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Meet the Writers: Monica Castillo

Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. In coming weeks, we'll be posting their responses, which will always be available as a link from their contributor biography page. Here's Monica Castillo. 


Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in Tampa, Florida, which is kind of a strange place I never felt like I really fit in. It’s spread out like many modern metropolises. The main places to hang out and meet people were malls (I left at 18, so I know the bar and club district of Ybor City is slightly livelier). It’s a city of millions but culturally felt so small. There weren’t any established film festivals there while I was growing up. It’s a stop for Broadway shows making their way to Miami. Its concert venues are named after accident lawyers or oil companies. The last time I visited the Museum of Art by the waterfront, I remembered only two rooms, one each for temporary and permanent collections (it since expanded). My one trip to a salsa club while visiting home during college earned me an angry phone call from my mom. There was a shooting where I had danced a few nights before. I haven’t danced in Tampa since. 

I’m first generation Cuban-American from parents who immigrated at different eras in Cuban history. Tampa has a large Cuban population, but not one I really identified with as a teenager. I rebelled in middle school before becoming focused on getting the heck out of Florida and into a university. I was in theater, played guitar at school, wrote for the school newspaper, suffered through cheerleading, volunteered in a pediatric hematology and oncology lab, and took night classes at the local community college. When I graduated, I was heading to Boston University to study biochemistry and molecular biology, but uh, life finds a way. 

Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

My mom was a fan of just about everything. She grew with movies from around the world in Cuba. Since most citizens were never allowed to leave the island, sometimes movies were their only way to see France, Italy, Japan, or Russia. She would leave on Bravo back when they showed French films. She would wake my sister and me on Saturday mornings to watch the Bollywood music videos a local access channel would put on. She introduced me to Turner Classic Movies because she loves the opulence of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Elvis movies and Christmas albums were never in short supply as he was her first American crush. Occasionally, bootleg Cuban movies or taped stand-up specials of Cuban comedians would make their way up from Miami. 

More than any one critic or textbook, she taught me to how to watch and try to appreciate everything and how to talk about movies after watching them. 

What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

I don’t remember exactly what was the first film I watched, but I remember the theater we went to all the time when I was little. It was an old Carmike Cinema on Hillsborough Ave., in a lot that was once a drive-in spot but is now occupied by a car dealership. It was just as you could imagine a mid-size theater looked like when the ‘90s threw up in the lobby. Teal and purple décor with yellow accents, confetti-colored black carpet, (if I remember correctly, the place closed by the time I was 11) a concession stand in the middle that fed all the screens surrounding it. Each auditorium was covered from ceiling to floor in the thickest purple velvet, the screen’s curtains incuded. For a time, my grandmother lived within walking distance to the theater, and we would stroll over any given afternoon.   

The closest memory I have is that of watching “The Lion King.” I remember being really excited just from the trailer in front of one of my Disney movies, but misunderstood that it was all one movie (“Mamí, I want to see the movie about the ants! And the zebras. And the elephants.”) My grandmother with impressive seamstress skills made me a safari themed dress to see the movie because I was so excited. I’m not sure if this is from another memory from around that age, but I do remember bouncing in my seat and getting my legs trapped in my skirt. 

What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."

Funny enough, it took me a movie about a director for me to really get into film. I was bored on vacation in a cabin in the Tennessee woods with only books, an assemblage of DVDs and DirectTV to distract me. I’m not the outdoorsy kind like my father and sister. But in looking over what movies to watch with mom, I found “Chaplin” was playing on AMC starting at like 6 or 7 in the morning. I got up early to watch Robert Downey, Jr. impersonate a figure I only loosely knew about. I was so entranced, I didn’t leave to help mom cook breakfast. And because it was a movie on commercial-heavy AMC, it took something like four hours to watch. But I was in love. The next day, I went to an outlet mall DVD store in a town an hour away and bought two Charlie Chaplin collections of shorts. They’re god-awful transfers, grainy and some even lacked intertitles in English, but I didn’t care. I returned to Florida and tracked down “The Kid” faster than I unpacked. 

What's the first movie you ever walked out of?

Hasn’t happened for a movie I’ve reviewed. In all the kid movies my mom had to endure (she still doesn’t forgive me for “Pokémon: The Movie”), she’s only ever walked out of “Watchmen.” Now as a critic, I feel obligated to stay until the bitter end unless it’s a terrible festival film on the last day and I’m already nodding off.  But I wouldn’t review that film then. 

What's the funniest film you've ever seen?

I’ve watched “The Blues Brothers” more times than most people I know (except perhaps other critics). I’ll find it randomly on TV and tune in because I still get a good laugh from Jake and Elwood. Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part 1” and “Blazing Saddles” are perhaps a close second. 

What's the saddest film you've ever seen?

I’ve noticed I’ve started to cry a lot more during movies as I’ve gotten older, so I don’t know if I have a one title answer for this. I’ve broken down over something as schmaltzy as “Cinema Paradiso” to the heartbreaking documentary “The Invisible War.” Just about any sad movie is fair game. 

What's the scariest film you've ever seen?

I’ve never not squirmed, flinched or cover my mouth while watching “The Thing.” Once, I found out the movie was going to screen on 35mm during a sci-fi film festival at MIT, and a friend and I made the late night pilgrimage across the Charles River in December for a 4 a.m. showing. The theater was actually a cold classroom, which ended up adding to the experience. We left just as the sun was starting to rise. 

What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?

I adore so many romantic movies like “Annie Hall,” “When Harry Met Sally ...”, “In the Mood for Love,” and Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice.” But the movie that first came to mind when I read this question was “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” I know it’s not a romance in the traditional sense, but there’s something about how the film how depicts the love of cinema that is so achingly beautiful to me. It feels like that’s the only love that will last. 

What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

Say what you will, but “The George Lopez Show” was must-watch TV for my family. I already knew from novelas and Sabado Gigante about that sense of a shared culture, but “The George Lopez Show” was in English. His story wasn’t about coming to America, he was already here working like us. It felt much more at home with us than opulent melodramas about murderous clones or a variety show that liked to parade women in bikinis. Plus, Lopez made the father of his wife on the show a Cuban doctor, whose asides about the Revolution went over quite well in our household. 

What book do you think about or revisit the most?

It’s a tie between Richard Rodriguez’s “Hunger for Memory” and Junot Díaz’s “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Aside from getting emotional over the death of characters in the “Harry Potter” series, I didn’t know that books could make you cry. In “Hunger for Memory,” there’s an incredible chapter when English was forced in the Spanish speaking household of the author’s family. He talks at length about how silence became the only common language he and his siblings shared with his parents. I knew exactly what that was because I experienced a hard stop when my Spanish language world turned to English. Likewise, Díaz’s book was the first I read about a Latino nerd who liked “The Lord of the Rings” and “Doctor Who” yet spoke in Spanglish. On many of the book’s pages, Díaz uses footnotes to explain Dominican history and the rule of the dictator Trujillo to tie his character’s present with his not-so distant past. I understood it as a first-gen American, safe from what my parents fled from but still a product of diaspora. It was also the first time I read about Latina punks, a group of which the lead character runs into while in college and a brief phase I went through. Reading these books made me feel like I finally existed in the written word. 

What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

I’m terribly fond of Prince. So much so, there was a time I was trading physical CDs of bootleg concerts with other fans around the country (this was before torrent sites). My dad was really into him and kept his ticket to the Miami stop of the "Purple Rain" tour in the namesake cassette. I caught two of Prince’s three shows in Florida during the Musicology tour (about a decade ago now) and have been dying to see him in concert since. 

Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

For some reason, it took us almost a week of school to get through “Schindler’s List.” Unfortunately, our history class was right before lunch, so that meant it was about a week of us sitting somberly under the Florida sun without much talking or eating. I have never gone back to see it in one sitting. 

What movie have you seen more times than any other?

If it’s not “The Blues Brothers,” it’s most likely “Lawrence of Arabia.” I fell in love with the movie (and subsequently, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif) after watching it on TCM one afternoon. I bought it for myself and watched it many, many more times before I finally watched it on the big screen in 70mm. I jumped in my seat, mouthed about half the dialog, and didn’t want the credits to roll. I’ve been trying to catch it again at the Egyptian to see if I would have the same reaction, but I’ve had a conflict with every screening since I moved here. Maybe I’m not meant to revisit “Lawrence of Arabia” because nothing will top the first time you see it on the big screen. 

What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

My parents took the rating system to be the letter of the law as it was in Cuba, where even if you had your parents in tow, you couldn’t see a PG-13 movie if you were underage. Fortunately, I was able to dissuade them from waiting until I was 17. Instead, I was 13-years-old when I watched “Air Force One” with my mom. I think Harrison Ford curses and there’s some violence, but it was a pretty big letdown in terms of finding out what it meant to be a Rated-R movie.

What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?

I felt so many different emotions after watching Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.” Confusion, sadness, I felt overwhelmed. I had to watch it again just to make sense of why I was so moved by it. 

Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Leslie Howard, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Warren Beatty, Robert Downey, Jr. 

Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Anna May Wong, Bette DavisCate BlanchettViola Davis, Gina Rodriguez.

Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?

Andrea Arnold, Steve McQueen, Shane Carruth, Ave DuVernay.

Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?

Timely, but I’ve never been a fan of Zach Snyder’s work. 

What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

The Lost City.” 

What film do you hate that most people love?

I’m figuring out how few of Adam Sandler’s movies I can still stand. 

Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

My first time going to see a movie at the Tampa Theatre was to see an over 100-year-old silent movie accompanist play the Wurlitzer organ alongside a trio of Buster Keaton shorts. It took forever (okay, a few years) to convince my mom to go downtown with me to a classic movie event (why leave the house when you could watch it on TCM?). Neither of us had seen silent movies with a live score. She came out on the stage in a pink and white sequenced cowgirl jacket and combed out red hair. After a warm-up sing-a-long of “My Funny Valentine,” she followed what was happening on-screen with a new tune. If Buster Keaton bent down to pick-up money, she started playing “We’re in the Money.” It was just so delightful. I never told my mom I had all three shorts downloaded on my iPod. 

What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

I wish more theaters would be as strict as the Drafthouse when it comes to their cell phone policy. It’s incredibly rude, and it’s something I’ve even seen happen at press rows and film festivals. I understand checking your phone for the time, because I can’t remember the last time I wore a watch to see how much of my life a bad movie has claimed. But people answering their phones (what’s wrong with their voicemail?) or checking apps really do need to see themselves out. I had to tell someone to stop answering their emails at a press & industry screening during the New York Film Festival one year. Either engage with the movie or let the rest of us enjoy it.  

What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

When I talk with my mom now, she frequently mentions missing going to the movies with me. Since leaving home for college, I hadn’t really spent long periods of time with my family back in Tampa (aside from one summer in undergrad and winter breaks). I try to bring home all my screeners so we can catch up on movies together, but it’s never really quite the same as going to the movies every Friday afternoon after school. 

Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

I’ve certainly raised an eyebrow over some movies people will defend, but this is all so subjective. I’ve had people judge me for the movies I like or don’t, and they’ve written me off for it. I remember that and try not to dissuade people from talking with me about film. 

I’ve been lucky enough to find partners who understand/cope with my taste in film, but there was one who insisted I never take him to a midnight movie after a screening of “Predator.” That might have been a line crossed for me. 

What movies have you dreamed about?

I’ve certainly dreamed about musicals. I have too much of a dance background not to (minored in college, taught ballroom for a couple of years, danced with a few salsa companies). For the most part, it’s just scenes or particular dance numbers; I don’t go through the entirety of a movie in my dreams. Some titles I frequent include “An American in Paris,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Top Hat,” “West Side Story,” and “The Red Shoes.” That last one might be more of a nightmare. 

What concession stand item can you not live without?

Without is a strong word, but if the fancy strikes me, I’m a Sno-Caps and popcorn type with the occasional taste for one of those sour straw packs. There are worse vices. I’ve mostly stopped eating store-bought popcorn since I started reviewing. 

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to

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