The death and life of great American cities

Jane Jacobs loved Greenwich Village so much that she wrote a book about why that was and why more neighborhoods weren’t like it. She looked at other similar areas in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. as well some failed ones, and gave a few guidelines on what was needed for safe, lively, and desirable city streets.

It has enough whimsical observations of city life to keep things interesting for its too-many—over 400—pages (e.g. on a city park’s homeless population: Almost imperceptibly, like the hand of a clock, the raggle-taggle reception creeps around the circular pool at the center of the square. And indeed, it is the hand of a clock, for it is following the sun, staying in the warmth. Or, comparing a safe-but-dirty city street to a desired but decidedly unsafe park: The sidewalks were dirty, they were too narrow for the demands put upon them, and they needed shade from the sun. But here was no scene of arson, mayhem or the flourishing of dangerous weapons. In the playground where the night-time murder had occurred, things were apparently back to normal too. Three small boys were setting fire under a wooden bench. Another was having his head beaten against the concrete. The custodian was absorbed in solemnly and slowly hauling down the American flag). It’s all quite lovely.

But ultimately, it is an exercise in confirmation bias that misses as many essential points as it reveals. What was arguably the most devastating influence on American cities — Robert Moses — is but a misguided elderly official who, and kudos to him, knows his way around public funds. City planners like big, disruptive projects because of their bad (deductive!) reasoning, not because they give politicians photogenic ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

If you want to know why American cities are the way they are, better read The Power Broker.

Written by Jane Jacobs, 1961

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The Last Jedi 👊

Extraordinary set pieces strung together by the thinnest of plots, based on an absurd, sitcom-worthy failure to communicate. A particular subplot should have been spun off as a buddy cop movie.

The Ray-Luke-Kylo triangle should have been a bigger part of the movie, but then many of the new characters, the ones that aren’t white and/or men, would have nothing to do. Such are the problems of building on an old and popular franchise: you can’t both stay true to the roots and change with the times.

It has cute animals and looks good in 3D though, so Dora (5.4) approves.

Directed by Rian Johnson, 2017

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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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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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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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