THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

After a hellish few months, I’m finally back writing.

The good news: I’m going to college, and I’m getting good grades for the first time. The bad news: I am an adult human with bills and responsibilities and a social life, so much as I would love to spend my days watching movies and writing about them, I have a job and homework.

For the next month, however, I have a break from school, and can use the time to write whatever I will. Until some new writing, here’s a piece I wrote for my spring semester film class, which was really rewarding in terms of learning about film thematics and whatnot. I hope it will inspire better analysis from me here.

I have edited it slightly from its original.

Batman is not a new superhero. He’s one of the oldest, best known, and most well represented heroes in cinema. But he seems like a brand new person in Christopher Nolan’s landmark film, The Dark Knight (2010). It’s a classic tale of good and evil, as Bruce Wayne must work to protect the people he loves while chasing The Joker, attempting to end his reign of chaos. The quest has successes and failures, and along the way he must grapple with morality and the consequences of power and heroism. The idea of good versus evil abounds, with the lines blurring about who counts as what, and what true good looks like. Christian Bale’s stellar performance as Batman, opposite Heath Ledger’s final performance as The Joker, ground this movie. But where it goes from great to all time best is in other parts of its construction. From the mounting suspense, starting at frame one, to the role of lighting and the overall cinematography of the movie, the film is a tribute to the brilliance of the more technical aspects of film making. 

The driving narrative pulse under this film is its suspense. Having a character like The Joker, a villain intent on anarchy and driving people mad, is a gift to the movie that needs the suspense to push the two and a half hour runtime. ]The film gives us this from the very open, which doesn’t involve the eponymous character at all. The film goes on for nine seemingly indeterminable minutes before we see Batman. Instead we see the villain first, and this time Batman never comes to save the day. The Joker, and his henchman, start the movie off by pulling off an Ocean’s Eleven grade heist. This coup, pulled off flawlessly, puts you in a state of nerves immediately. Already, from the high body count in the film’s first scene, you know that no one and nothing is safe, and the methods of chaos will be unpredictable. It sets the tone for the rest of the film and makes it clear Nolan will not be holding back. Within fifteen minutes, he has clearly laid out the protagonist, antagonist, and, with beautiful sweeping shots, established the gritty, urban setting of a fed up city on edge, and in a state of flux. He gives us all the elements of a powder keg with the fuse ready to be lit. No one is who they say they are, and no one does what anyone thinks they’ll do. Promises are kept and broken. Heroic saves are made, and some saves come too late. One minute, Batman’s close friend and ally Gordon is dead; the next minute, he’s back, revealing it was all a ruse to capture Joker. But soon, the Joker is escaped again, and the world is back in turmoil. Joker’s victims range from fleeing ferry passengers, to the city’s largest hospital. With no one and nothing safe, and nothing as it seems, you’re constantly on edge. You never know what might happen next, and even one right guess leads to a wrong one. You know what happens, but the twists and turns are pulled off so masterfully, you have to watch at least twice to catch the hints and warnings you missed before. Even repeat viewings are rewarding. It’s a thrill to rewatch a scene and gain so much more context and insight into a movie, where all sorts of little pieces begin to string together and make more sense as part of the whole. Long lasting suspense is even more elevated by the music and sound, featuring lots of speeding car sounds and harsh violins. The gunshots and explosions are louder, and the silence quieter. The movie won an Oscar for its sound mixing, a well deserved honor as the sound provides an important part of the movie’s restlessness. It puts you into more of a sense of anxiety, and heightens the whole film’s atmosphere. 

But none of these elements would be possible, or have as much impact, without Nolan’s expert direction, and the incredible camera choreography of Wally Pfister. The sweeping camera movements give the movie a sense of motion, and when the camera is still, which it is quite often, it leads to a sense of uneasiness. So, while the camera is moving rapidly, following all the action as SWAT teams move in on the Joker’s location, the camera is relatively still on the ferry boats, deciding whether to kill the other boat, and provides a stark contrast. When shooting the Joker, the camera work becomes even more pronounced. In moments of victory, we see Joker from ground level, where we feel inferior to him and intimidated by his villainry. When we think he’s about to be foiled, at so many different moments, he is shown from above, or straight on. And at the end, when he’s dangling from a building, with Gotham’s residents having proved that good prevails, the camera spins and flips, as if attached from a string itself. The camera is at its most lawless with Joker, accompanying him as he trounces away in a dress from an exploding hospital, and as he escapes from jail, showing him through the jail bars as he frees his fellow criminals. 

The cinematography is even more elevated by its lighting. The film has some scenes in the beginning that take place in daylight, and of course the incredible hospital scenes take place in day. But the movie is best at night, when the lighting gives room for interpretation and experimentation not provided by natural light. Nolan literally plays with fire in his shooting, and he does it with absolute deftness. From burned out fire trucks causing obstructions on roads, to pyramids of money being lit ablaze, to face disfiguring explosions, fire lights the movie throughout. “Some men just want to watch the world burn” is one of the movie’s most famous lines, but I didn’t realize just how much it plays into the actual shots of the film before watching. The element of using fire as a light source, and a plot device, is one of the movie’s greatest talents. But the lighting is at its best and most metaphorical with debates about good versus evil. Harvey Dent, who transforms into one of Batman’s most notorious villains Two-Face, loses one half of his face in a fire. Half of him still looks like the hero, but half of him is exposed, teeth bared and eyeball bulging, skin melted off. When presenting this new visage to old friends, he is lit, hero half in the light, the disfigured half in the dark. His evil persona is hiding in the shadows. Batman is often half lit as well. As he debates the validity of what he’s doing, he’s often shown shadowy, as a man conflicted about the morality of his position. He’s lit from above or below, which also helps to illustrate his dual role as both a playboy billionaire to the world, and as a vigilante hero to the few who know his secret. In one scene, there’s no shadows at all. When Batman is interrogating Joker at the precinct, they’re both shown in stark light. It strips them both of anywhere to hide. There’s no shadows, no way to hide tricks. But with the light shining off the Joker’s white, made up face, and Batman’s matte black suit, the lighting still manages to tell a story. Neither of them are truly right or wrong. There’s no just world that drives men into the lives they live. The lights bares all of that out. So much symbolic imagery is contained in these subtle lighting moments. It’s truly the work of a mastermind. 

Of course, you can’t leave this movie without discussing its acting. You don’t realize, before watching this film, the sheer amount of talent in this film. Everyone always talks about the brilliance of Heath Ledger (rightfully, don’t get me wrong) and everyone always copies Christian Bale’s Batman interpretation. But there’s a deep, rich bench of acting talent backing these two up. You can forget that Morgan Freeman is even in the movie, overshadowed is he by Aaron Eckhardt, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Gary Oldman. They all deliver some of the most instantly iconic lines in cinema: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” “some men just want to watch the world burn” are all three iconic lines, delivered by three separate actors in the same film. Few movies can claim to have so many rounded characters, done so well. It’s an astounding display of filmmaking prowess to make all these moving parts fit together, from the cinematography, to the sound, to the rich dialogue. The actors are what grounds it all. They’re the glue that strings this film together. 

We take superhero movies for granted today. There’s so many of them (22 Marvel movies in ten years, culminating only in April,) that we forget how much of a rare event it was at The Dark Knight’s release. Even better, so many of the elements found in the Dark Knight films are replicated today. The urban settings, the “gritty” and “dark” undertones that DC has been trying to recreate, with no success, since. But The Dark Knight is not a movie that can be recreated easily. No one can take themes as glaringly obvious as “good and evil” and turn them into something to dissect or interpret through lighting, sound, and narrative. It’s a masterclass in movie making, one that everyone who loves movies needs to see at least once in their lives. In fact, I would recommend it be watched by DC filmmakers now. Not for replication, but for an idea of how far they’ve fallen from when Batman movies were actually good.

MINDING THE GAP (2018)

My favorite film of the year is a necessary look at three millennials dealing with their past and their future in this terrifying moment called the present

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Don’t let the skateboards fool you: this is not a skateboarding movies

2018 was a bad year for the world but a great year for movies. So I’m going to write about some of those great movies which I loved in 2018. To read my full introduction to this series, read this.

Early in the film Minding the Gap, there’s a a few key clues of what the movie will evolve into. More specifically, Zack says a few times in the opening 10 minutes about how he never felt at home with his family and that “skateboarding feels more like a family than my family”.

You don’t know it at the time, but these are words which will come back to haunt you when you watch it a second time.

This, my favorite film of the year, will be my last individual post in this series of the best of 2018. But given that this is the movie that both moved me the most and is (probably) the most underseen of the ones I’ve written about, I felt it was important that it gets a full write up.

I want to make this clear early on: Minding the Gap is NOT a skateboarding movie. It is not the documentary version of Mid 90s. It is instead a heartrending movie about generational violence, the cities that the tech revolution has left behind, and what it’s like growing up in this scary new world.

This last point is perhaps what’s most relevant to my purposes. As a 22-year old, 24-year old director Bing Liu is only two years older than me. His friends are the same as my friends, we’re of the same generation, and oftentimes we are all facing the same fears and dilemmas. What’s my purpose in life? What do I owe my parents, who may have raised me but who share very different values? And most importantly, at what point am I considered an adult? Is it when I turn 18? Is it when I get my first job and begin becoming financially independent? In Zack’s case, are you immediately an adult because you have a child?

I’m 22-years old, I live on my own and pay all my own bills, and I hold a full time job. I also am typing this minus my right index finger after having sliced my finger open trying to open a can of tomato sauce. I certainly feel immature and like I should not be trusted with my own life (let alone someone else’s, like a child’s).

And I live on my own because I knew I couldn’t stay home and have the same level of freedom that moving to a big city like New York would offer to me. Like Bing, I saw what was available to me in a formerly industrial city that now offers little else beyond mere survival. And I left. But I also have friends like Keire, who couldn’t leave out of family obligations, or at least the sense of it. I, too, have friends like Zack’s; those who left and ended up trudging back. Either out of unhappiness or a sense of home as a sort of base in a game of tag. A place where, even if it weren’t as exciting or big as Denver or New York, you know what you’re getting. You could go and be safe and no one would hurt you, and life would stop creeping up on you. I have been Zack. I spent two years in New York and ended up coming home for nearly two years. I tried living on my own, only to realize that I wasn’t as grown as I thought. I still had some demons to battle at home.

Seeing the love Zack shows for his son is constantly at odds with the image of Zack we see later.

But beyond these similarities, the burdens these boys carry is far beyond anything I’ve had to hold. All of these boys come from violent homes. Beaten by their fathers, stepfathers, and others around them, they’ve come into age with a clouded look on their place in the world. One character deals with this is a way that shocks and causes the movie to take a very different turn than the one it started with. Bing Liu deals with these lingering issues in his own past in a confrontation with his mother that is something as deeply personal as I’ve ever seen in any film before. And Keire’s reckoning with his relationship with his family is a a sharp portrait of what it looks like to rebuild after a family tragedy.

These are three boys and three stories. They’re all brought together by their shared childhood and love of skateboarding. But these are three different stories. And Liu handles them all so deftly. All three of them are given room to bloom and become their own characters with their own narratives. But he doesn’t squeeze so much info in that it can’t be a movie. Liu’s history as a camera operator for shows like Shameless pays off, with stunning footage of skateboarding. But he also shoots in intimate settings. At backyard parties, in living room hangouts, by town haunts. Because of the trust developed with his subjects, they’re never on their guard.

Liu’s able to capture some shockingly tender and real moments from young boys, a section of society not accustomed to doing so. The truths he gets out of the boys, and himself, are gotten so tenderly, it’s a soft blow when you get it. These confessions and offerings of the soul never come in an explosive way. They all arrive naturally, flowing out of people’s mouths as easily as one describes the weather. He gives even some of the people who have seemingly committed the most wrongs the benefit of the doubt. He sees angles that most filmmakers wouldn’t think to explore further. Keire, a black boy, was beaten by his father and watched helplessly while his mother dated someone and continued the cycle of violence. But Liu thinks to also delve into what it’s like being a black boy with nearly all white friends in a subgroup known for being predominantly white, skateboarders. This makes the movie look extra sensitive, and avoids the exploitation that most filmmakers would move towards.

It is curious that a movie such as this would be only available for distribution by Hulu, a streaming company known primarily for its TV offerings. As I mentioned in my Roma piece, it’s possible that we’ll look back on this time as a warning sign of the inevitable take over of the streaming companies. But again, a streaming company has given the world a thoughtful look at a subsection of humanity that mainstream Hollywood has ignored.

Bing Liu’s interview with his mother is some of the most brutally honest documentary filmmaking I’ve seen.

While we sit and fret about millennials and avocado toast, their urban living, and their love and hate for a host of industries, we ignore the reality that most millennials are not waiting in line for boozy brunch every weekend. Far more young folks are like these boys. They’re lost, they don’t have college educations, and they’re merely surviving. They go to more bonfires than bars. They wear more jeans than athleisure. And the perils of the urban apply to them as well, if not worse; a worsening economy, mounting personal debt, and an older generation that seems determined to leave them and their world much, much worse off.

I hope that before someone at Bloomberg writes another piece about what millennials are killing and how their “demands” are making work harder, they watch a movie like Minding the Gap and see a true, honest showing of what’s really going through most of our heads.

ROMA (2018)

How quickly you should be moving to watch Roma on Netflix

WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for the film Roma. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read on! And if you haven’t seen it, why not? It’s over on Netflix now!

2018 was a bad year for the world but a great year for movies. So I’m going to write about some of those great movies which I loved in 2018. To read my full introduction to this series, read this.

In July of 2018, Alfonso Cuarón released the first teaser trailer to his long awaited Gravity follow up. It was a deceptively simple video. Rich, black and white cinematography captures nothing more than a floor, being flooded with soapy water by an unseen presence off screen. The title of the film, some laurels from its selection to some festivals, and Cuarón’s name were all else it contained. But that minute-long morsel disguises just how much that water would end up meaning to us by the time this movie finishes.

Some people say that Roma “doesn’t really have a plot” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Cleo, a young Mixtec maid working for a family in Mexico City in the 1970s, deals with an unexpected pregnancy from an absent father, while at the same time her boss deals with her own kind of loss, in the form of her husband walking out on them. Of course, there are plenty of side threads. But it shouldn’t matter. Sometimes, we can let a great plot cloud our idea of what is needed for a good movie. I think Infinity War got caught up with that; it had so many characters and plot points, it forgot to flesh any of them out or take care to shoot each one equally and it was clear a lot of things ended up on the cutting room floor. (I realize now this is the second post in a row in which I’ve criticized Infinity War. I promise it won’t happen again, I’m just still somewhat confused what happened in that movie leading up to the snap. Like, what was large Peter Dinklage’s purpose even? But I digress.)

Chaos reigns in Roma, with seismic events being shown with a calm, almost blasé, eye in its filmmaking

What Roma lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in world building and production design. The extreme attention to detail is absolutely mind boggling. They rebuilt Mexico City on a production lot. Those shots of Cleo and Adela running through the streets to get to the movie theater and meet with their boyfriends? That’s all a backlot, those are all extras, and every bit of that scene was built or bought from scratch to complete the aesthetic. Building the family home on a soundstage was not enough, nor was renting a home. No, they saved a home from demolition to rebuild it inside and out from Cuarón’s memory. Not even a parking lot next to an abandoned soccer stadium was enough to control his vision.

A criminally underseen featurette where Alfonso Cuarón and production designer Eugenio Caballero talk through the creating of the set pieces for the film.

Shot by Cuarón personally, the movie is a feat of cinematography. Shot in black and white, the movie is not nominated for best editing, probably because it’s not obvious editing. The movie is filled with long shots, that let you take in the whole scene without always revealing everything. Case in point: my favorite scenes of the movie.

A pregnant Cleo goes with Teresa, Sofía’s mother, and another servant to get a crib and other furniture for the baby. They park on the streets and walk, nonchalantly, through a student protest to get to the furniture store. Soon after, chaos reigns. Shots ring out on the street, and a terrified couple come in, seeking shelter. Counterprotesters come in, seeking to shoot the students. We’re so caught up, watching the brutal slayings of these terrorized students, that we barely even see the out of focus gun being pointed at Teresa and Cleo. It isn’t until Cuarón pans his camera that we see that the gunman is Fermín, the father of Cleo’s child.

This is enough to breaks Cleo’s water. At the hospital, we see concerned doctors crowd around Cleo, worried about something unnamed. They rush her into a surgery suite, frantically calling for pediatrics. In a stunning four minute and eleven second unbroken shot, we see Cleo give birth, watch doctors attempt to resuscitate the stillborn, and later see her visceral reaction as the doctor tells her that her baby girl was born dead, and then tear the lifeless infant from Cleo’s arms and wrap her in cloth. Only Cleo is in focus, in a scene that, if it didn’t give so much away, would be all that would be needed for Yalitza Aparicio’s Oscar reel. The doctors CPR attempts are out of focus, and the nurse catching the baby, sewing Cleo up, and informing her of what’s happening is unshown. But Cuarón knows that not everything being heard must be seen on screen. He is an adept enough filmmaker to know what to focus on.

The star of the movie, whose smile lights up a theater screen, your TV, your laptop screen, or even your phone screen if you so choose.

Cuarón clearly put so much thought into the movie. It’s obvious every shot, every event, the symbolic, repeated presence of water and chaos and the overwhelming ubiquity of women was meticulous. Most directors, even those of his caliber and experience, are never as sure and dedicated as Cuarón is here. And thank god for it. It imbues the movie with a sense of purpose that overcomes any deficit of plot. It gives it a timeless quality. This is not some shoddy production made in response to politics or a sense of a trend within the industry. This is a labor of love, and an ode to childhood and a time gone by that few can muster without falling into camp or debilitating nostalgia. And it’s a movie that no other mainstream, traditional studio is willing to make.

A crowing achievement for cinematography, indigenous representation, and the pros of the seemingly endless stream of money coming out of streaming services, Roma is a revelation. Like it or not, few, if any, traditional movie studios would be willing to spend this amount of money on a foreign film starring unknown and first time actors, forget about any of its other handicaps (namely it’s black and white cinematography and its centering of an indigenous woman, revolutionary for an industry which was booing Sacheen Littlefeather off the stage at the Oscars 46 years ago).

It’s possible that we’ll see harmful effects of the centering of money and talent on a few sites several years down the line. But for now, we need to know how remarkable it is that this can happen, that a foreign film can be so widely loved and even more widely seen. It has only happened once before, for a movie with a similar budget and which also received ten Oscar nominations. Roma probably never made anywhere near what it made (although Netflix won’t even release its box office numbers, its been deduced that Roma has probably made $3 million), but it doesn’t need to. It has no money to make back, no studio looking for profits or for an opportunity for a sequel. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made stars out of Ang Lee and Michelle Yeoh. Roma should have the opportunity to do the same, just in a more modern way.

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

A movie that broke through superhero fatigue and lackluster box office to become a sensation

the “hey auntie” heard round the world

2018 was a bad year for the world but a great year for movies. So I’m going to write about some of those great movies which I loved in 2018. To read my full introduction to this series, read this.

Not much more can be said about Black Panther, but here I am, saying more about Black Panther.

People get really combative about this movie and I still don’t know exactly why. Is it the fact that so many people see any award for black or female led films as mere virtue signalling? Is it the fact that it’s a blockbuster, and blockbusters these days can be pretty bad?  Or is it the dreaded and long foretold of superhero fatigue?

No matter; this movie dispels all those notions handily. I wrote a bit before about Jurassic Park as a true blockbuster of the kind that doesn’t really exist anymore. Here’s an exception. The type of movie that builds a world without being too overstuffed with information or plot (something which I think tripped up Infinity War), Black Panther is a film that brings more to the superhero movie than just “good vs. evil”. It invited discussion about black wealth, female strength, and the African diaspora vs. African Americans who are the descendants of slaves brought here against their will. More than that, it made everyone aware just how rare it was to see, not only this many black people, but a huge range of black people who are darker than tan. The movie brought us Letitia Wright, Danai Guerrera, and made people start appreciating Chadwick Boseman as more than just a biopic star.

Pick your fighter: the Dora Milaje vs. Furiosa’s army

In fact, the opposition to this film is puzzling because it seems this, and Crazy Rich Asians, are the kind of movies we should WANT. In a time of folks asking “what will it take to get you to a theater?” the answer is clear. Bring back what made the blockbuster great to begin with. Give us good stories with diverse characters and a world we want a 30 ft tall screen to immerse us in and we’ll go. We will pay $15 a ticket and $6 a bucket of popcorn when you make it worth our while. It was a movie event on a scale rarely seen these days. The film was still showing in many theaters when Infinity War debuted ELEVEN WEEKS later. As it stands right now, it’s the third highest grossing film of all time, and far and away the highest grossing film of 2018, making more than $700 million domestically. Now with a Best Picture nomination and a SAG Ensemble win under its belt, it’s clear that popular film was never a category this movie required.

While I’ve obviously done a great job summarizing its importance, you might be wondering “well, just why is it YOUR favorite?” To me, movies are more than just its technical achievements (which I’ll talk about with a later pick.) Movies often shape our world in ways beyond the screen, and the world often shapes the screen. The Birth of a Nation led to a second revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The “cowboys and indians” genre of westerns is in part responsible for the complete lack of knowledge Americans have about Native Americans. And oftentimes, who we see on screen as the heroes and villains of stories is reflective of who we see as the heroes and villains of real life.

So how refreshing that black people are finally both in their own story. Few things caused more joy than seeing all of the children and adults alike dressing up as the characters for the movie. To hear the stories from people who have lived through so much in this country’s history and to be able to see themselves displayed so vibrantly on screen. For black folks to be able to grapple with the fantasy of “what would happen if we had a rich country for ourselves, as so many others do?”

Ciara and Russell Wilson dress up as characters from the movie

I cried watching the movie. Killmonger’s death scene is one of the best of the year (and indeed, Michael B. Jordan’s performance is one of the greatest villain portrayals out there). It’s perfectly cast and well acted and is given a surehanded direction by Ryan Coogler (who, may I remind everyone, is only 31 and has decades worth of masterpieces in front of him). But beyond that, it’s baffling to me that you could reduce a movie this political and monumental to just “the visual effects aren’t that good”. OF COURSE it’s political. Few films are not. That’s why I can pursue politics as a career and film as a hobby. Oftentimes, their overlap is undeniable. They speak to each other, real life mirroring film and film mimicking real life. Movies either reflect real life or are a fantasy of what real life should or could be like. That’s what makes this movie so great to me, and perhaps that avoidance of this universal truth is what makes it so unbearable to others.

I for one, cannot wait until, in 25 years, I’m sitting in my underwater house with my children, probably hiding from our robot overlords. And I will show them Black Panther and tell them of a time where it suddenly felt, for the first time in a long time, that everyone could see themselves on screen. I’ll tell them of the jokes and celebrations and the funding drives that were put on to make sure everyone could see what was being viewed as a revolutionary, once in a lifetime event. And hopefully they’ll tell me with wide eyed awe “THIS was revolutionary?!”

THE BEST OF 2018: A NEW SERIES

2018. Good riddance.

Whether it be the continual plague of gun violence in America, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, or the increasing likelihood that climate change will be our downfall, the year fucking sucked for most humans.

It wasn’t all bad news though. A record number of women were swept into the House, making the most diverse Congress we’ve ever seen including two Native American women, two Muslim women (including one hijabi), and now a record number of black women are in Congress, some of them from states that have never seen a black woman representative. (Full disclosure: I worked for Jahana Hayes’ campaign in Connecticut. And yes, I’m super fucking proud of her.) All this was thanks to a record turnout in a midterm election, the likes of which haven’t been seen in a century. There was also the inspiring rescue of a group of Thai boys who got stuck in a cave, we helped save a bunch of animals, including pandas and sea otters, from the brink of extinction, and this happened (try watching without crying too).

But this is a movie blog. And thank god it was an amazing year in movies.

Sure, diversity of sex is still a huge issue, but a year that finally gave Spike Lee his first ever (!!!) nomination for Best Director can’t be all bad.

So, a little late, I’m going through my favorite movies of 2018, and why I loved them.

Originally, this was going to be one big post. But I began writing about the first one, realized just how much I had to say, and then realized I still had six more films I wanted to gush about in the same vein. So, to break it up and hopefully allow better discussion, I’ll be releasing them one by one.

And now, a note before I hear any shit from any commenters.

Please read where I said my “FAVORITE” films. I didn’t say they were the best. And I certainly haven’t seen all the movies released this year. I’ll reiterate something I say seemingly every post: I’m a poor 21 year old paying rent in New York City. I don’t get free screenings (with one exception on this list) and I don’t have as much time to watch movies as professional critics. I’m merely one girl who just really likes movies, and I’m not the ultimate arbiter of quality. But of the new releases I did get a chance to watch this year, these are the ones I enjoyed watching the most.

So excited for the first post in this series.

A STAR IS BORN (1937 & 1954)

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Technically this is misleading since I didn’t watch Barbara’s but oh well

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the 1937 and  1954 versions of the film A Star is Born. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the films. And if you haven’t seen them, what are you waiting for? The 1937 version is public domain! Go get it!

I’m what one might call a Lady Gaga stan. I’m not SUPER crazy. But I do love her music and who she is as a person. So when I heard she was doing Bradley Cooper’s remake of the classic A Star is Born, my first thought was “wait, Bradley Cooper directs now?” My second thought was, “hey, this might be pretty good.” And it looks like, once again, I was right.

But before I went and watched it, I decided to watch the originals.

Now you might notice only two years in the title. That’s not a typo.

Listen. I did not watch the 1976 version with Barbara Streisand. But I don’t care. I just didn’t feel like watching it. I’m not a Barbara Streisand fan, I have limited time already, and after watching the same movie twice in a row, I didn’t feel like going through it again! I just wanted to watch 30 Rock! And I don’t have this blog for homework, I have it for fun, to watch the movies I want to see. The 1976 version of A Star is Born starring Barbara Streisand is not a movie I want to see.

But I digress.

Now I hadn’t explicitly seen the whole movies, but I knew what it was about. An alcoholic star of either movies or music meets a young girl who hasn’t truly been discovered yet, he hooks her up at his studio, and soon enough “a star is born” (they literally say it out loud in the first one!) and her celebrity eclipses his. Tale as old as time. Who can’t relate?

I didn’t even have time to talk about how good the night court scene is (it’s so fucking good) 

But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional  gravity that this story has in practice. And my god, is there emotions. I’m basically a robot at this point and I STILL cried. The 1937 was internally sad, yes. But nothing, I mean NOTHING, can compare to the emotional devastation I felt with the last third of 1954. The men are fever pitch. This is one of the most emotionally exposed film roles for men in classic Hollywood. James Mason just lets it all out in his scene before his suicide. Frederic March’s last scene, too, shows the whole depth of knowledge and pain Norman must be feeling as he goes on to end his life. This movie doesn’t let the men just kill themselves; it shows them considering their options and wrongly thinking there’s no way to save Vicki and themselves. Most movies I’ve seen from this time show women talking about the vulnerable men in their lives. The men are going downhill and their wife/girlfriend is hysterical. But this is a movie that shows the men confronting their own fallibility. The women still bear the emotional weight of their husbands’ disease, yes. But the men see the effects of their behavior. They confront how it’s impacting those around them, from their wives to their managers. And it makes it a much more compelling movie, to see

I want to say a few words about the supporting men in both movies. This movie, and the Oliver Niles and Matty Libby characters, should be shown to every studio and used as an example of what a true supporting role looks like. They’re not essential to the plot necessarily, but the movie doesn’t function the same way without them. They very literally support the main cast. (Take notes, cast of The Favourite.) And nobody does this better than both Adolph Menjou and Charles Bickford. Charles Bickford as Oliver Niles shows an empathy largely lacking from everyone else in Vicki and Norman’s life. Adolph Menjou does the same thing in the 1937, walking the delicate line between playing permissive and playing empathetic. And oh my GOD the grandmother in the 1937! She’s perfect! This is a blueprint for every role Beulah Bondi ever played, and frankly it’s a shame that the character of the grandmother didn’t make it into every other version (although Andrew Dice Clay’s role as Ally’s father in the newest edition comes close to filling the role.)

Judy Garland can ACT and SING and good god, she is just fantastic. I’m adding her performance to my list of “actors who were robbed.” (I have one for directors too, but it’s just Spike Lee’s name listed five times. But I digress.) Her mental fragility in the dressing room, with Charles Bickford’s Oliver Niles, is absolutely crushing. Watching a woman fall apart at the thought of the man she loves so much coming undone is devastating. Judy Garland plays this with such naturalism and so convincingly, that you’d think she had been through it. Knowing that she struggled with addiction herself before she let it kill her in 1969 is all the more saddening. Don’t get  me wrong, Janet Gaynor is good! But the 1937 script just doesn’t give her the chance to flex her acting muscles in the same way as the 1954. The script in the 1954 version makes it seem less inevitable that everything may break down for our favorite couple. You think they may still have their happily ever after. But it’s not to be.

Anyone who can make me cry while looking like this deserves an Oscar

Where the script and the acting are at their best in both versions is in the pivotal scene at the Academy Awards. Everyone is on their A game as Norman Maine is in front of his peers and the world, begging for a job. This is all made perfect by the sound of these scenes. Sometimes the best sound a scene can have is silence. And the silence in these scenes is deafening. It’s obvious how alone Norman is, how the industry he once dominated has passed him by. No one but his wife wants to defend him anymore, and even as she goes to do it, on the happiest night of her life, he accidentally slaps her. This scene is what made me realize that this film has the greatest supporting cast of all time. Everyone watching this go down and switch from shock to utter sadness and then to horror without giving more than a gasp is true excellence.

Is this the first movie that features the Oscars?

The 1954 version is a product ahead of its time to me. 1937’s is clearly a studio movie, though it’s still a fantastic one. But 1954’s cinematography and the frankness of its discussion around the downsides of Hollywood is at least 10 years ahead of its time. The opening scene in 1954 is so good, I checked to make sure I was watching the right version and not the 1976 by mistake. The shooting into the light and the use of the ambient noise of a red carpet as a soundtrack instead of a traditional score looks so out of place for a Golden Age movie. On top of that, the coloring of the movie looks so natural compared to most technicolor. Obviously, it still has that vibrant quality of all Technicolor movies. But it’s Technicolor turned down a notch and a half. It’s a color film that still feels grounded. This is a 60s movie with a big band soundtrack.

Both movies show their age of course. I truly didn’t expect to see blackface in the 1954 movie (but then again, Mickey Rooney played Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1963, so what do you expect). I’m actually surprised I didn’t find more articles mentioning the Swanee River number, because it’s truly an appalling display of racism in an otherwise flawless movie. Call me an SJW who is obsessed with political correctness, but scenes like that truly take me out of a movie and remind me that a movie is not timeless. And not only do they talk about “Injun devils” in 1937, but their talk of the movies is so quaint. Movies are sinful! Moving to LA? To live amongst the vagabonds and cowboys? Unthinkable! In an age where social media has allowed stars to expose their own shortcomings themselves and publicity teams are less vital, this hand-wringing about the movies themselves is truly outdated.

But this will always be an issue with any old Hollywood movie. When the power players were all white men, the casual racism can slip into even the simplest love stories. When I say it’s a tale as old as time, I mean it. There’s a reason that this movie can be remade 3 times and even its 2018 version can be a smash hit. There’s a reason we’re all still swooning hearing “I just wanted to take another look at you.” Perhaps one day, in 2052, if the world hasn’t been devastated by a climate disaster or a poop shaped meteor, we’ll remake A Star is Born one last time. Perhaps a 21-year old then will be writing a post just like this, questioning the gender politics of the 2018 version (a totally valid criticism!). But in 2052, we’ll once again be hoping somebody wants to take another look at us  and sobbing at the suicide of a man who, if he had just been loved a bit more may  have been saved. In 2052, young folks will know the plot of A Star is Born just as I did. But damn it, we’ll be a sucker for it again.

A Brief Update

It has been a hot minute. Where to begin? 

Well, if you didn’t know, I work in politics. Well, worked. I was working on the Ned Lamont campaign, as well as other down ballot races in Connecticut. It was exhausting (I worked for 3 straight weeks without a day off). Ned won, Matt Lesser is now a state senator, and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz won re-election by a mere 50 votes, and I got a chance to sleep. 

Did I do that? Of course not!

Instead, I IMMEDIATELY moved to New York City. I lived here at one point in time, but moved back home for work and other reasons.  But I once again live where I belong, and Brooklyn just got another bad bitch and now I have a Brooklyn library card (which is VERY exciting to  me). But I do not have internet yet and I haven’t fully moved in yet and it’s all been very chaotic. And throughout ALL of this I have been trying desperately to watch movies and to write. But I haven’t had a chance to do either. I saw A Star is Born at an 11am screening one Tuesday before work (not recommended. To see the movie before work, that is) and I’ve had a half written post on it in my drafts for WEEKS now that I never had a chance to finish. I have so many awards season films to catch up with that I haven’t had a chance to see. 

I had plans to do a horror movie series for Halloween. I want to do a whole series on the films of this year’s awards season. I want to do a Christmas movie or two. (I still haven’t seen A Nightmare Before Christmas!)

But instead, here’s my excuse post. 

My review of the previous versions of A Star is Born will be up within a day or two. Until then, enjoy this apology. 

JURASSIC PARK (1993)

It’s the perfect summer blockbuster. So hold onto your butts and watch this movie with fresh eyes. Or for the first time. This film holds up, and it’s a fucking delight. 

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The entrance to the park……and this post

Jurassic Park is a legend. I understand. That’s the reason we’re still allowing Chris Pratt to frolic among the creatures that are UNDENIABLY shown to be dangerous and unstable in this movie, and literally every other sequel.

However, in the 25 years of its existence, I’ve never seen it. Jurassic Park, like many Spielberg blockbusters, is one of those movies that you almost feel like you don’t NEED to see it. It’s so ubiquitous, you know what happens, right? Scientists go to a rich man’s theme park with dinosaurs, the dinosaurs escape, chaos reigns, Jeff Goldblum is shirtless, yada yada yada.

But alas, I was wrong. I did need to see it. And I want to see it again. I watched it on demand on Showtime, before it left on September 11th. Even seeing it on my big screen TV in the living room was not big enough. I see why this was at one point the highest grossing film in history. You need the big screen. This is a blockbuster of the highest order. This combines thrill and humor in a way movies these days can’t seem to balance.

See, I didn’t want to watch this because I honestly expected it to be boring. I know the dinosaurs will escape, why do I need to watch them do it? I’ve procrastinated so long on this, I OWN the freaking movie and didn’t watch it. But alas, my VCR is now broken and I must rely on premium channels’ on demand selections.

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A first run copy of Jurassic Park that sits in a storage cabinet, forgotten about by all in the household.

The fact that, even barring its status as a cultural zeitgeist, one can be amazed and delighted by this film proves its worthiness as a touchstone of the 90s.

And oh how painfully 90s it can feel. I mean for Christ’s sake, Lex gets onto the ride and is amazed by an “interactive CD ROM” and the informational video looks like the shit I got shown in 8th grade sex ed.

Sidenote: I fucking love that video, and Richard Attenborough’s “oh, I have lines here”. Actually, scratch that, I love Richard Attenborough in general. He’s a goddamn DELIGHT in this movie. He’s so confident in his creation and so happy to show it people, and this performance is FANTASTIC. It’s a performance that makes me feel sympathy for this rich white man, which is hard for a working class Puerto Rican girl like myself to do! But he’s just…god, the only word I can think of is CUTE. He’s just downright adorable.

Actually, everyone’s performance is exactly what the characters need. None of this feels phoned in or like a money grab so the actors could afford to do more indie and “quality” films. Laura Dern KILLS IT (both in her acting and in her slightly less painfully 90s outfits). Jeff Goldblum plays an asshole, and oh what a delightful asshole he is. Wayne Knight could show up in any movie and I’d say “yes! I’m so happy Wayne Knight is here!” He’s like a 90s John C. Reilly. You’re amazed how he’s in everything everywhere and you’re never not happy to see him. I really want to be Samuel L. Jackson’s cigarette. And both kids make it a true family film. The girl who plays Lex could have been Drew Barrymore’s competition in the “blonde child actress” competition, but alas, she seems to have decided to pursue a career in painting instead and we got 50 First Dates. Everyone wins!

But for me, the proof that the movie doesn’t play it safe and truly takes risks is the special effects and the set and production design.

Think of this summer’s blockbuster action movies. Skyscraper, Rampage, The Meg, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Sadly, these movies haven’t gone much further from the effects shown in this. (I mean, The Meg is such an obvious cash grab for the China market it hurts. I have a lot of feelings on that subject though).

It’s 2018 and I’m watching Jurassic Park for the first time and I’m still amazed by the dinosaurs and how realistic they look. They blend right into the landscape, and make you look with the same amazement as Dr. Ellie Sattler. It leaves you wondering “how did they do it?” while not wanting to look it up and ruin any of the movie magic. It puts modern CGI to shame. They’re not just trying to amaze (like the animals in Rampage), they’re trying to convince. They clearly spared no expense with these effects and that love and effort shows.

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Same Laura Dern. Same.

I can’t speak for the scientific accuracy of the film. I’m sure Neil DeGrasse Tyson has something to say, but I don’t want to look. (Okay, so I looked. He did talk with Bill Nye about Jurassic World. Oh, how that man loathes suspension of belief!) But who the hell cares! There’s DINOSAURS! Eating a man on the toilet! It’s fun and frightening and riveting and it’s a gumbo of all the best elements of movie magic and I want more. It’s the perfect summer blockbuster. So hold onto your butts and watch this movie with fresh eyes. Or for the first time. This film holds up, and it’s a fucking delight.

METROPOLIS (1927)

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Title Card from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Masterpiece

This review used to begin with a paragraph talking about how much I loved Kanopy, which I used to watch this film. Sadly, the NYPL recently ended offering the service to cardholders. RIP Kanopy, at least for me and other New York cinephiles.

Most movies from the 1920s are watched by film lovers as artifacts. We may love these movies; we may even draw their lessons and apply them to today’s world. But few play as if they were made IN today’s world. Metropolis is one of the few.

It’s a 2 and a half hour whirlwind, a German fever dream of what the year 2026 should look like. The greatest part of this all is how not antiquated this future looks. The machines look like a steampunk’s dream today and the city seems to be denser and containing more transit than the average large American city can dream of. If only a working class employee could simply walk to work in New York City today. Alas, we’re stuck to ride the same tracks that existed when this movie was released. But I digress.

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I can’t stop thinking about this light bulb

The cut I watched is the most complete ever, a 149-minute version with restored scenes and shots thought lost until found by the Museo Cine in Argentina. However, the print was badly damaged and it shows. You can tell which scenes and shots are only in the film because of their recovery, as they have a markedly different quality from the original German print. And honestly, the large majority of the scenes found……are unnecessary.

My biggest complaint is how long it is. Maybe it’s just my warped not-quite-Millenial-but-not-Gen Z brain that can’t sit and pay attention for a 2 and a half hour silent film. But I swear, when the Prelude ended and I saw we were HALFWAY THROUGH and just hit the intermezzo…Lord I almost gave up. But I’m glad I kept going. The final third is some of the most thrilling, edge of your seat storytelling of the silent era.

The first third of the movie is full of so many long establishing shots, almost as if Lang is showing “look what I did!” instead of allowing one to be amazed by his (admittedly impressive) set. And given the acting work put out by Brigitte Helm in the rest of the movie, it isn’t needed.

She plays so many primary and tertiary characters and gives each of them the full bodied characterization needed to pull it off. Her facial expressions as the Machine Man give her a distinctiveness necessary for the Jekyll and Hyde roles she’s playing between the Machine Man and Maria. It’s a performance that should be hailed as legendary, a performance that should be required viewing for any and all aspiring actresses. But that’s not the film’s legacy. Indeed, the visuals of the film are the longstanding triumph of the movie.

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The transformation of the Machine Man is one of the most famous moments in cinema

Going into this, I knew many of the shots that I’d see. The worker’s city, the Tower of Babel sequence, and most of all the creation of Maria into the Machine Man are enduring images of all of film history. Janelle Monae, a singer, actress, and idol of mine, created a whole EP named after the film with an even better debut album inspired by it. I was unsure if the film would meet my expectations. I mean it’s almost 100 years old, it can’t look THAT good, can it?

But it does. The collages in some of the more horror filled scenes in the second half still dizzy. The perfect synchrony in which the workers move, both during the shift change and as they march and dance during the destruction of the Heart Machine, requires a direction of brutal precision. And rumors are that the filming was brutal abound. It paid off, surely, but at what cost? I don’t want to defend a sadistic dictator of a director, those are too common still today. But the looks of the movie show how his demands for perfection paid off. The flooding of the workers city is a harrowing sight, as abandoned children pour out of the buildings. The burning of the witch is a gorgeous display of revenge, a therapeutic moment of comeuppance for this villain. But knowing how terrible this shoot was for Brigitte Helm and all of the poor children hired by Lang, it makes one feel guilty for enjoying it. One is no better than Joh Fredersen, luxuriating in the beauty at the suffering of others.

But the past is the past. And however this movie was filmed, its visual legacy is enduring. It should be showed in architecture classes as the peak of Art Deco and shown to politics classes about the role of power and labor and their relation to each other.

As a political organizer, I often find myself fascinated by the first two decades of the 20th Century. So much that we take for granted, such as the 40 hour work week, child labor laws, and the holiday we just celebrated known as Labor Day stemmed from the type of workers depicted in the film. Yet, for as much as labor has advanced since then, it’s incredible how it has remained the same. This movie could be remade today. In fact, it almost has. The relationship between Joh Fredersen and the workers is not much different between the often terse relations between Jeff Bezos and the thousands of workers who ensure that the e-commerce giant can continue its Prime promises. That relationship is brilliantly shown in Sorry To Bother YouSurely, Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift and his WorryFree act as both a metaphor for Amazon and as the spirtual successor of Metropolis’ pro-worker message.

I just wish that today, the ending message could be the most defining image. Beyond a display of technical film prowess, Metropolis is a rebuke of Germany’s post World War I industrial transformation. It’s a movie for the common worker, a dystopian future which is almost here. In 2026, will we celebrate the year of Metropolis with protests of our own? Or will the relationship between the head and the hands still be missing its heart? I fear the latter. I hope our own mediator shows up soon, but until then, Metropolis remains a relevant social commentary.

the mediator between head and hands
A Still Relevant Message in This Day and Age

The Experiment Begins

On December 28th, 1895, the Lumiere Brothers held the first paid screenings on ten short films. It was to be the first ever film showing in world history. 

In the early hours of February 14th, 1997, I was born in a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. 

A lot of shit happened between then. 

On December 28th, 1895, the Lumiere Brothers held the first paid screenings of ten short films. It was to be the first ever film showing in world history.

In the early hours of February 14th, 1997, I was born in a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

A lot of shit happened between then.

From the Lumiere Brothers, to DW Griffith, to Cecil B DeMille, to Hitchcock, to Wilder, to Fellini, to De Palma, to Scorsese and beyond, there’s a lot of cinema that I probably SHOULD see but I HAVEN’T seen. And there’s even more that I WANT to see but I haven’t gotten around to. I’m only 21, I’ve been deeply into cinema for only a couple years, and I’ve held a full time job for nearly 2 years now. Time allotted for watching movies isn’t getting any larger, so I just need to do it.

At the same time, I’ve been dreaming about directing/writing for several years now. I don’t have the money for film school (I don’t even have the money to finish up my half-baked bachelor’s in politics) so I’ve decided to teach myself the ins and outs of what makes, in my view, good movies. What links all of my favorite films together? What elements do they all have that endears me to them so much? And how can I know THAT without watching some of the greats? And what better way to learn about movies than writing, for the permanent record for the world to see, about which classics I loved and which ones I didn’t?

This will be a blog as I try and watch as much revered and roundly praised movies that I wasn’t alive to see in the 102 years since that Lumiere Brothers screening. This will be my “film catch up” on all the shit that older film aficionados bragged about watching in theaters in 1993 or have stories about renting from Blockbuster at age 17. I can’t watch every movie in theater and Blockbuster is no longer around for my film awakening (RIP). But I can try my best to make sure I’m as well educated about the movies as I should be.

So come along on this journey as I share my thoughts on all the classics I’ve missed. I hope you have as good of a time as me.