minding the gap movie review film documentary

Go watch ‘Minding the Gap’ right now

Humble to the point of feeling effortless, Minding the Gap is one of the best documentaries to come out in years and easily one of 2018’s best films. Set in Rockford, IL, yet another American town with a shrinking population and a dying middle class, director Bing Liu combines his skate video archives with present day footage of several twenty-somethings — all of whom, as Liu would discover part-way through shooting the film, bear some kind or proximity to domestic abuse.

The thoroughness and grace on display here, much like The Blood is at the Doorstep, is staggering. For his debut feature, Liu compiles and sorts through that he and Joshua Altman edit into something so empathetic, so transcendent of the form. “Magic hour” sequences catch skaters Zack and Keire gliding down parking structures and over train tracks. Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s lifting piano seems to give an invisible oomph to kickflips and ollies. There are scenes here that, as Filmspotting‘s Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen point out, are as lyrical as anything this side of Terrence Malick.

A big part of that is Liu’s humble approach, showing us Keire’s tweener status as a person of color in intimate glances and letting Zack ultimately damn himself for startling revelations about his own family life. And Liu is just as vulnerable as one of his own subjects, eventually confronting his stepfather’s abuse in a direct, gut-wrenching sit down with his mother. In a KCRW interview, Liu talks about the relative importance of going “meta” with the documentary form and in hindsight, the film’s inward elements feel inevitable.

A cursory reading might suggest the skateboarding on display here is just a clever ruse, that all along, Minding the Gap lies in wait, to ambush with deep, painful truths. That’s not the case. After watching this — for a second time — with my girlfriend last night, I entertained the idea that Minding the Gap‘s title was about paying attention to one’s distance to their past. I don’t know if it matters how literally one interprets it, though. What’s clear is that this is very much a film about where people have come from and more importantly, where they’re headed.

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the nun movie review conjuring bad horror

Dissecting frogs

“Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.”

-Mark Twain

I saw The Nun last night. It is not good. There’s little payoff to a threadbare setup with some questionable storytelling choices, but at least I got to see the weaponized blood of Jesus Christ.

Quality had little to do with its #1 box office performance this weekend. The Nun also had a semi-controversial marketing stunt in its favor, not to mention word-of-mouth generated from The Conjuring‘s immensely successful “cinematic universe.” And yet despite the bonafides, The Nun only earned a (contextually) low “C” audience grade from Cinemascore.

This has me thinking about what we value in a horror movie. I used to believe that the lack of an explanation is what ultimately made something scary. The Blair Witch Project doesn’t explain anything outside of its three cast members’ efforts to shoot a documentary, and it has remained profoundly unsettling for two decades. And yet 2018’s Hereditary — both a frightening observation of grief and a nod to 60s & 70s horror — peels away its occult layers for plenty of answers, and that’s a movie that’s stuck with me for months.

The Nun doesn’t bother to expand on what is happening or why it’s happening. Like these Conjuring films at their worst, it deals in cheap scares, squandering the potential of genuinely creepy character design. Horror may be a lot like humor in that understanding its mechanics might be less important than the reaction itself.

It’s worth noting that while Hereditary may continue to terrify me, it scored a “D+” from audiences. Everybody seems to value their scares a little differently, and with more Conjuring movies likely on the way, I just hope I can meet Warner Bros. somewhere in the middle.

One thousand emails

This morning I received an email from Krakower Media Group I wasn’t expecting. It announced the passing of the PR group’s founder, Beth Krakower, after a two-year long battle with breast cancer. Via a statement from Krakower Group:

It is with deep sadness we share that our dear friend and leader, Beth Krakower, has passed away after a nearly two year battle with breast cancer.

Beth was an innovator with a brilliant mind for marketing and business, and an unrivaled passion for music and helping music creators. She built the Krakower Group to serve composers, music supervisors, record labels and music festivals around the world. Today, the global music community, as well as her family and many friends and colleagues mourn her loss. Beth was generous, kind, and fearless in the pursuit of publicity and recognition for clients. Her wit, kindness and compassion were some of her most enduring traits, as any who knew her will attest. As a boss, mentor, and friend, she was second to none.

The Krakower Group will continue to support and champion our clients, and Beth’s legacy. To each and every person whose life she touched, we extend our sincere sympathies.

I never met Beth in person, and my interactions with her were infrequent at best; a request for an interview with a composer here or a link to a soundtrack there. Many have written tributes to Beth, some by other writers, some by composers she represented, and some by humbled admirers.

In what seems to have been a shared experience for those who have written about film music is that Beth was an essential part of their business. I know that I share that experience. From my early days writing about scores at the now-defunct Sound on Sight, Beth Krakower was the first rep my editor Ricky da Conceicao put me in touch with. In the years since, I’ve received what had to have been over 1,000 emails from the Krakower Group, emails that Beth and her team undoubtedly worked incredibly hard on. I have to admit, I didn’t always devote time to reading them. I’m sure, in some sense, I was just another email address, too. And yet without her work, I don’t know that I would have the same passion for movie music that I enjoy to this day.

I’m not sure there’s a specific lesson I’m working through here. Maybe it’s how trivial the entertainment industry feels in comparison to human life. Or maybe it’s that anything, no matter how small, can still have an impact on someone.

Let’s talk about talking about plot holes

Patrick H Willems’ YouTube channel has quickly become one of my favorites. He provides incisive commentary and analysis on film and pop culture and, most importantly, he does so with a positive, encouraging attitude.

Usually.

His latest video, “SHUT UP ABOUT PLOT HOLES,” isn’t so nice about its message, but that’s okay because the message is a critical one. In the video, Patrick delves into what he views as common misunderstandings about what a plot hole is. More importantly though, he elaborates on why plot hole-hunting has become so commonplace, suggesting that the internet and, more specifically, click-bait, is to blame. The instant-gratification of channels like CinemaSins and listicles from BuzzFeed and Cracked have laid the foundation for a shallow culture invested in surface-level commentary.

I’m far less interested in what a movie is about than how it is about it, and Patrick’s theory rings true to me. I actually wrote about this very idea earlier this year. Patrick also got me thinking about film as a platform for engagement. Are movies as engaging as other media in 2018? It’s an open question. TV shows extend their drama over multiple episodes, in essence, extending our experiences with their twists and turns. On a quantitative level, having one’s heart strings tugged for 13 hours as opposed to 90 minutes is bound to be more affecting for many people. Not to mention, binge-watching culture has created low-stakes participation on the viewer’s end. Do I go to bed not knowing how Walter White gets out of this? Or do I watch one more and find out?

Video games blow up this whole idea of engagement; it’s a medium whose success depends on your involvement. And oh, the success. Worldwide movie revenue closed in on $40 billion last year, but games made almost triple that.

What does any of this have to do with plot holes? Again, it’s engagement. Cultural expectations and sensibilities change over time. The idea of a radio drama seems antiquated now, but think about podcasts. Both provide audio-based entertainment. The difference is that one encapsulates choice, encapsulates this idea of engagement. I can pick what I want to listen to, when I want to listen to it. I can even choose how I want to listen to it, adjusting the speed, fast-forwarding through ads, or, on some apps, trimming the silence. Podcasts can exist on our terms in many ways that movies cannot.

It’s important to recognize that movies are a comparatively passive experience. You sit, and you watch. There’s a lot of good in that paradigm. First Reformed is a recent example of a movie that uses its lulls and slow pacing to directly challenge the viewer’s relationship with the film’s ideas. Movies don’t need to be anything other than what they are. But make no mistake, plot hole culture is the result of a generation and its struggle to feel involved with them. These are growing pains — hopefully short-lived ones.

The remix to petition

Back in June, the Federal Communications Commission repealed several net neutrality regulations. Broadly, the now-gone regulations prevented telecommunications companies from blocking access to or otherwise altering bandwidth speeds to specific domains. The implications for this are many, but to make a simple analogy: Rather than existing as a single “road” for all data to travel at the same speed, ISPs can now create priority lanes for preferred services at whim.

One might consider that a slippery slope fallacy. Until it happens. This past week, as part of a petition to re-instate the aforementioned neutrality rules, a Santa Clara County Fire Chief released correspondence between his department and Verizon Wireless. In the midst of battling the Mendocino Complex Fire, Verizon slowed down the department’s internet access. When department staff approached the ISP about bumping up the speed so internet-based emergency services could resume functionality, “a Verizon accounts manager suggested they get an upgrade.”

Apart from serving as a myopic display of a monopoly jeopardizing life-saving measures, Verizon’s actions have sped up the theoretical timeline many telecoms experts purport will play out in a post-net neutral landscape. Rather than taking months or, more likely, years, the noose is already tightening mere weeks after the June repeal.

Santa Clara County’s case is just one cited in the aforementioned petition, filed by a number of internet companies on Monday. It begins, in part:

Net neutrality is a core characteristic of the internet as we know it, and crucial for the economy and everyday lives. It is imperative that all internet traffic be treated equally, without discrimination against content or type of traffic — that’s how the internet was built and what has made it one of the greatest inventions of all time.

Monday’s legal challenge was accompanied by action from public sector stakeholders as well, with 22 state attorneys general requesting a U.S. appeals court reinstate the net neutrality rules.

It remains to be seen how the FCC and its chairman Ajit Pai will react to these developments, although Pai certainly seems to be plenty busy already. Presently, he needs to explain why he failed to report his agency’s (false) claims of a cyber attack — for six months. Probably a lag issue with his emails.

inside-jaws-wondery-mark-ramsey-podcast

‘Inside Jaws’ and the power of acceptance

I just finished Wondery’s excellent seven-part podcast series on Jaws. I am a massive fan of Mark Ramsey and his team’s work on Inside the Exorcist, so I was excited to dive into what I hoped would be another gripping, thoroughly-researched examination of a cinematic hallmark.

Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint. On the surface, Inside Jaws is a concise re-telling, from Peter Benchley’s novel and the events that inspired it to the rapturous response that would give birth to the modern-day blockbuster. The bulk of the series is foregrounded by the film’s production woes. Infamously, “Bruce” the prop shark was a mechanical failure. The Orca almost dragged the cast and crew into the ocean. Production was wildly over its schedule and beyond its budget.

But there’s so much more under the surface. Episodes plumb Steven Spielberg’s scrappy biography, his childhood shame and his family’s connections to the Holocaust. The series winds through Spielberg’s days of made-for-TV overachievement on Duel, his friendship with George Lucas, the catharsis of Schindler’s List, all the way to 2018 and Ready Player One‘s premiere at SXSW. It’s as much about a man as it is the movie he made.

Jaws has no right being as good as it is. Books and documentaries and commentary tracks have all confirmed that. What Inside Jaws adds is a blueprint for its subject’s success. It’s a meditation on the power of acceptance, for accepting what we have and, more importantly, for accepting who we are. To paraphrase a feedback card after a Jaws test screening: This is a good movie. Don’t fuck it up by trying to make it better.

  • You can listen to the entire series on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts and at Wondery.com
mission impossible fallout lorne balfe score soundtrack music

Listening to the void

I have not stopped listening to the main theme from Mission Impossible: Fallout.

Don’t worry, because if you’ve seen any Mission: Impossible property, you know it.

And if you’ve seen a movie scored by Hans Zimmer in the last decade, don’t worry. You know it, too.

It’s no secret that Fallout‘s composer Lorne Balfe shares creative DNA with Zimmer; they’ve collaborated since as early as Batman Begins and as recently as Dunkirk, and their partnership is all over this thing. “The Manifesto” and “The Exchange” are rife with the brimming flutter that ramps up the excitement in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, like the prelude to The Dark Knight‘s Hong Kong sequence

The opening minute of “Free Fall” feels ripped from Inception‘s finale. Ostinatos. Sharp-brass. 80-person choruses that literally sing “Mission: Impossible” in Latin. This is not subtle stuff.

And it’s not supposed to be. Consider that director Christopher McQuarrie’s goal in Fallout is to convince the audience they’re a part of the IMF team. Consider the dedication to shooting as many practical effects as possible. Consider the IMAX presentation. All of these choices are designed to swallow the viewer, to envelop them in a subjective cinematic experience. Now listen to “Scalpel and Hammer” with headphones and tell me you don’t feel like Spotify is suddenly attacking you.

Like everything else in Fallout, the music is in service of one goal: Letting us see Tom Cruise do crazy shit. In this way, the latest and greatest Mission: Impossible is pure cinema, distilled from millions of dollars spent toward satisfying one man’s death wish. There’s a macabre satisfaction that comes with its soundtrack, in getting lost in this L’appel du vide. Listening to these main titles over (and over) again feels like giving into something larger and scarier than yourself.