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  • Jeff Marker


    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

Little Light Bulbs

I’m currently on holiday break and have set a goal of starting to exercise again. I did great for the first ten days (possibly the longest streak of my adult life, btw). With the exception of Christmas Day, I ran every day, did light weightlifting every other, and each time finished with physically deep, mentally grounding stretching every day. Then starting on the 29th I failed to get myself in gear. Didn’t exercise for five days. This morning I finally exercised again, largely because I was inspired by seeing my wife exercise last night.

This experience reminded me of a few things.

  1. I hate exercising. I am doing this for my own health and for my family. My job is not at all physical but it is highly stressful, and I need healthier ways to alleviate that stress. I also want to experience as much of my son’s life as possible, so I’m doing my part to live longer. I am a happier person when I am healthier, which makes me a better husband and friend to my wife. Finally, I am now in a leadership position and my mood has an effect on scores of people. I need to improve myself internally in order to be more supportive externally. But there’s no pretending I enjoy any of this.
  2. Getting back into shape is such a rollercoaster. I had to psych myself up for the first few days just to get started. However, I was motivated by a desire to shed stress that had built up over the past several months at work and by observing how crooked my grandmother’s and father’s spines are becoming when we visited family over Thanksgiving. I’d love to prevent that happening to my own back if it’s possible. By the sixth day, I felt quite good about myself. Felt really great when I got myself up out of bed on the 26th and exercised again. Then my motivation declined precipitously, shall we say. On the 30th, I convinced myself it was okay to take a day off. ‘I am on holiday break, after all!’ Then it was New Year’s Eve. ‘Come one, it’s New Year’s Eve!’ Then it was New Year’s Day. ‘Come one, it’s New Year’s Day!’ But then, yesterday was plain old January 2nd. We didn’t have any plans. It was a Saturday. No way to rationalize it, I just slacked off. The internal monologue became, ‘I suck.’ And I didn’t get up early this morning to exercise, which had been my routine at the beginning of the break. I slept in. I had half of a cup of coffee. The prospects for exercising today were slim. And I felt like shit about myself, because I was failing to reach my goal of developing an exercise routine over the break. No way to deny it, the progress I had made was slipping away. Then I thought about Alicia exercising the night before. She also bought me a pretty good supply of Kind bars, which I like to eat before exercising. She has helped facilitate this whole plan, and I was letting it fall apart. So I made myself do it. I set up the treadmill and laptop so I could watch Making A Murderer while I walked/ran, and I did it. I once again feel pretty good about myself mentally, and my body feels so much better, especially after the big stretch at the end of the workout. Speaking of…
  3. The stretch is my favorite part of any workout, and that’s coming from a former high school football player who for a couple of years fell in love with weightlifting during the off-season. Lifting still feels pretty good, but these days the stretch is the best. I am comically inflexible by nature (seriously, I haven’t touched my toes since my twenties), and I carry stress in a handful of places, making my legs, lower back, and neck even stiffer than they are by default. I take my time to stretch and now throw in some yoga poses because I’ve found they stretch certain places that really need it – and because I’m trying to use stretching as a means of becoming more balanced and grounded mentally.

(Quick side notes: For the early part of my adult life I did physical labor, so I recognize that I’m writing about white-collar, First World Problems here. My early twenties self would be mocking me while reading this, and if certain of my friends are reading this, they are too. Don’t blame you, fellas.

Also, I am guilty of skepticism when it comes to the whole body-mind-spirituality-new-age realm of thinking. I know I aggravate my wife when I don’t buy into it. So she has got to be LOVING the fact that I’m using phrases like “balanced and grounded.”)

This morning’s stretch is actually what made me sit down to write this. I laid out the yoga mat on the floor (Mrs. Marker prefers that I not transfer sweat from my back to the living room rug, and I do not argue with that position) and did my little bit of weightlifting, then I commenced stretching. As I said, I use the stretch these days for both physical and mental ends. It’s a time to find a healthier frame of mind and get grounded for the rest of the day (there I go again). This morning, though, Alicia was bustling around the house doing a few chores at once, the dishwasher was running, the clothes dryer was running, my son was playing Minecraft on the television complete with background music, and the dog, as she always does, was under my feet on the mat eating and rolling around. In other words, if one were to try to create a meditative, introspective atmosphere, the house this morning was pretty much the polar opposite of what that would look like.

But in the midst of a tree pose (like I said, fellas, laugh it up), it occurred to me how perfect it all was. I was surrounded by my family. We were all safe, healthy, and together. It’s the beginning of a new year, and we had time to just be together. For a moment, I thought about what it would be like if I could no longer hear and sense my wife’s presence in the house. Or hear my son’s voice as he played. Or see that the dog was trying to take over the yoga mat.

That kind of solitude doesn’t sound peaceful or meditative at all. All of these things passed through my mind, and I felt enormously grateful for all that I have. And I suddenly realized I felt grounded. Huh, so that’s how it works.

Best Films of 2015

It wasn’t a particularly deep year for quality films. Some of my colleagues disagree, but some of the movies being touted as awards contenders (“Trumbo,” for example) didn’t live up to the hype for me. The top three films on my list stand far above all others, the next five are all outstanding, then there are several good films that wouldn’t be strong enough to make best-of lists in many other years. Still, the best things about year-end movie lists is they might encourage folks to seek out lesser known movies or debate those they have seen. Hopefully this list does both.

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Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Room

Seven years ago, a young woman (Brie Larson) was abducted and confined to a one-room shed by her captor. This room is the only world her five-year old son (Jacob Tremblay) knows – until mother and child attempt a perilous escape. Lenny Abrahamson, who for two years in a row has produced one of my favorite movies of the year (do yourself a favor and see Frank) focuses on the mother’s will to protect her child and the young boy’s discovery of the world outside the room, and leaves us with a deeper appreciation of the bonds between mother and child. Larson should walk away with the Best Actress Oscar, newcomer Tremblay should be nominated, and Abrahamson damned well better be nominated for helping the actors achieve these performances.

beasts

Image courtesy of Netflix via The Guardian

  1. Beasts of No Nation

Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about an African child soldier into a harrowing, empathetic, brutal, and unforgettable viewing experience. Idris Elba towers through the film in an outstanding supporting role, but new discovery Abraham Attah gives a mind-blowing performance in the lead role. This is also a significant moment in media history, since Beasts is Netflix’s first theatrically released motion picture. It did very poorly at the box office in terms of dollars, but this is the first feature film produced by a streaming service that has a real shot at winning Best Picture.

Ex machina New Poster

  1. Ex Machina

This thought-provoking, sexy, stylish science fiction thriller is so stunning I watched it on an airplane yet was still enamored. Three brilliant actors (Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac) conduct a cinematic Turing test amongst themselves and with us. Vikander, as an AI so human-like and charming she seduces Gleeson’s character and us, continues to establish herself as one of the most charismatic actresses of her generation. The content is timely, yet the film is timeless, the sort of science fiction (not science fantasy) I wish we saw more often.

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Canadian poster (why not?) courtesy of epk.tv

 

  1. The Big Short

I would call this an essential movie, but people tend to resist must-see recommendations. I would tell you it provides the best explanation yet of the Wall Street collapse, but that description is far too academic and won’t get you to the theatre. And I don’t dare tell you it predicts impending economic dangers. Instead, I’ll just say it’s a hilarious, witty comedy featuring a world-class cast (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall). Incredibly, all of those descriptions are equally accurate. Director Adam McKay pulls a brilliant bait-and-switch, selling us with the comedy in order to give the best assessment yet of what led to the economic recession.

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  1. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is less a biopic than a virtuoso enunciation of classic American themes (like The Social Network, this movie owes an enormous debt to Citizen Kane). Drawing on a typically polished Aaron Sorkin screenplay, Danny Boyle directs an exquisite quintet of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who are occasionally joined by other outstanding players. I don’t even care if the film gets a lot of details wrong or unjustifiably glorifies Jobs. It is a joy to watch perfectly executed filmmaking.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Spotlight

The next great journalism movie has arrived. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and a stellar ensemble cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup) dramatize the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the child molestation scandal and subsequent cover-up that forever altered the stature of the Catholic church. It’s an inspiring reminder of the social role only the fourth estate can fill.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Love & Mercy

You might not believe this, but John Cusack is outstanding in this Brian Wilson biopic (I kid, I kid). But his performance isn’t as strong as Paul Dano’s. The two actors play Wilson at different stages of life, and both capture the genius and torturous mental illness that defines the legendary composer and musician. Love & Mercy is an unconventional biopic and a fitting tribute. Elizabeth Banks, in a nomination-worthy supporting role, does what she always seems to do – quietly elevate the film with each scene in which she appears. The glaring weakness here is Paul Giamatti’s garish performance as the psychiatrist who possibly saved Wilson’s life yet definitely infantilized him for years. I believe the real Dr. Eugene Landy was this evil, I’m just tired of seeing Giamatti play this character. Everything else compensates, though.

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

  1. Sicario

An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) goes on a covert mission into Mexico with a shadowy task force as part of the “war on drugs.” But she discovers there is much more going on than she initially recognized. Director Denis Villeneuve uses the scenario to say some things about the narcotics trade and the government’s battle against it, but mostly he delivers a taut, fever pitch action movie that, along with Prisoners, places him in a whole new class of filmmakers. Blunt again proves she can do action, and Benicio del Toro is chilling and pitch perfect. I am professionally required to claim Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the year, but if you like your action grounded in reality, Sicario beats Max.

Image courtesy of Forbes

Image courtesy of Forbes

  1. Inside/Out

This was inarguably Pixar’s best movie in years, but that’s no longer saying much for a studio that has churned out formulaic sequels since being bought by Disney. Honestly, I think this one is a bit over-rated, but I’m including it here mostly because of the superb animation. (I’ve never seen skin textures like those created for the emotion characters!) There is also much to be said about a family movie willing to tackle pre-teen emotions and let kids know they should accept their sadness, fear, and anger, and therefore cope with them in healthier ways.

Image courtesy of blastr.com

Image courtesy of blastr.com

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m including Fury Road for three reasons. One, people like lists with ten entries. Two, George Miller’s revival of the legendary Australian post-apocalyptic science fiction franchise elevates the car chase to a thing of beauty. Stunning cinematography captures impeccably executed, acrobatic battle sequences taking place on wheels. Miller’s film reminds us how much more thrilling and cinematic practically achieved stunts are. Three, I hope it angers men’s rights activists, a group for whom Fury Road sparked the most pathetic outrage of the year (and in 2015, that is really saying something). Max is not made weak because Furiosa is made strong. The moment when Max recognizes Furiosa is a better shot than he and hands her the rifle is already being cited as a minor landmark, and it’s just one of many ways the film inverts the gender power dynamics typical of the genre. Surprisingly, this balls-out action opus captures gender equality circa 2015 perfectly.

Others worth seeing:

The End of the Tour, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, The AssassinCarol, Amy, Finder’s Keepers, Best of Enemies

China Diary Day 1

I recently taught at Zhejiang Normal University (ZJNU) in Jinhua, China for three weeks and tried my best to keep a diary of my time there. My writing became more sporadic the longer I was there, but I did take loads of pictures. I’ll share everything worth sharing over the next few weeks. Below is the first entry.

Today was my first full day in Jinhua, and thanks to the professor with whom I will be teaching, I got to see some of the campus and surrounding community. The professor’s name is Tao, but like most Chinese people I have met, he has an English name, which is Chris. I first met him during a very brief visit to the university back in March, and it took about an hour for us both to realize we were going to be fast friends.

Chris earned his PhD from Beijing Film Academy, which any film studies academic can tell you is terribly impressive. It’s on par with an American engineer with a degree from MIT. I mean, the period of film history called the Chinese Fifth Generation, the defining period in all of Chinese cinema, is so named after the fifth class of graduates to come out of Beijing Film Academy, and it is notoriously difficult to get into. Yet he is totally unassuming and one of the most generous people I have met. Quite a person.

Chris took me for coffee and we discussed the lectures I would give. It was very helpful and made me feel much less nervous about teaching the next day. When he heard that no one from ZJNU had set me up with a meal card or shown me around, he seemed a little miffed. He called someone from the international office and made sure they’d set me up with a card tomorrow. They had already requested it, but the place isn’t open on Sundays. So he took me to the North Gate area and explained a few things.

Béimen, or the North Gate

Béimen, or the North Gate

North Gate (or Béimen in pinyin) is one of four gates that border the campus. (Bet you can guess what the others are called.) But when people use the phrase Béimen they are usually referring to the neighborhood surrounding the actual gate. Half of it, on one side of the gate, is on university property, but the rest of it is Jinhua property. Altogether, though, this area is the lifeblood of the non-academic ZJNU experience.

The Jinhua side of North Gate

The Jinhua side of North Gate

If you swivel around the other way, you get the view on the left. The fruit vendors were out in force that day, and we tried litchi and yangmei. I liked them both, so Chris bought me some. They became my breakfast for the next few days.

North Gate is constantly busy, teeming with life, loud, and chaotic. I loved it. The energy there is amazing. And you can buy just about anything in these little shops. I’m not a fan of mysterious meat served on sticks, but if that’s your thing, you’d love it here, too.

Here is a view of the ZJNU side of the North Gate neighborhood.

A view of the campus side of North Gate

A view of the campus side of North Gate

A view of North Gate from the second story of the row of shops.

Middle of North Gate looking northward

Middle of North Gate looking northward

Another view of North Gate from the second story. Notice the big tree at the end of the row in the middle of the street. Everybody calls this “the big tree” (I didn’t learn that phrase in Mandarin, sorry.) If you want to meet up with someone, you usually say you’ll meet at the big tree. It didn’t strike me until I started writing this post that I didn’t get a good picture of the tree.

North Gate looking southward

North Gate looking southward

One last view of North Gate. Note all of the scooters. Most of them are electric, and they are everywhere on the ZJNU campus. I took this photo in the middle of the day, which is why there aren’t many people. It gets very hot in the middle of the day, and campus usually clears out. It’s a shame, because on a busier day this whole street would be filled with students – and all of the female students would be shading themselves with parasols. Umbrellas/parasols are not just functional here, they are a very important fashion accessory. It always makes for a charming view.

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After we had wandered around for a while, Chris took me to one of the campus canteens where faculty, staff, and students can use their university cards to pay for meals, and he bought me lunch since I didn’t have mine yet. Then he gave me his card to use until I got my own card. The following day, he gave me one of his old phones to use while I’m in China. Like I said, quite a person.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what yangmei, the fruit I mentioned, looks like, here is a photo. They are delicious. Both these and litchis are native to the region and fairly important to their agricultural industry and daily diet. I will always associate my time at ZJNU with the taste of these gorgeous little fruits.

yangmei

yangmei

 

A Layover in Incheon

During a recent, very brief trip to China, a colleague and I had two layovers in Incheon, one on the way there and the other on the way back. The first night, we were exhausted after a 15-hour flight, the usual airport madness, and a shuttle ride. We went out seeking a quick bite to eat, and it turns out most things in that neighborhood in Incheon close by 11:30. Luckily – and oddly – there are 3 Mini-Stops within a 4-block area. That little convenience store saved us, but my dinner that night was a Hite beer and these chips:


I think they were sweet onion? Regardless, they hit the spot. We were so tired we did no sight-seeing, and these are the only photos I took that night:

For the record, I rarely stand in the middle of the street in foreign countries to take pictures. In the morning I discovered our hotel is very serious about shower sponges.

Then off we went to China the following day. During the second layover, on the way back a couple of days later, we had more time and energy but it was 40-degrees and raining. So again, not much sight-seeing. If I’m being honest, this neighborhood in Incheon didn’t have much to offer anyway. Its entire economy is driven by airport traffic, so the only businesses are hotels, restaurants, and an amazing number of coffee houses. Sadly, though, most of those coffee shops don’t open until 9:30 AM. Strange, from an American perspective. But the city does begin to come alive around dusk, and I snapped a few more photos that night.

Our hotel was not nice at all. The best I can say about it is there was plenty of very hot water for my shower (which allowed me to feel the satisfaction with refreshing, thank goodness). Given the sad state of affairs inside the hotel, this advertisement on the outside of it seemed pretty funny.

But maybe you had to be there.

Random Act of Fandom

There I was in the Incheon Airport near Seoul, Korea, waiting in line to get my boarding pass, when I noticed a large group of young women pointing cameras at a kid getting his boarding pass in a lane to my left.

Oops, there is at least one young man in there, isn’t there. As you can see, some of those cameras are rather expensive, so it appears to be a mixture of fans and paparazzi. (Ironic sidenote: some of the girls acted pissed that I took this picture!) This little gaggle continued to grow, so obviously the kid further down to my left was a celebrity. I wish I had gotten a good picture of him, because he looked like an average kid to me. I would never have pegged him as a celebrity if all these photographers hadn’t been hounding him. He wore skinny black jeans, a black cap with the bill popped up, and sunglasses.

When he got his boarding pass and tried to make it to security, the real spectacle began. See if you can even spot the celebrity kid in this little moving scrum.

http://youtu.be/mgSWFWHq0yM

I asked the ticketing agent if she recognized him, and she just waved it off. “Happens all the time,” she said. It was a first for me, though.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Review

guardians-galaxy-movie-trailer-humorGuardians of the Galaxy is the most purely entertaining movie of the summer. It isn’t even a contest.

X-Men: Days of Future Past strung together a sprawling yarn which smartly steered the franchise toward new possibilities. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes used next-level motion capture techniques to offer stunning character complexity for a movie about apes. Both are highly sophisticated as tentpole releases go.

But Guardians of the Galaxy is sheer hedonism. It’s a laugh-per-minute spectacle that never takes itself seriously yet takes us on an escapist jaunt through a bizarre Science Fiction universe.

In those ways, it is a quintessential summer movie. Forget about your cares, munch on popcorn, and just enjoy.

guardians-galaxy-gamora-zoe-saldanaGuardians is also the anti-Avengers.

We’ve come to expect earnest heroism and myth-building from all of the Avengers movies. Guardians indulges in almost none of that.

The Guardians are not superheroes. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hyper-athletic, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are very strong, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is highly intelligent. But none possesses superpowers. These characters are a band of outlaws and misfits.

Gamora is an assassin on the run from her adoptive father, the supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin). Drax is a mountain of a man with no sense of irony bent on avenging his murdered family. Rocket is a raccoon who was given human intelligence when he was subjected to experiments and is now a career criminal. Groot is a tree with a limited vocabulary.

They are led by Earth-born Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an average dude (and therefore a perfect role for Pratt) who makes a living selling recovered artifacts and gets out of scrapes using his charm and wits. And he really, really would like you to call him Star-Lord.

rocket-raccoonThe Guardians screw up half of the time and bicker constantly, and hilariously, over petty things. And every time the story builds toward a rousing speech or the type of sanctimonious hero worship that has come to define the Avengers movies, one of the characters undercuts it with a sarcastic joke.

Most importantly, the Guardians are flawed. The movie might be a tough sell because many will be turned off by how strange the characters seem to be. ‘You want me to watch a movie about a green girl, a talking raccoon, and a tree?’
Trust me, these characters are more human and relatable than any of the Avengers.

And they fight a genuinely scary villain, Ronan (Lee Pace), who is backed by Thanos and the ruthless Nebula, played by an unrecognizable Karen Gillan.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-drax-the-destroyer-02Peter and the others become the Guardians reluctantly and only due to circumstance. They’ve stolen something and made Ronan very angry. Each character is looking out for himself or herself yet ultimately can’t look the other way when Ronan threatens the entire galaxy.

Guardians is a very important movie for Marvel/Disney. Marvel and its monopolistic parent company have dominated the box office the past few years, but the Avengers phase of the studio’s plans is reaching its expiration date.

We’re done with solo Iron Man movies starring Robert Downey Jr., and we’ll see one more Thor and Captain America movie each. There will be two more Avengers movies, but Marvel needs to bring a new set of characters into the moviegoing consciousness, and Guardians is part of that plan. An especially important part, since Ant-Man has become a disaster before production has even started.

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_41744There really are only three things you need to know about Guardians of the Galaxy.

First, parents should be aware that the language is a bit rough at times. Second and with apologies to all of the Avengers, Guardians is the best Marvel movie so far. Third, prepare to see the movie twice, because the first time you’ll miss some of the jokes. You won’t be able to hear them over your own laughing.

LUCY Review

lucy-LCY_Tsr1Sheet_RGB_0523_1_rgbYou’re going to hear strange popping sounds Friday afternoon around the time of the first showings of Lucy. They will be the sounds of scientists’ heads exploding all around the world.

The movies are notorious for pushing junk science on naïve viewers. It’s possible junk movie science has never been junkier than it is in Luc Besson’s Lucy.

Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, who gains the ability to use more of her brain than the 10% most of us use. She utilizes more and more of her brain as the movie progresses and acquires new, scientifically nonsensical powers as she evolves.

I use the word “evolve” because it is a theme of the film. Much of the first act cuts between Lucy becoming entangled in a drug-smuggling ring under the control of Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) and Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) lecturing on what would happen if humans evolved in the ways Lucy does even as he speaks.

Science Fiction movies by nature exaggerate and fictionalize scientific reality or theory. One of the measures of quality for the genre is whether the movie follows its own rules. The story has to be plausible within the theory on which the movie is based.

Lucy fails spectacularly on this level. There is no logical connection between brain power and the physical powers she acquires, which become increasingly supernatural.

It’s the kind of movie that’s only entertaining if you turn off your brain. And surely you see the irony there.

Not that writer/director Luc Besson has ever cared about plausibility. He is much more interested in ideas, especially the ideas of transformation and transcendence.

He is also fascinated with taking wispy, Bohemian girls and turning them into impeccable killers. We’ve seen him create woman warriors in La Femme Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, The Messenger, and Angel-A.

Empowerment comes with machine-like precision and a large gun in Besson’s world.

None of Besson’s heroines have been as empowered as Lucy, though. As the trailers have already revealed, she develops the ability to control other people’s bodies and minds and to manipulate time and matter.

The concept is good for creating stunning visuals, and this movie uses more computer-generated imagery than any of Besson’s previous work.

But the concept is terrible for action scenes. Lucy clashes with dozens of henchmen but just as each fight begins, Lucy’s powers expand and she dispatches her opponents with ease. There isn’t one engaging action scene in the whole movie. The movie is too busy trying to be too many things at once to focus on what most viewers will want, which is seeing Johansson in action.

For a few minutes during the opening sequence, Lucy recalls the documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and its critique of modern life. The premise is embarrassingly similar to Limitless (2011). It’s also a quasi-philosophical movie that has as much in common with Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) as anything else.

Besson has great fun with the evolution theme by intercutting wildlife documentary footage into his fictional footage, creating witty metaphors and puns. Unfortunately, this technique is also borrowed, from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000).

I was rooting hard for this film prior to seeing it because it bucks so many current trends. It’s based on an original screenplay rather than a popular novel or comic book. It’s a taut 90 minutes rather than the standard 130-150 minute summer slog. And it’s in 2D.

But the movie becomes so unintentionally hilarious it’s only enjoyable because it has become “so bad it’s good.”

Lucy eventually gains the power to travel through her biological memory to the very first cell that split into two and initiated all evolution to follow.

If you plan to see Lucy, my advice is to similarly reduce your brain activity to that of a single cell before the movie begins.

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