Movies

Five Films from the Criterion Channel

I’ve been looking for new ways to satisfy my movie watching fix. The moratorium on the theater experience has brought me on a quest to find the emotional and analytical investment that in-person experience brings. From the depths of the application abyss, arose the Criterion Channel to quench those needs. I’ve begun a journey in understanding the style and methods of classic filmmaking that set cinema off on it’s creative trajectory. Here are five films that pushed me past the two week trial period and put me on a path to one of my best purchases ever.

Stray Dog (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

This journey started with a dive into the Criterion’s Channel’s Toshiro Mifune collection, celebrating the famous Japanese actor’s 100th birthday. My friend Stephen and I started with a Zoom-viewing of the Kurosawa/Mifune samurai collaboration, Throne of Blood (1957). Mifune’s role as the Macbeth-inspired Washizu was a dramatic introduction to his presence. The faces he gives guilt, action, and despair are immediately captivating. As his kingdom falls around him, his frantic rushes to the camera establish the grounds on which our current action heroes reside.

Any Kurosawa/Mifune study must include the highly influential Roshomon (1950), but in this film Mifune only offers support, and it is Kurosawa’s storytelling that keeps our focus. A early work in the collection, Stray Dog, was actually the one that caught my attention most and shows Kurosawa and Mifune working their equal genius in tandem.

Mifune plays a young cop, Murakami, who loses his gun on the job. The gun weaves its way through Tokyo’s criminal underbelly, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Mifune conveys the desperation of a man, just back from war, trying to make something of himself and resist the depravity of his peers on the streets. His character is guided through this maturation by veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), whose insight eases Murakami’s conflicted entrance into adulthood.

Kurosawa has his characters baking in the Japanese summer sun, the tensions of post-war society boiling in the heat. Mifune’s refusal to melt from the pressure with a stoic sense of right and wrong provided the skillset used to become one of the most impactful action heroes in cinema history.

Monterey Pop (dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1968)

I remember watching this lesser known 1960s music festival documentary in middle school. Some of the performances are ingrained in my personal relationship with music. Watching The Who obliterate their instruments after “My Generation” opened my eyes at the ability of music to express pent up aggression.

The second watch of Pennebaker’s cinematic time capsule contextualized the many other emotions I now seek out in sound. Whether it’s the self destruction and helplessness in the wails of Janis Joplin on “Ball and Chain” or the earthly serenity in Ravi Shankar’s closing piece, this documentary offers a great historical account of how the music of the 60s began to deeper represent our feelings towards existence.

From a filmmaking aspect, Pennebaker’s best work in the documentary is done through the genuine reactions he captures of the public. As he works his way through the crowds, each shot gives a unique style and a brief glimpse into the lives of a past generation experiencing great cultural change combatted by intense global turmoil. Monterey Pop is frozen in time and the intimate footage preserves a transformational time in society, it’s authenticity no longer replicable due to our overfamiliarity with screens.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (dir. Otto Preminger, 1965)

Preminger takes the film noir genre to a experimental level with Bunny Lake Is Missing, adding a layer of mysticism that has his characters walk the line between reality and fantasy. It results in a mind bending thriller, where our fight with the truth is just as dangerous as the shadows that lurk in the night.

Carol Lynley owns her leading role as Ann Lake, a young mother whose child Bunny goes missing soon after their move to London, organized by her brother Steven. The pressures of motherhood topple onto Ann, her panicked worry is turned on her and used as evidence for her lack of sanity. Laurence Olivier plays the detective tasked with getting to the roots of the mystery, if one actually exists.

As doubt exerts itself over Ann, she takes matters into her own hands and navigates the labyrinth of London. As she begin to encounter elements of the supernatural on her quest, her grasp on the truth becomes untethered. Not until the climatic scene does Ann reach enlightenment and break from the constraints placed on her from the male controlled world. She asserts her influence on her tormentors, using her motherly instincts to beat the police (and one of the best actors ever) to the punch. It’s a master performance from Lynley, who takes the twists and turns of Preminger’s direction and uses her powers to best them at each critical moment.

The Pride of the Yankees (dir. Sam Wood, 1942)

The legendary Gary Cooper gives an all-American performance as Lou Gehrig that provides the template for every sports biopic to follow. Cooper’s Gehrig begins from immigrant origins and with intense work ethic achieves the loftiest of dreams. His humbleness and respect for those in charge are what propel his career forward. It’s no coincidence that these principles are on display for an audience at the brink of war.

The Pride of the Yankees also reflects the early period of movie production and how it differs little from our modern practices. The immediate memorialization of our public figures is often seen as a byproduct of the digital world, but the Pride of the Yankees was released just a year after Gehrig’s death. The film takes extreme liberties with the Iron Horse’s true story, smudging the timeline of his marriage to create more romantic appeal and adds plenty of sugar-coated scenes that hype up Gehrig as the ideal American prototype.

This film is over the top cheesy, which is the exact space you want your sports movie to live in. The dramatized version of Gehrig’s retirement speech that Cooper delivers is the going out on top moment which the genre is built upon. The Pride of the Yankees solidifies the argument that some of our heroes are larger than life and their posthumous transition to folklore preserves their legacy in the country’s conscience. 

The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer, 2015)

From the huge selection of modern independent filmmakers on the channel, Anna Rose Holmer’s poignant debut stood out most. Part harrowing, part whimsical, Holmer narrows in on the complexity of African-American life in the Rust Belt, a message that resonated here in Pittsburgh.

The film contains itself within a community center in Cincinnati. The children at the center are left to face adolescence, and the adult problems it brings, on their own. The boys try to punch their way out in the ring. The girls seek community in a dance team, using their developing connection to their bodies to primitively express a change they can’t fully grasp.

Eleven-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) is split between both groups. Despite the bond between her and her brother over boxing, something unidentifiable attracts her to the dance team. Hightower gives an all-time child acting performance, as her character meets the “strange affliction” of the older girls with horror, but also underlying curiosity. She struggles to relinquish control to the natural forces of the world, deeply aware of the sexist and racist human forces looming outside her childhood safe space.

As these neighborhoods are often depicted in film as being without, Holmer makes a deliberate choice to show her characters within. Within the walls of the center, young men and women find their passions, find their community, and find themselves. Because within Toni is a connection to the mind, body, and soul uniquely hers that no one can diminish.

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Movies

The Platform and the Power of Activism

SPOILER ALERT: Several important plot points are discussed in this article, including the ending. 

It’s hard to find the ray of hope in Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s dystopian thriller The Platform. The Dickensian hellhole in which his characters exist offers a depressing allegory to our dysfunctional political landscape. From its comments on trickle down economics to violent suppression in support of ideology, The Platform mostly argues that our liberties are locked in and narrowed down by any system. However, Gaztelu-Urrutia leaves one tiny crack in the concrete walls where we could attempt to break ourselves free. That comes from his main character Goreng’s adopted role as activist.

As Goreng (played by Ivan Massague) works his way through the tiered prison complex, where the higher levels eat before the lower levels, his individual determination seems the only chance at the system’s collapse. Goreng arrives in his cell already with an empathetic spirit that puts him on course to become prison liberator. Activism requires understanding the needs of others and putting those needs in front of your own desires. When his first supper arrives from above, Goreng’s immediate reaction was to refuse food so those below had a large supply.

While Goreng’s heart is in the right place, his unawareness of the harsh realities of the hole stunt his drive for change. Empathy may help in understanding the problems of the public, but actual experience brings the problem to a personal level and shows the need for urgent action. Important social movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement, are typically rooted in a collective trauma. A group that has lived through the same oppression can fight injustice more passionately than through the lens of objective morality. The more time Goreng spends in the hole, the more his sense of shared suffering builds. The ghosts of his former cellmates remain with him, pushing him towards a call to action.

One of those ghosts is Imoguiri, who tried her hand at objective reasoning with the other cellmates. She firmly believes in the idea of “spontaneous solidarity,” that over time the cellmates will recognize their shared plight with the other captives, leading to self-imposed rationing that saves enough food for everyone. Imoguiri arrives at the argument, however, from a position of privilege. Having been part of the administration that created the hole, she was able to select her cell partner and found herself beginning on the relatively easy level 33 (the levels go from 1-300). She has no comprehension of the cutthroat nature at the lower depths of the capitalist ladder. Goreng, having seen the darkest sides of oppression, now seems less sympathetic and much more vengeful. There is no possibility at an emotional appeal to a rigged system, you only can attack it.

Goreng’s transformation to a gritty approach in his role as activist shows the painstaking efforts it takes to effect true change. The important social movements of history are typically defined by their seminal moments, but less focus is given to the everyday groundwork that put these decisive events into motion. When Goreng commits with his new cellmate Baharat to collapsing the system from within, they go level-by-level to deliver their message. By the bottom, the two are bloodied, hungry, and mentally drained.

Both were also challenged in their commitment to their end goal and the ethical dilemmas they faced to achieve it. They began to face stronger resistance as they made their way down, and simple persuasion became not enough to change minds. They had to push further. Sometimes, tougher tactics need implemented if a movement is to be successful. The antifa movement are a prime example. As the beliefs of Nazis lie outside the bounds of logic, logical arguments are not effective. Since their ideology is based on a complete lack of compassion, peaceful protest has no chance at getting through to them. The antifa movement found success in driving Nazis back only through aggression. Goreng and Baharat were the same.

Tragically, Goreng’s activist journey ends where a lot do, in sacrifice. Those that gave their lives in defense of justice etch their message into our conscience forever. Education forms the final core component of activism. Even if the efforts made by activists do not lead to direct change, their principles have a better chance at being absorbed by the next generation. That cycle hopefully continues as our modified beliefs begin to advance society.

Goreng reaches the hole’s terminus, all hope gone, only to find a young child awaiting them. New life grows in the most desolate of environments. “The girl is the message,” Baharat tells Goreng in his dream. As a debilitated Goreng drifts off into the abyss, the hole still exists very much as a torture chamber. However, the girl shoots back up to the top level, reassuring that the gears of change are still turning, perhaps a little faster this time.

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Movies

Your Bad Pandemic Movie of the Week Is… Zoombies (2016)

During these times, sometimes I feel the best way to cope is to approach with a level of dark humor. And what better way to tap into that humor than by looking at some of the poorly done pandemic films over cinematic history. Each week I’ll dissect a new film, ripping it apart to find some socially distanced catharsis.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 17%

Zoo animals are infected with a strange virus, turning them into zombies, and begin wreaking havoc around the zoo grounds. It sounds like a foolproof premise for a really bad but endlessly fun movie, something that John Carpenter or Rob Zombie would absolutely crush. However, Zoombies actually achieves a somewhat impressive task of making zombie gorillas and lions boring.

It’s hard to paint a picture of what makes Zoombies just bad-bad and not fun-bad, but I’ll try. Picture you’re stoned out of your mind on a Sunday afternoon. Like too stoned to change the channel. The TV is stuck to the SyFy channel and on is a movie that looks like it only raised 25% of its Kickstarter goal, but they said, “eh.. screw it, let’s make it anyway.” Now with only a quarter of their budget, the production team can’t afford to hire a writer, so they have a bot watch 1,000 hours of Sharknado on repeat to create the driest dialogue possible. Having blown what little they had on the god damn robot, they were left were no other choice than to scrap all the revolutionary CGI effects I’m sure they had planned, instead settling for running some animation through Photoshop real quick and sending it straight to post. As you watch on from the couch, your brain baking from the bong rips starts to enjoy it, simply because it requires the minimal amount of sound and color recognition. That’s the headspace this movie functions in.

I will admit there were two things about the movie that helped salvage some of the time I wasted watching this. The first were the deaths. Boy, did they really imagine up some very gruesome death scenes. I’ll rank them later. The second was that the movie doubled as a struggling actor ladder match, where all these vanilla characters were fighting not just to survive, but also clawing for as much screen time as possible to add to their reel. And since, this movie never really bothered establishing a main character, it added a level of mystery as to who would be left standing with the belt and a background role on NCIS.

Odds on favorite to win the ladder match is Dr. Ellen Rogers, manager of her late grandfather’s Eden Wildlife Zoo, who wants to clarify early on that this is, in no way, a complete Jurassic Park ripoff. Business is booming at Eden. Ellen has coincidentally just bolstered her security personnel with the hiring of the tough-as-nails Lizzy. Today also is the first day of her internship program, as bright-eyed college kids look to gleam vital knowledge about the thriving zoo industry. She even has started building the framework for her innovative Dangerous Animal Daycare, where small children, like her super annoying daughter Thea, get to have hands on learning experiences with trained “environmental educators,” such as Kifo the gorilla.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Ellen, her zoo’s doctor is dealing with inexplicably infected primates. Using his best medical judgement, he decides to revive a dead and diseased monkey, because never has that had any negative ramifications in a zombie film. The lab becomes overrun, the alarm triggered, and chaos soon to follow. The group of Breakfast Club rejects arrive right in time to be literally fed to the wolves. Suit-clad Gage quickly claims alpha status, mixing a lethal duo of can-do attitude with fiscally conservative beliefs regarding zoo management.

The horrors of shoddy CGI befall the group, as crew and interns start dropping like flies. With the zoo on full lockdown and the stock footage police of no service, it’s up to Lizzy and Ellen to manage the situation by murdering every single animal in the place. The giraffes are victim number one, but not before they take a big healthy bite of Gage. It’s okay though, because this literally has zero follow up later in the movie. Even little Thea does her part by fast-tracking her clearly destined trajectory towards serial killer by smashing the shit out of a koala. As Thea bathes in the blood of her adversary, Ellen concocts an exit strategy. They will, wait for it, leave through the front gate, but not before blowing up the aviary as to not let the virus escape to the public.

The bad acting battle royale comes down to a four-way tie: Ellen, Thea, Lizzy, and Gage. They set the birds ablaze and head for the gates. However, in their path steps Kifo, no longer hungry to inspire young minds but hungry for actual young minds. For no discernible reason, the animators decided to not provide their main animal antagonist with the state of the art CGI found in the rest of movie, and instead opted for the technology used to make the fucking Gremlins. Ellen ends Kifo, and in a sense all of our suffering, as a chopper sends the remaining four back to the safety of their off-Broadway theatre troupes. Our parting shot shows the eyes of Kifo reopening, transitioning us flawlessly into Zoombies 2. A film for another quarantine I believe.

So yeah, even though we have all the time in the world right now, I think I still wished I spent these 90 minutes doing something more productive, like staring at the spackle on my ceiling. Nevertheless, that time is irredeemable now and I guess a silver living should be found. Perhaps solace comes from social distancing helping keep us safe, not just from the rapid spread of virus, but from:

5) Wolves sneaking up behind you to gnaw right through your Achilles

4) A parrot poking your eyes out while mocking your final words

3) A gorilla smashing your skull as if opening a coconut

2) Monkeys bursting through your stomach like that scene in Alien

1) Eagles ripping out your esophagus and using it to make a nest for their eggs

And for that I’m thankful.

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Movies

Your Bad Pandemic Movie of the Week Is… Outbreak (1995)

During these times, sometimes I feel the best way to cope is to approach with a level of dark humor. And what better way to tap into that humor than by looking at some of the poorly done pandemic films over cinematic history. Each week I’ll dissect a new film, ripping it apart to find some socially distanced catharsis.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%

If you scroll through the Outbreak Wikipedia entry, you wouldn’t peg it as a bad movie. It was a commercial success, earning over $120 million at the box office. Roger Ebert heaped huge praise on it, calling it, “one of the great scare stories of our time.” But then you press play, and an entirely different story shows itself. The plot is messy, the dialogue static, and it features just an incredibly awkward romance.

So let’s unpack this thing. We start off heavy on the xenophobia with a virus outbreak in the African jungle, brought to America by a monkey via a Chinese ship. The U.S. military puts its best team of sexual scumbags on the case. Our ringleader is Colonel Sam Daniels, played by Dustin Hoffman, a virologist who refuses to play by the rules. Kevin Spacey as Casey Schuler is his right-hand man and they recruit Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who’s only qualification for handling a pandemic seems to be doing a quick skim of “Virus for Dummies” before boarding the flight to Zaire. These three all report to the by-the-book General Billy Ford, played by Morgan Freeman. Seriously, I don’t think there’s been a cast that’s aged more poorly.

Once back in the states, they take the virus to the lab, zoom in and enhance, and diagnose the virus as “Motaba.” By this point Motaba has made its way to American soil.  Patient zero: Jimbo Scott, played by Patrick Dempsey looking super McDreamy with his luscious looks and Motorhead t-shirt. He tries selling our contagious monkey on the black market, fails, and then proceeds to Harry and the Hendersons the thing into the woods, dooming us all the in the process.

Here’s the kicker though: this monkey was actually a two viruses for the price of one monkey. There’s the original water-borne virus that infects Jimbo and somehow does not spread after his trip to Boston. Then there’s the much more dangerous airborne mutation sweeping through a small town in coastal California. Action must be taken right away to save humanity, and in steps Colonel Daniels.

Except Daniels seems constantly preoccupied by the thought of his failing marriage with CDC scientist Robby Keough (Rene Russo) to even begin wrapping his brain around a global catastrophe or whatever. I mean he never misses a chance to interrupt an important medical briefing by venting about a weird self-imposed custody battle he’s having over their DOGS. He’s one step away from just flipping through the family photo album with patients on their deathbeds. This love rescue mission Daniels is on destroys any chance at intensity in the film, something you might want if you’re telling a story about the world potentially ending.

Health-professionals, military personnel, and generic 90’s news reporters flock to California as Motoba has started its spread. Daniels squeezes past the barricades, against general’s orders, because nothing saves a fractured relationship quicker than curing deadly disease. Meanwhile, on the warfront enters Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) hellbent on prioritizing what matters the most, the military’s spit-shine sparkling PR image.

In perhaps the most accurate aspect of the film, McClintock makes the decision to firebomb hundreds of infected civilians, simply to hide the fact that the military were developing the Motaba strain to use as a biological weapon, which is you know, a war crime. Daniels learns of the plot, decides that’s uhh kind of fucked up, and takes matters into his own hands. I guess it’s just a slight coincidence that Keough is also now infected.

Daniels and Salt set out to search and destroy the source monkey. They track the monkey to a six-year-old girl who has just been the most hospitable tea party host for our number one public health threat. Daniels comes up with the most brilliant idea to catch the monkey. They will use the, I repeat, SIX-YEAR-OLD girl as bait, putting her in the middle of a tranquilizer gun and a deadly contagious wild animal. Daniels gives the girl an inspiring pep talk that basically boils down to, “oooo I love my wife,” and by gosh it works.

With the monkey secured, Daniels and Salt hightail it back to the infected site, but not before a totally sweet helicopter montage. However, McClintock still has Operation Clean Sweep at all systems go. Just a quick side note, if you’re planning on spinning the obliteration of an American town as in the public interest, maybe don’t name it Operation Clean Sweep. Daniels sweet talks the bomber pilots into abandoning the mission, detonating over the Pacific.

The dynamic duo then head to the hospital. Salt has miraculously gone from just learning about viruses at the beginning of the film to Nobel Prize winning biologist, developing an antidote in like 7 minutes. Humanity is saved, but most importantly, it looks like Daniels and Keough are going to make it you guys. Oh yeah, and Kevin Spacey dies. Just a great happy ending all around.

So when the credits rolls, I suggest reflecting on the highly important message this movie delivers in these uncertain circumstances. Hit up your ex, because maybe all you needed was a massive pandemic to really make it work.

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Movies

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review: An Existential Look at Love

The first scene of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire narrows in on our titular painting. A lady in fancy gown, looks away to the empty horizon, isolated, the frills at the end of her dress set ablaze. The painting’s creator, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), looks through the painting, staring at a memory long in the past. This moment frames the anguish that drives the complex commentary on love throughout the film.

Marianne is commissioned by a high-society woman to paint her daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). As Marianne settles into the estate, she gathers rumors about Heloise’s sorrow. Heloise shrouds herself in her dark cloak, numbing herself to the constraints of 18th century society. She’s to piously accept the arranged marriage set up by her mother, expected to practice the concept of restraint learned at the convent to guide her in the strengthening of the family’s noble bloodlines.

This sense of anguish lurks around the corner in every aspect of Marianne and Heloise lives, but briefly we get to see fleeting moments of escape found in each other. For Marianne, it is an aesthetic release provided by her muse. Her passion ignites from mental snapshots she takes of Heloise. It’s the first sight of Heloise’s golden curls in the sunlight, her piercing blue eyes, and gentle slope of her neck that cement Marianne’s artistic attraction.

Heloise’s escapes come not from the lure of outward beauty, but the moments of liberation from internal strife. In Marianne arrives someone who can break free her emotions long locked away. A smile first cracks open as Marianne plays Heloise a first exposure to orchestral music, a discovery of something profound to define her existence. Through this relationship, she builds ways to contextualize her suffering from music to nature to art itself.

Cinema often portrays love as a permanent cure from our anguish, but Sciamma sees it differently in her award winning screenplay. Yes, Marianne and Heloise find their longest reprieve as they fully consume themselves in one another, but eventually the constraints of life return and sorrow prevails. The motifs of fire as passion in the film quickly give way to signs of internal distress. The complexity of their love pulls back and forth as they look longingly at each other from opposite sides of a crackling bonfire. Heloise’s dress begins to catch fire with her reacting with nothing but emptiness. Eventually, the world swallows up you back up and those moments of escape burn off into the night.

This might make the mood of the film sound awfully bleak, but Sciamma tries to have her characters live outside the binary of happy and sad. Yes, her existential argument centers around the idea that to exist is to feel pain, but she also communicates that any experiences that temporarily lift us from that pain is worth the heartbreak that might follow. Sciamma supports this belief by comparing her two lovers to the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

With Orpheus ordered by Hades to not look at his lover Eurydice until they escape the underworld, Orpheus cannot resist her beauty, turns back, and on the precipice of exit Eurydice sinks back down below. According to Marianne in her interpretation, Orpheus decides to accept the memory of Eurydice, a blissful moment preserved in the mind, never to be soured by time.

Marianne has her own Orpheus moment. At the threshold of her goodbye, she peers back at Heloise, angelic in her wedding gown. The image both haunts and delights. It’s the perfect encapsulation of aesthetic ecstasy Marianne found in her muse, but also reminds of a love doomed from the beginning by expectations. Both fade from each other’s lives forever, only memory remains.

Sciamma concludes her film by showing her characters as a sum of their experiences. Heartbreak facilitated growth. Marianne improved as an artist, her agony translating to a deeper connection with her canvas. Heloise has found a similar connection with her emotions, her tear-streaming reaction to the symphony far removed from the blank face first seen on the French cliffs. Portrait of a Lady on Fire refuses to coddle audiences with a love conquers all messaging, but it does give us some solace in its reminder that at least our anguish drives our human existence forward.

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Little Women Review: Jo March’s Lesson on Love

*Spoilers* 

We meet Jo March in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women defiant over her publisher Mr. Greenwood’s demands for her characters to be married by the end of her stories. This reluctance towards marriage persists as we learn more about her. She never misses a moment to mention that her fuel in life comes from her independence.

However, she arrives back to her childhood New England home sharpened much like the winter airs that greets her. She no longer possesses the cheerfulness of her youth, shown to us through intermittent flashbacks that carry the story along. Her role as the leader of the March sisters is no longer necessary, her big sister Meg content in marriage and her little sister Amy off on European adventures. We start to realize the claims of independence mask contrary intentions. Eventually, she unleashes her pent up frustrations to her always understanding mother Marmee.

“Women, they have minds, and they have souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.”

Saoirse Ronan’s delivery of this pivotal scene is what frames her character’s viewpoint on love. I empathize with her fears attached to love. The concern is that a sharing of yourself with another leads to you being left with less of yourself. You have less time to pursue your passions. Your important personal connections already made, like Jo’s with her sisters, will move to the background. The worry is that accepting another as a part of you results in an entire shift in your identity.

However, that stance can be a dangerous one to keep. Self-acceptance can quickly turn into complacency. Jo finds her herself in this spot. She is reluctant to challenge herself in her writing. Her educator counterpart Friedrich offers the potential at an equitable partnership based on honesty, but quickly pulls back from the leap necessary to embrace new truths.

She walked herself off that ledge before at the culmination of her transition from childhood to adulthood. The autumnal leaves of change surround her and her childhood friend Laurie. Her sisters have accepted the change ahead. Meg has married. Amy has accepted her aunt’s offer of an artistic apprenticeship in Europe. But when Laurie admits his love for Jo and her leap of faith into unknown appears in front of her, she retreats into what is comfortable: her understanding of who she is without love.

Now Jo faces a future of loneliness, unless she accepts that a past layer of herself must be shed and a new version of her well-defined personality adopted. We as humans must force ourselves out of the rigidity of old ways to allow for opportunities at growth. In these regards, Jo is no longer mentor but mentee to her younger sister Amy.

Amy, played expertly by Florence Pugh, put herself through this cycle of growth. She transforms in the film from fussy and petulant child to steadfast and determined adult. She has worked hard not only at her painting, but in understanding what she wants from life. While Jo prides herself on self-discovery, Amy has discovered herself through her relationships. As she paints her forever love and soon to be husband Laurie, she reveals her mantra towards love.

“I believe we have some power over who we love, it isn’t something that just happens to a person.”

Love needs to be grabbed when you see a chance at it. It isn’t something that serendipitously falls upon us. A successful partnership requires the diligence to work towards common goals, without the suffering of individual identity. We cannot reach understanding alone, as we often are unaware of our blind spots. A true partner can help us reach greater truths about ourselves and give us the fire to push our passions to new heights.

When Friedrich took life into his own hands and finds himself face to face with Jo and the entire March family. Now, Jo must heed Amy’s lesson on determination. A new adventure awaits in a train to California with Friedrich on it. It will not require a sacrifice of who she is, but an admittance there is still much more to become.

So here’s to those of us who are love-hesitant chasing that train in the new year and taking the chance at betting understanding ourselves through the love we can give others.

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My Favorite Films of 2019

*Spoilers abound*

10. Judy

Reneé Zellweger’s performance was all it was hyped to be. She adds a new dimension to a star that is sadly fading from the pop culture canon. Zellweger captures tragically the agony of Judy Garland’s last stages in her career. Her eyes convey someone broken, and fully aware she cannot be fixed. Zellweger endears us to Garland with the devotion she has for both her children and her fans. The climatic scene of her pouring her last drops of energy into a final rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a last shared moment between her and the fans that gave her meteoric rise and devastating fall purpose, was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in film this year. Zellweger fully deserves the Oscar that is hopefully heading her way.

9. They Shall Not Grow Old

I don’t think there was a grander feat attempted in film this year than Peter Jackson’s efforts with this World War I documentary. First off, Jackson and his crew sifted through 600 hours of interviews from soldiers collected by the BBC and International War Museum. Jackson then took the distorted footage that remains from almost a century ago, colorized it, used modern production to create more animation, then added sound effects that resulted in one of the most authentic war documentaries to date.

8. Midsommar

The boldest and most imaginative horror film premise on record. The newly crowned king of horror, Ari Aster, takes never ending daylight and transforms it to sinister effect. Florence Pugh kicked off her moment in the spotlight with a good breakout performance as the grief stricken Dani. Unfortunately, Aster wasn’t able to get the most out of his characters like he did in his debut Hereditary. The gang of caricatures in Midsommar don’t produce the same complexity as Toni Collette’s internal fight between grief, anger, and motherhood. Aster should be praised for this brave attempt to revolutionize the horror genre, but I just wish the execution could’ve been better.

7. The Farewell

There is not a single character in Lulu Wang’s family memoir that I do not love. Zhao Shuzhen’s performance as Nai Nai, the family matriarch who is diagnosed with cancer but unaware of her diagnosis because of the family’s cultural practices, is brilliant and if there is any justice in the world should sweep up any best supporting actresses awards (she’s nominated for a Independent Spirit Award in that category). She’s sweet and witty, but also the epitome of toughness that main character Billi (played by Awkwafina) needs in her navigation of the quickly approaching adult world. The other family members deserve their praise as well, from the stoic but secretly hurting son Haiyan (Tzi Ma) to Hao Hao (Chen Han), the grandson and groom lost inside his own culture. The camera swivels rapidly as the family downs shots at Hao Hao’s wedding, each character completely unique from the next but a perfect fit together.

6. The Lighthouse

I’m a sucker for a film heavily packed with allegory and symbolism, and Robert Eggers makes sure to shove as much of those aspects into his sea-epic. Willem Dafoe plays a lighthouse manager, who doubles as a shepherd-like figure for the vengeful god of the sea Neptune. Robert Pattinson is quite literally a lost soul at sea, looking for four weeks of work, but more importantly for salvation from past transgressions. A nasty storm hits that tests Pattinson’s desire for penance, and puts him on the tipping point between heaven and hell. It’s a film that opens itself to multiple interpretations, but regardless of your takeaways the last 30 minutes will leave your jaw dropped.

5. Knives Out

A fun and light murder mystery that also is a politically astute commentary on American politics is a hard thing to pull off, but Rian Johnson nails it. The descendants of Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) self made wealth are a murderers row of everything wrong with our current political landscape: the rise of the alt-right youth, trust fund babies, and lifestyle gurus. Daniel Craig relished the opportunity to get his Atticus Finch on, and delivers a great performance as the righteous Southern investigator. The true star of the show is Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombery’s nurse living with her undocumented mother, who against her will finds herself up against these scourges of America. Johnson gives his main character a happy ending, and instills in the audience the fantasy of justice that allowed us to escape the unfortunate reality of our current American society.

4. Uncut Gems

This film never gives you a moment’s peace. Adam Sandler never stops screaming as a jewelry salesman and overall asshole Howard Ratner. The noise continues to build as Ratner weaves his bullshit across New York. You’re anxious, you’re irritated, but also somehow rooting for Ratner. The Safdie Brothers did what they set out to do, drain you of all your emotion and leave you dumbfounded. You might leave the theatre not sure what the hell just happened, but you’ll have definitely felt the entire 2 hours right in your pulse.

3. Waves

A true coming-of-age drama that leaves all the sappiness at the door. Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) faces the real challenges of American youth that can’t be overcome with light-hearted romps. He’s weighed down by the expectations not only of family, but of the pre-defined notions of masculinity and our ill-fated attempts at perfection. He faces the reality of human limitations without the copings mechanics to come to terms with his humanity. Mix in the opioid epidemic and you have a powder-keg of youthful frustration that has no healthy chance to escape. We are hit with a harrowing end to act one, but are thankfully given an optimistic second act that gives a tad of reassurance. Themes of love, honesty, and acceptance through the lens of Emily, Tyler’s sister (Taylor Russell), and her positive relationships with her father (Sterling K. Brown) and boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) provides the next generation a blueprint to climb out of that dark hole that often faces us.

2. Parasite

A suspense film masterpiece. Director Bong Joon-ho moves gracefully from comedy to tension, tragedy to vengeance, in his metaphor of class struggle between the working class Kim family and ruling class Park family. The images within the film of that struggle are poignant. The Kims find themselves stuck in the Park family’s house, trapped underneath their luxurious living room table, as the Park couple find sexual gratification in their employee’s poverty. Never will you want to eat the rich more. It’s probably the most complete film of the year, and should clean up come award season.

1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I didn’t identify with a character more this year than Jimmie Fails’ fictionalized version of himself in Joe Talbot’s commentary on gentrification and cultural displacement. Jimmie Fails is struggling to find his place in the city he loves. He holds his hope in his childhood home that his family was priced out of. Jimmie maintains the home that he no longer possesses, continuing to paint and garden so the cracks don’t start to show. As the film moves forward, the cracks inevitably do show. The idealized version of his childhood starts to show its true face. Jimmie has built a new family network involving his best friend Montgomery (Johnathan Majors) and Mont’s father (Danny Glover), insulating him from the dissolution of his relationship with his own father. The scene that will stick with me the most from this year sees Jimmie on the bus, eavesdropping on two transplants bad mouthing San Francisco. Jimmie sharply interjects:

“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

It spoke so much to my feelings with Pittsburgh. I hate the problems this city faces, and look nowhere near close to changing. Racism is prevalent throughout the city, its cultural charm disappearing institution by institution. And yes there are some elements I can never understand when it comes to the systemic racism of inequitable development, but Jimmie Fails and his search for his small pocket exclusively his own in the city he loves represents all us city dwellers that are worrisome about where they belong in the future of the city we love wholeheartedly.

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