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Interstellar (2014) 👍

Interstellar is many things: a mediocre sci-fi story, a timely study of sociopathy, a schmaltzy meandering about love conquering space and time, an excellent showcase of near-future space engineering, and, sadly, a big budget Hollywood movie that grossly underestimates its audience. Foreshadowing is one thing, having one astronaut do the punch-a-hole-though-a-folded-piece-of-paper schtick to another while they are in space on their way to a wormhole as part of a billion dollar secret mission… Well, that’s a whole new level of cringe.1

Hollywood rears its head in many other places, most of all the needless addition of superficial suspense to things that don’t need added suspense. Because a father communicating with his estranged daughter through spacetime is not emotional enough, let’s also add a hick brother who doesn’t want her at the only place where communication is possible, and may kick her out at any moment. Decades are spent on trying to get humans off Earth, yet the big scientific breakthrough comes at the very last moments, as people are suffocating on the ground. While we are there: if the human civilization is capable of building a county-sized space habitat and the only problem is getting the thing off the ground, why not build it on Earth or under the sea, instead of using a few hundred frozen embryos as humanity’s only backup plan? But let’s not get into plot holes because, um, there are a few.

Which is to say that Interstellar is not an overwhelmingly good movie. The good, however, still outweighs the bad, especially for those willing to forgive all the pandering. The best of humanity is also the worst of it, and the best of American sci-fi in matters of technology also turns out to be some of the worst story-wise. So it goes…


  1. I have yet to see Tenet but from what I have heard about its convoluted and unknowable plot, it is Christopher Nolan’s reactive formation to the many comments about oversimplifying and over-explaining that followed Interstellar. For an ever better example of a reactive formation see La La Land as Damien Chazelle’s response to Birdman winning the best movie Oscar over Whiplash and giving the Academy what it wants: more cotton candy navel-gazing. Ironic that the attempt also failed to win, this time to a better opponent


Mulan (2020) 👎

There are too many things here that just don’t work: the acrobatics (cartoonish in a bad way), the believability (live action is less forgiving to cross-dressing, just ask Mrs. Doubtfire), and worst of all, the message, which comes straight from the Big State handbook of propaganda: a woman’s worth is in marriage and — maybe, under extraordinary circumstances — in her service to the country. Self-actualization is allowed, after much hemming and hawing, as long as you are actualizing yourself towards protecting the Empire.

Which is too bad, because the setup provided excellent opportunity for two badass female characters to unite against the common oppressor. Of course, uniting against anything would not have been received with open arms in Mulan’s intended market, said market working diligently towards exterminating threats foreign and domestic even as the movie was made.

One thing that did work was the matchmaker who really should get a show of her own. A Disney+ series of shorts with a match per episode, perhaps, culminating in helping Xianniang the witch find the man/woman/hawk of her life? Disney, you are welcome.


Cruella (2021) 👍

Comparisons with Joker started the moment Cruella was announced, so let’s get that out of the way: Cruella was so much more fun to watch. Granted, it was a low bar to clear, Joker being about as much fun as watching a botched execution, but Cruella also has better acting, music, editing, and any technical category you can think of.1

What it doesn’t have is much of a message, at least not one that hasn’t been covered already and in more detail by some other Disney or Disney-adjacent product. Killing your firstborn daughter is a bad idea? (Snow White) Villains are people too? (Maleficent) You know you’re in trouble message-wise when you have your titular character saying out loud the movie poster tagline. “Brilliant. Bad. A little bit mad.” looks great on a wall, sounds awkward coming out of a speaker.


  1. I do, however, wish the camera could stay still for more than a milisecond. Just because you can make every shot glide doesn’t mean you should. This is true for every high-budget movie made in the past 10 years at least but particularly for Cruella, which between the costumes and the set design had potential for some iconic shots. I don’t expect the second coming of Barry Lyndon from a Disney franchise, but how about teaching the young audience to slow down and stay still for a moment? 


A promising young woman (2021) 👍

Emerald Fennell, who wrote, directed, and co-produced A promising young woman, made many good choices when writing the screenplay. Let’s start with things not shown, like what Carrie Mulligan’s character1, Cassie, does with all the men picking her up (or does she pick them?) under false pretenses. What is that red streak dripping down her arm walking home the morning after? Are the red, black, and blue notches she jots down with her gunner pen for each man a matter of convenience or a code for their fate? How much of a psycho is she?

Another good choice: the (never-shown!) sexual assault that underpins much of the plot is set in a medical school. Medical education selects for conformity, which is on one hand understandable (why fight windmills and ruin your chance for a secure and often lucrative income?) but on the other leads to willful blindness to many misdeeds.2 Some may be surprised by the bad turns some seemingly good characters take by the end of the movie, but to anyone who’s gone to medical school it would have been true to personal experience. Parallels to other nice-guy professionals — lawyers, let’s say — draw themselves.

Yes, the movie is topical, drawing on current events, trending hashtags and rising fears. Thankfully, that doesn’t stop it from being damn good, and well worth a rewatch or two.


  1. Carrie Mulligan is, of course, the best Dr. Who companion that never was, and an integral part of the best Dr. Who episode ever made. I wonder sometimes if Sally Sparrow and Larry Nightingale would really have been Doctor’s companions — or at least had a spinoff series of their own — if Mulligan hadn’t been such a great actress with other opportunities presenting themselves soon after Blink

  2. During one memorable residency interview I (as the applicant, not the interviewer) was asked a question on (un)professionalism. My impromptu answer was about my own silence to a misdeed witnessed as a medical student in Serbia, with a young inpatient being kept in the dark about her diagnosis of advanced multiple myeloma, and us as students shrugging our collective shoulders as she peppered us with questions about bone health. Not my proudest moment as a med student, doctor, or a human being, but I ended up matching to that very program so, yay? Bad deeds rarely go unrewarded. 


Dune (1984) 👎

It aged better in my mind than it did after a rewatch, the version in my mind being conflated with the book and the game. What it gains on the aesthetics it loses on the incoherent plot, which at the same time has too much exposition and leaves too much unexplained.1 Also: Sting?!

You could say that this is a classic example of a long book being better suited to a TV show than a movie, but there was a TV show and it wasn’t much better. Maybe the new movie will be it? Or maybe HBO, Amazon, Netflix or Apple need to pour money into a serialized version, three of the four having a track record for funding good sci-fi.


  1. Apparently, David Lynch didn’t have the final cut and had an hour of his movie chopped of by the studio. But since he had also ran out of money I doubt much could have been done to make the final battle decent, or the last third of the movie comprehensible. 


Shin Godzilla (2016) 👍

Equal parts of man versus monster and man versus bureaucracy in this low-budget high-quality remake. Though googly-eyed, the monster is more alien, more menacing, and more destructive than the recent American version. So is the Japanese bureaucracy, which is, in the end, a bigger threat to the country than Godzilla will ever be.


The Year Earth Changed (2021) 👍

A soaring orchestral score. Drone shots of empty squares and promenades. Surveillance camera footage of animals running amok. Stuck onto this skeleton are a few soundbites of scientists explaining humanity’s inhumanity towards wildlife; redundant, but required to elevate this from a long Youtube video into a… long Youtube video with a Message.


Our towns (2021) 👍

Drone shots of oversaturated greenery zipping accross the screen to the rythm of athmospheric EDM” could describe almost any documentary made in the last decade, but “Our towns” has a note of localism that’s pleasing to my mind. The movie promises us stories of eight towns across the country that failed and/or bounced back. That is a tall order for a single town, life being complicated and things not falling neatly in line for a comprehensible narrative. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t even try to spin a story, giving us instead a few lessons: that local newspapers are important for the life of a community; that people want to live in neighborhoods from which they can walk to work, school, shops, and nature; that despite your best efforts, a decision from up above (to close a factory, move an interstate, etc) can ruin a town; and that small towns owe their prosperity — if they prosper at all — to the people who could have been anywhere else but chose to be there.

True, there is nothing there you wouldn’t know from reading Jane Jackobs, A Pattern Language, or even @WrathOfGnon tweets. But maybe just maybe this movie being on HBO and coming from a writer of The Atlantic means those ideas are seeping into circles that have so far preferred centralized planning.


Kong: Skull Island (2017) 👍

Like Godzilla but with a better story, better scenery, better acting, and, yes, better monsters. A thoroughly fun movie that The Guardian critic hated. What’s not to love?


Godzilla (2014) 👍

Having babies and toddlers in the house takes you out of the popular culture loop for a while, so I completely missed this challenger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe1 when it came out. But now that the fourth installment is available for streaming and one of the said toddlers is of age to watch a PG-13 movie (i.e. almost 9), HBO Max is finally paying itself off.

Most Japanese versions of Gojira/Godzilla are in their hearts cinéma bureaucratique — you come for the thrill of monsters destroying Tokyo, you stay for the drama of humans battling red tape. There is no deeper layer to this American version — you come for the monsters and stay for the monsters, and you skip all the dialogue unless you’re into cringing. If there is a subtext to the movie it is this: most of the protagonists are highly competent US marines who fail to prevent giant monsters from destroying the liberal mecca that is San Francisco.

The monster battles truly are fun, though.


  1. The MonsterVerse, apparently, which comes with its own official logo and everything. Surely there was also a slide deck full of charts pointing upwards 🚀 

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