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LIFE ITSELF

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We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

I saw Annihilation in theatres and pretty soon saw it again. Then I went online and tried to read everything I could about it. Which is how I found Film Crit Hulk and his wonderful oeuvre. It was shortly after that manic night that I rediscovered Roger Ebert and his writing. Soon, I came upon the above quote about movies being “a machine that generates empathy.” 

That has colored how I see movies ever since. I’m still at the beginning of my amateur film critic career, yet I never would have started at all if it weren’t for Roger’s inspiration. 

Of course as a kid I knew about Roger Ebert, the thumbs up, and his show. Not that I was old enough to be watching his show and really knowing what was going on. Nor was I old enough to be reading his reviews and knowing what was going on. When Roger Ebert died, I was 19. I had realized that I watched way more movies than my friends and that I thoroughly enjoyed watching movies. But I hadn’t begun writing. 

This is all to say that my experiences with Roger Ebert have happened after his death. 

Which is why this documentary was so special to me. It gave me the experience of knowing a critic whose prime preceded me. Learning about the life of a man whose influence on me has come from beyond the grave and whose words have existed mostly on a screen in front of my face. 

As far as the form of the documentary goes, I found it compelling. It had just the right amounts of new interviews versus B-roll versus archival footage of Roger going about his life and being on his show. The camera was unobtrusive and everything that was present day felt normal and unplanned. That was magical. 

Roger with his memoir // Retrieved 28 November 2020 from classicfilmfreak.com

I saw so much power in Roger, the man persevering through such terrible medical issues. I’m not sure I could have continued writing at the volume that he did after his surgeries. 

Though the ending was a bit odd. When it is clear that Roger is in his last few days of life, Steve James asks him some questions that he thinks are utterly essential. And Roger responds with “don’t I cover this in the book?” 

Which was what I had just thought about the questions. Surely Steve had better questions to posit for a man on his deathbed. Perhaps ask if any movies had been coming to mind the past few days? Did anything take on new significance? If he could bring anything into the afterlife with him, what would it be? What was he thinking about? There a hundreds of questions that could have been asked, and nearly all of them aren’t about movies. It seemed the perfect chance to move beyond Roger’s life as a critic and into the arena of his humanity as a whole.

However, Roger’s responses and the lack of responses makes a powerful ending. It was still heartbreaking and sad. Which, in the end, is good enough. 

RIP Roger.

THE BACKLOG: Casablanca

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Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.

When I watch an old movie, I don’t get why people consider it a classic. Often films from the 40s, 50s, or 60s are held up as essential viewing because they were the first to do something. The first to try a new film technique, tell a story in a new way. I think of films like Roman Holiday, or North by Northwest. By the time I see them, they feel tired because all the innovation to them has been built upon over decades. Watching them isn’t as enjoyable since they feel more like History Lessons. 

Casablanca is not one of those movies. It’s a timeless story that is relatable across generations. These types of stories always hit with me. The lovers trying to reconnect. The person learning to “stick their neck out” for someone, for a bigger cause. 

If you’ve found this blog, you probably don’t need me to repeat all the ways in which Casablanca is  a masterpiece of cinema. The lighting of scenes, the blocking of actors, the dialogue between characters, it’s all amazing. Then the masterpiece is brought to a new level because of Bergman and Bogart giving magnetic performances. I find it hard to closely watch both of them in a scene simply because I never want to stop looking at one of them. 

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca // Courtesy of fortieswardrobe.blogspot.com

Enough praise that I am sure you have read and heard before. That is nothing new. 

Personally, Casablanca sticks in my heart because it has so many layers (like a parfait). The film posits the city as a purgatory: people stuck between hell (Europe) and heaven (America). It conveys that atmosphere directly through Rick, a reluctant man who escaped to Casablanca because he is shackled by his past and can’t move into the future. 

It’s equally valid to view the film as an allegory for the War, too. Rick as the reluctant America, unwilling or not ready to enter the fray. There’s Laszlo as the moral center of the conflict: the attack on human nature and human rights, and he’s the best version of us. Then there is Ilsa, begging for Rick’s help as the Europeans pled to the Americans to help. 

Or you can stick to the barebones version of the story: one man learning to break free from his cynical prison to selflessly help others to achieve a greater good and to find peace with himself. 

Watching the film through so many lenses makes for a classic movie that will age just fine. And Casablanca has aged excellently. 

Movies are truly excellent.

ALADDIN and Watching Disney

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I made you look like a prince on the outside, but I didn’t change anything on the inside. Prince Ali got you to the door, but Aladdin has to open it.

I find it harder and harder to form an opinion about Disney movies. 

Personally, engaging in (amateur) film criticism means to go beyond my own emotional reactions to a movie, and instead ask three questions:

  1. “Did I enjoy this movie?” 
  2. “What did this movie want to say?” 
  3. “Did it say it well?” 

With recent Disney releases, and Aladdin (2019) in particular, I don’t think they are genuinely trying to say anything. They are vague platitudes of universal human values or platitudes of specifically American values. However, vague platitudes are not the reason these films get made. They are not projects created to “say something.”

They are created to make money. 

When I watched Aladdin (2019), conflicting thoughts ran through my head as the movie checked all of its plot boxes. I evaluated it on whether I liked it (I didn’t), then I thought: “What is this movie trying to say?” And I got stuck. Don’t get me wrong, the core theme from the original Aladdin “be yourself” is still there and it still resonates. Mostly. It’s harder to accept a movie telling you “it’s what on the inside that counts” when it itself has no soul at all.

Jasmine’s whole story arc is a ‘Girl Boss’ motivation shoehorned into the original. I got the distinct feeling that a corporate board room attempted to ‘fix’ a passive and quiet Princess from the original film. Except that problem doesn’t exist in the original; she was outspoken the whole movie. In the original, she objects when the three men of the film are bargaining over her, she stands up to Jafar consistently, and doesn’t take Aladdin’s shit just in general. In most Disney Princess movies, the sidelined princess trope needs fixing. This clock, however, wasn’t broken to begin with.

Which led me to think ‘well, why? Why are they fixing this?’ And before too long I was distracted by a parrot turning into a huge fucking eagle and chasing a magic carpet through a city. I can’t believe I typed that sentence and I didn’t get excited about it. It was boring as hell.

That was when I realized that this movie is meant to print money. Which is not a novel realization, in fact it came insanely late in the film for me. Though Aladdin (2019) is the best case study for this case.

Aladdin (2019) made over $1 Billion worldwide in box office gross sales, hardly a failure. I understand why it made that much money: Will Smith is a big draw and he was pretty good, Disney cast an ethnically representative cast for the story to appeal to a younger generation that is less white than any generation before it. They added some pep to the songs where they were a little slow. There are some diamonds in the rough (sorry), and so it made a billion dollars. 

Which makes it difficult for me to engage with Aladdin (2019) as a film because the film’s interest in the audience members ends when they buy the ticket or they stream it on Disney+. It needs to succeed just enough for your opinion to bring someone into the theater, or at very least not stop them from going in. Once you’re in there, Disney doesn’t really care what I think about the movie. The film will further succeed once a family leaves the theater with kids begging to buy Aladdin merchandise or see Princess Jasmine at Disney WorldLand. 

I will resist the urge to ramble on in an attempt to defend my numerous frustrations with the film. Not only because Lindsay Ellis says it better. Because adding my voice to the masses yelling about the flaws in Jasmine’s arc doesn’t contribute to the discussion. Nor does a few hundred words regarding Will Smith’s genie really change any minds.

Disney has won this round, again. They’ve announced a sequel movie. They have a $750 doll set for purchase alongside numerous $20 T-Shirts with vague, empowering slogans on them. And they have some guy in DC writing nearly 700 words about their movie. 

All hail Disney.

THE BACKLOG: Marriage Story

I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

I will say upfront: I am not a child of divorce, nor am I married, or ever gotten close. I don’t have personal experiences with that. That provided me little armor for this movie. It still cut me deep and unexpectedly like a certain pocket knife. It’s sneaky that way.

The scene in particular that did it for me was the Point-of-No-Return Fight. The type of fight that the characters needed. They scorched the Earth between them to such an extent that anything amicable seems lost. In this scene, one character says to the other: “I loved you more than you loved me.” 

I have had those words launched at me like an ICBM. They kept me up for nights afterwards. It is the most poisonous thing someone has ever said to me. To turn the love between two people into a scoreboard… it annihilated me. During this scene, that memory came flooding back to me. If I wasn’t with my family I am sure that I would have broken down sobbing. 

Which is all thanks to the acting. Of course this starts with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen. Driver delivers an award-winning lead performance that crystallizes his status as America’s Leading Man. It’s Charlie’s story in the film, and Driver was the perfect conduit for it. The way he commands a room yet portrays such vulnerability at the perfect moments is gut wrenching. 

Those facts also make Johanssen’s performance all the more challenging. In the end, this isn’t her story. It would be easy to make Nicole a villain in the film, given that she initiates the divorce and hires the lawyer that pushes the characters along the warpath. Yet Johanssen makes Nicole grounded and relatable. The choice didn’t emerge from nowhere. 

When Nicole is talking herself into the divorce in the lawyer’s office, she was also convincing me of the divorce. Which sets up a gut-wrenching emotional payoff when she finally realizes the Total War that she unleashed on her life. Marriage Story would not reach the highs that it does without her performance to counterweight Adam Driver’s. 

Performances that are buttressed by the supporting actors. Alan Alda’s grandfatherly lawyer who was walked into a gunfight unarmed, yet still gave us a glimpse into how the divorce could have gone. Juxtaposed violently with Ray Liotta’s bombast as he wheeled in the big guns to the fight that he immediately saw walk in with Charlie. Those guns are leveled at Laura Dern who absolutely killed it. The moment I knew she deserved that Oscar was the small “Mhm” in response to Nicole stating she didn’t want Charlie’s money. Killer stuff. Absolutely sensational. 

Then the final piece to the puzzle is Henry. Good lord that kid is adorable as hell, and if he wasn’t so damn cute I’m not sure the punches of the film would land as hard as they do. As Burt says in the movie “Divorce with a kid feels like death without a body.” 


And Marriage Story makes sure you feel that to your bones.

THE BACKLOG: Lady Macbeth

I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel.

Florence Pugh is definitely the young, rising actor to watch right now. This movie could be so boring and lifeless if not for the simmering anger and verve she brings to every scene. She packs heaps of emotion into a sharp intake of breath, an icy stare, a sip of tea; it’s captivating. Lady Macbeth succeeds because she carries it on her back. 

Speaking of breath, I’ve never encountered a movie that paid so much attention to it. You hear every sharp breath as Catherine jolts back awake, or the passionate breaths during the love scenes, whimpers when someone is hurt, the deep sobs of agony in the last half of the film. The sound team did an excellent job on that front.

Equal kudos goes to the design team because the impersonal sets create a chilly atmosphere that perfectly complements the film’s cold tone. Add to that the stationary observations of the camera: remaining steady when someone stands, their face leaving the frame at the moment they show emotion. The camera doesn’t leave the room with characters, the film has little interest in getting up close and personal because there is scant warmth or intimacy in Lady Macbeth. Only a harsh, cold story. 

Which makes it jarring when the director does switch to a shaky cam shot. William Oldroyd uses the shots well, but they don’t fit the whole scope of the movie. The choices didn’t match up enough with the emotions of the subject, or for the arc of the story. 

The other faults here rest primarily on the slow start to the film. It takes a while to find its feet and get off to a run. Also, it’s initial love scene was a bit problematic, in my eyes. Didn’t make too much sense in the long run. 

I’m always a sucker for stories about slow descents into villainy, and while the jump is a little bit implausible I found it great.

THE BACKLOG: Crazy, Stupid, Love

I believe Romantic Comedies like Crazy, stupid, Love are often responsible for the genre getting a bad rap. There are plenty of good things, but nothing is great, and there’s some troubling narrative choices. 

First, the good things. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have amazing chemistry on screen, though, unfortunately, we don’t get enough of them. The twenty minutes we do get are magic. Their banter is great right off the bat, as though they live on the same wavelengths. They take fairly pedestrian dialogue and turn it into entertaining scenes loaded with sexual tension. These actor pairings are what make romcoms wonderful. 

The notable portion of the film is the big backyard reveal scene. From Steve Carell taking Julianne Moore back to their first date, to discovering that Emma Stone is their daughter and dating Ryan Gosling, to the [troubling] babysitter reveal. They clashed together superbly, and it is one of the few things the script did well. No question it is the best scene of the film. 

Which brings us to what doesn’t work. 

Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore did not work for me. In a way, it makes sense that they don’t have any chemistry at all. It fits the story that they got married way too young and it wasn’t meant for that long term. That doesn’t entirely excuse their performances, though. The major issue with Carrell is that it doesn’t feel like it’s Cal in the movie. It feels like Michael Scott going by a different name, which describes his typecasting. Which is unfortunate. Carrell has some range and can act well. 

Though we come up to the inexcusable part of the movie: the entire babysitter storyline. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a prime example of why older man/young girl love plotlines are predatory, creepy, and gross. These stories teach young kids all the wrong lessons about love and normalize problematic ideas around mature dating. 

The kid chases after the babysitter the whole movie, glorifying her and putting her on a pedestal. He only professes his love and never gives her any reason to love him back. He doesn’t grow because of the rejection, in fact he doesn’t change at all.  Despite all that, he is rewarded by her in the end with her naked photos child pornography! That is the wildest way to conclude that plot. 

First, she didn’t learn she was doing something wrong by taking those photos. The film itself never even questions that what she did was inappropriate, nor does any character. Instead, she is repeatedly objectified and sexualized. I’m going to sit in my Psychology Armchair and guess that Dan Fogelman wanted to have his own babysitter give him nude photos, therefore in his movie the kid gets exactly that. 

That whole plot is disturbing, from its bankrupt morality to the bad writing. It’s a stain on the film, ruining what otherwise could have been a nice RomCom romp. 

THE BACKLOG: Heat

Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

For a movie seriously built up for being Pacino vs De Niro, both on screen at the same time in the same scenes, this really rises to that challenge. It’s wonderful to watch a movie that holds up to expectations. 

Heat is a top tier heist movie, no doubts about it. Not for the actors. It’s for the actual heist and chase itself. There are no serious fuckups that are unbelievable. Both sides are total professionals in a chess game until the end, they slip a little bit a few times, though they recover. 

It is a fascinating watch primarily because of the backstories to each main character, too. Pacino devoting himself to the case while trying to hold together a family. His struggle to achieve that was refreshing because so often detective movies treat the cop as either the perfect school kid in his uniform or the other spectrum where they are a loose cannon or near a criminal themselves. 

Heat doesn’t do that. It portrays a more three-dimensional character. One who cares for a daughter, yet isn’t around enough to put in the leg work to love her every day. And even though it’s cut from the movie, he clearly has a cocaine problem. Not that I’m complaining, it makes the “Great Ass” scene so much more surreal and hilarious.  

In the other coroner is De Niro doing excellent work with the “one last job” cliche, and trying so hard to escape with the girl. And of course the turn when you know that he loses is when he breaks his own rule. He was 30 seconds away from freedom, and instead he turns back.  

This is not to say Heat is a perfect movie. It’s 20 minutes too long, or about 6 hours too short one way or another. Many of the subplots are undercooked, like Natalie Portman’s. Eady’s motivations for getting with Neal are shaky at best, I mean, the man had no furniture. Come on. 

It’s still a hell of a good movie. 

The Backlog: THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY

Welcome to the Backlog! A series where I post untimely reviews of movies.

I always figured it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.

I love movies that fill me with a deep yearning for traveling. After watching The Talented Mr. Ripley, I looked at tickets to visit Italy and pondered constructing a time machine to go back to 1950s Italy. It seems like a blast. The cars are amazing, the waters are pristine. The beaches are lively yet not overcrowded. Rome is busy yet not jammed up. 

Murder also appears to be the easiest fucking thing to get away. To be clear, I would not commit murder if I went to the 1950s. I’m merely pointing out that many of these murders seemed super easy to figure out and yet Tom escapes them. 

Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano / The Talented Mr. Ripley

With the fun comments done, we can move onto the magic of the film. The fun lies in the film’s glamorous veneer which, like it’s protagonist, is a mask to something entirely different. Instead of a dark, rotten core there is instead a fascinating contemplation of love.

Can an imposter truly love someone that sees only their mask? Can that person love an imposter’s mask? Peter sees all these wonderful qualities in Tom because he hasn’t seen behind the curtain to the dark core of Tom Ripley. And if he does, does it negate the loving parts of Tom Ripley? 

For me, anything built on a foundation of lies is destined to rot and eventually collapse. Unless, apparently, you kill the person. And so I wished for Tom’s world to collapse. Because he violated multiple moral codes and lied to his loved ones. Yet, it doesn’t collapse. 

Part of me was glad that he got away with it. That part of me that was enchanted by the mask and by the dazzle and charm of Tom Ripley. It’s nice to love the 2-dimensional mask put up by an imposter, because it’s so easy to hope that it’s true. 

And therein lies the danger.

The Backlog: AD ASTRA

Welcome to the Backlog! A series where I post untimely reviews of movies that I have seen over the past year or so.

The enemy up here is not a person or a thing. It’s the endless void.

There’s a famous line from Parks and Recreation that floated to my mind when I left the theatre after seeing James Gray’s new space saga Ad Astra, which captures the major issue with the film:

Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.

Throughout the two hour runtime, multiple threads get pulled out and abandoned for no reason. One plot thread is the spy thriller about Space Command (Donald Sutherland! Secret Chips on necklaces!), there’s a riveting space adventure story (FUCKING MOON PIRATES! RABID BABOONS!),and then there’s a deep, ponderous movie about deconstructing one man’s cold exterior as he moves to the outer limits of our solar system. There’s even a love story sprinkled in. 

That’s too many threads to pull out and not weave together. If Ad Astra focused on any one of those stories, this would have been a good movie. For instance, if this had been primarily about Roy’s Heart of Darkness voyage in space, that would have been great. A man lacking humanity becomes humanity’s savior as he takes the long journey out to the farthest reaches of our solar system. But we only got half of that movie. 

Space Pirates would have been a better movie.
If only we got more of this movie / Ad Astra, retrieved June 8, 2020 from screenrant.com

First, let’s start with the good. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones put in excellent acting performances. The space cinematography is stellar. From the blue marble hanging above the moon, to the Sepheus moving across the stormy surface of Jupiter, to the Lima Project orbiting Neptune: all absolutely stunning. I loved looking at it. Space is fantastic. 

Even with all the beauty on screen, Ad Astra is dragged down by slow pacing and which is aggravated by the monotonous voiceover accompanying the film. 

For a movie clearing inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, it really took some of the wrong lessons from that movie. The good things about 2001 are not when Bowman is floating through space, breathing heavily as he drifts. Yet James Gray continually shows us Brad Pitt laboring through this world, everything a struggle for him. A slow swim through a sewer. A slow climb down an antennae, a slow climb up a rocket, a slow walk down a hallway before slowing walking down another hallway. There is only so much struggling I can watch before the movie itself becomes a struggle. 

Piling onto those pacing issues is the voice-over, which is the biggest sin in the movie. The story already has a device to get inside Roy’s thinking: the psych evaluations. Why have the psych evaluation in the entire movie at key intervals if you aren’t going to use it to reveal what is on Brad Pitt’s mind? One quick fix is to take 50% of the voice-over lines and instead reveal them during the pysch evals. Have the computer ask a follow up question that forces Pitt to open a window into his mind. Then there is some dramatic tension when we wonder how much is him posturing for the eval and how much of it is actually true.

Ad Astra is an odyssey, an ambitious attempt to become the next epic but, like its isolated daddy, is a failure. This movie drags so hard.

The Trouble With Rankings

I started off this blog with a ranking of my favorite movies from the 2010s. A sweeping ranking list allowed me to toss out my thoughts on 35 movies at once. It introduced my Tiered Ranking system. There are a few thoughts I have about this choice.

First,rankings teach me broader trends about my cinematic taste. It isn’t the most scientific method, but as I wrote, the flow of words became my guide for ranking the movies. As words poured out of me to celebrate Inside Out and Lady Bird, I knew where they would go. I knew as I sat and stared at my blinking cursor to write about Get Out and John Wick: Chapter 2 that they could only go so high. When I finished writing about M:I – Fallout and A Star is Born did I realize that there were four movies that I felt more strongly about. 
And in the end, I found a common theme in all the movies: personal change at the center of the story. Inception wasn’t only a heist movie, but a fable about finally facing grief. Lady Bird perfectly bottled up the angsts of senior year to knock me on the ground. Annihilation is a magnifying glass examining guilt and moving beyond it without self-destructing. And The Social Network focuses on an unlikeable protagonist who changes as the years go by, and as his power grows he becomes the harbinger of seismic cultural change.

Which says quite a bit about who I am, and how I view movies and how I digest them. 

But I also contributed to the destructive practice of assigning objective worth to pieces of art. 

Ranking art is of little inherent value. Declaring one film to be in another Tier than another doesn’t do much. I draw an arbitrary line in the sand for the qualifications of art and what makes it worthwhile as if I am the judge of that. Clearly, I am not, and should not be. 

Pretending to be places me in a crowd of white, middle-class, and heteronormative men who have dominated conversations around art for centuries. They’re an unnecessary class of gatekeepers that don’t promote beauty in the world, but limit it. To assign binary worth to art is to silence the creative voices of people considered less than for the most superficial and despicable of reasons. 

Piling on to that destruction, reading a ranking isn’t interesting. I see the list, get the gist of who the person is and probably get rankled or soothed by where they place my favorite movies. I may breeze through their writing, though I don’t truly care for it. 

And that likely happened with my own ranking series. What interesting things did I say in that entire piece? I joined the masses in declaring The Social Networkand masterpiece. I joined in the zeitgeist by slotting in three MCU films. I planted a flag on a culture way hill by placing The Last Jedi in the list. The same as many, many other people. 

I imagine there will be a Future Jay Dubs who looks back on all of these lists and rankings with distaste. I hope there is. I hope I grow enough to free myself of ranking and assigning value to things which are indefinable. 

For now, though, I find that rankings help. Not because they are sexy right now, but because I find value in defending and discussing and debating films. I do not fully buy into the Kumbaya feeling of avoiding rankings. I still find it more interesting to stir the pot a little bit, only enough to get discussions going. 

I recall writing a history paper in college, a final for a class, about United Fruit and the Guatemalan Coup of the 1950s. In it, I argue quite forcefully that United Fruit pushed the country into revolution. I argue that United Fruit was behind just about everything to do with the coup: from exploiting a country to enticing the CIA to intervene in a Communist coup. My history professor docked me a half grade because I put too much of the blame on United Fruit, and as a historian I should be careful about assigning so much responsibility to one party. 

The reaction I still have to this day about that is “Well, isn’t it more interesting that I did?” 

I firmly believe that planting a flag proudly on a hill is better than watering down the message to appease the academics, or the crowd, or whomever. Essays are meant to provoke, not to pander. Hopefully the essays provoke more thought and respectful discussion than emotions and fights, but nonetheless essays are about constructing an argument and arguments are provocations. 

Personally, I don’t fully believe everything I wrote in that paper. But I do believe that my paper was more interesting because I took an aggressive stance. In daily life I hold much more nuanced, and centrist thoughts about most things. When I write an essay, I am making an argument, and writing a centrist, middle of the pack argument isn’t evocative or interesting. 

And yet, that’s the genesis of my blog. Followed up by a self-indulgent post examining my own posts. Which, honestly, if you have gotten this far I truly appreciate you and how amazing you are. 

I look forward to watching each of these movies, writing about them, and looking at my past entries to see how I have changed. 

And I hope in many ways that I don’t agree with those original posts.

Featured Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash