2017年7月22日 星期六

"We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk" by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen (2001)

Buyer Beware: I've never been that big a fan of punk.  I grew up more of a metal guy, though I've owned albums by the Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, and The Pricks.  Those bands are about as far as my flirtation with punk has ever gone.

Buyer Beware #2: This book isn't so much "a book" as a series of non-chronological interviews.  As such there's not much point in dissecting it.  What follow below are merely some impressions. 

In the Beginning there was Bowie... 

And Bowie is/was GREAT.  I'm not sorry I missed L.A.'s short-loved glam scene, but I am glad to hear that someone in the States had one.  Up here in Seattle they were in thrall to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

There's nothing wrong with either of those two (awesome) bands, but variety is good!

Iggy Pop was also an influence...

And I've got to say that I've never been a big fan.  Some of his stuff I like, but on the whole I never really understood the power he exercises over the popular imagination.  Lou Reed, another of Bowie's associates, has always been more my thing. 

After glam died (or, by some accounts, went into hybernation...) around the mid 70s, the L.A. punk scene sprouted up in its place.  One of the earliest local precursors to punk was a band called Sparks.

But if you've bothered to listen to the above clip, you're probably wondering what's so punk about Sparks.  New Wave, maybe.  But punk?

However it happened, Sparks led to bands like The Germs.

And X.

And the Runaways.

And you might recognize the song "Cherry Bomb" from the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack.

Oh, and I forgot Devo.  Their L.A. cred is more ambiguous, but they were also part of that scene for a time.

If the chronology of the above bands seems "off," it's because some were signed later than others.  The Runaways were an earlier, more manufactured effort.  Devo found success a lot faster.  X and The Germs were floating around for YEARS before they produced anything other than singles.

There were also The Go-Go's, but I have the feeling that their earlier punk stuff was vastly different from the kind of music they did after they were signed.

Black Randy was also a big deal.

But of course a lot of that stuff was too arty, and not aggressive enough for the kids in the suburbs, so they had to invent Black Flag.

And the Descendents.

But by that time the scene had moved away from Los Angeles, and "punk" in most people's minds had become associated with skateboarding, white supremacy, and violence.  

The Circle Jerks appeared after Black Flag concerts got too aggro for even Black Flag.

"I've got the world... up my ass!"  Great stuff.

Unfortunately (?) it wasn't enough to save the scene, which died its inevitable death due to a combination of New Wave and heroin.

So it just goes to show, everything is cool until people start doing heroin.  Make a note of it, my friends.  If we can all remain just slightly more vigilant, we can keep H from destroying the next musical fad!

...or can we?

2017年7月19日 星期三

Wherein the Author of This Blog Uses Knute Berger's "Pugetopolis" to Talk About Both Himself and the Puget Sound

(Self-aggrandizement is fun.  Just ask Knute Berger.  In the spirit of both self-aggrandizement and Knute Berger I offer the following thoughts, all "inspired" [if that's the right word] by his book "Pugetopolis")

(And although much of this book could be boiled down to the statement "Nature, old buildings, and local traditions good; business interests, development, and economic decision-making bad," there are some "subtleties of argument" in the authors varied essays.  Some of these subtleties of argument are presented below.)

1. Knute Berger distrusts the future:

"I remember talking about the future with my mother.  We were in our summer cabin in the San Juan Islands some time in the 1960s.  One day, she predicted, they'll cut down all the trees and pave everything."

Yeah... that's not going to happen.  Just look at the size of most people's yards.  If anything, yards are bigger out in the suburbs, NOT smaller.  And I realize that "urban density" is a dirty word around here, but how else can you conquer the trend toward sprawl?  At some point someone's going to build one of these developments you hate so much, just so that others have somewhere to live.

Those vehemently against this type of development probably already own a house - with a big yard - inside the city.

2. Knute Berger is "edgy":

"People tell me how surprised they are at liberal Seattle's prudish crackdown on strip clubs and lap dancers, but it seems totally in character to me."

It is in character.  This area has a long history of laws and regulations intended for our moral improvement.  But I notice that Mr. Berger says very little about alcohol and drugs in this context.  Why?  Because he was writing for the Seattle Weekly in 2005, and he was afraid of offending someone.  

Instead of concentrating on strip clubs (a vanishing beast around here for sure), it would have been more enlightening to discuss the larger issue of how (often unspoken) religious concepts play into people's conceptions of the public good.  The author, writing as he is the journalistic equivalent of tomato soup, avoids this almost entirely.

3. Knute Berger cares about the Earth:

"My first thought when I see such a load is, "Is it still legal to cut those trees?"  To me, it's amazing that we are still tossing such rare commodities into buzz saws and turning them into mundane things like shingles and lumber."

...says the guy who probably lives in a wooden house, built long ago by people who made their living cutting lumber.  That wood has to come from somewhere, doesn't it?

And I don't know...  Perhaps that piece of "old growth timber" spotted by your owlish eyes wasn't really old growth at all.  Maybe it was also growing on private property.  Maybe it was knocked over in a windstorm, or by lightning, or it was diseased and removed by trained forest service personnel.  Not all of the trees can remain where they are, and some of them are removed for perfectly acceptable reasons.

4. Knute Berger is "old school":

"Modern mossbacks [his term for people that have acclimatized to the area] - still sneered at my many newcomers and outsiders  - are not people who have settled the country but people who have been settled by it.  We've been here long enough to put down roots and become part of the modern landscape.  'Mossback' is an epithet to embrace with pride."

Does this make ME a mossback?  Or did I cease being a mossback the moment I moved away from the area?  God, I hope so.  Such an "epithet" strikes me as silly, and perhaps even shameful.  Seattle is hipsterish enough without clowns pretending to be more "local" than other, "nonlocal" clowns they're trying to impress.

5. Knute Berger worries pointlessly:

"Just as the range was fenced off, we in the auto age are now facing a future that comes with more toll gates, private roads, and high-tech surveillance technology."

Really?  This is something you spend time worrying about?  Ten years later, I doubt that toll gates, private roads, or high-tech surveillance are any more pervasive than they were in the early 2000s.  The surveillance state is a real worry, but the only thing hindering your freedom of the road is other drivers.

6. Knute Berger becomes hard to relate to:

"Our summers became Shaw Island summers, we spent days exploring the coastline in a skiff, walking the woods, collecting old fishing floats on the beaches.  Our only social life consisted of hanging out with my mother's cousin and her husband.  Margaret 'Babs' Cameron was an artist who made sensuous wildlife sculptures in soapstone.  Her husband, Malcolm, was an illustrator and architect who built wooden steamboats for fun."

Cool, man.  But my parents never had a cabin on an island, and I never spent summers floating around on a skiff.  No one in my family ever sculpted anything out of soapstone, and I never enjoyed the kind of wealth your family seems to have enjoyed decades previous.  I don't have anything against those with recourse to island cabins, skiffs, and artsy relatives, but I also don't pretend it somehow makes me more "local" than those who had to work harder and indulge in cheaper pastimes.

7. Knute Berger isn't sure if he wants to portray himself as "local boy" or member of the aristocracy:

"It's a funny thing to watch the kids you went to high school with grow up and, in some cases, become important people."

Or, conversely, it's a funny thing to watch the kids you went to high school with grow up and, in some cases, become residents of various penal systems, employees earning minimum wage, or patients in the care of mental health institutions.  

I'm not trying to be depressing - we had our success stories too - but Knute Berger sure does spend a lot of time talking about all the rich and influential white men he knew in high school.

8. Knute Berger oversimplifies incredibly complicated subjects:

"Isn't it odd that in a time of economic shortfall, our major priority is roads?  We're slashing social and health services, cutting back on fundamental state services, making a good public education harder to come by, but the one bill that everyone in Olympia everyone can agree upon is a welfare bill for the road lobby?"

Knute seems to regard the roads around here as a luxury.  But are they?  Just imagine, for example, that you're a recent immigrant living in White Center, and you work at a nursing home in Shoreline.  Are you going to be able to afford public transportation back and forth between both places?  Would it be worth it if you could?  Most likely you're going to want a car, because that car means less time in a vehicle, and more times spent with your family.  For many people road improvements are a social service, and moreover a social service that many desperately need.

Knute's also assuming that the budgets for transportation, social and health services, and education are the same thing.  In many local and state governments these budgets are kept separate, and are subject to oversight by different individuals and organizations.  If these budgets really do fall under the same jurisdiction and oversight, this should have been stated in the article.

But to be fair, the last two sections of this book are pretty good. It's only that I find Knute Berger's positions on any number of topics ill-defined and seemingly contradictory.  I doubt, in other words, that this book will add significantly to anyone's understanding of the Puget Sound region.  I liked parts of it well enough, but if this region has a voice, Knute Berger isn't it.

2017年7月17日 星期一

"The Information" by James Gleick (2011)

"The library will endure; it is the universe.  As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms.  We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting out thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information."*

James Gleick is the author of Chaos, Isaac Newton, and several other books.  He wrote for The New York Times, and also co-developed "The Pipeline," one of the earliest Internet service providers. 

His book The Information is the second of his works I've read.  Over twenty years ago I read Chaos, and although I can remember liking it (despite its difficulty), I can't remember anything else about it.  I have the feeling that the important (and still relevant) parts of Chaos are summarized in The Information.

As for the book at hand, it's a hodgepodge of theories concerning the nature of information and its role in our lives.  Its exploration of this subject matter is roughly chronological, though there are some awkward shifts between time periods in the earlier parts of the book.  It's full of some truly interesting facts, and is a very quotable book, but as a work of scholarship it lacks focus.

The true weakness of The Information is that it never really makes an argument one way or the other.  It provides one side of an argument, then the other, and the author makes little effort to distinguish his own point of view between the two sides.

For example, try answering the following questions.

1. How did Ada Byron's ideas on computation anticipate modern technology?
2. Why is Claude Shannon important?
3. How is Wikipedia like a library?  And how is it not like a library?

If you struggle with the above questions don't feel bad, because after reading The Information I'm not any closer to answering them.  Lacking more concrete pronouncements as to their relevance, what I'm left with is a list of trivia.  I couldn't tell you much about Ada Byron, Claude Shannon, or Wikipedia beyond what I already knew before reading this book.

All of the above said, The Information is a well-written book with an ill-defined subject.  If you're looking for someone who can get poetic over mathematical formulae then James Gleick's your man, but if you're looking for a practical approach to information theory, look elsewhere.

*The above quote, by the way, sounds a lot like something Stanislaw Lem might have said in his novel Solaris.  Gleick quotes Lem earlier on in the same chapter.

2017年7月8日 星期六

A Review of Every Marvel Movie from 2008 to the Present (Revised as of July 7, 2017)

Due to the truly astonishing number of Marvel films either released or in various stages of production, I have decided to begin the list below with the first Iron Man, in 2008.  For reviews of older Marvel films look here.

Excellent!  Had to see it twice!
Good movie with a few flaws.
Not bad, but not great.
I’d watch it once if I was bored enough.
[no stars]
Just terrible.
So bad it’s kind of good.

21. Iron Man (2008) ****

After Batman Begins, this is the other movie that reinvigorated the genre.  Where Batman Begins was dark, this one was funny.  Where Batman is driven, Tony Stark is brilliantly conflicted.  It is everything that Nolan's movie wasn't, and that's why it works.

22. The Incredible Hulk (2008) ***1/2

This movie was sidelined by the overwhelming success of Iron Man, but I loved it.  I loved Edward Norton's take on the character, I loved the script he wrote for the film, and I loved the Greco-Roman take on The Hulk.  My only complaint is that he let The Abomination live at the end.  I found this hard to believe.

23. Punisher: War Zone (2008) *

A more violent take on Frank Castle.  It's a solid film, but maybe a little too depressing for its own good.  I consider it an improvement on the first.

24. X-men Origins: Wolverine (2009) *

This movie is standard popcorn fare, much along the lines of Ghost Rider. Hugh Jackman goes through the motions, an attempt to bring Deadpool and Gambit into the mix is handled badly, and by the end you're thankful that it's not as dreadful as X3.


25. Iron Man 2 (2010) ***

I liked this almost as much as the first one.  Downey Jr. is given even better one-liners in this film, and Mickey Rourke characteristically chews the scenery.  Sam Rockwell is also great as Justin Hammer, and my only complaint is that Don Cheadle isn't given enough to do.

26. Kick-Ass (2010) **

I have friends who love this movie.  I don't.  I think the first half is good, but after Big Daddy dies it just gets silly - especially the jet pack.  A nice warm up for The Amazing Spider-Man, however.

27. Thor (2011) *

Considering how hard it must have been to adapt Thor to the big screen, I would consider this movie a success.  Still, compared to other movies Marvel Studios has made, I think this is the weakest one.  I've never been a big fan of Kenneth Branagh.

28. X-men: First Class (2011) ***

Michael Fassbender makes this movie.  Forgive the pun, but he is positively magnetic as Magneto.  I thought the end was weak, but it's still miles ahead of the first three films.

29. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) ***

Still one of my favorite Marvel movies.  It might seem a bit slow for some people, but the mixture of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark really worked for me.

30. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Ghost Rider journeys to Europe on an extremely low budget.  The screenplay was probably good, but the direction is all over the place and Nicholas Cage overdoes the "manic" elements.  The only good thing I can say about this film is that the actress who plays "the Devil's baby-momma" is extremely beautiful.  Fun Fact: Idris Elba, who appeared in Thor the year before, is Johnny Blaze's sidekick.

31. The Avengers (2012) ***1/2

There are entire websites devoted to how awesome this movie is.  It's a good film, but not one of the best.  Considering how difficult it is to put characters as diverse as Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor into the same movie universe, this one is an unqualified triumph.  I'm only sorry the Oscorp Tower didn't make an appearance.

32. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) ***

This is a good movie, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.  Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have some terrific chemistry, and it's a solid effort.  The Lizard is a bit too Hulk-like for my taste, but this is a vast improvement over Spider-Man 3.

33. Iron Man 3 (2013) *

I was super excited about this movie, but walked away from it disappointed.  It starts out well, but neither of the villains are very compelling, and the stunt work is too over the top.  My biggest complaint is the ending, which gives us a Tony Stark who no longer has any reason to be Iron Man.

34. Kick-Ass 2 (2013) **

It's not a great movie, but it's not bad.  There are some funny scenes in this one, but it could have been a lot better.

35. The Wolverine (2013) **1/2

I had high hopes for this one, but it wasn't all that good.  It's certainly much better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine and all the other X-Men films, but that's not saying all that much.

36. Thor: The Dark World (2013) ***

This was a great movie.  I didn't love the first Thor, but this one was a vast improvement.  Reminded me a lot of the Walt Simonson run on the comic book.  Hoping to see Beta Ray Bill in Thor 3!

37. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ***1/2

Steve Rogers struggles with the modern world and his role in S.H.I.E.L.D.  After encountering the Winter Soldier, he has even more reasons to doubt the nobility of certain causes.  A very topical movie, with some great action sequences.  Didn't like it as much as Thor: The Dark World, but it was well done.

By the way, if you liked this movie you'd probably also enjoy (and find a lot that's familiar in) the Robert Redford vehicle Three Days of the Condor.

38. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) **

Too much CGI, but some great performances from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.  I liked this movie more than "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," though the action sequences in Cap were better.  This film has more dramatic tension, better ensemble performances, and more heart.  Looking forward to the third film!

39. X-men: Days of Future Past (2014) ***1/2

A surprisingly good movie.  As mutantkind faces extinction, Wolverine journeys into the past to change the future.  Excellent performances, and one of the most emotionally resonant superhero films to come along in quite a while.  Fun Fact: Although played by a white midget (Peter Dinklage) in Days of Future Past, Bill Duke, a rather large black man, plays Bolivar Trask in the earlier X-Men: The Last Stand.

40. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) **

A good movie, though it features too many characters for its own good.  Humor holds the film together, and makes some of the less plausible plot elements seem more plausible.  As with many other recent films from Marvel Studios, seems less inspired than calculated.  Maybe the second one will be better?

41. The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)**1/2

I can't say it's flawless, but I did like it much better than Guardians of the Galaxy.  It's less talky than the first Avengers, and the battle between Hulk and the Hulkbuster is truly awesome.  Quicksilver seemed a bit  underused, and I would have liked to see more of the Vision, but it's still a great movie.

42. Ant-Man (2015)**

Any great scenes in this movie involve a) Michael Pena, b) shrinking, or c) both.  As for the rest of it?  It starts off well enough, but it takes too long to get going.  "The heist" at the end is a bit of a non-event, but the fight scenes between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket are good.

43. Fantastic Four (2015)*

This movie is not bad up until the four return from Planet Zero.  After that point it's a mess.  Once Reed escapes from the military facility the dialogue is awful, the characters do things that make no sense, and the movie somehow ends without building up any kind of dramatic tension.  It feels like an hour of this film was removed before it hit theaters, and Dr. Doom looks like he escaped from another, much lower-budget film.

44. Deadpool (2016)***

The good news: as far as films within Fox's X-men universe go, this one is second best.  It's not as riveting as X-men: Days of Future Past, but it's better than all the other ones.  Compared to the Marvel Studios films, I'd rank it above lesser efforts like Iron Man 2 and 3, though it comes nowhere near their best.  It's refreshingly profane, yet it struggles during most of the "serious" parts.  A sequel to this movie would probably be much better than the original.

45. Captain America: Civil War (2016) **1/2

I liked it, but it was WAY to long and that fight at the airport seemed entirely unnecessary.  The inclusion of both Black Panther and Spider-Man also did very little to advance the plot, though I was happy to finally see Marvel's approach to these characters.  I think a smaller-scale movie, concentrating on the dynamic between Steve, Bucky, and Tony would have worked much better.

46. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) **

Continuity be damned!  Never mind the fact that many of the events occurring in Apocalypse happened much later (or is it earlier?) in the first three X-men movies.  Never mind the fact that many of the characters from First Class ought to be in their 50s by the 1980s.  The biggest problem with this movie is the villain, and the fact that he's just not threatening.  When you title a movie "Apocalypse" it ought to feel like the end of the world, and this movie just doesn't deliver on that promise.

47. Doctor Strange (2016)***

A former neurosurgeon battles otherdimensional threats.  Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor with an established reputation, is a credible Dr. Strange, though the plot is somewhat formulaic.  The strength of this movie is its visuals, and these are something worth seeing.

48. Logan (2017)***1/2

A solid, dramatic film that may well prove Oscar-worthy.  It's still early 2017, so it's hard to say whether or not the Academy will remember Jackman's performance or Mangold's direction come Oscar time.  But Logan is a good (maybe great) movie that might just stand the test of time.  The last act falters a bit, but the first two acts are excellent.  Not as mind-blowing as The Dark Knight, not as paradigm-shifting as Deadpool, but nevertheless a well thought-out, well executed meditation on pain and loss.

49. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) **

If you're one of those people who LOVED the first Guardians of the Galaxy, you'll probably love this one, too.  I wasn't a huge fan of the first installment, and this movie did nothing to change my mind.  The humor in Vol. 2 seemed even more forced, and the characters spend SO much time explaining plot points that it took me right out of the movie.

50. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)****

Gotta say they nailed it.  I can't think of a single bad thing to say about this movie.  The acting, the directing, the special effects, the fight scenes - and they even made me love Iron Man all over again.  I'll be seeing it again soon.

 On the Way

Anyone else remember this?

51. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Hela shakes things up in Asgard, and the Hulk finally puts on his space armor.  Taika Waititi is directing, and Chris Hemsworth will return as Thor.  The trailer was AWESOME - here's hoping the actual movie is awesome, too!

52. The Black Panther (2017)

Chadwick Boseman plays the Black Panther.  Ryan Coogler is directing.  Many parts of his backstory were touched upon in Captain America: Civil War.  Little else is known about this movie.

53. The New Mutants (2018)

Josh Boone is directing.  After the recent success of both Logan and the Legion TV series, the Fox X-Men films suddenly seem a lot more viable  There have been many recent announcements with regard to casting.  Boone has described it as a horror movie, and according to him the characters will appear without their traditional black and yellow costumes.

54. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It was bound to happen.  Thanos is the villain, and his quest for the infinity gems (stones) will probably cause Earth's mightiest heroes a great deal of misery.  The interplay between this and DC's two Justice League movies will be fun to watch.

55. Deadpool 2 (2018)

Ryan Reynolds reprises his role from the first movie, with Josh Brolin (yes, that Josh Brolin) costarring as Cable.

56. X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2018)

Fox gives it the old college try with yet another adaptation of the X-men's most iconic storyline.  Hopefully it doesn't suck, but with the way they're rushing this into production I'm not optimistic.

57. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) 

No details on this movie as yet.  The release dates for both Captain Marvel and Black Panther have been adjusted to accommodate it.

58. Venom (2018)

Recently announced and destined for a hurried production, at the time of writing Tom Hardy is in talks to star.  I read somewhere that the movie Life, released last year, was intended as a kind of prequel to this film.  I think Carnage would be an easier character to build a movie around, but maybe it will be good.

59. Captain Marvel (2019)

A female superhero film - even if it will appear a TWO YEARS after DC's Wonder Woman.  And Captain Marvel ain't no Wonder Woman!  My guess is that Marvel will struggle with the script for a while, and eventually give up.  Captain Marvel just isn't that interesting of a character.

60. Avengers 4 (2019)

With a rumored budget of a BILLION dollars, this and Infinity War will, if nothing else, be something to talk about.

61. Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 (2019)

If it's half as good as the first one, it should be great!

2017年7月6日 星期四

"The Year's Best Science Fiction" (20th Annual Collection) edited by Gardiner Dozois (2002)

The 21st annual collection has already been reviewed here.  This anthology is just as big, and features many of the same authors.

This book came out at the same time as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.  There's a long discussion of that movie in the introduction, and it's amusing to read the author's reflections on a possible superhero movie fad in the context of (only) Spider-Man, the first two X-men films, and Tim Burton's Batman.

1. "Breathmoss" by Ian R. Macleod

Islamic lesbians on another planet.  Really, that's the entire premise.  Beautifully written, but aside from puberty very little happens.  The description of the "gateways" near the end flies in the face of Relativity, and dampened my enthusiasm for the story.  Not so much science fiction as fantasy.

2. "The Most Famous Little Girl in the World" by Nancy Kress 

Two women find themselves at odds after one of them is abducted by aliens during their childhood.  I'm not entirely sure what the author was trying to get at with this story.  Her entry in the following year's anthology was much better.

3. "The Passenger" by Paul J. McAuley 

"Hard sci-fi" story about salvage workers who find a small girl aboard a damaged spaceship.  There's an ambiguity about this one that I really liked.  Hopefully I can track down some of the author's novels. 

4. "The Political Officer" by Charles Coleman Finlay

Political intrigue inside a wormhole.  Reminded me of Frank Herbert's Dragon in the Sea, and also his ConSentiency series.  Masterfully written story by an author new (at the time) to the genre. 

5. "Lambing Season" by Molly Gloss

Kind of a Western with an alien visitation thrown in.  Not very good.

6. "Coelacanths" by Robert Reed

No idea what this one's supposed to be about.  But it's very weird, and as far as I'm concerned that's a mark in its favor. 

7. "Presence" by Maureen F. McHugh

Genuinely moving story about an elderly couple and a temporary cure for Alzheimer's.  One of the best stories I've read in a long time.

8. "Halo" by Charles Stross

Generations and cultures clash in the midst of a "smart solar system."  The ending is bungled, although the story is full of interesting ideas.  I'd be curious to know what the author does with longer narratives.  Would his novels be as overwhelmingly dense?  Or would his ideas find fuller realization in a longer format? 

9. "In Paradise" by Bruce Sterling

Love story set in a surveillance state.  As of 2017 this story isn't quite so science fiction-y, but it's both well-written and entertaining. 

10. "The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars" by Ian McDonald

Quantum computing, AI, and the colonization of Mars.  There is a point beyond which a wealth of details make a good story tedious, and this story passes far beyond that point.  I'm also doubtful that the VR setup featured in the story would work given the distances involved.  Even at light speed, transmissions in either direction would take about 3 minutes at closest approach. 

11. "Stories for Men" by John Kessel

Quite possibly the best story in this collection.  The battle of the sexes continues in a matriarchal lunar colony.  This one owes a lot to Fight Club (one of the characters is even named Tyler Durden), but the author puts his own spin on the quest for manhood.  Much better than Kessel's entry in the 21st annual collection.

This one also brought John Varley to mind, but it's more subtle than any of Varley's stories.

12. "To Become a Warrior" by Chris Beckett

Not really a science fiction story, but still a solid tale of a young man falling in with the wrong crowd.

13. "The Clear Blue Seas of Luna" by Gregory Benford 

Incredibly pretentious story about the terraforming of the moon.  Could have done with less poetry.  Apparently this author was a "big deal" in 2002, despite the fact that I'd never heard of him.  Is his novel Timescape any good?  If I come across it I suppose I'll give it a go. 

14. "V.A.O." by Geoff Ryman

Cyberpunk story featuring a group of elderly hackers trying to solve a series of crimes.  Very good, though a bit dated now.

15. "Winters are Hard" by Steven Popkes 

A "modified" Montanan goes to live among wolves in a newly created nature reserve.  I liked this one a lot, and there's a truly weird plot development about halfway through.

It seems to me that this is the kind of story that would have made a younger Frank Herbert proud.  A concern for ecology, morally ambiguous characters, and body modification.  All the ingredients are there. 

16. "At the Money" by Richard Wadholm

Forgettable story about Hispanic stock traders in the future.  Half of it's concerned with market fluctuations, and the other half is concerned with made-up commodities.  According to the short intro the author is/was from Seattle, and this was one of his first published stories.

17. "Agent Provocateur" by Alexander Irvine

Well-written entry about the Butterfly Effect, but not really science fiction.

18. "Singleton" by Greg Egan

Damned if this isn't the hardest "hard sci-fi" I've ever read.  Quantum computers, the "Many Worlds interpretation," and artificial intelligence.  It's not a bad story, but the couple that give birth to the "Singleton" are a bit hard to relate to.  What they do is so far removed from natural childbirth (and child rearing) that one wonders how they could get through the average day without suffering some kind of existential breakdown.

19. "Slow Life" by Michael Swanwick 

Three astronauts discover a sentient lifeform on Titan.  More conventional than any other story here, but still very good. 

20. "A Flock of Birds" by James Van Pelt

A man watches birds during the post-apocalypse.  Would he really have that much difficulty identifying that one bird?  No, not if he knew birds.

21. "The Potter of Bones" by Eleanor Arnason

Furry, four-breasted space lesbians learn about Evolution.  It's terrible!

22. "The Whisper of Disks" by John Meaney 

Decent story which, given the short bio that precedes it, is largely autobiographical.  Interesting up until the very end, but the various story threads don't come together the way they ought to.

23."The Hotel at Harlan's Landing" by Kage Baker

Forgettable story about angels doing battle for the fate of mankind.  Brought to mind a number of bad movies and equally bad TV shows.

24. "The Millennium Party" by Walter Jon Williams

3-page long story about people who have brains that are the working equivalent of thumb drives.  About as memorable as story #23 above.

25. "Turquoise Days" by Alastair Reynolds

Humankind comes to terms with an alien life form on another planet.  Reminded me a lot of Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom's The Jesus Incident, although this story has at its center a certain dichotomy between good and evil that, in my opinion, weakens the narrative. 

And no, not every science fiction concept has been done better - and earlier - by Frank Herbert!  I'm sure that other authors have done similar things.  It's just that Herbert is the one that kept popping into my head.

2017年6月27日 星期二

"The Crystal World" by J.G. Ballard (1966)

"Radek paused, collecting his energies with an effort.  'Tatlin believes that this Hubble Effect, as they call it, is closer to a cancer than anything else - and about as curable - an actual proliferation of the the sub-atomic identity of all matter.  It's as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light.'"

The Crystal World is the fourth of Ballard's novels, coming after The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, and The Burning World.  It falls within his science fiction period, coming before more abstract works and the more historically relevant Empire of the Sun.

In the novel, a process of crystallization is slowly overtaking a patch of African jungle.  Many of the characters within the story speculate as to the ultimate cause of this crystallization process, and what this alteration of the physical landscape might portend for their personal struggles.  What is certain to all of them is that the process is irreversible.

Comparing this book to both The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World, I'd have to say that it's a far inferior product.  This is because it doesn't quite work in a dramatic sense, and also because the nonsensical scientific explanations for the crystallization process detract from a sense of verisimilitude that the novel would have otherwise possessed.  Most of the events set outside of the crystallization process center around two separate love triangles, in which two men compete for the love of one woman, and two women compete for the love of one man.  There is also a theme linking the crystallization process to leprosy, and this theme, which ought to have formed the backbone of the novel, is never explored in satisfactory detail.

Yet the biggest weakness of this book is how it portrays the violent conflicts between various characters.  These action scenes are incredibly disjointed, and it's hard to figure out what is going on exactly, or who's doing what to whom.  While reading through these passages, I began to reflect on the fact that Ballard was never good with such scenes, and his books are better when he avoids them entirely.

With all of the above said, The Crystal World is far from terrible.  If you're working your way through Ballard's bibliography I'd recommend it, though only after you've read his more famous books.  As for myself, I'll be on to either The Burning World or The Atrocity Exhibition soon.

2017年6月24日 星期六

Conversation with Bertrand Russell

The quotes below were taken from Bertrand Russell's essay "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?"  This essay is part of the 1957 essay collection "Why I Am Not a Christian."

B.R.: "My own view on religion is that of Lucretius.  I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.  I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization.  It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them.  These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others." 

Me: I guess I'll have to take your word for it, Mr. Russell.  It's been a while since I read any Lucretius.

But I think there is a lot to be said for this "disease born of fear" bit.  Much of our impulse toward religion is born of fear, though one might argue that the same impulse, with regard to more mystical traditions, can also spring from love.  To be sure, the superstitions of prior generations have caused untold misery, but I think that one has to be alert to the superstitions held by the present generation, too.  In the wrong hands any belief system, however well-intentioned, can became superstition.  Even the Science you so stridently espouse.

And I think you ought to give Religion a little more credit.  If we consider this impulse to religion a natural part of the human character - a point that I doubt even you would argue against - then many other branches of human knowledge can be traced back to it.  Religion stands at the very beginning of human civilization, and for this reason those priest-kings you despise could also lay claim to the development of writing, agriculture, and a host of other things.  Even atheism has theism as its antecedent.

B.R.: "The worst feature of the Christian religion, however, is its attitude toward sex - an attitude so morbid and so unnatural that it can be understood only when taken in relation to the sickness of the civilized world at the time the Roman empire was decaying.  We sometimes hear talk to the effect that Christianity improved the status of women.  This is one of the greatest perversions of history that it is possible to make.  Women cannot enjoy a tolerable position in society where it is considered of the utmost importance that they should not infringe a very rigid moral code."

Me: I agree wholeheartedly, and I think that the historical argument you're making here is also sound.  There is a kind of sexual sickness at the heart of traditional Christian belief, and the type of morality advocated in the Bible - if understood and taken seriously - can do nothing but diminish the stature of women.  In this our attitudes - even those of us who claim other faiths - ought to be examined.

B.R.: "The objections to religion are of two sorts - intellectual and moral.  The intellectual reason is that there is no reason to suppose any religion true; the moral objection is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow."

Me: I should add that in this instance there is a difference between the "religion" you are discussing and "belief in God."  You don't make this distinction in all of your essays, but it is fairly obvious in the parts of this essay that aren't quoted here.

I'm still working out how to define "more cruel" in a historical context.  Would this be the sum of all cruelties performed during a given time?  Or over the course of a historical epoch?  And what about the role of population?  Considering that during medieval times the world's population was only a fraction of what it is now, wouldn't that mean that the sum of cruelties was smaller?  Or is it a matter of quality over quantity?  How is one to assign a greater or lesser amount of cruelty to any act?

But I think that on the whole you are pointing to the fact that the moral conscience of previous ages should belong only to previous ages, and should not be carried into future ages via scripture or established ritual traditions.  With this I would tend to agree.

B.R.: "The Christian emphasis on the individual soul has had a profound influence upon the ethics of Christian communities.  It is a doctrine fundamentally akin to that of the Stoics, arising as theirs did in communities that could no longer cherish political hopes.  The natural impulse of the vigorous person of decent character is to attempt to do good, but if he is deprived of all political power and of all opportunity to influence events, he will be deflected from his natural course and will decide that the important thing is to be good.  This is what happened to the early Christians; it led to a conception of personal holiness as something quite independent of beneficent action, since holiness had to be something that could be achieved by people who were impotent in action.  Social virtue came therefore to be excluded from Christian ethics... with this separation between the social and the moral person there went an increasing separation between soul and body..." [underline added]

Me: I think that the missionary activities of some present religious institutions speak against your charge that they lack social conscience.  In many poorer countries, in fact, the humanitarian work of such organizations overshadows that performed by other, non-religious, public or private institutions.

There is also the fact that some of your argument above isn't as novel as it first seems.  This is merely a reinterpretation of the "faith vs. works" argument that so preoccupied medieval theologians.  It was, moreover, one of the great arguments leveled at the Catholics by the early Protestants.

I like, however, the connection you're drawing between the social aspect of Christianity and the Christian idea of the soul.  This, I think, is something I haven't heard before, and I believe it's worth contemplating the inward, non-physical leanings of Christianity to the lack of social progress in many Christian settings.  Have Western societies experienced most of their social progress because of Christianity?  Or in spite of it?

B.R.: "It is amusing to hear the modern Christian telling you how mild and rationalistic Christianity really is and ignoring the fact that all its mildness and rationalism is due to the teaching of men who in their own day were persecuted by all orthodox Christians."

Me: Yes, it is.

B.R.: "Now, what is 'unrighteousness' in practice?  It is in practice behavior of a kind disliked by the herd.  By calling it unrighteousness, and by arranging an elaborate system of ethics around this conception, the herd justifies itself in wreaking punishment upon the objects of its own dislike, while at the same time, since the herd is righteous by definition, it enhances its own self-esteem at the very moment when it lets loose its impulse to cruelty."

Me: I can only say "Amen" to that.  When I think about my own life, and when I think about the moral judgments, handed down to me from "on high," I can only reflect upon the times when what is said above has been proven true.  We would like to think we moralize for the sake of improving our fellow man, but more often this trend toward moralization points toward a herd mentality, a desire to belong, a desire for self-aggrandizement, and a disposition toward cruelty.  It is a state of affairs no newer than the scapegoat mentioned in the Bible, and we are cautioned to remember that those who most often claim to be speaking for the community, and in the common interest, are often those who, in the long term, are doing anything but.

But anyway, I've got to go do something less philosophical now.  I thank you, Mr. Russell, for your time.  I've enjoyed your book, even though some of your arguments could have been made in greater detail.  Next time let's invite Mr. Sartre and Mr. Aurelius over.  It ought to be an interesting conversation.

2017年6月22日 星期四

"Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline (2011)

"When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts.  Over the past five years, I'd worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list.  Douglas Adams.  Kurt Vonnegut.  Neal Stephenson.  Richard K. Morgan.  Stephen King.  Orson Scott Card.  Terry Pratchett.  Terry Brooks.  Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkein, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny.  I read every novel by every single one of Halliday's favorite authors.

"And I didn't stop there.

"I also watched every single film he referenced in the Almanac.  If it was one of Halliday's favorites, like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, or Revenge of the Nerds, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.

"I devoured each of what Halliday referred to as 'The Holy Trilogies': Star Wars (original and prequel trilogies, in that order), Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Mad Max, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones (Halliday once said that he preferred to pretend the other Indiana Jones films, from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull onward, didn't exist.  I tended to agree.)

"I also absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors.   Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino.  And of course, Kevin Smith."*

Ernest Cline is an American author and screenwriter.  He has written two novels, with a third novel, the sequel to Ready Player One, to be released soon.

Part ode to social anxiety, part love letter to the 1980s, Ready Player One follows a young man's quest to save a virtual world, win the girl of his dreams, and bring an evil corporation to its knees.  It is comparable in many respects to novels like The Eden Cycle or movies like The Matrix, though it lacks the existential overtones that made those two other works of fiction so memorable.

The protagonist, Wade, inhabits a world on the edge of catastrophe, wherein our supply of fossil fuels has been exhausted and most people live in crushing poverty.  Fortunately for the inhabitants of this world, they're able to retreat into a virtual world called OASIS, in which many compete for an Easter egg hidden by its creator, James Halliday.

All of which sounds interesting, though this book grows extremely masturbatory at times.  Early on it becomes obvious that both Wade and James Halliday are stand-ins for the author, and the characters' collective obsession with the 1980s is both mystifying and hard to take seriously.  

Imagine being forced to attend a convention on a movie, book series, or TV show that you don't particularly like.  Then imagine being forced to hold conversations with various attendees, all of whom can discuss little outside the subject of the convention.  It sounds boring, right?  Pretending to like something just because everyone else in the room is obsessed with it?  Well I'm sorry to say that such an experience would resemble reading this book, and would be about as pleasant.

There were a couple "real events" at the end of this novel that I liked, but compared to other, more noteworthy science fiction novels this book is only distinctive with respect to the amount of trivia it employs.  The characterizations are weak, the plot has been done better elsewhere, and the ending is entirely predictable.

I'm guessing that the film version of this book will be quite different from the novel.  If so, this will be a good thing, because only those trapped in the most self-destructive kind of 80s nostalgia will find greatness in Ready Player One.  I have faith that Spielberg will find ways to make the material better, and if the book has a strength it lies in this very fact: Ready Player One leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Related Entries:

Stranger Things, and Growing Up in the 80s 

*Just to be clear on our chronology here, not all of these people, places, and things are from the 80s.  I think the reason that many of them aren't is the fact that many of the properties the author WOULD have cited were copyrighted, and those owning the copyrights balked at their inclusion in the book.

1. The authors listed in the quote were for the most part common currency in the 80s, with the exception of Gaiman and Scalzi.  While Gaiman WAS doing UK comics in the late 80s, his run on Sandman didn't begin until the 90s, and I doubt James Halliday would have been acquainted with Gaiman's work on Judge Dredd.  Scalzi wasn't published until the late 90s.

2. The Star Wars prequel trilogy didn't appear until 1999.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy didn't hit theaters until 2001.  The first of the Matrix films wasn't released until 1999.

3. Peter Jackson DID do a couple films in the 80s: the super underground Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles.  I doubt James Halliday, then a kid living in the Midwest, would have ever heard of him until much later in his career.  David Fincher (I assume this is who's being referred to) didn't direct a feature film until Alien 3 in 1993.  Guillermo del Toro didn't direct anything until the obscure Chronos, also in 1993.  In the 80s Tarantino had only directed a single short film.  Kevin Smith wouldn't direct his first film, Clerks, until 1994.

2017年6月11日 星期日

"The Island of the Day Before" by Umberto Eco (1995)

"'Sir,' the libertine replied, 'You cannot present to us ideas that all of us consider true, then demand that we not draw from them the ultimate consequences.  I suspect that at this point we no longer need God or His infinity, because we already have enough infinities on all sides reducing us to a shadow that lasts only an instant without return.  So, then, I propose banishing all fear, and going - in a body - to the tavern.'"

Umberto Eco, when he wasn't being unbearably pretentious, was a writer and Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna.  He wrote 7 novels, and countless works of non-fiction.

In The Island of the Day Before, a young Italian nobleman meditates (endlessly) on the meaning of life, time, and other topics while trapped on a boat.  About 3/4 of this novel could be described as "trapped on a boat," and the remaining 1/4 could be described as "everything that happened before."

The island mentioned in the title is an island somewhere in the South Pacific, located near the "antipodal meridian," or the 180th parallel of longitude.  We might define this antipodal meridian as a kind of International Date Line, where one assumes that the island, sitting as it does on the opposite side of the line, is actually inhabiting a previous day.

All of which makes The Island of the Day Before sound like it could be a fun, lighthearted nautical adventure, but in Eco's hands it becomes a ponderous, often nonsensical diatribe consisting of obsolete philosophical topics.  The "everything that happened before" parts of the book are actually pretty good, and offer an interesting window into medieval thought, but the "trapped on a boat" portions contain so little in the way of plot twists, character development, or actual emotion that this book quickly becomes a real chore to get through.

Judged against other pretentious books like Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, or (in my opinion, the prize-winner) The Flounder, The Island of the Day Before isn't unreadable.  It just isn't very interesting.  If you liked In the Name of the Rose (as I did), you'll find some redeeming features in it, but if you struggled to get through Foucault's Pendulum (as I did), you'll find The Island of the Day Before even slower going.

2017年5月31日 星期三

The 10 Most Classic (American) Gangster Movies

I am displaying my own bias/prejudice here, but I don't think a gangster movie is really and gangster movie unless it's a) set at least partially in America, b) centers around criminal activity in America, and c) was made by group of people who were (at least) mostly American.

All other films are foreign, and thus immediately suspect.  (I kid, I kid...)  But as great as movies like A Better Tomorrow and Eastern Promises are, I have a hard time seeing them as gangster movies in the way that The Godfather is a gangster movie.  Gangster movies are, I think, among the most American of film genres, and I'd like to keep the following list as "American" as possible.

This said, and in no particular order, I present:

1. The Godfather I and II (of course) (1972 and 1974)

Synopsis: Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and featuring a cast of actors who would become household names, The Godfather Parts I and II tell the story of the Corleone family and their rise to power.

Despite the fact that I like some of the movies on this list more than either of The Godfather movies (don't bother with Part III), it has to be first on any list of gangster films.  Why?  Because the others simply wouldn't exist without it.*

Best Scene: Michael Corleone getting payback for the attempt on his father's life.

Six Degrees of Gangster: James Caan would go on to star in Thief, another great gangster movie.  Al Pacino would star in Scarface and Heat, also listed below.  Robert De Niro, who played Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, appeared in 5 out of the 10 movies on this list.

Fun Fact: The book by Mario Puzo is great, too.  Around the same time Puzo wrote the script for the disaster film Earthquake! starring Charlton Heston.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

Synopsis: Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro, this movie focuses on the struggles of two half-castes within the Italian Mafia.

Best Scene: A lot of people would probably say it's Pesci's "What, do I amuse you?" moment, but I think the "shoeshine box" argument is even better.  This movie is full of so many iconic scenes that it's hard to pick just one.

Six Degrees of Gangster: Joe Pesci would go on to star in Casino with Robert De Niro.  Ray Liotta costarred with Sylvester Stallone and De Niro in Cop Land.

Fun Fact: Pesci's "What, do I amuse you?" scene was improvised, and was based on a confrontation he'd had with a real-life mobster years before.

3. The Departed (2006)

Synopsis: Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, this might just be the greatest gangster movie of all time.  In terms of sheer watchability, I'd put this story of Irish mobsters above even Goodfellas and The Godfather. 

Best Scene: Wahlberg and Sheen interviewing DiCaprio for his undercover assignment.

Six Degrees of Gangster: Robert Wahlberg, brother of Mark, who appears in this movie as FBI agent Frank Lazio, has also appeared in several other gangster movies of his own.  And speaking of Mark, he's also good in We Own the Night, which also features a great performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

Fun Fact:This movie started out as a remake of the Hong Kong gangster movie, Infernal Affairs.

4. American Gangster (2007)

Synopsis: Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington, this movie details the rise an fall of Frank Lucas, the most ruthless of Harlem's drug dealers.  It's on the long side (the unrated version is 3 hours long), but despite a weak ending it features a great cast, some terrific acting, and some classic scenes.

Best Scene: Denzel Washington gunning down Idris Elba in front of dozens of bystanders.

Six Degrees of Gangster: Denzel also appeared in Training Day, which is #10 below.

Fun Fact: Antoine Fuqua, who would later direct Denzel Washington in Training Day, was signed on to direct this movie before Ridley Scott took over.

5. Casino (1995)

Synopsis: Martin Scorsese directed this operatic take on the less-than-reputable origins of Las Vegas.  As much as I like Pesci and De Niro on Goodfellas, I think the interplay between these two aand Sharon Stone makes Casino even better.

Best Scene: Pesci again, telling the banker what he'll do to him if he doesn't get his money back. 

Six Degrees of Gangster: Martin Scorsese directed three out of the ten movies listed here.

Fun Fact: Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the real-life gambler who served as the basis for Robert DeNiro's character, had the right of approval over Nicholas Pileggi's script.

6. Mystic River (2003)

Synopsis: Clint Eastwood directed this story of three boyhood friends bound together by tragedy.  Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins star.  It's not as flashy as the other movies here, but it packs a wallop.

Best Scene: The weird, creepy conversation Sean Penn has with his wife at the end of the movie.

Six Degrees of Gangster: Strange as it may seem, I can't think of a single other gangster movie in which Kevin Bacon has appeared.  Sean Penn, however, also plays the heavy in Gangster Squad, and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Tim Robbins' wife, appears in Miller's Crossing.  Laurence Fishburne plays another great gangster in Deep Cover.

Fun Fact: Sean Penn won Best Actor, and Tim Robbins won Best Supporting Actor for this movie.

7. Scarface (1983)

Synopsis: Directed by Brian DePalma, with Al Pacino starring as a Cuban refugee who sets himself up as a drug lord in Miami.  The 80s syth-heavy soundtrack hasn't aged well, but it's as close as gangster movies come to Greek tragedy.  See the extended version if you can.  The extra hour adds a lot to the movie.

Best Scene: The chainsaw interrogation.  The only scene more over-the-top is the "vice scene" in Casino.

Six Degrees of Gangster: Al Pacino has appeared in A LOT of gangster movies.  Robert Loggia (who passed away a couple years ago) also appeared with Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor.

Fun Fact: Many members of Miami's Cuban community were offended by the very idea of this movie, and protested its production in that area.  Some even claimed that it was being financed by Fidel Castro.

8. Gangster Squad (2013)

Synopsis: Directed by Ruben Fleischer and starring Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling, this film centers around a special police unit trying to take down gangster Mickey Cohen in 1940s-era Los Angeles.

Best Scene: The beatdown Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) receives at the end.  Hell yeah.

Six Degrees of Gangster:  Josh Brolin also appeared in American Gangster as a corrupt cop.  He was also great in both Inherent Vice and Sicario.

Fun Fact: In real life, Mickey Cohen would go to prison for tax evasion.  He was charged in 1951 and 1961, without a fistfight ever occurring.

9. Heat (1995)

Synopsis: Michael Mann directed this story of an armored car robbery gone wrong.  Al Pacino stars as a detective trying to capture Robert De Niro.  It's a very stylized, very austere sort of movie, with a great performance by Val Kilmer.

Best Scene: DeNiro and Pacino talking in the coffee shop.  Some of the best acting you'll ever see.

Six Degrees of Gangster: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino's resumes speak for themselves.  Tom Sizemore, who plays a member of DeNiro's crew, also appeared in True Romance.  Michael Mann also directed Thief, Collateral, and Public Enemies.

Fun Fact: De Niro and Pacino did that coffee shop scene without rehearsing.

10. Training Day (2001)

Synopsis: Directed by Antoine Fuqua, Training Day stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke as a pair of narcotics officers.  This movie has to be the worst first day on the job ever.

Best Scene: The part where Washington abandons Hawke in the house full of gangsters.

Six Degrees of Gangster: Real-life former gangsters Snoop Dogg and Doctor Dre appear in this movie.

Fun Fact: Antoine Fuqua would go on to direct Ethan Hawke again in Brooklyn's Finest, a very underrated film.

Honorable Mentions: Road to Perdition, Thief, End of Watch, Miller's Crossing, Day of Atonement, Boyz in the Hood, Deep Cover, American Me, The French Connection, Sicario, Brooklyn's Finest, We Own the Night, The Untouchables, Donnie Brasco, The Dark Knight, The Town, Gangs of New York, Cop Land, Inherent Vice, New Jack City, The King of New York, Bugsy, Colors, Blow, Ghost Dog, and American Hustle.  

...and there are probably a hundred other movies that have escaped my mind!

*The book is great, too, and features a whole other character that isn't present in the movies.