Welcome to New York: The Terrifying and Timeless Taxi Driver

It’s easy to get lost in the high opinion of our modern times. Sure, we might have a tendency to idolize the nostalgia of the past but we also have the tendency to view modern things as superior. We are, by nature, animals that love to make advancements in society. As much time as we spend thinking, “this world is madness and it’s only getting worse” we also spend using all the amenities of the modern world to better our lives. We rarely sit down to look back at the past to piece together how we got here. In avoiding doing so we end up overlooking that our past has dealt with the same exact things we are dealing with today, in the here and now.

I think my favorite thing, and also, greatest hesitation in watching an “old” movie is examining how it fits in our modern world. Will the cinematic experience hold up? Will my awareness of the age of the film impact my opinion? Are the character’s actions or opinions difficult to watch with modern eyes? Does the message even mean anything after all this time?

In addition to these thoughts running through my brain, as I sat down to finally watch Martin Scorsese’s classic 1976 film, Taxi Driver, there was quite a lot of events happening in both my personal life as well as the modern world of 2019.

Those events, first, I had just moved to New York City, alone (temporarily). Another step in an endless quest to understand this crazy world. Second, I decided to explore my new city on foot AND in the cinema. Sure, I can step outside and breathe the polluted air of Manhattan, walk the streets of Brooklyn, and eat halal food in Queens but how can I fully understand my new home without a cinematic history lesson? And finally, and most importantly, our world seemed to take another couple steps closer towards self-destruction.

I’m not someone to fear the world. I know bad things happen all the time but I also know they have always been happening. However, these horrific acts hit me hard. Having previously lived in Ohio, I have friends from Dayton and those friends have family in Dayton, and they also have friends who were hanging around bars that night, in Dayton. It hit close to home, or my adopted home. And as someone who grew up with Columbine as high school rivals, this has been an unsettling trend of my life.

It was probably poor timing to jump into Scorsese’s view of New York City because as I watched Travis Bickle (played by a young Robert De Niro) drive aimlessly down the streets of New York City in Taxi Driver, I found myself deeply unsettled. Not so much because he leans on the dirty and dark streets of NYC to craft Travis’ worldview. No, I’ve experienced those myself in my six weeks here and I can say, not much has changed, still dirty, still dark.

The unsettling feeling came from how modern this story about a young white man who is struggling to find his place in the world felt. The parallel lines between Travis and the, typically, young white males, that have done these horrific mass shootings are clear. He is socially isolated and psychologically disturbed. He detests people his age who engage in behavior that he does not approve of, i.e. drinking, smoking, dating, sex. He spends most of the film intentionally isolating himself. When he finally reaches out, he gets rejected.

This rejection leads to him being not only a disturbed, socially isolated, and angry young man but also one who will do anything to get revenge AND respect. By the end of the film he has attempted to assassinate a presidential candidate, has succeeded to murder every person exploiting a young prostitute named Iris, and has been praised a hero both by Iris’ family and the media.

Throughout the film Travis sees himself superior, above it all, and responsible to fix the issues he sees, even when he is not asked to. He doesn’t know how to interact with women. In fact, he doesn’t view them as self-sustaining individuals. Rather as something he needs to save and then be rewarded for. His world view is tied up in his ego and his misguided views of justice. These biases has been intentionally isolated from learning how the world truly works. His mind just continues spinning in circles about what is wrong with the world, with no push back from opposing views, just an endless negative feedback loop.

And whether or not the ending was real, whether Travis truly did live and earn praise or whether he died on the couch imagining the glory he believes his actions will earn him, it’s a brief view into the mind of a madman who believes his terrifying actions are an act of justice. It’s a haunting reminder that the monsters of the modern world typically feel no remorse but instead pride in their horrific acts.

That’s why a film from 1976 still resonates today. That’s why I found the character of Travis Bickle so terrifying. It’s foreboding of the future and people like Travis feel omnipresent today. But the most unsettling part of it all? The age of this film proves this has been going on for decades.

My fascination with this movie is eerily summed up by the late, great Roger Ebert who simply states, “Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is a film that does not grow dated…” and I would argue one that is more relevant today than ever before.

Welcome to New York: Far from Home with an Old Friend

Growing up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I dreamed of one day moving to the great New York City.

There, I thought, I could be any one I wanted to be. A tough guy living in the Bronx, a hipster artist in Brooklyn, a wall street bro in Manhattan, a…uh…whatever Staten Island is known for, and of course a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in Queens.

Okay so my obsession with the Big Apple started, and possible endured, because of Peter Parker and company. How could it not? I’ve watched, read, and even played along as Spider-Man web slings through the towering skyscrapers of the city, as he’s rested at the top of famous landmarks, and as he fought the bad guys and dodged the NYPD.

The city felt like a real character, a place as alive as any living thing. It was rough and filled with people with bad intentions. But it was also filled with friendly neighborhood Spider-Men and helpful citizens. The beauty of the city in the comics, movies, and video games is that it’s a part of Peter Parker’s DNA because it’s real and not hiding behind aliases like Gotham or Metropolis. It always felt so real and yet…oddly unobtainable.

Fast forward to this past 4th of July weekend and, in what you could call either an incredible coincidence or proof that the universe loves telling great stories, I found myself sitting in a theater in Queens, New York to watch the aptly named Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Yes I had just moved to the Big Apple a day prior and who else was there to welcome me? None other than Queens’ own Peter Parker and, yes I have to say it, we were both far from home.

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The Necessity and Justification of Toy Story 4

My feelings about Disney and Pixar going back to the toy chest for a fourth time around were not dissimilar to Jesse’s. I recall the first time I read that Toy Story 4 was in production. I, too, was filled with disbelief. I, too, believed Toy Story 3 concluded the trilogy with perfection and grace. I, too, didn’t want to cry at another movie about animated inanimate objects.

Eventually I came around. I started to rally behind the idea because I realized that, while any sequel is really just a cash grab, I trust the team behind Toy Story. They earned the trust with the exquisite Toy Story 3. However when I tried sharing this opinion with my many friends that were NOT behind the sequel, I continually got shot down. People really didn’t want this movie to exist.

Which means, I couldn’t help but go into Toy Story 4 with the need of it justifying it’s existence. I needed the film to prove everyone wrong. I needed the film to come through for me like Woody came through for Andy time and time again. Like a kid I needed my toys. And like any good toy, they pulled through and made me feel like a kid again.

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Us

Us, filmmaker Jordan Peele’s second feature film, is a well-crafted, modern thriller that hits all of the horror beats. The film starts off as a normal home-invasion story and then somehow seamlessly works in grand conspiracy theories without disconnecting from reality. Most importantly, it’s a film that demands an instant rewatch to fully grasp the story as well as catch all the little moments and the underlying metaphors.

If you were to strip this film of the unique and haunting story you would still have a masterclass of film making to watch. From the first moment Peele’s craft is instantly on display with the opening time-establishing shot of an old TV playing a Hands Across America ad. It’s a simple moment that ends up establishing more of the plot than seems possible.

It’s still 1986 and we jump to little Adelaide’s night at the Santa Cruz amusement park. Her father wins her a Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt and then her parents bicker and eventually become distracted. This leads to Adelaide wandering off by herself into the dark California beach. A wandering child in the dark is stressful enough but then Adelaide finds herself exploring a classic horror movie trope, a house of mirrors. And despite the classic setup, Peele finds a way to make these moments fresh, tense, and instantly memorable. An incident occurs. An incident I cannot spoil but one that is an instant classic and that sets the entire movie in motion.

And now that the entire audience is unsettled Peele doesn’t let off. The title sequence, seemingly simple, establishes the tension and the upcoming oddities with a purely haunting score and a mesmerizing visual aid. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie you are hooked and buckled up for the worst.

Unfortunately from there the film dips into standard thriller fodder. It fast forwards to modern day and presents a normal family, Adelaide, now played by Lupita Nyong’o, has grown up to be a nervous but loving mother and is married to a man that fully embraces his dad joke role in life. They have a preteen daughter, ears buds firmly entrenched, and a son that is still filled with imagination and has a belief in magic. They are staying in their summer vacation house in Santa Cruz, returning to the site of Adelaide’s “incident”. Only Adelaide’s family does not yet know what happened on the beach in 1986.

The family is enjoying their time before a group of four people show up unannounced in their driveway. Unfortunately that’s as deep into the story I can go without spoiling the good parts. Just know at this point the film goes into full thriller mode which is heart-pounding but filled with moments that are expected and not exactly memorable. Luckily even in the cliche and normal beats, the film is anchored by Lupita Nyong’o’s captivating performance of a woman who steps up to kick ass to, seemingly, protect her family.

(To illustrate just how much ass she kicks, at some point Adelaide gets out of the car to check on one of the many murderous attackers she is fighting. This is a classic, “WHY ARE YOU GETTING OUT OF THE CAR” moments that your brain loves to hate in horror movies. Except in this case your brain is like, “Actually no, Adelaide’s got this”.)

In between all the high tension thriller action, the film does bounce back and forth between 1986 and the modern day to fill some of the narrative gaps but still leaves a few frustrating questions at the end. By the end of the film I’m not confident that Adelaide’s character arc tracks completely and it feels like we were missing a few scenes that would have been connective tissue or further clues to explain our protagonist’s life. Although even as I write this I will admit this is a minor complaint and there is the possibility that a rewatch will satisfy my qualms.

And minor qualms is really all I can complain about because between this stylistic thriller hitting all of the established beats and a script that, much like Get Out, is tightly written and hardly contains a wasted moment, it’s difficult to determine if Jordan Peele is a more skilled director or writer. In fact that might be Peele’s biggest accomplishment in his short filmmaker career. It almost seems impossible for one guy to be so good so quickly.

Us is a film that you will want to come back to. It’s memorable and important just like Get Out, however it is more tense and it’s themes more understated than Peele’s first film. Get Out was in your face, screaming it’s themes at you to grab your attention. It had to be. And now that Peele has your attention, Us unequivocally proves he deserves it.

The Problem with Bird Box and Comparisons

Humans are obsessed with control. This is a big issue because life is pure chaos. And yet this fact does little to dissuade us. We still create rules, search for meaning, and do our best to increase our chance of survival on a day-to-day basis. We also make comparisons. We try to put things into neat boxes as a way to organize and understand the world. This can be good. It can lead to discovering new things you might enjoy. Hey, you like the band Led Zeppelin? Check out Greta Van Fleet! Did you grow up playing Monopoly? Give Settlers of Catan a go! Enjoyed the eerie, engrossing, and tightly paced movie A Quiet Place? Check out the cheesy, predictable, and scattered film Bird Box on Netflix right now! Wait a minute…

Comparisons don’t always work. In fact, they can make you feel ripped off. Like when your friend tells you to check out the new Netflix original movie Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock because it’s *just* like 2018’s critically acclaimed movie A Quiet Place except with the danger being vision not sound! Great, I thought, John Krasinki’s brilliant directorial debut is having a quick and important impact on modern horror films! What could go wrong? Bird Box, that went wrong.

A Quiet Place was deliberate, with moment-to-moment tension. Each moment had a purpose and a chilling threat that something could go wrong at a literal drop of a dime. It also had the advantage of a more cinematic human sense, sound, being stripped away from it’s characters. The film could, and did, mute the sounds in key scenes to let you see the world from Regan’s deaf point of view. In addition, they spent very little time digging into the character’s lives and back stories. Typically ignoring this side of your characters would drag a movie down. In this case it forced the viewers to feel more empathy, and therefore fear, for this family. All the audience knew was this was a family, stripped down to straight survival.

Meanwhile, Bird Box opens up with a family, on a river, blind folded. There’s a mother and two children. They are surrounded by an eerie and cold fog. It’s gripping and intense. The mother is scolding the children like a military leader. Ruthless, annoyed, but it is clear what she is saying is important and their only chance of survival. Who are these people? How did they get here? It doesn’t matter, all the audience needs to know is they are on a river in a small boat without sight and they need to survive. I’m all in.

And then? Flashback to five years earlier. We see the mom, she’s pregnant, the news is reporting a strange wave of mass suicides, she goes to the doctor, on her way home the thing that was on the news is happening around her, people are dying, she needs to find shelter, she gets trapped with an eclectic group of diverse strangers, what will they *ever* do to survive? Yawn.

This is the difference between these two thriller movies. A Quiet Place hardly ever lets up for the audience. Bird Box endlessly jumps back between a standard grade, B-movie, apocalypse story (without any songs this time!) and a thrilling, minimalist survival movie on a roaring river without sight! This is two movies plopped together with the former, less enticing, story taking the majority of the film time while the latter follows along wishing it could take the spotlight on it’s own.

While I was left frustrated, I feel like I should be fair and admit it’s mostly due to the lazy comparisons to a movie I loved. Bird Box is worth checking out for Sandra Bullock’s performance and for the cinematic river scenes. Oh and the memes. ALL. OF. THE. MEMES! Plus the sub-text is fun to dissect, is it about motherhood? Or maybe racism? Maybe both?

And yet, despite Bird Box reportedly being the most viewed original movie in it’s first week, when you strip away the memes and the comparisons and you imagine a different, less-heralded actress in the starring role, it’s plain to see that Bird Box is nothing but a standard apocalypse movie that takes the worst things about The Walking Dead (too many characters, awkward acting, the endless hope of sanctuaries) and puts a blind fold over the camera sometimes.

Anna and the Apocalypse

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, do one thing that scares you every day, live for today cause you might be dead come tomorrow. These are the #lifequotes that drive me to live my life to the fullest every day. Which is why I enjoy engaging in risky behavior such as, seeing a movie in a theater without watching a single trailer or reading a review. I know, insert shocked emoji here, am I right?

Sometimes this risk pays off in a big way, like A Quiet Place. Other times it leads to me sitting through an entire musical-zombie-Christmas movie (Yes, apparently that’s a thing), somehow too mortified to stay and yet too embarrassed to leave. And to think, I was shocked when I walked into a completely empty movie theater. That should have been my first sign.

It’s clear what Anna and the Apocalypse wants to be: “What would happen if we took the main character from Lady Bird put her in Scotland to sing and dance like La La Land? Except there’s zombies! Not like, 28 Days Later zombies, but like, Shaun of the Dead zombies! Oh and make it Christmas-y!”. In reality it ends up being a Christmas special of High School Musical with zombies. It feels like a movie studio playing Dr. Frankenstein and ends up echoing Jurassic Park, “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.” The movie, much like the zombies it depicts, is not natural and should have been mercy killed from the beginning.

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Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You, the directorial debut of Boots Riley starring the infectious Lakeith Stanfield, is that strange reoccurring dream you have had your whole life. You know the one, maybe it starts with that darkly lit bathroom or those shadowy figures you never fully see or some room from your childhood that you have memorized by small detail. The one that has that feeling of something amiss despite everything around you seeming normal. That dream that you try to tell other people about but you can’t quite piece the details together. Actually you can. Because you’ve had the dream countless times. You know exactly what happened but it’s too weird to say out loud, in front of your coworkers or your loved ones. Lest you be judged for whatever your subconscious is capable of cooking up.

This is one of those movies that sticks. You walk into the theater, sit in your seat, silently observe for a few hours, stand up, leave. You say bye to your friends and maybe you get in your car, or maybe you start walking home. It’s dark out and you notice the silence. You feel the air and you sense something is different. You notice but you try not to. You want this feeling to wash over you and to never leave. It’s calming and spooky and freeing and all encompassing. Much like your reoccurring dream you feel desperate to wake up but oddly content with never leaving.

And the thing is, you aren’t thinking about the movie necessarily. Because you can’t. You are unable to, or maybe unwilling, because you hate it. No you actually love it. You try to just forget about it because the truth might reveal something about you to yourself. You also notice you can’t stop it from infecting what you’re feeling. You want to tell everyone about what you saw and you also want to lock it away like a secret, lest you be judged for admitting that your conscious self actually enjoyed something so…

That’s how the movie makes you feel. Nothing and everything. Depressed, happy, lonely, loved, contradictory. It unabashedly subverts what you think a movie should be or what you want it to be. It doesn’t say anything important. Or maybe it does, maybe it embodies the saying “the years are short but the days are long” and gives it a modern spin and turns it into, “the news cycle is quick but the effects are long”. Maybe it somehow takes the apathy of the modern world and makes you feel it. But you’re not quite sure because it’s a realistic unreal reality, it’s batshit crazy. And just when you’re in a dreamlike, depressed state of mind the movie completely…

The words don’t come. Not for days anyway. Because the film is stuck in your brain, marinating. It’s spinning around and around. You’re convinced it has all the makings of a cult classic. Then you realize it was all bullshit and you shouldn’t waste anyone’s time talking about it. But then you remember that scene where Cassius is starting to fall asleep after a long day of work but he is longing for a joint he just lit up while ignoring his artist girlfriend after the premiere of her art show.

The scene is innocuous and yet it’s stuck, no that’s not right, it’s jammed in your brain. It speaks to your exhaustion of balancing your job and your family and your friends. You feel the pressures of capitalism that force you to do things that you truly don’t want to. The force that drains you and distracts you and pulls you in even though you hate it and you want to escape.  Except maybe you love it because it empowers you and gives you more than you could ever dream. But it also takes from you, your time, your energy, your willpower, your motivation, your attention. It gives, it takes, you hate it and love it because you, like this movie, are an emotional pit of contradicting feelings.

You can’t prepare yourself for the experience that Sorry to Bother You is. It’s splendid and dumb. It’s beautiful and harrowing. It’s a cult classic or it’s stupid. Your experience will vary but it’s nothing you will soon forget.