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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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.

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
220px-Transformers4_Teaser_Poster
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
Big_Hero_6_logo
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.

BOOK REVIEW: Rashōmon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Six stories make up this brief collection. All six are intriguing, well-written, and shine a light onto the dark side of mankind. The works of Akutagawa collected herein are all morality tales, but aren’t written in a moralistic tone. In fact, it’s not clear that the author wishes to convey lessons on virtue and vice as he’s intrigued with the instant at which an ordinary person turns bad. That instant, and the inflamed passions that often inspire it, is a prevailing theme throughout most of this small anthology. Akutagawa beats AMC by the better part of a century in showing us how bad breaks.

The first story is entitled In a Grove. This is a murder mystery in which we are given conflicting accounts of a man’s murder through the process of the investigation of the act. The final account that we are offered is that of the victim himself–as presented by a psychic medium. [Only two of these stories contain supernatural elements–this one and the last. Most of the collection involves realist premises. One must remember that Akutagawa was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and scientific rationality hadn’t yet gotten as strong a hold as it does today.] In this case, the use of a psychic is really just a plot device to give the reader insight into a truth which couldn’t otherwise be revealed. Having heard the perspectives of the murder and the dead man’s wife, one is left with questions owing to the self-serving nature of those statements. Of course, the final section reveals a twist–that I won’t spoil.

The second story is the title story, Rashōmon. The title is the name of a gate in Kyōto, the largest gate of Kyōto, in fact. However, Kyōto has fallen on hard times, and our protagonist is a newly masterless samurai who has sought the gate’s shelter from the rain. There, he contemplates whether he should take up a life of crime, which seems to be his only means of survival in the current economy given his skill set. The gate has become a repository for the corpses that are amassing as victims of the hard times accumulate. Within the gate, he finds an old hag who loots bodies for a living. His interaction with the old woman helps him to decide his own destiny.

The third story is called Yam Gruel. While “yam gruel” (or anything with the word gruel in it) might not sound appealing given today’s usage, a fact one must know is that during the time of the story it was a highly-prized and rare dish. The story follows a milquetoast administrator who leads a rather pathetic life in which he has but one ambition, to eat his fill of yam gruel. As a member of the samurai class, he’s invited to an Imperial banquet each year. However, because of his low status and the high-value of yam gruel, he never gets more than a taste. One year he openly bemoans the fact that he never gets his fill. A powerful samurai overhears this complaint, and it puts a seed of mischief in his mind. While this tale isn’t about breaking bad, it is about inflamed passions.

The fourth story sticks out as different from the others. While the bulk of the stories center on that moment at which a more-or-less good person goes bad, The Martyr tells us about a protagonist that never goes bad, despite having every right to. This might seem like a sea change in theme, but in reality it’s just another way of shining a light on the dark seed that resides in people. Only this time it does it by way of contrast. All of the other characters are deeply flawed, and we see that most vividly when contrasted against the one who always behaves virtuously. In this case, that virtuous character is Lorenzo, a novice monk who is accused of a severe breach of good conduct. Lorenzo becomes an outcast and a vagrant due to these allegations. Yet, despite all this, he acts heroically–even to assist those who’ve betrayed him.

In the fifth story we revisit the theme of breaking bad. In Kesa and Morito we are presented with two regret-filled accounts of the instant at which an adulterous couple decides to kill the husband of the woman involved in the affair. Each member of the cheating couple thinks that the other desperately wants the killing to go forward. In reality, both consider it a foolish decision driven by a brief moment of passion. This is another tale about letting one’s passions get out of control.

The final work is a retelling of the story of a monk named Hanazō who decides to prank his fellow monks because they chide him about his huge nose. Hanazō sets up a sign that says a dragon will appear from the local lake at a certain time and day to fly up into the heavens. The joke doesn’t turn out at all as the monk intended. I won’t go into the moral of the story to avoid giving too much away, but suffice it to say there is a moral.

I highly recommend this collection. As I’ve suggested, the collection isn’t just a disparate collection of tales, but has an integrating theme. Akutagawa was truly one of the masters of the short story. He wrote 150 stories before dying at the age of 35 in a suicidal drug overdose.

For those who like to see how literature is portrayed in, below one can watch the film version of Rashōmon.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Ender’s Game is the story of a boy, Ender Wiggin, whose intelligence and capacity for ruthlessness lead the military establishment to believe that he’s the last hope for mankind. The book is set in a future after the Earth has been invaded twice by an alien species called the buggers, and now the Earth is planning its own “preemptive” invasion to end the bugger threat once and for all.

The novel follows Ender’s life from his short home life as a “third”—a rare third child for which special permission must be granted—through his post-war life. (This entire timeline transpires before adulthood.) The bulk of the novel takes place in Battle School, where Ender receives his training in military tactics and strategy and spends much of his time in zero gravity war games. He rises up through the ranks quickly, as expected, but not without stirring some animus in the process. He learns strategy both through war games and through the mind-field of real world animosity by others who are jealous or feel insulted by his brilliance.

As Commander material, Ender is considered to be in the Goldilocks zone. His older brother, Peter, is too cruel; his sister, Valentine, is just too kind. (All three Wiggin children are geniuses.) Ender has the right mix to fight the buggers. His problem is that the world forces him to be ruthless and his compassionate side makes it hard to cope.
While Ender leaves home young and early in the novel, there is a subplot involving the older Wiggin children that is revealed over the course of the book—showing the reader more of the tormenting brother and the loving sister who shaped his worldview. Ender does interact with Valentine in person on a couple of occasions, but his only interaction with Peter is a brief mention of correspondence at the end of the book.

Ender is an intriguing character. He is always the outsider, by birth as a third and then through isolation in Battle School that is facilitated by the conflicted head of the Battle School, Col. Graff.

I won’t get into the ending except to say that there is a twist at the novel’s climax. I will say that the reveal of this twist felt a little anti-climactic to me. However, as the real story isn’t about fighting the buggers, but Ender’s internal struggle, this isn’t as dismaying as it might otherwise be.

One can tell that this is a series book because it climaxes and resolves relatively early, leaving a fair amount of space to set up the next book. This actually helps the twist offer some surprise because the reader sees that there are so many pages left for the novel to resolve itself.

Card does an interesting thing in making the central character stronger than everyone around him–at least until he’s introduced to his new guru, Mazer Rackham–the Commander who won the key battle of the second bugger invasion and who is alive by virtue of a relativistic trip. Ender’s superiority seems like a recipe for boredom, but it works because what we don’t know is whether Ender is stronger than everyone else pitted against him combined, and, moreover, we don’t know whether he is strong enough inside to withstand all the horridness to which he is subjected. A lot of the tension of the novel is really internal to Ender. Unlike Peter, who would revel in ruthlessness, Ender is tormented by all of the violence he must perpetrate.

I’d recommend this novel. It has its flaws, but it is quite readable and Ender’s character is intriguing from start to finish.

The movie version is coming out tomorrow. I haven’t seen it, but here is the trailer.

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5 Classics of Martial Arts Cinema

Martial arts cinema ranges from the horrible through the campy to the excellent. There is one ever-present risk facing this genre. That is, like porn, movie makers may conclude that viewers aren’t watching for character or plot so they might as well just focus on the action. When they do that and then they blow the action– well, that’s when it’s painful to watch. By numbers, most of this genre probably falls into that category. However, sometimes they get it right.

Of course, it’s not always clear what should be categorized as a martial arts film, given many cross-genre romps. The Matrix is science fiction, but it’s also a kung fu flick. The Bourne trilogy films are spy thrillers, but their characteristic gritty hand-to-hand combat sequences are integral to the films. I’ve tried to focus on films that one would unambiguously categorize as martial arts cinema (though anything by Kurosawa is likely to be considered mainstream cinema.)

I also, admittedly, display several of my own biases. I prefer films that avoid over-the-top superhuman choreography. I don’t want to say that I prefer realism. None of it is realistic, but there’s a vast difference between Jackie Chan’s choreography and that of The Curse of the Golden Flower. Still, I do include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle, which both rely heavily on wires and superhuman feats. I also like period pieces as opposed to modern-day films. Of course, characters with charisma also get my attention, but I don’t think I’m unique in that regard.

5.) Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s last film, and features Lee as a Shaolin practitioner cum secret agent. The film reminds me of the Ian Fleming novel You Only Live Twice in that it’s about a person being tasked to infiltrate an evil mastermind’s sprawling lair not because it makes logical or reality-based sense, but rather because the proposed infiltrator is just that damn good.



4.) Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

This is undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed of the films on the list. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2000, and while it did not win in that category, it did take four Oscars that year. It’s in a class of film that includes Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero that are known for stunning cinematography and historical settings. (Unfortunately, these films are also marked by an insanely excessive use of wire-work for my taste.) This film includes a romantic component as well as the fight to possess a sword called Green Destiny. As is mandatory for Kung fu films, there’s a martial arts master whose death must be avenged.



3.) The Legend of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II)

Jackie Chan plays a bumbling young man who is, ironically, a master of Kung fu when completely inebriated. The plot revolves around a mix up between an agent who is trying to steal a valuable artifact and Chan’s character who is trying to smuggle ginseng to avoid paying duty on it. Incredibly, the artifact and ginseng are packaged identically, and the thief ends up with the ginseng and Chan’s character with the artifact. It’s Chan at his best, with all the comedy and creative choreography that one would expect.



2.) Hidden Fortress

I’m not including this just to prevent a Chinese sweep. (On that note: I’ve heard the Thai Ong Bak films are quite good, but I haven’t gotten around do seeing any of them.) Anyway, there are some excellent Japanese period films that involve many combat sequences that are not over-the-top. Of course, Akira Kurosawa dominates in this realm. There are other Kurosawa films, such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or Ran that could equally well be included. Hidden Fortress is probably best known to American movie buffs as a major influence on George Lucas in the making of the first Star Wars film. Hidden Fortress is a about a General (played by portrayer-of-samurai-extraordinaire Toshiro Mifune) who must escort a princess and her family fortune cross-country to safety. Of course, as in every hero’s journey, there are many challenges to be confronted.



1.) Kung Fu Hustle

This comedy is set in the gang-ridden slums of 1930’s Shanghai. A tenement complex is assailed by the gangs. However, the residents offer some surprising resistance in the form of unexpected apartment-dwelling kung fu masters. Unlike Jackie Chan’s down-to-earth comedies, this one is almost cartoon-esque. It features a cast of anti-heroes that keeps the film interesting, and the protagonist has a strong narrative arc.

I Always See the Wrong Movies: or, Post-Oscars Watcher’s Remorse

The one Oscar-Winner I saw

The one Oscar winner I saw

I only watched part of the Oscars last night. At some point I realized it wasn’t worth continuing. I see about three movies in the theater per year, and rarely are any of them Oscar material. At 10:00 pm all I had to show for watching was the chorus of the ditty “We Saw Your Boobs” echoing through my brain.  (Damn you, Seth MacFarlane, for that catchy, clever, melodic jingle that still runs like a gerbil in the rodent-wheel of my mind.)

The three movies I saw in the theaters last year were: The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, and This is 40. The first two will no doubt convince you that I am a 12-year-old boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body, and the last will convince you that I have poor judgement. (This is 40 had its humorous moments, but there was far too much screaming for my taste, although we did see Leslie Mann’s boobs– damn you, again, Seth MacFarlane.) I saw another half-dozen 2012 films on long Korean Air flights, but these were equally lowbrow titles (Men in Black 3, Prometheus, and Brave– the latter at least won an Oscar during the hour and a half I was watching, I think it was for Best Animated Makeup Artistry.)

I’m not altogether lowbrow. I will see most of the big winners eventually, when they finally make it to basic cable. For example, I watched The Hurt Locker on Saturday, just one day before the Oscars. So I am only three or four  or five years out of synch.  The Hurt Locker is a particularly fine example of going the other way because I understand its distinction is being the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever.

This year’s Best Picture Argo is definitely a film that I will see in the next five years–barring Zombies, the apocalypse, or a Zombie Pandemic Apocalypse. So there’s a 60% chance that I’ll see it. The Iranian hostage crisis is one of the first historical events that I remember seeing on the news first-hand. Had I been in the country when Argo came out–I might have seen it in the theaters, but probably not.

Part of me thinks that I should grow up and start watching the “right” movies.  However, part of me says, “wait, there’s this one day a year when everybody is talking about these movies, and the other 364 days  they are talking about Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers  So in some sense, I already am watching the “right” movies.