My Guide to 2018

I am a bit late on this but I thought it would still be a good idea to go over my year in smaller tidbits. It was a year of personal growth and change, and while many seem to despise 2018 I could not have asked for a more incredible year. Here are some highlights.

Favorite Movie: Minding the Gap – Bing Liu’s masterful documentary struck a cord with me I could never quite shake, as its chronicles of skateboarders transitioning into adulthood are joyous and heartbreaking. I used to skateboard when I was little, and so I understood the motivation these three people felt. It was a way to break rules and to rebel from what was expected of you, or to challenge yourself in new ways. The underlying motivations for skateboarding turn to their home situations and also towards domestic abuse, creating a powerful portrait of life in America. A must watch. I gave it a 9.7 and I think that is modest if anything.

Runner-up: First Reformed – Paul Schrader’s haunting tale of a Reverend having a crisis of faith is the most topical and relevant film to come out in 2018. It is slow and intentionally still, creating an austere sense until it breaks its own rules. Amanda Seyfried is most impressive, as she plays the woman who can most understand the two men who are at the focal point of this story. Please do me a favor and see it. It is truly special.

Favorite Book: When Breath Becomes Air – A book I picked up off of my uncle’s shelf quickly turned into one of the most searing and poignant books that I read this year, as the pain, trauma, and delight of a neurosurgeon in his final days was a beautifully rendered story. It is tough and heartbreaking, but it finds a way through sheer determination to find its voice, and for Paul to get the auto-biography he always deserved. A book I loved and I think others will as well.

Runner-Up: A Storm of Swords – While I am still not finished with this book, George R.R. Martin continues to amaze me with his deep and empathetic take on characters most of us would have looked away from. This was the first in the series to dig deep into many of the villains of this story, and it makes for incredible reading and deep emotional thought. Certain scenes killed me, and the major deaths in this story keep the incredible shock-value, but what I was consistently amazed by was Martin’s care for everyone in the story.

Favorite Moment: NIRCA National Championship Meet – It is hard to overstate how incredible my experience was running in freezing cold Shelbeyville, Indiana with my club track team. All of our hard work came to fruition, and we had a blast while doing it. I can not thank my team enough for all they have given me and I hope to get to go to more incredible meets in the future.

Defining Change in Character: Openness – So much of my time before 2018 I spent my time in a bubble, resulting in stereotypes about people who live outside of my own. After spending a year away from home and traveling the midwest as well as meeting people from all over, I had the incredible opportunity to meet people from the furthest corners and reaches of the midwest and beyond. This has allowed me to be much more open to new experiences and new people, and my slight fear of breaking my bubble has turned into exuberance to discover others.

What will define 2019: Resolve – 2019 looks to be a year that will be hard, with a lot of goals set and plenty of things to achieve. My hope is that by the end of 2019 I can be in an even better spot than I am now, and that will take strength and resolve to get through it. I know I, as well as you can, but it will take time. To an amazing 2018 and an even better 2019.

No End in Sight & First Reformed

No End in Sight – In preparation for a film review I am writing for The Michigan Review on the movie Vice, I decided to watch this documentary about the Iraq War. This is the best critique of the Iraq War I have ever watched, as it interviews public officials who were in charge of implementing policy and change in Iraq. It shows the numerous misfires and missteps, and focuses particularly on the months before and following the invasion. It shows an inexplicable level of ignorance, by those at the heights of power. I was impressed with how thorough and honest it was, it never felt like I was watching a Michael Moore film. For anybody interested in knowing more about this period in our history, this is a must-see. 8.7/10

Will God forgive us for what we have done to his creation?

First Reformed (Available on Amazon Prime)This quote comes from Paul Schrader’s latest effort First Reformed, a haunting portrait of our present moment in America. Reverend Ernst Toller loses one of his parishioners in a suicide due to his anguish over climate change, and that begins a crisis of faith for our Reverend. The movie is meticulous and almost shockingly still, but evokes a calm that disturbs and cuts deep. Ethan Hawke is terrific, in his pained performance, and the earnestness of this film ultimately comes through. Of all the films to come out in 2018, this is perhaps the most important. It captures religiosity, our changing world, and what happens when we are left behind. It is necessary viewing.   9.6/10

Also I know I have been late to it but I will do a guide to 2018, so stay tuned for that if you are interested!

Andrew Sullivan’s The Poison We Pick & Isle of Dogs

Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many.

The following is from a brilliant article by Andrew Sullivan regarding the Opioid epidemic, and one I cannot commend enough for its scope and brilliance. Andrew Sullivan is a terrific writer, but what makes this piece particularly special is his understanding and compassion toward users and abusers of opioids. It paints a picture of a country that has lost its way, and that has left people behind. Empty voids can be filled in devastating ways, and this is no different. If you want to understand the United States today, look no further than this brilliant piece of journalism.

 I couldn’t get past Anderson’s usual clumsiness when dealing with minorities. This is a film where a character is literally whitewashed, an act that makes him more agreeable afterwards. “Isle of Dogs” treats this as a sight gag. It plays more like a confession.

This is from a review of the movie Isle of Dogs by Odie Henderson, a great writer for the Roger Ebert site. The review dwells over a few characters including  who are deemed as culturally problematic, most notably a girl in the film named Tracy who is perceived by Henderson to be the “white savior” of the film.

To me, while there were oblique symbols used that may have been misappropriated, I really do not know understand why we have to look at Tracy’s race before dealing with her as a character. Anderson could have been more careful, but this is his world and he choose to have a character with unique story and connection to the case in order to make it palpable. If she was of color I do not think that would have changed anything, and she did not have to be if Anderson did not see it that way. I do not think characterizing it as cultural appropriation is fair, as it is a slippery term to begin with and directors should be able to write their own stories without fear of fitting into a narrow cultural frame.

I liked the movie overall, but was a bit underwhelmed at points. I think Wes Anderson is an incredibly creative mind, and I love much of his work. The animation in this film is particularly astounding including a terrific voice cast. Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Bryan Cranston are just a few of the voices for this film, and that is not even the tip of the iceberg. While this film could have been more well thought out, it is hard to be too angry when this film is as fun as it is with so many great performances. 8/10

The Favourite, Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse, & David Brooks’s Favorite Articles

The Favourite – Yorgos Lanthimos’s snide and narcissistic comedy about two women fighting to be Queen Anne’s confidant is hilarious and biting. Much attention has been paid to Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and rightfully so, but I was more impressed with Emma Stone as Abigail. Watching her duke it out and manipulate those around her in a way Machiavelli would be proud was terrific, and she makes the absolute most of her role. It ends in slightly odd and precarious way, but that does not take away from the overall quality of this movie. It is a very fun time, even if it is imperfect. 8.7/10

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Like me, I am sure many of you have Superhero fatigue, and yet this movie finds a way to be incredibly fresh and exciting as a superhero film. Cleverly written, it takes joy in playing with narrative and structure, showcasing different Spider-men and women from different dimensions. It makes for some of the most refreshing thrills in years, and allows for a unique take on a comic book staple. The animation is also incredible, as it literally brings comic book pages to life. Miles and the other spider-people seem to move at hyperkinetic speeds while also keeping a unique artistic quality that beckons comic books of old and new. It is hard to think of a movie more fresh and fun than this one, and one that I highly encourage you see in theaters. 9/10

Finally in this piece, David Brooks quotes some of his favorite long-form pieces of journalism, and all of them are worth a read. I would highly recommend both Andrew Sullivan pieces mentioned, as they are both terrific.

Free Solo & Meru should be watched together

When I went to see Free Solo I was amazed, bewildered, and shocked. It was a film so deep and emotional, something seemed to separate it from so many other films of its kind. Alex Honnold, Free Solo climber, someone who climbs without ropes or a harness, sets his sight toward El Capitan, a rock so huge it had never been free soloed let alone climbed before. The film follows the preparation and the people around Alex as he attempts to make one of the most incredible climbs in human history.

What is great about this film is not whether or not he makes it, but rather its focus on Alex’s preparation and difficulties as well as how the people around him deal with the possibility of him falling to his death. It is gripping and fascinating stuff, but the true star is not Alex but rather his girlfriend Sanni McCandless, as she becomes our voice to Alex in many ways.”I do not understand why he wants this.” When she asks would you rethink your climbing priorities with me he bluntly says “No but I appreciate your concern.”

Watching him climb is gripping and thrilling stuff but going through Alex’s life is what sets this film apart. The director Jimmy Chin, who after Alex finishes his climb says, “That is a huge weight off my shoulders.” In order to understand that weight you should watch Meruavailable on Netflix. Jimmy Chin directs as he and his friends Conrad Ankman and Renan Ozturk attempt to climb a Mountain that has never been summited before, the Shark’s Fin at Meru. Jimmy this time gets more personal focus and his family dynamic is once again fascinating. It is just as if not more brutal than Free Solo, but just as captivating. It gives the insight into not only Jimmy’s life but the climbing life as well.

I encourage you to watch both films as they are great showcases of not just the sport of climbing, but also the human experience. The highs, lows, trials and tribulations all add up to an incredibly brilliant set of documentaries that I think go together incredibly well. For Free Solo I give a 9.5, and for Meru I give up an 8.5. Free Solo is a better film but both are great in their own way and I recommend watching both together.

Also there are plenty of great reviews on Free Solo but my favorites are from David Sims and New York Times Columnist Bret Stephens!

Shirkers, The Hunt For Red October, and Game of Thrones Quote #4

Some of us are movers, some of us are shakers, and some of us are Shirkers.

Shirkers (Netflix)This is from the most recent Netflix documentary; A brilliant, lush and beautiful film that also unfolds into a compelling mystery. Sandi Tan filmed a road movie in 1992, and watched her mentor Georges Cardona steal it from her. She called the film Shirkers, referring to those who avoid or neglect responsibilities. Her quest to find the film becomes part of a story to settle her demons and those of her friends who lost everything as well. Bold, audacious, and thoughtful, Shirkers is brilliant and a fascinating tour of Singaporean film. Terrific and a must for film buffs. 9/10

The Hunt For Red October – Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin are at their best in the a great remake of a classic Tom Clancy novel. Connery plays Captain Ramius, head of the Red October Submarine, heading straight for the US Coastline. Baldwin as Jack Ryan believes that there is more to his motives than their appears. While it is missing some critical parts from the novel itself it is still pulse-pounding, and the story opts for a more realistic spy thriller that stands the test of time. While by no means a perfect film, it is great entertainment nonetheless. 8.3/10

Some part of him blames me… though he knows it was good counsel (515).

Catelyn continues to struggle, and her pain begins to seep into every interaction she has. She believes she has lost her sons, which create a feeling of undying attachment to Robb. She also feels she must be stronger for him, as the fragility of his life in war is higher than ever. So, everything, feels in some sense pained. How do I please my son and protect him all the same? How can I give him good counsel without losing his trust? Catelyn is walking on a tight-rope, and her lack of omnipresent knowledge of the wellbeing of her children makes things that much more painful for the reader.

Catelyn is by no means perfect, and her consist rejection of Jon Snow is understandable but harsh for Jon. He is not at fault for her fathers adultery, and yet she feels he is somehow part of the wrong. Yet her pain toward her children is palpable and understandable, as it would be a tough dilemma for any of us to work with. All we can do is hope for the Starks, and hope that everything will be okay. Something tells me it will not be.

A Quiet Place & The Florida Project

A Quiet Place – I have a confession to make. I am not a horror movie fan, and I have for most of my life avoided scary movies. However, I decided that it would be time to try A Quiet Place, a movie I had been secretly wanting to watch for awhile. In this post-apocalyptic world, the monster can hear you but cannot see, so tranquil peace is the mode of survival. What easily could have become a gimmick turns into a thematic and nail-biting thriller, using the circumstances of the world to explore the human condition rather than playing it for cheap thrills. Millicent Simmons is terrific is Regan, and John Kransinski does a great job as director, showing the pain and grief that families must go through who have lost everything. It is not a perfect movie, but a very good one nonetheless that uses its world to examine the human condition, rather than play the gimmick for cheap thrills. 9/10

The Florida Project – The story of a family on the brink of poverty through the eyes of six year old Moonie is so beautiful and brilliant it is hard to explain why without making it seem slightly ridiculous. Taking place in the outskirts of Disneyworld, many people live in motels because they cannot afford elsewhere. Rather than try to make overarching generalizations, director Sean Baker looks at individuals with care and purpose, showcasing their best and worst selves in a whimsical and beautiful way. The one character I found particularly striking was Moonie’s mother Halley, and how often she puts herself above others. This is a movie that is fun, hilarious and ludicrous, while also having a lot to say about consequences. Even in their whimsical adventures, Moonie’s behavior and most importantly Halley’s selfishness all have consequences, and eventually can lead to heartbreak. Willem Defoe is terrific as Bobby the manager, showing the conflict between caring for people and the trouble they can bring him and Brooklyn Prince is terrific as Moonie. For anyone looking for a great watch this is definitely worth your time. 9.3/10

Private Life & Voter Registration

Private Life (Netflix) – I have been slow about watching Netflix movies, but this came as a recommendation from my favorite Movie podcast, Grierson & Leitch. They both gave this movie a very high score, and so I felt obligated to give it a shot. Directed and written by Tamara Jenkins, this movie finds incredible pacing and heart in what could have very easily fallen into a clichéd, sappy love story. Staring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, a couple struggles to conceive a child in their late 40s, and goes through numerous trials and tribulations in their quest to have a kid. The pain that this couple feels is not so much in what is said but what is unsaid, how they grimace, look, and sigh. This movie has something important to say about relationships, and is much better than I could have anticipated. If you have a Netflix account, do yourself a favor and watch this film. 9/10

Registering to vote is one of the most important things you can do. Voting is the one of the few times in our democracy where you get to have your voice heard. So I encourage all of you to register to vote, wherever you happen to be. It is easy to look at National Politics and be discouraged, but locally you can have a major impact. I will be writing a Michigan Voting Guide soon enough but until then please make sure to register. When I say I do not care about your affiliation I mean it, what matters is that your voice is heard not if your voice conforms to my own. Please, take the time to register.

Minding the Gap, Boogie Nights, and Donald Trump

Yesterday was a movie day, as I sat in my new apartment taking in Ann Arbor. I watched two both of which were phenomenal.

  1. Minding The Gap (Hulu) – Bing Liu’s debut feature is one of beauty and heartbreak in the American heartland, a story about himself and his two best friends. Skateboarding brings them together, but it is domestic violence that makes their connection all the more stronger and horrifying. Zach and Kiere, the two other subjects in this film along with Bing share a certain amount of anger, and often do not know how to express it. Skateboarding was their sweet escape, but as they grow up, they must realize who they need to become. It is beautifully filmed and told, with old skateboard footage and candid interviews that are honest and true to their subjects. This is the movie that Liu was born to make, and it comes out as moving as any film I have seen this year. 9.7/10
  2. Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson has made some of the most fascinating epic films, with There Will Be Blood being one of my favorites. His 1997 film Boogie Nights, covers the porn industry from 1977 to 1983 through the eyes of Dirk Diggler. While the movie covers the adult film industry, it focuses on the business side of pornography and brings out the characters of the people in it. Anderson always leaves a sense of dread, that behind these seemingly perfect lives is something more sinister waiting to come out. Burt Reynolds (Burt Reynolds!) is a standout as Jack Horner, the film maker determined to make adult films that mean something. 8.8/10

While I would like to just talk about movies today it seems the world has forced me into at least an article recommendation for the Cohen-Manafort fiasco. Frankly, I do not know how much of it I find interesting anymore, but my hope is that at the very least justice will be served. This more clearly puts Trump in the line of fire, and it will become significantly harder to keep calling this investigation a “witch-hunt” so long as two people in his closest circle are convicted. Conservative columnist Bret Stephens tweeted out the following, “I’ve been skeptical about the wisdom and merit of impeachment. Cohen’s guilty plea changes that. The president is clearly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. He should resign his office or be impeached and removed from office.” I could not agree more. If you are looking for a great explainer article, look no further than this one from Lawfare.

Also I will be away from tomorrow until Sunday and will not have my computer with me. I will not be writing anything during that time and will write as soon as I get back on Sunday evening. Have a great rest of your week everyone and happy El Tráfico week!

Crazy Rich Asians

So often, movies that are culturally important are either terrific or extremely overrated. Sorry to Bother You was culturally important but a bad movie, it failed to tell a story and preferred to force its political opinion on to its viewers. While BlacKkKlansman is far superior, it also fell into this trap at times as well. As a result, I had low expectations for a culturally important rom-com, as this genre of movies are not my favorite to begin with, and I was afraid that its cultural importance would make the film feel better than it actually was.

I am pleased to say that this film is very well done and exceeded my expectations in many ways. Regardless of ethnicity, most will have something in common with insanely rich people. However, this story has real conflict and strong female characters that work, and while it is at times self-obsessed with its opulence it manages to put together a complex story of love and family. While it cannot resist the rom-com temptation to resolve everything, this movie makes an effort to make a complicated and nuanced story with fascinating characters, which allows the movie to stand up on its own two feet. Constance Wu is the stand out as main character Rachel Chu, who does a remarkable job showing her strength and resolve around people who are not fond of her. This movie is a winner and it is grounded in good writing and performances, definitely worth a viewing. 8.5/10