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.

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?!”

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.