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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An Education

The Worst Father in the World, here played by Alfred Molina, prefers wedding off his smart and ambitious underaged daughter (Sally Sparrow, 24 going on 16) to a 30-something con artist of means (a smirking Skarsgard), rather than financing her studying English at Oxford. It is the 1960s—why waste money on tuition if her only reason for attending university is to find a good husband?

She likes his opera-champaign-trips-to-Paris lifestyle, he likes that she speaks French and looks at him like a God, so it looks like a win-win-win as she abandons high school for an engagement ring. But if you hang around scammers you will get scammed, and soon she learns he has a wife, a son, and countless past jeunes femmes like her, some of whom ended up with child. A deus ex machina in the form of an English teacher does help her get into Oxford, and she lives long and well enough to be able to write the memoire that Nick Hornby turned into this screenplay.

Not a masterpiece, but serviceable as educational material for preteens. I hope Dora will grow up not to be as impressionable to sleazeballs.

Directed by Lone Scherfig, 2009

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The Three Body Problem

Written by an engineer, and reads like it. It uses a broad brush—with not much description or characterization—to explore such trivialities as life, reality, human perception, and humanity’s place in the universe.

Much of it has a sense of odd turning into familiar: the bloodshed of the Chinese Cultural Revolution projected onto the book’s pro-alien human factions and real world’s opposed-yet-alike movements; virtual realities inside a nesting doll of x-dimensional spaces that may themselves be virtual; environmental dangers, imagined and real.

Einstein supposedly pictured himself chasing a beam of light before developing his theories of relativity. Liu imagined standing on the surface of a planet quite unlike Earth to come to this book and its two siblings. Based on the first installment, I can tell that investing some time in the trilogy will be worth it.

Written by Cixin Liu, 2012

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Children of Men

Children of Men has aged well. Too well. Between Brexit, Zika, islamist fundamentalists, and police brutality, 2017 is much closer to the version of 2027 the movie portrays than what Cuaron could possibly have imagined while writing and directing it.

Brilliant long tracking shots include Juliane Moore’s bloody demise in a post-apocalyptic British mini-car, and Clive Owen’s race through a desolate seaside town-slash-rebellious refugee camp to find the only baby alive on Earth. A lot of the movie could now be described as a Twitch video, though back then first-person shooters were decidedly less realistic.

If this were Interstellar, Owen would have lived through the end and be reunited with a resurrected Moore. Fortunately, it is not.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, 2006

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