BOOK REVIEW: The Matrix and Philosophy ed. William Irwin

The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the RealThe Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

As might be expected of a collection of twenty essays that try to squeeze every drop of philosophy out of a two-hour movie (or to criticize each drop,) some of the chapters are much more compelling and pertinent than others. One could argue that some of the chapters are of sounder quality than others (and I would make that claim,) but even if you take them as a collection of high-quality philosophy essays, it’s hard to deny that some of the chapters are germane to the story the filmmakers created, while others try to use the film to get across an idea they find worthy – regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the film, per se. More simply, the book comments on “The Matrix” through the varied lenses of a wide variety of philosophical branches and schools, most of which have something to say about the movie, and others… not so much.

Few films have achieved the mix of popularity and philosophization of 1999’s “The Matrix.” The movie imagines a world in which the simulation hypothesis is true – i.e. there are people living in a simulated / virtual world that is so convincing that they are unable to tell that they aren’t going about their lives in “base-reality.” The movie’s central question is: should one prefer an existence that is real — if grey, dismal, subterranean, and hostile – over one which is illusory — but one has all the modern comforts, delicious virtual steaks, and one isn’t being hunted by killer machines? Over the course of the story we see two divergent perspectives on this question. The lead character, Neo, chooses to leave the Matrix to enter the real world. Meanwhile, one of the crew members of the ship Neo finds himself on, Cypher, betrays his shipmates in order to get back into the Matrix. It’s clear from the fact that Neo is the lead and Cypher is portrayed as a treasonous scoundrel that opting for “the real” – warts and all – is viewed as the correct position on the matter. However, the fact that we see Cypher in relatable circumstances, ones that engender some empathy for the character, means that answer isn’t meant to be taken as a forgone conclusion.

The movie’s premise engages a couple branches of philosophy – notably, epistemology (asking what, if anything, can one know to be true?) and metaphysics (asking, what is real?) While there are a number of philosophical ideas that recur in the book, the most repeated is Plato’s cave? Based on the ideas of Socrates, Plato described a situation in which people live chained in a cave in which they can only see silhouettes moving about on the wall from a light source behind them. What happens when one becomes unchained and leaves the cave into the “real world?” How is one received by people when he returns and tells the story of what one experienced? Is anyone interested in following in one’s footsteps, or do they believe it’s a lie, or the ramblings of a madman?

The twenty chapters of the book are divided into five parts. Chapters one through four consider the epistemological questions raised by the film. Chapter one sets the scene and gives the most extensive discussion of the comparison of the movie to Plato’s cave. Chapter two takes an anti-skeptical turn. It argues that, if one isn’t a philosopher, one has little reason to view the world skeptically. The world works, why question it? The argument is both true and not particularly useful. Chapter three proposes that one cannot make sense of a world in which all or most of a person’s beliefs are false. Like the previous chapter, this one boils down to: we can’t eliminate the possibility of a Matrix-like truth, but neither do we have any good reason for giving it a second thought. Chapter four focuses on sensory perception and what it says (and / or doesn’t say) about what we know. In daily life, we intuitively (if not explicitly) base a lot of what we “know” on our sensory experience — even though most of us know it is flawed. Perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by Chapter 4’s author was about the Hmong people, and their increased incidence of dying during sleep – in conjunction with a folk belief about malevolent spirits who attack during sleep. (Thus, it’s suggested that the mental world and the physical world aren’t separated such that the former can have no influence on the latter – i.e. the materialist take.)

[Note: The reason the point about the Hmong is salient is that there is a scene in which Neo asks whether dying in the Matrix means dying in the real world. Morpheus answers “the body cannot live without the mind.” From a storytelling perspective, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers created this rule. There would be zero tension in any scene that takes place inside the Matrix (i.e. where almost all the action takes place) if it weren’t the case that people could die from what happened inside. However, from a philosopher’s (or scientist’s) point of view the statement is problematic. Every night our conscious minds go “dead” and yet we wake up just fine. However, the Hmong issue raises an interesting point, suggesting maybe we don’t understand the issue as clearly as we feel we do.]

Part two of the book (ch. 5 – 8) shift from epistemology to metaphysics. Chapter five lays out the basic metaphysical issue, asking how effective a two-category classification scheme of real and unreal is, and where it runs into problems. Chapter six shifts focus to the mind-body problem (does physical matter generate subjective experience, and – if so – how,) and asks what minds are and whether machines can have one. Chapter seven rejects the film’s notion that mental states can be reduced to physical states, but ventures into interesting territory by evaluating the ethics of “imprisoning a mind” — if it were possible. Chapter eight explores questions of fate and determinism, which is also a central premise in the film. The appeal of the real world in this film is obviously not that it’s better, bolder, brighter – it’s none of those things – a major part of the appeal is that in the real world it seems one is free (i.e. one has full free will.) Whereas inside the Matrix, a least much of one’s life is deterministically dictated by computer programs.)

Up to this point, whether or not I felt a given essay said anything interesting, I believed they were all addressing this film’s philosophical underpinnings. From part three, we see a shift. For example, chapter nine asks, is “The Matrix” a Buddhist film. Not surprisingly (given – to my knowledge – none of the filmmakers ever said it was,) the authors conclude that it’s not, but that it has touches of Buddhist influence (also not surprising, given they aren’t hidden or subtle.) Chapter ten discusses the problems of religious pluralism. Because this film presents not only the aforementioned Buddhist influence but also Christian influence (Neo as savior) and bits from all-manner of ancient mythology (starting with character names / roles, e.g. Morpheus,) it’s proposed that it’s advocating a kind of pluralism. [Given that the movie exists in a fictional world, the fact that it draws ideas and names from various sources, doesn’t seem to me to be a suggestion that the filmmakers are advocating a particular hodgepodge, pluralistic, Frankenstein’s Monster religion.] I do think the author did a fine job showing that pluralistic “religions” tend to be logically inconsistent and systemically untenable. Where he lost me was in the suggestion that individual religions are logically consistent. The one I was raised in had an all-powerful god who couldn’t contradict human free will, and one god that was simultaneously three separate and distinct entities. In short, the religion I had experience with is chock-full of logical inconsistency. I burst out laughing when I got to this statement, “Is it really the case that the evidence supporting the truth of, say, Christianity is no stronger than that supporting the truth of, say, Buddhism or Jainism?” Given that (at least the schools of Buddhism closest to what Gotama Buddha taught) pretty much only ask one to believe that if one meditates and behaves ethically one can achieve a heightened state of mind free of the experience of suffering, and Christianity asks one to believe in a God[s] and demons and miracles and sundry ideas for which there is not a shred of evidence, I’d say it really is the case.

Chapter eleven examines the question of happiness, and concludes that: 1.) happiness “is the satisfaction that one is desiring the right things in the right way”; 2.) that one can’t have happiness without a “right understanding of reality.” I don’t think its convincingly conveyed that either of those two ideas is true, but the question of happiness as it pertains to Cypher’s decision is an interesting one. I found chapter twelve to be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking of the book. It focuses heavily on the teachings of Kant, and it discusses how important features we see with the Matrix (e.g. illusion and enslavement) aren’t features projected from an external source but are imposed by oneself. I think this is a useful way to think about how the film can be related to one’s own life – i.e. thinking about the Matrix world as symbolic for an illusory mental world.

Part IV is entitled “Virtual Themes” and it looks at “The Matrix” from the perspectives of nihilism, existentialism, and then takes a step back and asks questions about the usefulness of studying philosophy through a fictional device (i.e. film.) Chapter thirteen looks at “The Matrix” through the lens of nihilism, putting it beside Dostoevky’s “Notes from the Underground.” Chapter fourteen is similar in that it compares / contrasts “The Matrix” with another philosophical literary work, the existentialist novel by Sartre, “Nausea.”

I thought the questions taken up in the second half part IV were important ones. These two chapters (i.e. 15 and 16) deal with what is the proper relationship – if any — between philosophy and the product of storytellers. I say this is important because the discussion throughout the book is contingent on there being some value in philosophical ideas in fictional accounts that aren’t optimized to conveying philosophy, but rather are optimized to building an entertaining story. Some of the critiques lack effectiveness because they seem to accept there is value in considering philosophy in fiction, but the correction to make it more effective philosophy would make it useless as story. I would hazard to say that any film that would receive a thumbs up as a conveyor of philosophical ideas from a panel of 24 philosophers (the number involved with these chapter) would be fundamentally unwatchable. But does that mean the bits and pieces of philosophy one gets are worthless? I’d say no, but opinions may vary. Chapter fifteen asks why philosophers should engage with works of fiction, as wall as considering the value of story. Chapter sixteen focuses on genre, concluding that “The Matrix” is a work of real genre, but virtual philosophy.

That last section includes analysis from the perspective of what I would call the single-issue schools of philosophy (feminism and Marxism,) as well as postmodernism (which is said to have been a major influence on the directors) and other twentieth century philosophers. The two single-issue schools do what those schools often do, which is to myopically focus on what is interest to them (regardless of that issues importance to the film, or lack thereof) and pick and choose examples that seem to support their idea. The feminist essay reduces the story to an attempt to be un-raped (i.e. unplugged) and catalogs all the instances in which some “penetration” took place, be it characters being jacked into the Matrix hardware or shot. The author compares “The Matrix” to “eXistenZ,” a film with similar themes that she prefers (though, given the relative popularity of the two films, she may be the only one who feels that way.) The chapter on the Marxist perspective isn’t as poorly related to the film. However, I doubt the essay would exist if the Wachowskis had stuck to their original plan. I read once that the filmmakers originally had a different (and more sensible) rationale for why the machines had humans in a vat. The idea that appears in the film is that humans are used to produce bioelectricity (probably the most scientifically ridiculous idea in the film) and this forms the basis for the Marxist critique of the pod people as exploited labor.

The penultimate chapter is probably the most relevant of the last section. It discusses postmodern philosophy, notably Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” which is said to have influenced the Wachowskis and it [the book] even had a cameo appearance in the film. The last chapter is the most convoluted read, but probably by the most prominent author in the book. It’s by Slavoj Zizek and it critiques the movie from the perspective of the ideas of Lacan, Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and Freud.

I found lots of interesting nuggets of food-for-thought in this book. As I said, the effectiveness of the chapters varies tremendously. This isn’t so much because the quality of authors varies. It’s just that some of the work gets off topic – kind of like if there was an analysis of “My Friend Flicka” and it was decided that the thoughts of a Marine Biologist were essential — you’d be like “what am I reading, and why?” That happens sometimes as one reads this book. But, if you like the movie and want some deeper insight into it, this is a fine book to check out. It’s also a good way to take in various philosophical ideas, leveraging one’s knowledge of the film.

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BOOK REVIEW: Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and CreativityCatching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book consists of a series of topical micro-essays – the shortest being a simple sentence and the longest being a few pages, with the average being about a page. Lynch is most well-known as the director who created such works as “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Twin Peaks.” As the subtitle suggests, the overarching theme of the book is the nexus of meditation and creativity. While many of the essays explicitly touch on how meditation influences consciousness, which in turn influences the creative process, not all of them do. Some of them are more biographical or about the filmmaking process – including discussion of technical considerations (what is the optimal type of camera and how high definition can be too much definition for its own good) and what a neophyte such as myself might call the managerial considerations of movie direction (how to best get one’s vision across through the actors.) Along the way, one glimpses how Lynch shifted from his first artistic love, painting, into the world of cinema.

Lynch is a long-time practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM,) which is a mantra-based meditation in which the meditator silently repeats a mantra given to him or her by a teacher. The central analogy posed by Lynch is that meditation expands the consciousness and this allows one to catch bigger fish (more profound and creative ideas) through one’s art. He’s not suggesting that the ideas come directly within the process of meditation, but rather that meditation facilitates one’s ability to deepen the pool and pull up bigger creative fish.

He does engage in a fallacious form of thinking that I’ve critiqued in other books, and so I figure I should mention it here as well – even though I found it a little less troubling because of his free flowing “artsy” approach to presenting ideas. But this fallacious bit of reasoning goes something like this: “See how science is talking about this confusing issue and admitting that no one fully understands it yet? And see here how these scriptures are describing this nebulous idea with a few kernels that sound vaguely similar to what the scientists are talking about? From this we can conclude that they are – in fact — talking about the same thing, and that the ancients actually understood this all in much greater detail than we do today.” He does this mostly with reference to the unified field theory (which still hasn’t unified gravity into its ranks, let alone establishing some kind of oneness of all things.) It’s what dear old Dr. Sherrill used to call the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which is thinking that back in the day they knew everything any we are presently just stumbling around in the dark trying to get back on track. [One should note, there is an equally fallacious counterpart that he called the “outhouse fallacy,” which assumes that because people in the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots.]

For cinephiles, the book provides a lot of interesting tidbits about Lynch’s filmography. [For non-cinephiles such as myself, some of this will make sense, and some of it won’t. I occasionally had to make a Google run while reading the book to figure out some obscure reference about one of his movies.] For those interested in meditation, there is a great deal of fascinating thought about how creativity happens and how it’s advanced by having a meditative practice.

The most notable ancillary matter is an appendix of interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Lynch has a foundation that works to bring meditation into the educational process and the two former-Beatles support its efforts enough to do an interview. The McCartney interview stays more on the topic of meditation — particularly the Beatles’ interaction with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the creator of TM and a guru who taught the band both during a visit to the United Kingdom and in his own home base of Rishikesh. The Ringo Starr interview is actually much more about the musical history of Starr and the band.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read. It’s a little all-over-the-place, but not in a bad way. A lot of the writing has a stream of thought feel that seems appropriate to the subject matter. If you’re interested in the films of David Lynch the book definitely has some inside insight for you. If you are interested in the meditation and the mind, you’ll also receive some good food for thought. If you are just looking for a way to spur creativity, it’s also worth a read.

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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.

2015 Martial Arts Movies

NOTE: I’ve revised this post with up-to-date information. Please see that post here.

My third annual preview of martial arts movies will be presented in two installments. Many of the movies in the latter half of the year do not yet have release dates or trailers by January. Ergo, I’m posting the first part now, and will do a revision in mid-summer.

“Martial arts movie” is a bit ambiguous. Almost every action movie features martial arts. The leaked teaser for Ant-Man was pretty much a sequence of Scott Lang (Ant-Man) fighting his way through a corridor to access an elevator. So, does such a movie get included? I’ve opted against putting every action film with a kick in it into this post. Yet, I don’t want to stick to films that feature martial arts cliches (e.g. they killed my master, an evil billionaire is hosting a death match tournament, they killed me and left me for dead, etc.)  I, therefore, use the admittedly subjective litmus test of whether there would be a movie if one took away the martial arts and replaced it with brawling–not just whether it would be a less slick movie with a diminished “woo” factor.

I’ve tried to go as international as possible this year, including Bollywood (using the term colloquially if not precisely) and SE Asian releases in addition to the usual Hong Kong & Hollywood fare.

 

Underdog Kids (January 16): Described on IMDb as: “Inner city kids from a poor neighborhood go up against the undefeated Beverly Hills Junior National Karate Team.” I’ve seen no trailer for this, just a poster:
underdogs_2

Wild Card (January 30): 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 to 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): 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 (March 1) [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): 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.

Bollywood Dragon  (May 15) [India]: The blurb for this one is: “An English martial arts instructor travels to Mumbai to identify her twin sister’s body, discovering she lived a mysterious life among the criminal underworld and decides to investigate by being her.”
There is no trailer up for this movie as of yet.

The Kickboxer: City of Blood: (May 15): This is a different project than the Bautista / Van Damme / Carano film that was originally titled “Kickboxer” and is now going by “Kickboxer: Vengence,” but there’s no graphic publicity out on it yet. It may not come out as scheduled.

The Transporter Legacy (June 19): 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 don’t get these movies all the way to watchability.
I haven’t seen a trailer, but there are still photos.
TransporterLegacy

The Boy and the Beast (July 11) [Japan]: This also may be a cheat because it’s an animated film, but martial arts does seem to be a prominent feature of the work. (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.) There’s not a proper trailer out, but there is this:

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 a movie that was (maybe still is) the highest grossing foreign language film playing in America. If this bold move pays off, it could be the beginning of a new paradigm of movie releases. [Also with The Interview going with an unconventional release owing to North Korean threats and intervention, there maybe a great deal learned about alternatives to a traditional film release.]
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The Bodyguard (undesignated Summer release) [China]: Featuring and directed by Sammo Hung.
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Movies with unspecified release dates:

SPL (Sha Po Lang) II / A Time for Consequences / SPL2: Rise of Wong Po [China]: This Hong Kong film will feature Thai superstar Tony Jaa. (Is he in everything? Have they cloned him, or does he not need to sleep, eat, and poop like the rest of us.)
SPL_II_Teaser_Poster,_Apr_2014

The Chemist: A grain of salt on the 2015 release, please. This is an “assasin-who-can’t-bear-to-kill-his-victim-and-ends-up-protecting-her-instead” film.

Pound of Flesh: 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.”
PoundofFleshMovie

Kickboxer: Vengence: Featuring Dave Bautista, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Gina Carano.

The Martial Arts Kid: As the unimaginative title (generic knock-off of the alliterative “Karate Kid”?) suggests, this is low budget. It features past martial arts competitors like Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.
MartialArtsKid

Ultimate Justice [Germany]: The blurb on IMDb reads: “A team of former elite soldiers are drawn back into action when the family of one of their own is attacked.”
I haven’t seen any publicity for this movie yet.

The Monk (Summer) [China]:This movie is based on a popular Chinese novel entitled Dao Shi Xia Shan (A Monk Comes Down the Mountain.)
I’ve seen no graphic publicity on this one, and the novel has apparently not been translated to English, so I don’t have much to tell you.

Unlikely 2015 Releases:

Stan Lee’s Annihilator: IMDb has it listed for an unspecified 2015 release. If so, those involved are better at keeping secrets than anyone else in Hollywood.

Showdown in Manila: Featuring Mark Dacascos. It’s supposed to begin filming early in February, so a release this year is unlikely. It’s said to be like “The Expendables.” I assume that means that it’s a big cast of past super-stars, but it might just mean that it sucks badly.

TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: Chasing MacGuffins

What's the "Rabbit's Foot?" Source: Paramount

“What’s the ‘Rabbit’s Foot?'” “I don’t know, but I’m going to shoot her in the head if you don’t give it to me.” Source: Paramount

Critics often bemoan the effectiveness of MacGuffins. A “MacGuffin” is an object so intrinsically valuable that people are willing to kill for it, die for it, or chase each other across the universe for it… and this is the important bit…without knowing precisely why said object is so valuable. In other words, it’s a plot device designed to propel plots forward that would have no reason to advance otherwise. Its exact characteristics are unimportant, and sometimes even its general characteristics remain unrevealed.

Prime examples from the cinema include “the case” from Pulp Fiction, the “Maltese Falcon” from the same-named movie, the “one ring” from Lord of the Rings, the sword “Destiny” from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the “Rabbit’s Foot” from Mission Impossible III, the “Tesseract” from The Avengers, or “Genesis” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

So, why would people kill, die, or chase after something that they didn’t understand? That’s what the aforementioned critics say, but I have my own theory as to why MacGuffins work well and frequently.  MacGuffins work because people are used to spending their lives chasing something that they don’t precisely understand. Call it bliss or legacy or a missing part of oneself. If one spends one’s life chasing after a key that may or may not achieve one’s desired goal, it would be hypocritical to not have sympathy for characters who do the same.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller

The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts MemoirThe Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir by Davis Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

While one expects this to be a biography of Bruce Lee, the first half of it is much more an autobiography of the author that is loosely themed around Bruce Lee’s influence on his life. It’s an unusual book in this regard. However, while my description may induce visions of a dismal read by a self-absorbed author, it’s really not so bad. The latter half of the book is much more tightly focused on the events of Bruce Lee’s life—or, more dramatically, his death.

To be fair, there’s not much material for a Bruce Lee biography. Few lights have shone so bright that, while brief, they provided decades of afterglow. Bruce Lee was just in the news last week as he was made a character in a new MMA video game—over 40 years after his death. (It might seem odd for Bruce Lee to be featured in an MMA game, but while movie Bruce Lee showed us high-flying, high-kicking kung fu, Bruce Lee the founder of Jeet Kune Do emphasized the ability to fight at all ranges, against opponents of any style, and in a pragmatic fashion.) But Bruce Lee the movie star delivered only four completed movies as an adult (though he had a childhood acting career unrelated to Kung fu.) Martial Artist Bruce had only one real fight that anyone knows about and even it remains a subject of great controversy to this day. There are competing claims about who came out on top, to what degree, and how. According to the book, there’s not even much of a sparring record of which to speak.

With the proceeding information in mind, it might not be such a surprise that the author took the tack he did and still produced only the slim volume that he did. Miller’s description of his own life pulls no punches and he spares himself none of the embarrassment incumbent in being a young man seeking to emulate the squealing man with the fists of fury. He doesn’t come across as the narcissist that one might expect from a person who devotes at half of a biography of a global superstar to his own obscure juvenile years. In fact, his profile is of a scrawny kid who got his fair share of wedgies and other bully-induced torments. The autobiographical parts are more homage than self-aggrandizement.

Just as Miller is honest about his own lost pubescence as a scrawny kid, he will win enemies with his frankness about Bruce Lee and those in the gravitational pull of the kung fu superstar. Those who deify Lee will no doubt be displeased to read intimations that he died not on a walk with his wife and from a rare adverse side-effect of a prescription—but non-illicit–drug, and instead died on the bed of a lover from a hash or pot overdose.

Furthermore, Miller tells of how Bruce Lee told his students to stop teaching Jeet Kune Do, because Lee was worried about where it was going. Miller goes on to report about how Bruce Lee’s martial art went awry according to many. Then there is the suggestion that Lee had little first-hand fighting (or sparring) experience on which to build such a combative art in the first place.

However, the overall portrait of Lee is of an exceptional human being, and one who had such a wide range of influence, from fitness to philosophy. While the Bruce Lee physique is now much sought after and regularly seen among movie stars, all the leading men of Lee’s era were doughy by comparison. (One may look no further than his Way of the Dragon nemesis, Chuck Norris.) Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial artist; he was also a philosopher and thinker. While it’s true that he didn’t produce much in the way of novel ideas, by Hollywood standards he was a regular Algonquin Roundtable member. Lee oozed charisma so powerfully that after all these decades he’s almost as likely to be seen on a T-shirt as Che Guevara—don’t ask me why the Latin American Guerrilla fighter is so popular in silk screen, but that’s beside the point.

To sum it up, this isn’t a book about Bruce Lee, it’s about how his life and death shaped so many other lives—starting with Miller’s. While I didn’t count pages, there seems to be about as much space devoted to the events surrounding Lee’s death as the events of his life. Of course, there’s a bit of sensationalism, but inquiring minds want to know. People are intrigued about how a man who looked to all appearances to be one of the healthiest men on the planet could have died so young. (It’s an interesting irony that Bruce Lee’s almost complete lack of body fat—estimated at under 1%–could well have exacerbated his oversensitivity to whatever substance killed him.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone curious about the life and death of Bruce Lee.

View all my reviews

2014 Science Fiction Movies

Here’s the 2014 slate of sci-fi films. I didn’t include superhero films (because I did a post on them yesterday) nor did I include those that might be best classified in other speculative fiction genres (e.g. horror, supernatural, or fantasy.)

WELCOME TO YESTERDAY; February 21st

If you don’t think teenagers are safe to drive cars, imagine the chaos they’d create in a time machine.

DIVERGENT; March 21st

This is based on one of the popular dystopian Young Adult (YA) novels of late. I’m not saying that it’s just like the Hunger Games trilogy or Maze Runner–both of which also have movies coming out in 2014–but it’s clearly the subgenre du jour. In this YA dystopia, people are divided into five classes by testing, but some are divergent–defying classification.

UNDER THE SKIN; April 4th (US, previously released elsewhere)

An alien seductress lures hitchhikers into her van with nefarious purpose (and maybe lollipops.) Moral: if Scarlett Johansson tries to pick you up in a serial killeresque van, think twice; and then get in because it’s Scarlett-freakin’ Johansson.

EARTH TO ECHO; April 25th

Kids discover an alien. It sounds a lot like ET.

THE SCRIBBLER; May 1st
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Supposedly based upon the graphic novel of the same name, which would make this about a girl with multiple personality disorder who partakes in an experimental treatment called the “Siamese Burn.”

GODZILLA; May 16th

The latest attempt to revive Godzilla–using CGI to make him bigger and uglier than previously imaginable.

EDGE OF TOMORROW; June 6th

Like Groundhog Day but with guns and explosions.

THE PURGE 2; June 20th

Sequel to the movie about a dystopian future in which all laws are set aside for a short period once a year.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES; July 11th

This one takes place after the escape shown in the last PotA movie (w/ James Franco) and a pandemic and war that followed, but before humanity is completely enslaved by the damn, dirty apes.

JUPITER ASCENDING; July 25th

A nobody Earthling, played by Mila Kunis, turns out to be the most important woman in the Universe. Naturally, lots of people want her dead.

THE GIVER; August 15th
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Based on the popular YA novel. One person’s utopia is another person’s hell.

RESIDENT EVIL 6; September 12th
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Wow! They’ve made six of these? Way to milk it. Just kidding. I’m sure it will be novel and interesting.

MAZE RUNNER; September 19th
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Another YA dystopian adventure. Lord of the Flies meets Hunger Games?

INTERSTELLAR; November 7th

A huge Christopher Nolan film about interstellar travel.

MOCKINGJAY, Pt. I; November 21st
Mockingjay
The first part of the third book in this trilogy, because why make three movies based on three, thin YA novels when you can make four movies based on three, thin YA novels.

HOME; November 26th
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This film is supposedly based on the above book. It’s about an 11 year old who must survive on her own after her mother is abducted by aliens.

Other potential sci-fi releases of unknown date and quality:



THE ZERO THEOREM; no US release date set; the UK release is supposed to be in March

It’s about a man trying to solve a theorem, but with all sorts of craziness in the mix.



MAX STEEL; based on a line of toys (promising.)
SPACE STATION 76; that 70’s sci-fi movie.
GLIMMER; more teen time travel [shudders]

2014 Superhero Movies

Here’s an overview of the upcoming year’s superhero movies.

 



I, FRANKENSTEIN; January 24th

Frankenstein’s monster may not the usual superhero, but it’s based on a graphic novel and the demon-battling premise seems heroic enough.



ROBOCOP; February 12th

This is also one you might not think of this as a superhero movie, I include it because there was a Marvel comic based on the movie and if Iron Man is a superhero…



CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER; April 4th

The second Captain America installment and the third of the five Marvel Phase II films. After taking on some high level conspiracies, Captain America finds himself battling his old sidekick’s villainous alter ego, i.e. The Winter Soldier.



AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2; May 2nd

The sequel finds Spiderman facing Electro and–to a lesser degree–Rhino.



X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST; May 23rd

As the confusing title implies, this is a time travel story in which events in the past must be changed to avert a grim future. Wolverine is sent back to affect this change.



TRANSFORMERS 4: AGE OF EXTINCTION; June 27th
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OK, this is more a toy movie than a superhero movie, but cars that turn into robots seem super in my book. That’s not to say there isn’t a better than average chance the movie will stink.



GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; August 1st
220px-Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_logo
It’s still early. There’s no trailer out as of this posting.



TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES; August 8th
No trailer or images out, and little is known except this is about as ridiculous a premise for a movie as is imaginable.



BIG HERO 6; November 7th
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This is an animated Marvel project. A robotics prodigy and his creation team up with amateur crime-fighters to put an end to a nefarious plot.