The hero with a thousand faces

What you do is you take as many fairy-tales and myths and other stories as you can — Campbell is extraordinarily good at collecting them — then squint and trace out the patterns. Us humans are very good at finding patterns where none exist (just ask Percival Lowell), so it is no wonder that we end up with an overarching story, albeit disjointed, which is — of course it is — steeped in New Age monism.

Plot twist: unlike similar attempts in other arts, this one becomes wildly successful, serving as a template for other stories that end up following it more closely than any of the tales of old ever did (see Kevin Garvey’s literal and metaphorical travails for the most recent example). I like The Leftovers, so I would say The Hero… is a net benefit for the civilization. It just wasn’t for me.

Full disclosure: I stopped reading the book near the end of the first (of two) sections, the one about The Hero’s Journey. I therefore never got to the Cosmogonic cycle, and cannot comment. Do let me know if there was a surprise ending.

Written by Joseph Campbell, 2008

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50/50 👍

An oncologist(?), a psychologist, and a surgeon give master classes on unprofessional behavior while treating JGL and his unfortunately named tumor. Even though only one of the three was meant to look bad in the movie, they each break a fundamental rule of the doctor-patient relationship: don’t be a douchebag, don’t sleep with the patient, don’t tell them everything will be fine when you have no clue. Cut out the profanities, and you’d have a semester’s worth of medical ethics discussions.

Cut out the profanities, though, and you’ll miss half the movie. Seth Rogen — a dirty old man trapped inside Fozzy the Bear — does what he’s been doing ever since Judd Apatow found him, heart of gold included. Fortunately, 50/50 has better timing than anything to come out from the Apatow cringe factory, and even has a point.

Medical miscellanea: was the diagnosing physician a medical oncologist, neurologist, neurosurgeon, or an orthopedic surgeon? Likely not the first, else he wouldn’t give neoadjuvant cytarabine for a sarcoma, and probably not the latter two since another, overoptimistic MD does the actual surgery. Can a psychologist perform interviews for what she admits will be her PhD thesis without getting informed consent? How can a surgeon say with any certainty that “everything will be fine” minutes after performing what she admitted to be a difficult operation for a tumor with a relapse rate north of 50%. You know, the 50% that gave the movie its name.

Still, thumbs up.

Directed by Jonathan Levine, 2011

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Doctor Strange 👎

Inception for the Disney Franchise Age of American cinema. Trying to be deliberately inoffensive to a particular class of consumer, it dodges Mickeydom’s most glorious moments of cultural sensitivity only to fall on the sword of blandness. But credit where it is due — it takes talent to make a trippy 60s comic book that’s oddly relevant in today’s world of magic mystery turmoil into a boring, predictable, dull, uninspired, yawn-inducing, delta wave-producing, paint-by-numbers origin story.

And if you thought only the Strange-ness was fumbled you must not be a doctor, because his day job features the most laughable medicine this side of the Human Centipede. Though I shouldn’t complain too much — I imagine aerospace engineers cringe an order of magnitude more when watching any other Marvel miracle.

Thumbs down.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, 2016

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Black Swan 👍

Every ballet metaphor told and/or written by dancers, visualized: you don’t feel like a swan, you become one; competitiveness means murdering the competition; and liberating yourself from constraints is suicide. It is on the nose and at times painful to watch, but I would not expect anything else from the master of the afterschool special.

Portman is a pro: she gets you to swallow the banal white swan/black swan analogy whole, and ask for more, goes through every exercise in Aronofsky’s mental torture playbook like it’s nothing, and looks believably cool and composed until she believably isn’t. Watching her in this movie makes a certain trilogy an even bigger crime against directing.

Thumbs up.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2010

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Stoker

Derivative drivel.

Directed by Chan-wook Park, 2013

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La La Land

A solid attempt in recreating musical films of old that succeeds in all the technical details — the cuts are smoother, the camera livelier, the sets more real — but fails in a thing that matters more: talent. Literally anyone (yes, anyone) from the cast of Hamilton would have been a better choice for Bigeye’s partner. Heck, Justin Timberlake would have made more sense, being a human being of actual musical ability, and if you are forcing me to recommend Curly for a role in your movie, your have miscalculated horribly.

The only way Gosling would possibly have made sense was if you were making a point that anyone could sing, but then don’t make the character a musician, and better don’t do that movie at all since it had already been done much better on TV 15 years ago by a man who knows his musicals. And this is clearly not what Chazelle was trying to do, what with him incorporating high-level bizarre dance numbers and movie-making subplots reminiscent of the greatest American movie ever made.

Emma Stone is a real jewel, though.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, 2016

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Birdman

A faux-continuos shot of a washed-up superhero movie star trying to stage a Broadway comeback. The way it plays with space and time is admirable, and the law company of Keaton, Norton & Stone does their job with perfection, but the subject matter is so far up Hollywood’s large intestine that Birdman should best be compared to another well-known continuous shot.

It is on-your-nose pretentious, and artsy by design, yet too loaded with contemporary references to become timeless. Its one deep message — the one about criticism — was much better stated, and with a more positive attitude, a decade ago in an animated film about a rat. Iñárritu must have made it on a dare.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014

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Hacksaw Ridge

An old-school paint-by-numbers war movie. Each kind of scene in it has a bar that’s been set long ago, and it doesn’t surpass any of them. Some are so high above it’s like they don’t exist. It does set some standards of its own, most notably for dehumanizing the enemy, who is never given more than 10 seconds of film at a time and always with a growling face straight out of a propaganda poster.

That is a shame. The story of Desmond Doss as told in 2016 deserves better than a WW2 also-ran and an illiterate journal article, for at least two reasons: he saved everyone he saw on the battlefield, American and Japanese; and no-one could get the number of people he helped straight, even as he was being given the Medal of Honor. Wondering how the other side thinks and feels, and sorting between truths, half-truths, and alt-truths are the themes of this decade, so it must have taken a lot of determination (or ignorance) on Braveheart’s part to ignore them so completely. Sort of like I’m ignoring Mel’s pet theme that wants to be central but can’t quite make it.

PS: Spiderman Jr. does his best doing Jimmy Stuart doing a pious army medic, and almost makes it. Vince Vaughn makes a good drill sergeant. This is not a failure of acting.

Directed by Mel Gibson, 2016

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Neurotic burglar with a heart of gold meets neurotic gay private investigator for some neurotic fourth wall-breaking shenanigans. Ironman’s vintage post-rehab quips are supposed to be endearing, but turn the movie into an annoying Ally McBeal spinoff that’s even less sure of itself. Val Kilmer’s misshapen botoxed head mumbles through most of the lines, though his penis features in a memorable scene. There are many more gags that are just as good, but are connected by a not well thought-out metaphor (is it a home movie on a reel? on tape? is it just playing in Downey’s head?) to make a twisty-turney plot that’s meant not to be followed (not unlike this sentence).

Good thing Michele Monaghan is there to eat their lunch and make the movie watchable.

Directed by Shane Black, 2005

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Moonlight

A poem in three verses about introversion and grit that is also a story about a boy growing up black and gay and functionally parentless in a poor Florida neighborhood. Through symmetry, silence, and omission, that depressing premise — imagine having to be a teenager in Florida — never invokes depression. Compare and contrast to sad tales of straight white lower-middle class woes.

Since issues of identity, gender, and race are somewhat of a thing in this early 21st century, the movie is also a Rorschach test for its audience. A thousand opinion pieces bloomed in its wake, few of which as deep as a single scene, yet quite a bit more pretentious. Thousands more are to come in liberal arts colleges across the country, and deservedly so — many films tend to induce sympathy and elation in one particular group of people, awkwardness and shame in another, and this one time those two groups have flipped.

Directed by Barry Jenkins, 2016

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