2017年4月28日 星期五

Upcoming Superhero Movies, In the Order I Want to See Them 2

What's coming up?  Who's in it?  Who should be in it?  To start with, this is the schedule so far:

Wonder Woman (June 2, 2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 7, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (November 3, 2017)
Justice League (November 17, 2017)
Black Panther (February 16, 2018)
New Mutants (April 13, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (May 4, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 6, 2018)
Deadpool 2 (June 1, 2018)
X-Men: Dark Phoenix (November 2, 2018)
Aquaman (December 21, 2018)
Captain Marvel (March 8, 2019)
Avengers 4 (May 3, 2019)
Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 (July 5, 2019)

...and I'm leaving Shazam (2019?), Cyborg (2020?), and Green Lantern Corps (2020?) off the list.  Despite Dwayne Johnson's best intentions, these three movies are still "in development," and also have no directors, extended cast, or crew attached.  Warner Bros. announced their release dates long ago, but I'm thinking that these dates will be altered depending on how Justice League is received.

So taking ONLY from the above list, this the order in which I want to see these movies, from most looked-forward-to, to least looked-forward-to.

1. Wonder Woman (2017!  Very soon!)

After Alien: Covenant, this is my most-anticipated movie of summer 2017.  I've loved Wonder Woman since I was little, Gal Godot is BEAUTIFUL, Patty Jenkins is a great director, and yes, I'm one of those freaks who saw Batman v. Superman TWICE in the theater.  There's always the chance that Warner Bros. will "Suicide Squad" what might have otherwise been a terrific movie, but if the trailers are anything to go by, it's going to be good.

2. Justice League (2017)

I'm a bit skeptical, but interested to see what they'll do.  On the one hand, I'm tired of the Avengers, and on the other hand I'm dying to see DC's most famous superhero team hit the screen.  I only worry that the studio's going to give us a more derivative DC movie, to appease Marvel fans.  It could be great - I'm certainly hoping it is - but it could also be an Avengers clone.

3. Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman has already proven that he can play Black Panther, and Ryan Coogler has already proven that he can direct great films.  I just hope they don't try too hard to tie this in to other Marvel Studios properties.  Black Panther deserves his own film.

4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

As said elsewhere, the trailer was AWESOME.  I even heard somewhere that Beta Ray Bill was going to be in it.  People complain about Thor: the Dark Thor, but I thought that movie was very close in spirit to the comics Walt Simonson did back in the 80s.  This one, I think, will be even better.

5. New Mutants (2018)

After Thor: Ragnarok we enter into uncharted territory.  Josh Boone's New Mutants is still a big question mark, but I always liked the team, and the movie draws a lot of inspiration from Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz's run on the comics.  (So did the Legion TV show, by the way).

6. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Thanos.  Finally.  Earth's mightiest heroes get to see if Tony's "nightmare" from Age of Ultron becomes real, and worlds will probably hang in the balance.  

I'm just wondering how diluted everything will be by that point.  Since 2008, we've gone from the relatively realistic Iron Man to a world inhabited by Asgardian gods, guardians of the galaxy, and sorcerers.  Will Marvel be able to hold it all together?  Will it seem even remotely realistic, or will it resemble a computer game?  Only 2018 will tell.

7. Deadpool 2 (2018)

Yes, Deadpool was great, but you've got to wonder when so much time passes between sequels.  I have confidence that Ryan Reynolds can still give a great performance, but it remains to be seen what kind of chemistry he'll have with Josh Brolin, and what a change of directors will mean for the sequel.  Tim Miller put his heart and soul into Deadpool.  Will David Leitch do the same?

8. Aquaman (2018)

It could be amazing.  It could be crap.  I have a lot of faith in director James Wan, and a superhero movie set underwater sounds epic, but Wan is a stranger to budgets this size, and the story might take a backseat to special effects.

9. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

I liked the first Ant-Man a lot more than I thought I would.  Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly can definitely carry a movie, and Peyton Reed is still signed on as director.  I can't muster up that much enthusiasm for this project, however.

10. Captain Marvel (2019)

Captain Marvel is a boring character.  This is my biggest gripe.  Maybe after further details are released I'll feel more excited about this movie.

11. Avengers 4 (2019)

More Avengers?  Yawn.  By this point it will have been SEVEN YEARS since the first one, and after Ultron and Thanos it's hard to think of anyone good (outside of the "forbidden" Doctor Doom) that they could fight.  If they killed most of the Avengers off in Infinity War, I'd be a lot more interested in Avengers 4.

12. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Another Spider-Man movie.  This will be #6.  While I think it's more appropriate for the character, I'm not feeling the "high school vibe" so much.  I plan on seeing it, but my level of anticipation is not high.

13. Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 (2019)

Let you know after I've seen the first one.

14. X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2018)

If I had to put money on it, I'd say that this is going to be terrible.  It's still listed as being in "early pre-production," but it's slated for release on November 2 of next year.  The Dark Phoenix Saga is something you'd have to do over the course of multiple films, and it's not something you want to rush into.  Besides this, there's the fact that Sophie Turner is a less-than-memorable Jean Grey.

A Review of Every Marvel Movie from 2008 to the Present (Revised as of April 28, 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.

 On the Way 

50. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

After years of negotiations with Marvel, Tom Holland stars as a much younger Spider-Man, with Jon Watts directing.  I thought the Amazing Spider-Man films were... OK, but I'm glad to see the character back under Marvel's supervision.  Michael Keaton will appear as the Vulture.

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 actually half as good!

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.

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. Inhumans (2018)

It's hard to imagine the Inhumans in the absence of the Fantastic Four, but I'm sure Marvel will figure out a way to make it work.  The most recent plan is to release this as a feature film, with a TV series to appear after.

57. 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.

58. 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.

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)

I, like you, haven't seen the first one yet, so we'll see....

2017年4月24日 星期一

"Ape House" by Sara Gruen (2010)

"When she slammed into the wall, she noted that her skull stopped moving before her brain did.  When the door came to a stop against her, trapping her upright, she observed that the left side of her face - the side she'd [sic] had pressed against the door - took the brunt of the impact."

Sara Gruen also wrote Water for Elephants, which I also reviewed here, but I can't find that review now.  Water for Elephants, which was later adapted into a movie, was a much better book.

And excuse me if I SPOIL it for you, but honestly I might as well.  If you're actually going to read this book, I suggest exiting now.

Isabel, a linguist studying bonobos, finds herself the victim of a "terrorist" attack launched by an animal rights group.  In the confusion, the bonobos she's studying are removed from her lab, and then cast as the stars of a reality show titled "Ape House."  Isabel, worried over the living conditions in this "Ape House," then works towards freeing her beloved bonobos from the businessman who's exploiting them.

All of which might be plausible, if not for the big, glaring plot hole at the center of this book.  I really can't believe that a show like "Ape House" would ever even enter production, I really can't believe that it would become that popular, and I really can't believe that people would care that much about bonobos in the first place.  Meerkat Manor is one thing - but meerkats are cute.  Bonobos?  I'm sure they're noble and fascinating animals, but I can't see an entire nation getting all worked up over them, either as an object of study, or as an object of exploitation.

So yeah, this book is also fairly predictable from the get-go.  Isabel saves the apes (not monkeys!  NOT monkeys!), the reporter guy gets his big scoop, and by the end of the book the bonobos somehow wind up with 30 acres of prime real estate in Hawaii.  Never mind the fact that bonobos aren't native to Hawaii.  Never mind the fact that the reporter's "discovery" near the end was completely illegal, and would probably be inadmissible in court.  Never mind....

Never mind A LOT of things.  I know I'm thinking too hard for Ape House, but upon further reflection it's kind of a wasted opportunity.  In the hands of a better, funnier author this book could have been a great ride.  It could have also made some great points about our attitudes toward animals, and what it means to be human.  As it is, it does none of those things.  Even as a by-the-numbers mystery it fails, because you can figure out most of the plot from the first few chapters.  

All told, it's no Water for Elephants.  Not that that was such a great book, either.

2017年4月21日 星期五

"Postcapitalism" by Paul Mason (2015)

"We need to be unashamed utopians.  The most effective entrepreneurs were exactly that, and so were all the pioneers of human liberation." 

Paul Mason is a journalist and filmmaker.  He has NO background in economics, and in fact began his career as a music teacher (!).

And to begin with, the title of this book is completely misleading.  It should be titled Communism, since that's what it's about.  I suppose Mr. Mason thought "Postcapitalism" was "edgy," or that there was more of a market (oh! the irony!) for a book that seemed to be advocating a new economic model.  Yet this remains a book about Communism, written by a guy whose understanding of economic concepts largely dates back to the turn of the previous century.

The author also has a way of ignoring facts he finds inconvenient.  In discussing the monopolies of the early 1900s, for example, he fails to mention the anti-trust movement.  In discussing Socialism under the Weimar Republic, he fails to mention the disastrous economic policies of that regime, and how they spawned a fascist movement that was vehemently anti-Communist in nature.  He ignores a lot of other facts, and what we end up with is a very one-sided view of history, with little regard for the real advantages of a capitalist system.

The chapters dealing with "the information revolution" find the author on much firmer footing, and he says some insightful things about capitalism in the age of the Internet.  But at the same time his enthusiasm for modern information technology seems a bit naive, as he once again glosses over many negatives in the service of the point he's trying to make.  Is social networking really making us all self-empowered members of a network?  Or is it turning us into drones?  And what about the social/cultural impact of our addiction to smartphones, Facebook, and getting all of our information beyond the medium of other human beings?  What does that spell for the future?  And it is it really an unequivocal good?

The author also makes some valid points near the end of this book.  He combines climate change, demography, and debt leveraging into a fair assessment of our current situation, and how we might adapt our institutions to changing trends.  The only thing is that the points he makes don't originate with him.  They are instead the work of other, uncredited authors, and many of these authors draw opposing conclusions from the same data.

Add to this the fact that his idea of "Postcapitalism" is nothing new.  All he's really doing is stapling an ill-defined version of Communism onto an ill-defined version of economic history.  I get his gripes with capitalism as it's practiced today.  The system has real faults that need to be addressed.  But it's not hard to see that Paul Mason's vision of the future would produce more problems than it would solve, and that his understanding of human nature - like his understanding of world affairs - is too shaky to be of service to this vision. 

I can't remember the last time I had such a strongly negative reaction to a book.  It was an act of will to finish it, and as I reached the last page I couldn't help but yell "Fuck you, motherfucker!" at an empty room.

If you're looking for better books about similar topics, I recommend "Who Owns the Future?," "Free Market Environmentalism," and "The Death of Money."  They are all far, far better than Postcapitalism.

2017年4月16日 星期日

"The Death of Money" by James Rickards (2014)

"The dollar's demise will take one of three paths.  The first is world money, the SDR; the second is a gold standard, and the third is social disorder.  Each of these outcomes can be foreseen, and each presents an asset-allocation strategy best able to preserve wealth."

James Rickards has written several books on world finance.  He's also a portfolio manager at the West Shore Group, and has served as an advisor to the CIA.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading.  The subtitle, "The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System," is more to the point.  The Death of Money isn't really talking about the end of all money, everywhere, but rather the decline of the US dollar, and what this decline will mean for the world economy.

To paraphrase, the repeal of the Gold Standard, coupled with structural faults within the US economy, will lead to an economic collapse in the near future.  This economic collapse will not be restricted to the US, but will ripple outward, affecting governments worldwide.

And while there's no real way to avert this catastrophe, countries and individuals throughout the world can make it less painful.  On the national level, currencies backed by a sufficient amount of gold will weather the crisis better than those fixed to floating exchange rates.  A transition to the IMF's SDR (Special Drawing Right) "currency" might also be an answer.  Individuals can prepare for this crisis by restructuring their portfolios to contain a certain percentage of gold, and might also look into types of land acquisition less vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Whatever you do, says the author, be ready.  The crash is coming any day now, and when it comes it won't be pretty.

This book reaches many of the same conclusions as The Demographic Cliff, another book reviewed here recently.  But where the Demographic Cliff arrives at its conclusions from trends within world populations, The Death of Money arrives at many of the same conclusions from an analysis of world financial markets.  Of the two, I'd have to say that The Death of Money is the better book, but both have important things to say, and reading them together can add a lot to either one.

2017年4月8日 星期六

"Why the West Rules - For Now" by Ian Morris (2010)

"An all-out East-West war would, of course, be catastrophic.  For China it would be suicidal: the United States outnumbers it twenty to one in nuclear warheads and perhaps a hundred to one in warheads that can be relied upon to reach enemy territory.  China tested an antimissile missile in January 2010, but lags far behind American capabilities.  The United States has eleven aircraft carrier battle groups to China's zero (although China began building its first aircraft carrier in 2009)* and an insurmountable lead in military technology.  The United States could not, and would not want to, conquer and occupy China, but almost any imaginable war would end with humiliating defeat for China, the fall of the Communist party, and perhaps the country's breakup."

Author Ian Morris is a Professor at Stanford University, specializing in (Western) History, Archaeology, and the Classics.  He was born in the UK, and has written three other books. 

The Good: As a survey of world history this book isn't terrible, but it does leave A LOT out, and tends to oversimplify historic episodes that are critical to its thesis.  The Opium War, for example.  Or the development of various methods of government in post-WWI China.  At times the author's lack of knowledge with regard to his ill-defined "Eastern core" is glaring, but he does a decent job of presenting major world events in chronological order.

The Bad: When the author writes about the West (or, in his terminology, "Western core") and the East (the Eastern core), what is he writing about, exactly?  As he would have it, the Western core developed from an agricultural heartland referred to as the Hilly Flanks, while the Eastern core developed from an agricultural base between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers.

But what about India?  And what about the incomplete nature of the archaeological record, and the fact that the West has been so much more thoroughly excavated than the East?  What about the fact that sites within the Fertile Crescent would tend to be better preserved than those in the East, an area which presently nurtures large populations and has a much shorter history of archaeological survey?

I'd have to say that India was what really stuck in my craw the whole time I was reading this book, especially given the fact that India's population is poised to overtake China's in the near future.  How do you write a book like this and manage to overlook an entire subcontinent?

And then of course there is the question of what it means "to rule."  Is it really just a question of having a higher standard of living?  Is it the number of territories you control?  The worldwide popularity of your culture, and the ideas it produces?  If we are to take the title of this book is its central thesis, from the very beginning it fails to explain what it is setting out to prove: in short, what it means to rule, and why such a quality of rulership is desirable.

The Ugly: As a guide to current and future events, this book is a disaster.  It says almost nothing about the current state of East-West relations, and the author hedges his bets so much with regard to predictions that this book just about makes itself irrelevant.  All of the praise for this book - located conveniently inside its front cover - was either written by people whom the author has praised (and sited) in the book itself, or by those who haven't bothered to read it straight through.

But you need not only take my word for it.  You can read Ricardo Duchesne's great interview of it here

*In case you somehow missed the news, that creaky, Soviet-designed Chinese aircraft carrier is now operational.

On a side note, this book reminded me why my study of History stopped at the undergraduate level.  As a work of scholarship this book is dismal.  I'm sure that Professor Morris has failed students for work that was both more rigorous and more thought-provoking than this steaming pile of crap.

2017年3月30日 星期四

The Movies of 2016

Hey it's 2017.  Had you noticed?  If not, Donald Trump is Commander in Chief, Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the New England Patriots won the Superbowl (again).

But I'm not here to talk about 2017.  Oh, no.  What I'd rather do is talk about 2016, and the movies from that year.  As you can see I've missed a lot, but with the number of movies coming out all the time this isn't too surprising.  People have to work, after all.

Movies in red are the movies that I consider the best movies of that particular month.

1. January 2016: Kung Fu Panda 3, Eddie the Eagle, Ride Along 2, Jane Got a Gun

I think Kung Fu Panda 3 the one where Po discovers the secret village of pandas.  Then they have to fight someone - but I can't remember why. 

Hugh Jackman puts on his best American accent for Eddie the Eagle, and the movie is inspirational without being overly manipulative.  Who knew that ski jumping could be that interesting?

Half humorless comedy, half car (and boat) commercial, Ride Along 2 only emphasizes the fact that Olivia Munn can't act. 

Jane Got a Gun isn't bad, but the ending is somewhat anticlimactic.  As Westerns go, it's strictly second tier. 

2. February 2016: Hail, Caesar!, Deadpool, Zootopia, Gods of Egypt, Zoolander 2

As much as I usually like the Cohen Brothers, Hail, Caesar! did almost nothing for me.

Deadpool was more than I'd hoped for.  I wish they'd hurry up and start filming the sequel, but at the same time their desire to get it just right is encouraging.

Zootopia's a thinly veiled allegory about racial tolerance.  My younger daughter was obsessed with it for about a month. 

If it had come out in the early 80s, Gods of Egypt would've had its own line of action figures, I'd be under 10 years old, and I would've LOVED it.  As it is, it's an amusingly bad movie that teaches us that the right set of breast implants can decide the fate of mankind. 

Speaking of ridiculous.  Zoolander 2 isn't even enough so to be funny.  Excruciating.

3. March 2016: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Brothers Grimsby, Midnight Special

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was a surprisingly good movie about a female American journalist in Afghanistan.

10 Cloverfield Lane wasn't that great.  Yeah, John Goodman was suitably creepy, but that movie went nowhere fast.

It's fashionable to pile hate upon Batman v. Superman, but I thought it was fucking great.  All this chanting of "not like the comics" originates with people who haven't read enough comics.  Plot holes?  No worse than most other comic book movies.  "Martha?" Why not?  It made sense to me.  I blame many of the bad reviews on critics with short attention spans. 

Everybody Wants Some!!, a film by Richard Linklater, tells the story of a college baseball player, circa 1980.  It's the most homoerotic of Linklater's movies, but it's also very watchable.  I'd be surprised if a couple of the cast members didn't have a serious future ahead of them in Hollywood.  My only complaint?  I really don't think they would have used the term "stalker" that way in 1980. 

The Brothers Grimsby isn't all that funny, but compared to Zoolander 2 it's hysterical.  Penelope Cruz is in both movies! 

It might remind you a lot of 1984's Starman, but Midnight Special is a solid film with some memorable twists.  The ending wasn't as epic as I was hoping for, but it's very good just the same. 

4. April 2016: The Boss, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Demolition, Elvis and Nixon

The Boss was really disappointing.  Melissa McCarthy is hilarious given the opportunity, but something about this movie was just off.

I thought Captain America: Civil War was... ok?  Not great, just ok.  Kind of a let down if you ask me.

I kept hearing about how wonderful The Jungle Book was, so I tracked it down and watched it.  I still don't understand what all the hype was about. 

Critics weren't very kind to Demoliton, but I think it's great.  Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a man trying to cope with the death of his wife.  It sounds depressing, but the plot takes some interesting turns and it's quite uplifting near the end. 

If you don't stop to think about it, Elvis and Nixon sounds like a great idea for a movie.  Michael Shannon as Elvis.  Kevin Spacey as Nixon.  Based on an actual event.  But there's not enough of an event to build a movie around, and the first half of this movie - despite Shannon's best efforts - is extremely boring. 

5. May 2016: X-Men: Apocalypse, Money Monster, The Nice Guys, Green Room, Last Days in the Desert

X-Men: Apocalypse is TERRIBLE.  Anyone who says otherwise is either confused or has weird standards for what makes a movie watchable.

Money Monster is also bad.  I only saw it because X-Men: Apocalypse was so bad.  You know how a bad movie makes you want to hurry out and see a better movie?  I mistakenly thought that Money Monster would be better.

I saw The Nice Guys recently.  It's a Shane Black movie with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.  Black's movies are about 50/50 for me, but parts of The Nice Guys are genuinely funny.

Green Room is the story of a punk band seeing something they're not supposed to at a skinhead show.  It gets pretty fucked up from there.  Good movie.  (R.I.P. Anton Yelchin) 

Last Days in the Desert is an arty movie about the days Jesus spent in the desert, prior to his crucifixion.  It reminded me a bit of (the far superior) Last Temptation of Christ. 

6. June 2016: The Conjuring 2, Finding Dory, Central Intelligence, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

I liked the second Conjuring more than the first.  Took my daughters to see this, and they were really freaked out.  (Heh heh)

Finding Dory doesn't quite have the crossover appeal that Finding Nemo did, but I've seen it a couple times now and I still like it. 

Despite a plot that makes almost no sense, there are some funny bits in Central Intelligence.  Both Kevin Hart and The Rock demonstrate that they can carry a film in the absence of a good script. 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping falls flat, but there are some funny moments.  If you haven't seen it already, Hot Rod is WAY funnier and features a lot of the same actors.  Even Laser Cats is better. 

7. July 2016: The Purge: Election Year, Ice Age: Collision Course, Star Trek Beyond

I know I've seen the second Purge, but I can't remember anything about it.  Ditto for Ice Age XXXIV or whatever number it is.

Star Trek Beyond was a vast improvement over Star Trek: Cumbertrek.  "Beyond" reminded me why I will always like this series more than Star Wars. 

8. August 2016: Suicide Squad, Hell or High Water, Imperium

And you thought X-Men: Apocalypse was terrible?  I present Suicide Squad.  And yet, as a concept this movie had so much going for it.  What a wasted opportunity!

If I was running the Oscars this year, I probably would have given Hell or High Water Best Picture.

Imperium is another overlooked movie.  It's a bit longer than it needs to be, but the fascist conspiracy theme is timely.  Daniel Radcliffe is excellent in it. 

9. September 2016: Snowden, Ms. Peregrine's House for Peculiar Children

Snowden is a good movie that's trying too hard to make a point.  Then again, this isn't a surprise considering that Oliver Stone directed it.

During the Chinese New Year holiday I wound up watching Ms. Peregrine with my in-laws.  Definitely not a great movie, but watchable. 

10. October 2016: The Accountant, Moonlight 

The Accountant didn't blow my mind, but it was good.  I'll probably watch it again one of these days.

It won Best Picture, but I think Moonlight is slightly overrated.  Certainly an excellent film, but it's also the kind of film that politically correct friends want you to like. 

11. November 2016: Doctor Strange, Hacksaw Ridge, Loving, Arrival, The Monster, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, The Edge of Seventeen, Bleed for This, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, Moana, Allied, Miss Sloane, Lion

November of last year seems to be the winner in terms of movies I've actually seen.

Doctor Strange was visually impressive, but it's pretty much the first Iron Man with magic.

Hacksaw Ridge is an amazing movie.  Perhaps my favorite of 2016 after Lion.

Loving is about an interracial couple living in the South.  It's a lot more understated than Moonlight or Hidden Figures, but I think it's a better movie.

Speaking of overrated: Arrival.  I loved Prisoners, but I don't get why everyone made such a fuss over this movie.  As science fiction films go, I'd give it a B+.  Terence Malick-y in the extreme.

The Monster sucks.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk reminded me of why I don't follow Ang Lee anymore.

The Edge of Seventeen is one of the best movies of last year.  Ah, high school.  Thank God it's over!

Bleed for This is an average boxing movie featuring Miles Teller.  Not even half as good as Whiplash.

I liked Manchester by the Sea, and I think Casey Affleck deserved the Oscar, but the story was a bit lacking.  A lot of Affleck's character's actions rested upon the dynamic between him and his ex-wife, and the movie needed more scenes of them together.

Nocturnal Animals is a difficult film to watch, but it's very memorable.  I wasn't surprised it didn't get nominated for Best Picture, or any of the other big awards.  It's just too dark to win those kinds of awards.

Moana?  No, I'm not seven, but I liked it.  A lot, actually.

Allied is a somewhat anachronistic WWII love story.  You can't tell me they would have tolerated even the idea of a Nazi agent in their midst - not back then!

Jessica Chastain deserved an Oscar for Miss Sloane.  That movie probably tries most people's patience, but the ending is terrific.

Lion is the only movie here that made me cry.  Seriously.  The ending made me cry.

12. December 2016: Jackie, Nerdland, La La Land, Frank and Lola, Rogue One, Fences, The Founder, Silence, Hidden Figures, Passengers

Jackie is boring.  I don't care what the critics say.

Nerdland is a cartoon.  And it's boring.  In this case, the critics are right.

La La Land wins the Oscar for Most Excruciating Movie I've Tried to Sit Through Recently.  I completely fail to understand why people gushed so profusely over this film.  I liked the scenes where they weren't singing, but c'mon.  This is fluff.  There were many 2016 movies that were better.

Frank and Lola is a movie about jealousy.  It's not bad, but I had a hard time understanding why Michael Shannon's character acted the way he did.  I think Shannon was much better used in both Midnight Special and Nocturnal Animals.

Rogue One?  Forgettable.  Not bad, but forgettable.

Fences is a good movie that feels a little too much like a play.  Might have been better with a few more scenes away from the house.

Saw The Founder not long ago.  Michael Keaton is GREAT.  Who knew that the story of McDonald's could be so interesting?

Andrew Garfield's Path to the 2018 Oscars: violent movies in which he cries a lot.  Hacksaw Ridge was the first, Silence was the second.  Mark my words, there will be more to follow.  This said, Silence is more intellectual than it has a right to be, though I'm not sure what kind of point it's trying to make.  If religious observance is a personal experience outside the reach of societal norms, why the need for martyrs?

Silence, by the way, would make a truly weird double feature with La La Land.  I can't think of two movies that are more different.

Hidden Figures was good, but it didn't feel either as real or as immediate as other racially-themed movies from the same year.  I thought Moonlight, Loving, and Fences were all better. 

Passengers is a solid science fiction film centered on a morally ambiguous act.  I don't quite understand the negative reactions to this film.  Perhaps critics were expecting a more out-and-out love story?  Perhaps they were expecting Chris Pratt to play the hero?  In a way, this movie's like the reverse of Arrival - a good film with bad reviews - many of which were generated not so much by the film itself but by the pretensions (and preconceptions) of its critics.  This said, about 20 minutes of this movie are completely implausible.

...and this brings me to the end of 2016!  In conclusion, I'd like to offer my list of favorites from the above films.

My Favorite Movies of 2016
(in no particular order)

1. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice*
2. Demolition
3. Star Trek Beyond
4. Hell or High Water
5. Hacksaw Ridge
6.The Edge of Seventeen
7. Nocturnal Animals
8. Miss Sloane
9. Lion
10. The Founder

*No, I'm not insane.  I genuinely liked it.  I LOVED it, in fact.  Give this movie another 10-15 years, and it'll be one of those "cult classics" (like Blade Runner) that people pretend they liked since its theatrical run.

2017年3月24日 星期五

"The Demographic Cliff" by Harry S. Dent, Jr. (2014)

"China now has a new up-the-ante plan for accelerating urbanization even faster, aiming to go from 53 percent to 72 percent in just twelve years by 2025.  That means 250 million more people will be uprooted from their farms and moved into high-rises.  However, such overinvestment by governments can only result in a bubble and a burst, as in Southeast Asia from 1997 to 2002.  China has already seen the largest shift of people from rural to urban areas since 2000 with massive overinvestments in infrastructure at all levels.  In addition, China's timing is poor, as it is upping the ante just as global growth is slowing and its own demographics are slowing."

What does the future hold for the world economy?  Well, according to author Harry Dent, we're about to head straight off a cliff, and right into a "winter season" that may or may not make the Great Depression look like a minor mood swing.

And the reasons for this "Greater Depression?"  - demographic trends within the "developed" nations, coupled with the specter of Quantitave Easing (QE), the cure-all that many countries have been using to keep their economies alfoat.  Falling birthrates make future growth uncertain, and bad governmental policies are creating diseased economies.

But how to fix the problem?  The answer, says the author, is to let the economy crash.  In so doing we'll give our economies opportunity to reset themselves, and to promote innovation.

Yet on the other side of the author's predictions lies the fact that it's 2017, and his gloomy tidings haven't yet come to pass.  He predicts a downturn around 2015 or 2016, and we haven't yet seen a downturn of the magnitude he describes.

And there's also this discussion of sunspots.  The author goes on to link major economic upheavals to sunspot activity, and from there proceeds to a discussion of electromagnetism.  Reading this, I almost expected astrological charts to start popping up, or a discussion of the Illuminati, or references to Atlantis.

Fortunately that didn't happen, and aside from this one weird detour I'd have to say that The Demographic Cliff is a very readable book, with some valid points to make about the world economy and how future events might unfold.  I can't say which of its predictions will be proven true, but I won't be investing in Mainland Chinese real estate anytime soon.

2017年3月18日 星期六

Thoughts on Marvel's Iron Fist

Watched all of Iron Fist, and yes, I deserve a medal.  Below are some thoughts.

1. "Whitewashing"

You can't whitewash a character that was already white.

This said, I wouldn't have minded if they'd cast an Asian actor as Iron Fist, but in that case they might just as well have done Shang-Chi.  People complaining about Marvel casting "people of color" as Heimdall, Nick Fury, or Valkyrie need to get a life.  It's 2017, and many of us would prefer these movies reflect the racial makeup of the world around us.  They're comic book characters for chrissakes.  The most interesting/entertaining interpretation wins.

Episode 1

2. The title sequence is lame.

Really, it's the worst yet.  Not sure what they were thinking with that kung-fu/calligraphy thing.  

3. The fight choreography makes me miss Daredevil.

Couldn't they have at least speeded it up a bit?  Or rehearsed more?  At least then it wouldn't look so incredibly fake.  Some of the later fight scenes are better, but that's obviously not Finn Jones behind the mask.

4. It starts off a little too much like Batman.

A younger, hippy-ish guy returning from his travels in the East?  Heir to a large fortune?  Opposed by an upstart within his father's company?  Where have I seen this before?

5. Finn Jones looks (and sounds) a helluva lot like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Really, he does.  That scene where he carjacks the guy reminded me A LOT of The Departed.  This said, he's not a bad actor.  It's only that he's trapped in a terrible script.

6. Jessica Henwick is FINE.

Hands-down the sexiest woman in any Netflix show yet.  I'd even put her above Elektra.

Episode 2


This episode is much better than the first, though it does drag a bit towards the end.  Joy Meachum is a bit slow on the uptake, but the plot makes more sense.

Episode 3


Jessica Henwick in white shorts and a tank top.  Jessica Henwick in yoga pants.  Damn, girl. 

The scene where Danny tries to "teach" Colleen will probably rub people the wrong way - cultural appropriation and all.  But I think that if the viewer can put his or her sexual/racial sensitivity to one side, it makes sense given where they are in the plot.

9. In too early?

This show might have been better if they'd started with episode 2.  Episode 1 was a clumsy way to get things going.

10. WTF?

Wait, what?  Colleen Wing is all like: "We don't dishonor ourselves by fighting for money," and then she's fighting for money?

Episode 4

11. And now she's fighting for money again.  Apparently to help one of her students?  I don't know for sure, but wouldn't Financial Aid be a better solution?

Side Note: This development makes even less sense given where the students end up in a later episode.

12. The dynamic between Danny and his "adopted" family doesn't seem realistic.  He misses them, they try to screw him out of both his company and his legal name, they try to push him out of penthouse windows, they're giving him the company lock, stock, and barrel, he's protecting them from hatchet-wielding assassins...

Episode 5

13. Hey, that's Rosario Dawson!

The Night Nurse shows up.  This after Jeri Hogarth from Jessica Jones made her appearance in episode 3.  Claire Temple's reticence regarding Matt Murdoch, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage is starting to seem kind of strange.

14. Fight!

Finally a good fight scene.  The fight in the shipping container felt like something from Daredevil.

15. Another familiar face.

Madame Gao, hinted at in previous episodes, is finally revealed.  I am, however, confused as to her allegiances.  Her presence in the penthouse would seem to indicate that she's a member of the Hand, but her much earlier appearances in Daredevil would suggest otherwise.  Maybe this will be explained later on?

Whatever Madam Gao's true designs, I've a party to go to tonight, and further episodes will have to await tomorrow.

Episode 6

16. Better or worse?

This episode has problems, but I think it's closer in tone to the comics that inspired it.  Ward is more interesting as a drug addict, and even though The Hand's version of Fight Club is kind of lame, Danny's fight with his last opponent is one of the best yet.

Episode 7

17. Getting Shakespearean around here...

Wow, the raiding of the Hand's drug operation was a real non-event.  Made me miss Daredevil all over again.  And then a murder at the end.  If this episode had just focused on Ward, and ignored Danny altogether, it would have been much better.

Episode 8

18. Nonsense!

This corporate takeover subplot is nonsense.  On what planet do corporations function like that?

Danny, Colleen, and Claire go to China.  How convenient that there's an English-speaking beggar sitting, inexplicably, in an alley behind the warehouse they're trying to infiltrate!

Episode 9


How dumb ARE these people?  They knew The Hand were fighting them with poisoned swords and spears in China!  Why does it take them so long to figure out that Colleen's been poisoned? 

And yes, the tinfoil throwing star thing is fucking ridiculous.

20. Getting better?

But hey, the bad guy is finally getting interesting.  Hopefully they saved the best for last.

Episode 10

21.Now this episode was MUCH better!

Episode 11

22. Cause for optimism.

Also much better.  The interplay between Davos, Danny, and Colleen makes the whole show more interesting.  This is what the whole thing needed from the beginning: more interesting characters, conflicting in the pursuit of various agendas.

Two more episodes to go, but it's late and I have work tomorrow.  I plan on watching episodes 12 and 13 after that.

Episode 12

23. A quick one.

Snuck in an episode before work.

The biggest problem with this whole series is that Danny's attachment to the Meachums is never explained.  It's not a given that he'd be so devoted to them.  Without such an explanation, his desire to constantly come to their rescue lacks the kind of dramatic weight it would have otherwise had.

The Hand just aren't good strategists.  What the hell happened to these guys since the second season of Daredevil?  Shouldn't they be a lot more menacing?  Shouldn't they have a better plan?  Isn't long range-planning what any good conspiracy relies upon?

League of Shadows > The Hand.

Episode 13

24. Plot wholes.

When you think of all the story threads this series has to tie up in ONE episode, it truly boggles the mind.  There are, for example:

a. Danny's quest to defeat The Hand, or at least stall them until the Defenders series hits Netflix.

b. Danny's desire to rid the Rand Corporation of the Hand, which is, by the way, a job he hasn't really started yet.

c. Danny's identity crisis: is he "Danny Rand" or "Iron Fist?"  Does he belong in New York or K'un L'un?

d. Danny's attempt to overcome his ADHD.  Kidding about this one, but really, he has to be the most ADHD superhero ever.  He makes the Hulk look positively solemn.

e. Ward Meachum's quest to kill his father.

f. Joy Meachum's quest to not be such a clueless retard.

g. Their dad's quest to put them in control of the Rand Corporation, and to eliminate Danny from the picture.

h. The Hand's quest to coerce Danny into joining them.

i. The Hand's larger quest to... do whatever it is that they've been hinting at since the second season of Daredevil.

j. Jessica Henwick's quest to look smokin' hot in tight clothing.  (Actually I think we can check this one off the list)

k. Marvel's quest to create a martial arts superhero that doesn't remind you too much of Batman.  (Sorry, Moon Knight).

l. Probably a bunch of other stuff that I ought to care about, but don't. 

25. "Game over, man!  Game over!"

Come on, Danny.  Did it really take you that long to figure out who the bad guy really was?  It's been obvious for a while now.

26. Olivia Newton-John

Hogarth's quip about Danny being from Xanadu had me thinking.  What if Danny really was from Xanadu?  As in the Olivia-Newton John vehicle of the same name?  He'd be from this 70s version of the future, with lots of singing and dancing, and that would be both SUPER WEIRD and excellent at the same time.

27. "... corrupt your chi..." 

Wouldn't want to do that.  That would suck.

28. WTF? (2)

Who the hell carries a matchbook around?  What is it, 1980?

29. Davos pulls a Baron Mordo.

This was just a stupid idea.  But hey, he's also talking to Joy, who's not that quick on the uptake anyway.  How does he fail not to notice Madame Gao at the next table?

30. Hole plots. 

Let's see, shall we...

a. I don't know, did he?

b. Corporate purge FAIL.

c. No idea.

d. Not too hopeful.  Maybe he can score some meds in the Himalayas?

e. Done, and done.

f. She might even be more retarded than I thought.

g. Didn't work out for him.  Very sad.

h. Looks like maybe they forgot all about it.

i. Who knows?

j. As said above, we can check this off the list.

k. Sorry, Marvel.

The Final Verdict: Fairly disappointing, but slightly better than Luke Cage.

Get ready for The Defenders!  "Mid 2017" (sometime)!  It's gotta be better than Iron Fist, right?

Other Entries on the Marvel Netflix Shows:

Marvel, DC, and Live-Action TV
Marvel's Jessica Jones
Thoughts on Daredevil Season 2
Thoughts on Marvel's Luke Cage