BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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5 Profound Pieces of Kung Fu Panda Wisdom (That May Seem Dumb)

5.) Po’s Wu Wei: In his fight against Tai Lung at the end of the first film, Po takes a hard hit from his Snow Leopard nemesis, and through ripples of undulating flab returns a devastating strike that sends Tai Lung flying. While I wouldn’t recommend one try it at home as demonstrated in animated form, the idea of not resisting, but rather redirecting forces is an old school approach. It also reflects the ancient Taoist wisdom of wu wei, effortless action.

 

4.) “But I realized having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.”  In the third movie, there’s a scene in which Mr. Ping (Po’s avian dad by adoption) explains to Po’s panda dad, Li, how he came to grips with Li’s presence (which at first made Mr. Ping insecure and envious.) The lesson is to be careful in assigning a situation zero-sum status (one person’s gain requires another’s loss) without having reason to believe it reflects the reality of the situation.

 

3.) “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” This bit reflects an old Taoist story about a farmer and his neighbor. One day the neighbor sees the farmer has a beautiful new horse. The farmer tells the neighbor that it’s a wild horse that the farmer found at the back of his property. The neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer says, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day when the neighbor stops by the farmer tells him how his son got a broken arm trying to break in the wild horse. “That’s bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day the army comes by, conscripting young men, but the farmer’s son is not forced to go to war because the young man has a broken arm. The story goes on like that.

 

2.) “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are.” In the third movie, after Master Shifu explains to Po how he knew that Po would fail on his first day as a teacher, the Master utters this bit of wisdom. It’s a warning to avoid loitering in one’s comfort zone.

 

1.) “The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup….  The secret ingredient is … nothing… To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”: For some reason, people love to get attached to trappings and secret wisdom, even to the point of losing sight of what’s important.

It reminds me of a story about Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson famously wrote a book entitled, “The Relaxation Response about the effects of relaxation on health. Back in the sixties, students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously, the Beatles’ guru) asked Benson to do a study of the health effects of their teacher’s system of meditation. The Maharishi taught transcendental meditation, an approach in which students focused on mentally repeating a mantra that is “given” to them personally by the teacher. (I put the word “given” in quotes because the Maharishi actually charged a significant amount of money for these mantras.) Anyhow, after much badgering, Benson agreed to do the study. One has to realize that, while today such a study would be considered quite respectable, in those days a study of the effect of meditation on health would have been akin to a study of voodoo.

So, Benson conducted the study and — lo and behold — he found that patients who practice meditation do have better recoveries and less ill effects. The Maharishi and his people now love Herbert Benson. They sing his praises. But Benson is interested in science and couldn’t care less whether any particular guru’s system of meditation is validated. So he repeats the study with all participants using the word “one” as their mantra, and he gets the same result. Subsequently, other forms of meditation are studied, and with similar outcomes. Needless to say, the transcendentalists love affair with Dr. Benson was short-lived.

BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim

Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War PreludeMarvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This two issue comic book was released in advance of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It revisits the events of previous movies adding a few snippets of new material here and there. Of the new material, much of it elaborates upon events that are known to have happened behind the scenes of earlier movies. Not surprisingly, given Marvel’s penchant for secrecy, there are only a few frames that offer insight into activities that a fan who’d seen all the preceding films would be in the dark about.

I’m assuming that anyone considering reading a prelude to “Infinity War,” by this point, has already seen that movie and relevant preceding films such as “Captain America: Civil War,” the first two “Avengers” movies, “Guardians of the Galaxy 1,” and “Doctor Strange.” If that’s not the case, and you want to avoid potential spoilers, stop now.

The first issue recaps “Captain America: Civil War” while providing insight into what happens with Captain America’s team in the wake of that film, at the end of which they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Much of the issue is verbatim repetition of the events of that movie. There’s also elaboration about the Black Panther’s assistance to Winter Soldier (Sgt. Barnes) via his genius sister Shuri, as well as a scene showing what Captain America, Black Widow, and other team members are up to in the aftermath of the breakup of the Avengers.

The second issue consists largely of Wong schooling Doctor Strange on the powers of the infinity stones and their current whereabouts. Those who’ve seen all the films know that five of the six stones were accounted for before the third Avengers movie. Only the whereabouts of the soul stone remains in doubt. This book doesn’t solve that mystery and merely offers a cryptic comment about the soul stone’s power. As Wong is describing events, the reader is shown flashback scenes from the movies and post-credit scenes that explain where each stone is and how they were used in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Avengers 1 & 2,” “Doctor Strange,” etc.

If you are an intense fan who craves every new bit of information, you may enjoy combing through this comic book. Otherwise, it’s mostly of use for those who are planning on seeing “Infinity War” but who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 1” (which contains a brief piece of exposition that clarifies the nature of the stones), or the previous “Avengers” films. I don’t know how big that demographic is, but I suppose new fans are coming along all the time. I wouldn’t recommend you purchase the prelude expecting anything new and earth-shattering. The art and dialogue are all well done and inline with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

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5 Bits of Wisdom from The Matrix Movies

5.) Wisdom: Choice is not as it seems.

Quote: No, you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.
Said by the Oracle to Neo in “The Matrix Reloaded” as they discuss a dream in which he sees Trinity falling.

Interpretation: Studies in neuroscience have repeatedly validated the notion that by the time we think we’re making a decision at a conscious level, we’ve already made it on a subconscious level. While many suggest this means that the verdict is in and free will is completely illusory, another way of looking at it is that one must understand one’s decisions in order to begin to regain the rudder on one’s life.



4.) Wisdom: Courage elevates: or, if you don’t run, he won’t chase you.

Quote: He’s beginning to believe.
Said by Morpheus to Trinity in explanation of why Neo isn’t running from Agent Smith in the subway.

Interpretation: My mother used to say, “If you don’t run, he won’t chase you” with respect to being chased by my older brother. It seemed like insane advice at the time; the alternative to being chased being beaten down. However, now I can see that even taking a butt-whooping elevates one’s spirit over engaging in prey behavior.



3.) Wisdom: Rationality is a thin veneer.

Quotes: Beneath our poised appearance we are completely out of control. & It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Said by the Merovingian to Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo.

Interpretation: While one might like to dismiss the Merovingian’s comments as the cynicism of a hedonist, the undeniable fact is that we have animal biology and it influences us more than we pretend.



2.) Wisdom: The world contains more Cyphers than not.

Quote: Ignorance is bliss.
Said by Cypher to Agent Smith as he plots his subversion in order to be put back into the Matrix.

Interpretation: Most people are happy with their illusions, rely on them as coping mechanisms, and will respond unfavorably to attempts to strip them way. The illusion in question may not be so much that the world is completely fake as much as biases such as the self-serving bias (i.e. people attribute successes to their inherent awesomeness but blame failures on external sources.)




1.) Wisdom: There are limits to being cerebral.

Quotes: Don’t think you are, know you are. & There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
Both are said by Morpheus to Neo. The former quote is delivered in the sparring program when Neo isn’t performing up to his potential. The latter is said after Neo & Trinity rescue Morpheus and Neo tries to tell Morpheus what the Oracle revealed, but Morpheus quiets him with said words.

Interpretation: I hope I haven’t muddled this bit of wisdom by choosing quotes in which Morpheus uses the word “know” in two different ways. In the first quote, Morpheus contrasts knowing with thinking, and he means that Neo must not treat it as an intellectual exercise, but rather feel its inherent truth deep down. In the second quote, he contrasts knowing with doing, and in this case “knowing” is the cerebral / thinking activity in comparison to doing (i.e. “walking the path.”) However, the gist is the same, you must approach some things–to use the Oracle’s words–balls to bones.

BOOK REVIEW: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

In Eggers’ novel, the Circle is a technology giant that looks a lot like Google + FaceBook + PayPal + Twitter all wrapped together under one corporate roof. Mae Holland, the book’s lead, is a young woman hired into the firm owing to her close friendship with a college roommate turned high level executive at the Circle, Annie. Even though Mae is brought in to work what is called “customer experience” (i.e. customer service) doing seemingly tedious work, Mae is in hog heaven. She left a job doing tedious work in a depressing environment with minimal support, and so this job personalizing boilerplate responses in a fascinating place with the opportunity to move up is a dream. The Circle is a utopian workplace where engineers are given free rein to experiment, where great minds and performing artists come to hang out, and where one gets handsomely rewarded for playing on one’s social media at work. All one needs to thrive at the Circle is a sharp mind and a willingness to accept that one’s days of privacy and solitude are behind one.

The Circle is the dystopia that some would say we are on the cusp of and others think we’ve already plunged into. It’s not Orwell’s gray dystopia of brutal state force. Neither is it Huxley’s bright and shiny dystopia of drugs and free loving. It’s a dystopia in which people willingly give up all privacy and negate the need for a neo-KGB by posting every idiotic thing that they do directly to the worldwide web. However, as in Huxley’s “Brave New World,” we see that the most nefarious character isn’t necessarily the most dangerous. The Circle is headed by an executive trinity. There’s the tech genius who we know little about until the book’s end–except that his life runs contrary to what the Circle seeks in its employees in that he’s fiercely private to the point of being mysterious. There is Tom Stenton who is the face of greedy capitalism, a loathsome character in every way imaginable. However, the real danger comes from the likable–and seemingly reasonable–Eamon Bailey who’s an idealist who thinks that people can perfect if they have no shadows in which to make mischief.

Mae is introduced to us as a likable character. She’s a hardworking but human girl next door. When we are introduced to Mercer, her ex-boyfriend and the face anti-Circle-ism, we assume that she’s being reasonable in her dislike of him. Even though he sounds reasonable, she knows him. Mercer rails against this corporatized surveillance state, and initially one may not be able to tell whether he’s a Luddite or the voice of reason. As the story goes on, however, the reader is likely to like Mercer more and more and Mae less and less. But the question remains until the end whether Mae will do the right thing as she becomes aware of the full—disturbing–picture of the Circle.

I got engrossed in this book. It’s absorbing both because of good character development and an intriguing story. That’s probably why the novel was made into a film that came out earlier in the year. It’s one of those books with the readability of popular commercial fiction, but which provides some food for thought. Some of the twists you may figure out, but the book keeps one wondering until the reveals.

I’d recommend this book for fiction readers—particularly if you have any pictures on social media with a drink in your hand or bad judgement in progress.

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The movie trailer, if you’re interested:

BOOK REVIEW: 100 Movies to See Before You Die by Anupama Chopra

100 Films to See before You Die100 Films to See before You Die by Anupama Chopra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Full Disclosure: I’m not much of a movie-goer, and have seen a mere 16 of the titles on Chopra’s list—if memory serves, but it often doesn’t. My point being that I may not be the best judge of what films should be included in such a list.

Be that as it may, I liked this book and its list. First, I found it to be a richly diverse set of films. Given that Chopra works for Indian media, one might expect that the book would be completely dominated by Indian films (fyi–I don’t know much, but I have learned not to lump all of Indian cinema under the term “Bollywood.”) Alternatively, one might expect the list to be ruled by Hollywood because the US has been the 800-pound gorilla of moviemaking since the early days of the industry. It’s true that the US and India are well represented on the list (the US with 34 movies and India with 26,) but Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, France, Mexico, and others are suitably represented (not to mention films produced by / in multiple countries.) (Nigerians and other Africans from countries with filmmaking industries may not agree because Africa isn’t represented, but the fact that the most recent film is 2007 makes me assume the book may not be up to the latest breakthroughs. [My edition is listed as 2013, but I think that’s just the e-publishing date. I’d guess the book came out around the time of the last film on the list, but could be wrong.])

Another aspect of the book’s diversity is the age range; the films are from 1922 to 2007. They don’t seem to be heavily weighted toward the modern day—as is a common defect of such lists. Yet another dimension is diversity of the class and genre of film. By that I mean that the list includes unambiguous classics of cinema like “Citizen Kane,” but it also includes what might be considered less cerebral movies such as “Enter the Dragon” and “Kungfu Hustle.” It also includes comedies and sci-fi movies, which are often under-appreciated by critics. Still, Chopra doesn’t resort to using to box office earnings as a criterion either. Many huge money makers aren’t on the list (e.g. “Titanic.”)

The entries for each film are just a couple of pages, but, in addition to a summary, they include the awards won by the film and a piece of intriguing trivia for each entry. There are some graphics in the form of movie posters and set photos. There isn’t a photo for every entry, but they aren’t that important and, in the case of my little Kindle, the pictures couldn’t be seen well anyway.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants a tight list of films to be seen that prominently features international cinema.

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2016 Martial Arts Movies

OUT:



Ip Man 3: The third installment chronicling (movie-style) the life of the legendary Wing Chun master Ip Man. It came out in Hong Kong in December 2015, but wasn’t released in the US, Canada, and elsewhere until January.
Synopsis: When a band of brutal gangsters led by a crooked property developer make a play to take over the city, Master Ip is forced to take a stand.




Kung Fu Panda 3: US release was January 29.
Synopsis: Continuing his “legendary adventures of awesomeness”, Po must face two hugely epic, but different threats: one supernatural and the other a little closer to his home.




The Monkey King 2: Released in early February.
Synopsis: Tells part of the story of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.




Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny: The Netflix released sequel to one of the most successful Kung Fu movies of all time. Released on February 26th.
Synopsis: A story of lost love, young love, a legendary sword and one last opportunity at redemption.







COMING:



The Bodyguard: This Sammo Hung film is set to release in early April in China as well as select other Asian countries. No worldwide release set.
Synopsis: A retired bodyguard suffering from early dementia finds a new friend in a young girl.
TheBodyguard



Never Back Down 3: To be released in the US on April 5th.
Synopsis: Picking up after the events of Never Back Down 2, former MMA champion Case Walker is on the comeback trail.
NBD3



Railroad Tigers: Release date is October 3rd in China but unset for the rest of the world.
Synopsis: A railroad worker in China in 1941 leads a team of freedom fighters against the Japanese in order to get food for the poor.
RailroadTigers



Feng Shen Bang: Set for release in October, but no trailer or poster yet. Only a synopsis.
Synopsis: Based on the 16th-century Chinese novel Feng Shen Yan Yi (The Investiture of the Gods), the story tells of how King Zhou of Shang becomes a tyrant due to the wiles of Daji, a vixen spirit who is disguised as one of his concubines.






UNKNOWN:



Birth of the Dragon: There’s no release date, trailer, or poster–so I wouldn’t get too excited about this synopsis.
Synopsis: A young and up-and-coming martial artist, Bruce Lee, challenges legendary kung fu master Wong Jack Man to a no-holds-barred fight.



Boyka: Undisputed [IV]: There’s no set release, but there’s a trailer and apparently this is the fourth installment, so I give it better odds than “Birth of the Dragon.”
Synopsis: In the fourth installment of the fighting franchise, Boyka is shooting for the big leagues when an accidental death in the ring makes him question everything he stands for.




The Deadly Reclaim: Trailer finished, but no firm release date.
Synopsis: Set in 1914 following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the film tells the story of a group of villagers standing up to a cruel young warlord.




Kickboxer: Vengence: There’s a teaser and a synopsis, but no full trailer or release date.
Synopsis: A kick boxer is out to avenge his brother.




Kung Fu Yoga: No trailer or release date yet for this Hong Kong / Bollywood love child.
Synopsis: Chinese archaeology professor Jack (Jackie Chan) teams up with beautiful Indian professor Ashmita and assistant Kyra to locate lost Magadha treasure.
KungfuYoga



Skiptrace: This Jackie Chan + Johnnie Knoxville MA comedy has been delayed.
Synopsis: A detective from Hong Kong teams up with an American gambler to battle against a notorious Chinese criminal.

2015 Martial Arts Movies, Revisited

As promised, I’m updating this post at mid-year because in January there’s a lot of uncertainty about what movies will actually come out and when. If you’re comparing notes, my original 2015 Martial Arts Movies post was here.


Wild Card (January 30 in US): This may be a cheat given what I said above. However, it’s a Jason Statham film, and like the “Transporter” films it probably doesn’t amount too much without the ass-kickery. Let’s face it, you’re not going to see Jason Statham for his extensive acting range.




Dragon Blade (February 19 in China, March for India, September for US): Featuring Jackie Chan, John Cusack, and Adrien Brody. This is a period piece, and–as you can tell from the casting–is big budget as martial arts flicks go.




Wolf Warrior (April 2) [China]: This looks like more of a shoot-em-up action film than a martial arts film, but some have listed it as a martial arts film and the close quarters action is definitely reminiscent of a martial arts film.




Skin Trade (April 23, direct to DVD): This film stars Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundgren as the good guys and Ron Perlman as the villain. As the title suggests, it’s set around a theme of human trafficking.




Kung Fu Killer (April 24 in theaters, July 21 on DVD): A Donnie Yen action flick in which Yen is in prison.




Pound of Flesh: (May 15 limited theater, June 23 to DVD, etc.): Jean-Claude Van Damme. The blurb says: “A man’s heroic attempt to help a woman in distress ends up with him waking up the next day without a kidney and plotting his revenge.”




Redeemer (June 12 in theaters, August 31 to DVD): A hit-man goes good. This is a 2014 movie that’s receiving an expanded international release.




SPL (Sha Po Lang) II / A Time for Consequences / SPL2: Rise of Wong Po (June 18): This Hong Kong film will feature Thai superstar Tony Jaa. (Like Donnie Yen, this guy is in everything. I don’t know whether they’re cloning these guys or what. Maybe they just don’t need to sleep, eat, or poop like the rest of us.)




The Monk Comes Down the Mountain (July 3): This movie is based on a popular Chinese novel entitled Dao Shi Xia Shan (A Monk Comes Down the Mountain) and is a comedic kung fu flick.




Underdog Kids (July 7, straight to DVD / online): Looks like The Karate Kid but with a lower budget but more [karate] kids. Here is the trailer:




The Boy and the Beast (July 11) [Japan]: This is an animated film, but martial arts is a prominent and necessary feature of the movie. (I believe I included one of the Kung fu Panda movies in one of my past posts, so I think this is fair game.)




Brothers (July 31) [India, in Hindi]: An Indian remake of the American film Warriors. In the American movie, two estranged brothers must fight each other in an MMA bout. (Hence the name of the Indian version, Brothers.)




The Martial Arts Kid (August 21): As the unimaginative title (a generic knock-off of the alliterative “Karate Kid”?) suggests, this is a low budget work, and the acting–if the trailer is any indication–is atrocious. It features competition martial artists-turned actors Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.




Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend (August 28): Interestingly, this sequel to an immensely popular film will be released on Netflix and IMAX simultaneously. If this were some risky, low-budget film, going straight to Netflix wouldn’t be at all surprising, but this is the sequel to the highest grossing foreign language film in America.




The Transporter: Refueled (September 4): Another “Transporter” film, but Ed Skrein plays the role of Frank Martin in this one. As with “Wild Card” it may be a cheat to include it as a martial arts film, but car chases and shoot-outs don’t get these movies all the way to watchability.




Skiptrace (December 24): This is a martial arts comedy featuring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville as buddies on the lam.



Movies with unspecified release dates:



The Bodyguard (undesignated release) [China]: Featuring and directed by Sammo Hung. The lack of trailer makes me not optimistic for a 2015 release, but who knows…
sammo-hung-740x400



The Chemist: A grain of salt on the 2015 release. This is an “assasin-who-can’t-bear-to-kill-his-victim-and-ends-up-protecting-her-instead” film. It’s been in post-production for a while.




Iceman 2 (in post-production): This Donnie Yen sequel doesn’t have a set release date and I expect a 2016 release, but it’s still listed as a winter 2015 film. It’s a Kung fu Encino Man. I haven’t seen any publicity, but the plot blurb is: The imperial guard and his three traitorous childhood friends ordered to hunt him down get accidentally buried and kept frozen in time. 400 years later pass and they are defrosted continuing the battle they left behind



Close Range (in post-production): A guy is looking for a girl. It looks like a low budget Taken, but the fight scenes may be better.




Unlikely 2015 Releases:



White Tiger: Another film with Don “the Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.



A Man Will Rise: A Tony Jaa and Dolf Lundgren film with a “delayed” release status.



Black Salt: (in post-production): The blurb is: With time winding down towards world-ending devastation, the fate of mankind rests in the hands of Interpol agent Samuel Tharpe.

MOVIE REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-UltronAvengers: Age of Ultron opened across India today, April 24, 2015. This film is set sometime after the events of the second films in the Captain America and Thor solo “trilogies.” We know this because Thor is on Earth and the Falcon (in a cameo) makes an offhand comment indicating that he’s spending time looking for Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier. Furthermore, we know it because the opening scene is the Avengers working as a team to take down Baron Von Strucker’s fortress (re: Captain America 2 end-credit scene) in a fight to obtain Loki’s scepter. This scene suggests that the team has been working together for a while in taking down Hydra bases of operation globally. (Many have jokingly inquired why Steve Rogers (Cap) wouldn’t have called in his avenging friends during the events of the Winter Soldier film.  This film reinforces, rather than solves, that riddle.) At any rate, that opening scene contains an awesome action sequence.

The core premise of the film will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers for this film–not to mention the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films and post-credit scenes. Tony Stark (Iron Man) tries to “create a suit of armor around the world” and the program–dubbed Project “Ultron”–goes terribly awry.  After Ultron comes into existence, he quickly moves to co-opt the Maximoff twins (better known as The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.) Because the twins have an axe to grind with Tony Stark, they willingly side with Ultron. The Scarlet Witch is instrumental in Ultron’s plan. If you haven’t seen the trailers don’t finish this sentence, but for others it will be apparent that the Scarlet Witch’s mind control is used to pit some Avengers against either themselves or others.

The tone of this film is different from the first Avengers movie. In the first film much of the tension springs from unfavorable first impressions and standoffishness. Now the characters know each other and love-hate relationships are rife–some more loving and some more loathing than others. This may make it easier to relate to what’s going on between the major characters. The strained relationships inside the team remain an important factor, and are crucial to the films going forward–most notably Captain America 3: Civil War.)

While the trailers may have led one to believe this would be a big film for Natasha Romanov (aka Black Widow) given the flashback scenes, it’s actually Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) who has a more pivotal and revealing role in this film. (Perhaps to the chagrin of the many who wonder why he’s even on the team.) However, the evolving relationship between Romanov and Bruce Banner gets a fair amount of screen time–though the need to pack a lot into the film given the huge cast makes this drama feel a bit thin. The twins and their tormented past are also critical to the tone of the film. They hold an event from the past against Stark, but they are ethical people at their core.

The Vision is the character that has been held closest to the vest by Marvel. I won’t say much about Vision to avoid spoiling anything other than that it’s an intriguing character. I was worried that either the way this character was created or the effect he had on the story would be a disappointment, but it wasn’t.

I think James Spader did an excellent job of playing Ultron–a character that vacillates between being childlike and being a grim psychopath. (One may not get the childlike part from the trailers, but this is a brand new intelligent entity, and so it’s clever to show that.)

Like the first Avengers movie, this one has its bit of deus ex machina (bolt from the blue solutions to once insolvable problems), but it’s not the perfection of story that makes these movies engrossing. (I didn’t find it as deus ex machina as the first film–though there is at least one moment that springs to mind.)

What sells these films is: a.) the witty dialogue;  b.) the stunning visuals of the action sequences; and c.) the tension between characters both friend and foe. (Probably not in the aforementioned order.) On those three items this film doesn’t disappoint.

I won’t even bother to recommend you see it, as I’m sure–like everybody else on the planet–you will.

BOOK REVIEW: The Philosopher at the End of the Universe by Mark Rowlands

The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction FilmsThe Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films by Mark Rowlands

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one of those books that’s designed to make tedious material palatable. Rowlands achieves this by conveying the concepts of erudite philosophers such as Plato, Nietzsche, Sartre, Laplace, Kant, Heraclitus, Wittgenstein, Hume, and Heidegger through the lens of popular speculative fiction movies (almost all Sci-fi.)

The book uses thirteen films as case studies to consider ten critical philosophical concepts (over ten chapters.) Virtually all sci-fi fans are likely to have seen most—if not all—of these films. They include: Frankenstein, The Matrix, the first two Terminator films, Total Recall (1990), The Sixth Day, Minority Report, Hollow Man, Independence Day, Aliens, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and The Lord of the Rings. I am not a film fanatic (though I do like Sci-fi) and I’d seen all but two of these movies (i.e. Hollow Man and The Lord of the Rings.) I can say that the book is understandable without having seen the movies, but it’s much more enjoyable when you have seen them. Although, as far as the two movies that I’d missed went, Hollow Man was easy because it’s a relatively straight-forward invisible man story, and—therefore—the link to that chapter’s question “Why Be Moral?” was simple. However, for The Lord of The Rings book I had to rely more on the synopsis the author provides to follow the chain of thought.

The philosophical issues that are addressed include: the meaning of life, what can we really know (if anything), what am I (or you or any other individual), what makes me (you, etc.) different from everyone else, is there free will, why behave morally, how broadly does morality apply (in other words, is it applicable outside humanity), do good and evil exist and (if so) what differentiates them, what does it mean to be mortal, and what’s wrong with moral relativism. If you’ve seen the movies, and give it some thought, you can probably match the movies to the questions easily.

I enjoyed this book. First of all, I will admit that it’s easier to follow the concepts and for them to stick with one when one puts them in terms of movies one has seen (in some cases, several times.) Second, the author has a good sense of humor. While Rowlands is a Professor of Philosophy, this book doesn’t read in the humorless and dry tone of academic writing. On the contrary, it’s meant for a popular audience and it reads for a popular audience. It should be noted that the humor and the exclusive focus on movies (versus literature or films) set this book aside from a number of others that are superficially quite the same. I have another book in storage back home called Science Fiction and Philosophy that is by an academic publisher, maintains the scholarly tone, goes into a bit more depth, but covers many of the same ideas (e.g. Brain-in-a-vat, etc.) using similar examples. I didn’t finish the more scholarly book, but if you’re looking for great depth but not reading ease you might pick it up for comparison.

Rowlands does overplay the “these-movies-are-so-bad-they’re-good” card, and when he does he sounds a tad professorial / pretentious. However, the book often reads like it was written by a colorful football coach rather than a Philosophy Professor. And, to be fair, in some cases it’s true that the films are delightfully bad. However, these are not B-movies like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as one might think from the commentary.

If you’re interested in philosophy, but can’t get through two pages of Kant without falling asleep, I’d recommend this book.

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