Looper

Although a movie that involves traveling through time, Looper is hardly a time-travel movie. Bruce Willis says as much when he brushes off any attempts to discuss the mechanics, implications, paradoxes, etc. for reasons of expediency. So, Primer, Predestination, or even Back to the Future II this ain’t. Groundhog Day is more like it, only with shotguns, telekinesis, and a far messier ending.

That’s unfortunate for me, since I prefer pure time-travel movies; and there isn’t enough — or any, really — Bill Murray in Looper to justify comparing it to that other category. JGL spends too much time pretending to be Willis, who in turn phones it in. Elevator/hallway action scenes are good, but don’t come close to the peak of the genre (or even the western take, which was fundamentally a feature-length interpretation of that one scene from Oldboy).

There is, in fact, nothing new to see here, and the movie feels as flat as the Kansas plain it is set in. The one interesting thing about it is that, in what is the complete opposite of the director’s previous movie, Looper might be better appreciated in a vacuum.

Directed by Rian Johnson, 2012

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The Dark Forest

Starts several years after The Three Body Problem and ends 200 years later, shortly after the first (brief, horrific) physical contact with alien technology. The future’s clean, white, Apple-y aesthetic was annoying enough for me not to feel too badly after it imploded, and the humans of the future were just as grating, but I assume that was one of the big points Liu wanted to make (that we are more closely related temporally than we are geographically or genetically, that is, not that Jony Ive is a future-human).

Another point: a book about humanity’s impending demise has a good quarter of it dedicated to one man’s delusions about art and love. Those passages end up being directly relevant to the plot, but if anything, that takes away from them.

Finally, the character who ends up being the book’s main proponent of historicism dies in the best standoff since the Gotham prisoners’ dilemma, which ends up being only the second-best of the many standoffs the book presents. It is a beautiful, self-referential standoff heaven.

Written by Cixin Liu, 2015

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While We’re Young

The title fools you into thinking the movie’s central conflict is between youth and old age. Turns out, the generation gap is only a setup for the real fight — that of authentic versus fake. It culminates with (old, authentic) Ben Stiller neurotically rollerblading into Lincoln Center, hoping for a catharsis after he reveals to his documentary film-making giant of a father-in-law that (young, fake) Kylo Ren based parts of his own documentary on alt-facts.

“Things change”, replies Mr. Breitbart, minutes after giving a speech on honesty in filmmaking. “Different things matter now.”

A sadly prescient moment in a sadly prescient movie.

Directed by Noah Baumbach, 2014

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Begin Again

Keira Knightly pulls off the sweater-wearing, guitar-wielding singer-songwriter nicely. Adam Levin doesn’t pull off acting — good thing none was needed for his cipher of a character. Kathleen Keener and Mark Ruffalo reprise their roles from every other movie they made.

Fluffy, predictable, forgettable.

Directed by John Carney, 2013

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Captain Fantastic

The Little Miss Sunshine of the twenty-teens is a wet dream for a certain kind of liberal: a family that is smart, good-looking, self-reliant, and self-aware; in which the eight-year-old knows both the content and the significance of the Bill of Rights, and the eighteen-year-old has his pick of Ivy League schools but chooses to go to Namibia; in which a Lolita-reading teenager unironically asks what is Coca-Cola, and gets poison water as an answer; in which the fireside homeschool-assigned reading session (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Brothers Karamazov; The Fabric of the Cosmos) breaks for a family drum circle.

Sadly, mom kills herself while hospitalized for depression far away in New Mexico, a road trip ensues, thoughts, feelings, and inadequacies of their lifestyle are exposed. The setup is better than the second act, during which 1) the captain of the freshly single-parent household is predictably un-fantastic, and 2) the middle-crassness of his extended family is blown out of all proportion. The payoff is better — if nothing else, it will make its New Yorker-reading audience think.

Vigo Mortensen was, apparently, destined to be in this movie. The question is: wouldn’t it have been better — and truer to its message — as a book?

Directed by Matt Ross, 2016

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How to write a thesis

Umberto Eco’s rules and advice on how Italian university students of modest means should choose a relevant topic, conduct and organize research with limited resources, and format their final undergraduate thesis. Though created by and for someone in the humanities, much of it applies to all sciences — and the parts that don’t are at least entertaining.

It was written in 1977, revised in 1985, and revised again when translated to English for both cultural and temporal/technological adjustments. A translation to Serbian (which is, amazingly, freely available online) needed neither, as Serbia and Italy have similarly dysfunctional systems of higher education.

For a book whose most important section is the one on taking notes and organizing research, this edition has remarkably small margins and tight binding. No matter — it will feature prominently in the Acknowledgments section of my PhD thesis, if and when I finish it.

Written by Umberto Eco, 1977

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They Came Together

The difference between loving homage and gross parody can be subtle, and what the movie ends up being usually depends on whether the author(s) actually like the genre they are spoofing. It is an easy guess, for example, that Edgar Wright likes zombie apocalypses and buddy cop movies, or that Joss Whedon is into horror films.

The people who made this thing must truly hate romantic comedies. It doesn’t wink at rom-com tropes — it blows them out of all proportion, the acting is even cheesier, camera work blander. I could pick out clips for these, but its’s the entire movie. Moreover, the comedies it references are dated, going with When Harry Met Sally (1989), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and Notting Hill (1999) over the more recent and even more ridiculous Love Actually interconnected plot wannabes. And the jokes are just too obvious.

Making fun of something that is easy to make fun of is easy. Making a good movie that is also a parody is hard. They Came Together (ha ha) is a decent parody.

Directed by David Wain, 2014

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe

A haunted house movie where the house has a morgue in the basement (America is weird) and the ghost is lying on a stainless steel cart, all peaceful and symmetrical until a father-son team of coroners begins slicing into her. Roose Bolton is again to blame, in a way, but has more sense at the end of this one while leaving room for a sequel (The Autopsy 2: Richmond Horror, a working title that I just made up, so you can stop googling it).

It’s a nice—if short—ride that would be much scarier for those who never attended an autopsy, but between the pacing, the acting, and the near-absence of jump scares, it’s the best horror movie I’ve seen since It follows. It gets extra points for being truer to the genre—no hipster soundtracks here.

And no, you can’t put a think chunk of freshly brain under a microscope and see cells, much less figure out if a neuron is alive just by looking at it for 1.5 seconds. Brian Cox can sell anything, though.

Directed by André Øvredal, 2016

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Brick

Twenty-somethings here are playing SoCal high-schoolers who talk like they are on the set of The Maltese Falcon; but it’s not Bugsy Malone with a slightly older cast, and it’s not sort-of-like film noir, either. This is a film noir, complete with a Gordian knot of a plot, gritty textures half-concealed in darkness, and telegraphed archetypes (the loner, the vamp, the femme fatale).

The teenagers seem parentless—save for a comic relief scene or two featuring the mom of our archetypal kingpin serving the boys cookies and OJ—and the few other adults in the world treat them as equals. Clearly a fantasy, but you will have suspended your disbelief long before then.

It fares well when compared to the competition—but then, most of it had been made in the 1940s, so I wouldn’t call it a fair fight.

Directed by Rian Johnson, 2005

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