that plays around with form and that asks a lot of big questions, but ultimately I found it ambivalent in making any truly interesting points. That said, it’s still enjoyable – if you can get past its smugness.
The Favourite, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
This is the over-the-top period drama I wanted Mary Queen of Scots to be. The performances are uniformly wonderful. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is bubbling with overblown emotion while displaying more subtle affect; Rachel Weisz’s brusque Lady Marlborough is simply brimming with ambition, and her fall from grace is rendered brilliantly. (Emma Stone is great, too, but since she’s nominated in the same category as Weisz I’d have to take her out of the running.) The cinematography is inspired, with fisheye shots suggesting emotional isolation. (I’ve discussed this before when writing about Alias Grace, but I love when historical films draw attention to the fact that they are films through their cinematography, suggesting anachronism in the use of technology.) You could get lost in the extravagant mise-en-scène. I loved the costume design: the delightful anachronisms (the prints! the denim dresses! redbottoms!), the colour symbolism (Abigail and Sarah switch colour palettes as their power dynamics shift), the naturalism of the women’s appearances contrasted with the extravagance of the male characters. We can really see the facial expressions of the women, whereas the men’s emotional depth is precluded by the layers of makeup and enormous wigs. Speaking of the male characters, none of them are particularly important narratively; Masham functions only as a way for Abigail to get closer to the Queen, which is a delightful inversion of the usual power dynamics. The men posture and preen with no real potency. In the world of this film, men are basically irrelevant – they aren’t even needed sexually. The Favourite is hilarious, richly textured, and completely enjoyable. I’d love to watch it again – there’s just so much going on visually and thematically, I think it invites a repeat viewing.
(ALSO Rachel Weisz in breeches is everything. We are so lucky.)
Roma, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
I went into Roma knowing the following things: 1) It’s a co-production between Mexico and the US (and it’s in Spanish); 2) It’s a Netflix original (though it was also released in select theatres I assume to make it Oscar-eligible); 3) It is highly favoured to win Best Picture; 4) It’s in black and white. 1) and 2) combined to make the prospect of 3) appealing; the Oscars are so blatantly stuck in the past that I’m excited by the possibility of a foreign-language streaming service original winning the top prize, though one could argue that the Academy’s historic ambivalence towards both foreign films and non-traditionally-distributed content points to its increasing obsolescence in today’s media landscape. Anyway, I was ready to end up thinking 4) was a cheap signifier of artistic merit, which is how I viewed the artsy shots in Beautiful Boy.
It very quickly became evident to me that Roma is a deliberate nod to Italian neorealism of the 1940s: its focus on the everyday life of the working class, its heavy use of children, the non-professional actors. (Speaking of which, Yalitza Aparicio was so phenomenally expressive in the leading role of Cleo.) The black and white is then excusable, but I’ve talked to a few people who aren’t familiar with Italian cinematic history who still find the choice strange. It’s a clever nod (and the film is certainly a stellar modern take on the genre), but to fully work it requires specialized knowledge. That’s nothing new for the Academy, which has for decades generally gone for arty films over popular offerings. (See this year’s controversy over the proposed Best Popular Picture category…) Not every film has to be accessible, but I can’t really blame people who aren’t film buffs for not quite getting some of the artistic choices here.
That said, if we can get past the black and white issue, this is a stirring, stunningly-shot film that is at its core about women’s resilience in the face of men’s betrayal. The class difference between live-in housekeeper/nanny Cleo and her mistress Sofía is blatant both visually and behaviourally; their dynamic is fascinating because Sofía does genuinely love the vulnerable and emotional Cleo while never quite treating her like a family member. (At the beginning of the film, Cleo has just settled in to watch TV with the family when Sofía asks her to get her husband a cup of tea.) Yet there is a bond and solidarity between them that transcends these boundaries. Sofía is incredibly supportive of Cleo’s pregnancy, even when the father wants nothing to do with her or the baby, and thanks to Cleo’s loving care of Sofía’s four children, they remain basically carefree even when their father leaves his family for another woman. Sofía tells Cleo that women are always alone, but this is not true, and the film knows it: women have one another.
In my cynicism I think the Academy will probably prove the betting people right and give Roma best picture, partially because it’s a beautiful, well-constructed film, but partially because they’re going to have to acknowledge Netflix sooner or later or risk irrelevance, and it’s relatively on brand to reward a film that makes slightly esoteric nods to film history written and directed by a guy who’s already won an Oscar. I’m not saying Roma doesn’t deserve the award, but the Oscars are entirely political and I’d wager there’s a lot going on behind the scenes when it comes to a foreign-language Netflix original being so heavily favoured to win the most coveted prize in the film industry.
Anyway, my pick out of all the Best Picture nominees has to be The Favourite, but I’d be happy if Roma won. Best Supporting Actress is an incredibly stacked category and realistically anyone could deservedly win, but I’m hoping for either Regina King (to make up for If Beale Street Could Talk being snubbed!!) or Amy Adams (because SHE DESERVES AN OSCAR!!!). Glenn Close is a shoe-in for Best Actress, but The Favourite‘s recent success at the BAFTAs makes me hope for an Olivia Colman upset. The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories are pretty bad, so I’m just hoping A Star Is Born/Bradley Cooper win as little as possible. Yes, I am petty and bitter. What else is new?