Whiplash

A.k.a. Whiplash: The Truth Behind the 10,000 Hour Rule.

Parker’s a young kid, pretty good on the sax, gets up to play at a cutting session, and he fucks it up. And Jones nearly decapitates him for it. And he’s laughed off stage. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And he practices, and he practices with one goal in mind: Never too be laughed at again. And a year later he goes back to the Reno and he steps up on that stage and he plays the best motherfucking solo the world has ever heard. So imagine if Jones just said “Well, that’s okay Charlie. That was alright. Good job.” Then Charlie thinks to himself “Well, shit. I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. People wonder why jazz is dying. I’ll tell you, man - and every Starbucks “jazz” album just proves my point, really - there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.

If delivering this dialogue gets you an award, how on Earth does writing it not also get you one? Never mind the precise shots, impeccable pace, midpoint that could have been a short movie on its own, and the adrenaline-surge-inducing ending that is musical, cinematic, and deeply philosophical all at once. Movies at their best.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, 2014

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Arrival

Flat characters cipher through a thinly plotted array of science fiction concepts which are new enough to the non-reading public to make the movie palatable on novelty alone. Since novelty may be the only thing that counts in what is bracketed as SciFi — look at Interstellar being undeservedly panned — a movie whose emotional range begins and ends with a side plot of a dying child now has a shot at the Academy Award. Also, and it feels wrong to even have to write this, there are other ways to elicit emotion in your audience than killing off children, dear movie-makers of 2016.

Respect where it is due: passing of Hawkeye as a plausible physicist — by having him not talk about physics the entire movie, but still — and floating the idea of world unification in anno domini 2017 are admirable feats. Not enough to offset the hours wasted on walking through a hallway and 80s-style montages, though.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2016

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Manchester by the Sea

A dour movie about dour people living dour lives in a dour New England town. The camera is static and so are our hero’s faces. Long periods of voyeuristic shots of everyday life are punctuated by rare expressions of minimal emotion. Answers to all our questions are quickly revealed and dramatic tension never builds up.

That kind of direction is fine if you are talking about a man’s mid-life crisis, but disturbing when your movie involves three children burning to death. Is seeing a couple of good acting performances worth subjecting yourself to emotional trauma that doesn’t result in a meaningful message (and anything on stoicism of the Irish can hardly count if the Simpsons have already done it)?

Medical things of note: congestive heart failure is a diagnosis as broad as lower back pain (i.e. not a real diagnosis at all); would anyone not work it up further, never mind that it is in an otherwise healthy 40-something; and do they not have ICDs in Manchester, MA? Coach should not have died, least of all because without his death we wouldn’t have had this movie.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, 2016

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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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