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.

2017年5月30日 星期二

A Review of Every DC Movie from 2005 to the Present (Revised as of May 30, 2017)

With various DC movies in various stages of production, I've decided to shorten this list.  It begins with Batman Begins.  For still older movies (and yes, I've seen them all!), 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.


18. Batman Begins (2005) ****

Hell yes.  This was a movie Batman as we always wanted to see him.  Not the neurotic guy with all the gadgets, but the kind of guy who could kick your ass.  The scarecrow is awesome here.

19. V for Vendetta (2005) ***

Great film, made by the Wachowskis of Matrix fame.  Hugo Weaving is fantastic, and even if they dumbed down the source material it's still worth your time.

20. Superman Returns (2006) **

Not as bad as some people make it out to be.  Yeah, Superman does come off as a stalker, and I don't know why they had to do so many of his flying scenes in CGI, but the part where Kevin Spacy and co. deliver a beatdown is excellent.

21. The Dark Knight (2008) ****

Still hands-down the best superhero movie ever made.  And yes, I liked The Avengers.  The plot is complex, the performances are amazing, and the direction is first-rate.  How could Nolan have ever topped this one?

22. The Spirit (2008)

Fuck this movie is bad.  I saw Sin City so many times I had the lines memorized, and with The Spirit I was hoping for something similarly classic.  Unfortunately, Frank Miller isn't quite as good in the absence of Robert Rodriguez.

23. Watchmen (2009) ***

Two problems with this movie: the actors are too pretty, and way too much kung fu fighting.  Aside from these two problems, it is faithful to the comic book and works on many levels. Snyder might have bungled Sucker Punch, but this movie gave me hope for Man of Steel


24. Jonah Hex (2010) *

Josh Brolin stars as an ex-confederate soldier who can talk to dead people.  John Malkovich is the villain.  It was almost a good movie, but the soundtrack ruins the better moments and it gets pretty corny near the end.

25. Green Lantern (2011)

The movie had everything going for it.  I'm not even a big fan of Green Lantern, but when I heard about the director and the cast I got really excited.  Unfortunately the road to Green Lantern is paved with good intentions.

26. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) **

This movie just bored me.  It's over three hours long, and Bane is unintentionally hilarious at times.  Anne Hathaway makes a great Catwoman, but that's all I can say in favor of this film.

27. Man of Steel (2013) **

Half of a great movie, and half of a Michael Bay movie.  It starts out well, even though some of the details surrounding Krypton don't bear thinking about.  Henry Cavill is a great Superman, but Zack Snyder was trying too hard to please too large an audience.

28. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ***1/2

I don't care what the critics say - this is a great f*&king movie.  I was unimpressed by Man of Steel - but this?  This is the one I've been waiting for.  Probably a bit slow - or even too dark - for some, but I loved it.  The extra 1/2 star is for the Ultimate Edition, which improves upon the theatrical cut.  This is DC done well.

29. Suicide Squad (2016)*

I was disappointed by this one.  There is WAY too much backstory, and many of the characters are underdeveloped.  Harley Quinn seems entirely too sane to have earned her reputation, and as a character Deadshot is unconvincing.  Joel Kinnaman does a valiant job of keeping the whole thing together, Viola Davis and Jared Leto give memorable (if brief) performances, but there's just not enough to hang a whole movie on.

30. Wonder Woman (2017)**

The Good News: 1) It's better than Suicide Squad, and 2) Gal Gadot is a good enough actress to carry this movie.  The Bad News: 1) There are moments where this movie stops dead in its tracks, 2) the villain is completely undeveloped, and 3) parts of this movie bear an unfortunate resemblance to Captain America: the First Avenger.  The best bits are those in which the characters reflect on the differences between our world and Diana's.  I'm sad to say, however, that these moments are sandwiched between two halves of an action movie that doesn't quite work.

On the Way  

31. Justice League (2017)

Having set up the general premise in Batman v. Superman, Warner Bros. will introduce this superhero team to the big screen.  Confirmed members are Batman, Superman (?), Wonder Woman, Cyborg, the Flash, and Aquaman.  Zack Snyder has recently stepped down as director, and Joss Whedon (!) is conducting reshoots.

32. The Flash (?)

Ezra Miller will play the Flash.  He's already appeared briefly in both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad (and also the Justice League footage).  This movie has been in developmental limbo for a while now, and the 2018 release date is doubtful.

33. Aquaman (2018)

Jason Momoa will play Aquaman.  James Wan is directing.  He has stated that it will be more "fun" than Batman v. Superman.

34.  Shazam (2019?)

The Rock (OK, Dwayne Johnson) has already been cast as Black Adam.

35. Justice League Part 2 (?)

...so not only are we getting the second Avengers film, but we're also getting a second Justice League film in the same year.  It boggles the mind.  The date of this film was pushed back to accommodate The Batman.

36. Cyborg (2020)

Ray Fisher has already been cast as Cyborg.  He appears in Batman v. Superman for a moment.  A scientist creates him with the aid of a Mother Box.

37. Green Lantern Corps (2020)

Some conceptual art for this film appeared at the SDCC.  As for the rest, your guess is as good as mine!

38. Justice League Dark (?)

Doug Liman dropped out as director.  As of now they're still writing the script.

39. The Batman (?)

Ben Affleck is still on board, though the studio is taking their time with it.  An appearance by Deathstroke seems likely.

40. Other Projects

Superman/Man of Steel II, a Suicide Squad sequel, Gotham City Sirens, Black Adam, Nightwing, and Batgirl have all been discussed at one time or another.  At the time of writing Batgirl seems most likely to happen, given that Joss Whedon is actively involved with Justice League.

2017年5月27日 星期六

"Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara" by Jorge Castaneda (1997)

"Finally, there was Che's relationship with Fidel Castro.  He had sworn that there would be neither marriage nor divorce, but this balance became increasingly precarious the longer he remained in Cuba.  Guevara could not countenance the changes Castro was effecting, or promoting, on the island.  Nor could he break with him, or wish to.  He never imagined himself playing the role of a Trotsky, or even an anti-Trotsky, as a marginalized leader who nonetheless defends himself while he still possesses the means to do so."

Jorge Castaneda is a Professor of Public Service at New York University.  He has held posts at other universities, and has written widely on Latin American issues.

As the subtitle indicates, this book presents the life and death of Che Guevara, noted revolutionary and political thinker.  It begins with his death in Bolivia, and from there reviews his life chronologically, from his birth in Argentina to his last days.

Having known almost nothing about Che Guevara before reading this book, I found the subject matter interesting, if not overpoweringly so.  As a utopian, possibly quixotic figure, it's easy to understand the enduring appeal of Che Guevara - even if most people couldn't tell you exactly what he stood for, or why.

As a work of non-fiction, this biography struggles in the beginning.  I'm guessing that there wasn't enough material available on Guevara's pre-"Motorcycle Diary" years, and the author has to jump to a lot of conclusions about who Guevara was at this stage in his life.  From the standpoint of readability, it might have been better to start with Che's wanderings, and to have mentioned still earlier episodes only in passing.

This book grows more interesting once Guevara finally meets up with Castro, though the author has a tendency to bog down the narrative with an overabundance of details and counter-examples.  His writing style and academic honesty are, I feel, beyond reproach, but his constant appeal to personal interviews feels too much like an equivocation, and weakens the impact the book might have otherwise had.

Companero is also burdened by a terrible job of printing.  Many of the pages in my copy were misaligned, and a couple were missing altogether.  Where the type is less distinct, it's hard to tell the "a" from the "o," and by the time I reached the end pages were starting to come out.  The publishing company could have done a much better job.

Yet printing aside, Companero's a decent book that taught me a lot about both Che Guevara and the world he lived in.  I can't say that it was absorbing, but I doubt that there are any other books about Che that display the same breadth and passion for the subject matter.  If you're interested in Cuban, Soviet, or Central/South American history, I would recommend this book.  If not, you'll probably find little to arouse your interest in Companero.

2017年5月17日 星期三

"Justice" by Michael J. Sandel (2010)

"What exactly is at stake in this debate between the narrative account of moral agency and the one that emphasizes will and consent?  One issue at stake is how you conceive human freedom.  As you ponder the examples that purport to illustrate obligations of solidarity and membership, you might find yourself resisting them.  If you are like many of my students, you might dislike or mistrust the idea that we're bound by moral ties we haven't chosen.  This dislike might lead you to reject the claims of patriotism, solidarity, collective responsibility, and so on; or to recast these claims as arising from some form of consent.  It's tempting to reject or recast these claims because doing so renders them consistent with a familiar idea of freedom.  This is the idea that says we are unbound by any moral ties we haven't chosen; to be free is to be the author of the only obligations that constrain us."

Michael J. Sandel is a Professor of Government at Harvard University.  Justice is (by far) his best-known book, though he has written elsewhere on other topics.

After a short introduction, he centers his discussion of justice around the utilitarian philosophers, namely Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, claimed that social justice consists of allowing the largest number of people to live/think/believe in the manner that makes them happiest.  Bentham's successor, John Stuart Mill, offered a softer approach to this doctrine, which included certain moral distinctions (or, some might say, equivocations) that Bentham hadn't anticipated.  The author's criticisms of utilitarian thought are sound, though I continue to suspect that utilitarianism might actually be the philosophy best suited to modern government.

After the utilitarians, the author discusses Kant's moral philosophy.  He offers an excellent summary of Kant's thinking, and I'm happy to say that yes, I finally understand the Categorical Imperative.  I've made attempts at Kant before, and I can assert that boiling his philosophy down to its essentials is no easy business.

And despite the beauty of the author's execution, I have to say that I remain a bit skeptical of Kant's philosophy.  This idea of a "rational actor" deep inside of us, working towards the greater good, seems (to me at least) at odds with much of human behavior.  I'm also unsure of how people, communities, and governments would go about realizing Kant's lofty ideals.  His ideas on sex fly in the face of modern morality, and his ideas on many other topics lead (seemingly) into blind alleys.

John Rawls is the subject of the next chapter.  I wasn't familiar with Rawls before reading this book, and if nothing else the discussion of his ideas has piqued my curiosity.  I'm not sure that I can picture any individual existing (much less coming to a decision) outside of his "veil of ignorance," but Rawls does have a lot to say about social justice.

Aristotle is the last major philosopher discussed, and I think putting him at the end was a nice touch.  His teleological (purpose-driven) thinking is described in the context of government and social harmony, and although this type of thinking leads one into absurdities, I found the author's presentation of it very refreshing.

If I have any reservations about this book, they only pertain to philosophers and  issues not included.  Communism, for example,  is never discussed.  Neither is the genetic basis of altruism (the "selfish gene").  No Nietzsche.  There is also no distinction made between laws and cultural norms, and the differing roles of each.  Certain facets of our society, such as information technology, are also noticeably absent.  It could be that the author thought including such things would have bogged the book down,  and he might have well been right,  but they would have also offered interesting counterpoints to some of the older, more familiar ideas.

But even with these omissions, Justice is a great book, and an invigorating take on what are, for many of us, tired philosophical concepts.  The author succeeds in bringing moral philosophy back to life, and has at the same time written a very timely, very necessary guide to social justice.

2017年5月10日 星期三

"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" by David Sedaris (2004)

"'But I didn't do anything.  I'm gay, remember?'

"'That's not going to save you,' she said.  'Push comes to shove and who do you think they're going to believe, a nine-year-old girl or the full-grown man who gets his jollies carving little creatures out of balsa wood?'

"'They're not little creatures!' I yelled.  'They're tool people!'"

David Sedaris is an American essayist.  He writes about his childhood in North Carolina, about growing up gay, and about his experiences living in France and England.

To use his brother's kind of vocabulary, he's funny as shit.  I haven't laughed so hard in a long time, and I look forward to reading more of his books soon.

The part about his brother's wedding is classic.

2017年5月8日 星期一

Stranger Things, and Growing Up in the 80s

I was born in 1975.  This means (of course) that I was five in 1980, and fourteen in 1989.  For this reason I tend to look back on the 80s with a lot of nostalgia, though I realize that for many people there were better decades.

My fond memories of the 80s led me to the Netflix series Stranger Things, which I watched in its entirety last weekend.  As of May 2017 it's still in its first season, with a second season on the way in October.

Going in, I was a bit skeptical.  It seems very fashionable to wear the 80s influence on one's sleeve these days, and I wondered whether the references would be painfully obvious (things like Thriller and breakdancing), or if they'd be more subtle.  A lot of movies and TV shows set in the 70s will bring you right out of the narrative with some jarringly inaccurate disco scene, or a car that doesn't belong in that decade.  Since I know the 80s even better than the 70s, I figured there'd be similar anachronisms in the show.

Thankfully the show is true to its decade, and I'm happy to say that Stranger Things is pretty good.  I'm not saying that it's perfect, mind you.  It's not nearly as good as Westworld.  But it is a solidly crafted homage to 80s horror movies, with just the right number of references to things like Dungeons and Dragons, John Carpenter's The Thing, and Chris Claremont's Dark Phoenix saga.  And it doesn't hit you over the head with these references - they're just there, usually in the background, where they should be.

It's also good to see Winona Ryder on screen again.  Yes, she's been in movies, but her role in Stranger Things is so much better than most of what she's done in recent films.  I thought she was great as Michael Shannon's love interest in The Iceman, but that movie was a while ago.

Next season, to make things even more 80s, Sean "Goonies Never Say Die" Astin will be making a regular appearance on the show.  Having Astin as Ryder's boyfriend should be fun, and one can only hope that other 80s stars will pop up at some point.  I know Tom Cruise is too much to hope for, but B-listers like Val Kilmer, Anthony Michael Hall, Phoebe Cates, and John Cusack seem within the realm of possibility.  My personal choice would be John Murray, brother of Bill, because you just don't get more 80s than that guy.  Anyone else remember Moving Violations?

Now that they've established the "reality" of this show, more 80s trappings could be introduced without overwhelming the plot.  We've already heard the Atari mentioned in the last episode, and with the second season set in 1984, it's high time to introduce the NES and (even better) the Sega Master System.  Many of us gave up Dungeons and Dragons for Super Mario Bros. during that year, so it makes sense.

Oh, and there's also the album of the same name by Van Halen.  And if you're going to do that, you could also do the song of the same name, "(Wake Up) It's 1984" by Oingo Boingo.  

And... what about toys?  Masters of the Universe?  G.I. Joe?  Transformers?  Food?  Chuck E. Cheese?  Wendy's "Where's the Beef?"  "Avoid the Noid?"  Reaganomics?  Star Wars (as in the defense system)?  Cyndi Lauper?  Billy Joel?  Prince?  Those shoes with the pockets?  MTV?  Early thrash metal?  Hair metal?  Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger?  The ninja fad?  David Cronenberg? VHS tapes?

I could go on, and on, and on, but I'll stop for now.  It's not good to get too caught up in nostalgia, and it's a while before the next season of Stranger Things appears on Netflix.

"In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson" by Bette Bao Lord (1984)

"Shirley refused to go to school for the next two days.  Her mother thought it was because her eyes were almost swollen shut.  Not so.  Not so.  Shirley needed the time for Mabel to realize that the Chinese had not squealed, and therefore her skin and bones deserved to stay intact."

Bette Bao Lord is a writer and activist.  She immigrated to the United States when she was a child, and In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson describes her experiences adjusting to life in America during that time.

It's a book aimed at young adults, and it's also super short, so I won't say much more about it.  Suffice to say it's a very heartwarming story, and the ending had my teary-eyed.  Wikipedia tells me that Mrs. Lord also wrote a few novels.  I'll be looking for them this summer.

2017年5月7日 星期日

"Mr. Nice: An Autobiography" by Howard Marks (1998)

"When I arrived back at the Newmarket-on-Fergus farmhouse, two university lecturers and their spouses were sitting in the darkened living-room staring with horrified expressions at a projection screen displaying a farmgirl having intercourse with a pig.  Standing just offscreen was McCann.  He had his dick out and was masturbating."

Howard Marks rose to prominence during the 70s and 80s as the U.K.'s most famous drug smuggler.  Using a network of associates that stretched clear around the world, he made (and lost) millions smuggling hash into Europe and North America.  He was eventually apprehended in Spain and later extradited to the United States, where he spent several years in prison. 

All of which sounds like it would make for an interesting book, but Mr. Marks gets bogged down in the details.  Instead of a riveting account of a man who spent decades dodging police and immigration officials in several countries, what we get in Mr. Nice is a tedious list of names, places, and dates.  It amounts to a lot of trivia with very little context to make it meaningful, and by the end of this book I could only scratch my head as to what the author intended to say.

Perhaps, given his level of celebrity in the U.K., Mr. Marks was able to bypass the editorial process.  This is a shame, because lost in all his details are compelling arguments against the illegality of certain drugs, against strong-arm tactics used by the DEA and other U.S. law enforcement agencies, and against the brutality of the U.S. prison system.  If Mr. Marks could have just dialed down his personal aggrandizement a bit, he might have made an excellent case against the complex of laws and institutions that caused him so much difficulty.  But he doesn't do that, and what we get instead is a rambling account of forays into Pakistan, encounters with Bangkok prostitutes, and brushes with more famous personages. 

I wouldn't say that this is a bad book.  More like a wasted opportunity.  It gets much better near the end, but about 7/8 of this book is incredibly repetitious, and will make you regret having started it in the first place.

2017年5月3日 星期三

Legion vs. Westworld

I think Aubrey Plaza was the best thing about Legion.

What did I do last weekend?  I spent most of it in a TV coma, watching the first seasons of both Legion and Westworld.  I'll admit that I'm a bit late to the party on both of these shows, but I was waiting until I could get the full first season.  Waiting between episodes just kills me.

In a way it's not fair to compare these shows.  This is for two reasons.  First, Legion was made with a fraction of Westworld's budget.  Second, Westworld's budget allowed the producers of that show to attract top-notch stars.  Third, Legion's first season consists of only 8 hour-long episodes, whereas Westworld's consists of 9 hour-long episodes, plus an hour and a half long finale.

Westworld is/was a big deal.  It is the most-watched HBO original series ever, it's won dozens of awards, and the critics loved it.  Legion, by contrast, is a much smaller-scale affair, with fewer awards to its credit.  The RT score for Legion is actually higher than that for Westworld, though the discrepancy may have something to do with the smaller number of critics reviewing Legion.

For the record, I loved both shows.  Legion, though hampered by a smaller budget, was wonderfully surreal at times, and I'm looking forward to the second season.  Westworld meanders a bit, but the performances are great (especially Thandie Newton).  The plot twist involving Ed Harris's character in Westworld was one of the most inventive things I've seen in any TV show, ever.

Westworld - get ready for a whole lotta nudity!

This said, my biggest complaint about Legion is that sometimes the show feels like watching a college (or worse yet, high school) drama class.  The first episode of that show is, in my opinion, better than any episode of Westworld, but after the second or third episode one begins to notice the less-than remarkable sets, and the fact that the show is especially talky.  "Show don't tell" is an important guideline for storytellers, and at times Legion tells much more than it shows.

Another weak point of that show is the central character.  David isn't very likable, and a little slow on the uptake.  One begins to wish he would get on the ball, and figure more things out.  Jermaine Clement's character also doesn't have enough to do, and instead of watching him passively respond to events, it would have been better to give him more of his own agenda, and to make him more necessary to the story.

With Westworld, my only issue is that there's a little too much "walking around," and although the "walking around" narratives converge at the end, I found myself wishing that the show's writers would get to the point already.  Shortening these narratives in favor of Thandie Newton or Anthony Hopkin's characters would have made the finale more powerful, and far less repetitive.

Both series are great, and I'd encourage you to watch them if you haven't.  Both are superior to most of the movies that came out last year, and both left me wanting more.  How is David going to get out of that orb?  And will the next season of Westworld be set in feudal Japan?  Are the "corporate" elements in Westworld part of a larger park experience?  Will the Shadow King also pop up in the next season of Legion?  Or will they save him for later on?  I'm sure that in both shows, in different ways, reality will hang in the balance.  And whatever happens, they can only get weirder.

...and not only the ladies, either!

"The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

"The world - much as we want it to - does not accord with our intuition...  Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right.  They deliberately test their intuitions."

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist, employed as a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.  He has written many books, but The Tipping Point is his most famous.

As the quote above explains, The Tipping Point is concerned with the creation of "social epidemics," or the passage of certain thoughts, fashions, or trends from a low level of popularity to an exponentially increasing state of ubiquitousness.  Or, to put it another way, how does a book go from being a local phenomenon to a national craze?  How does an incident of gun violence become a national crisis?  And how does a pair of "cute shoes" become something that every teenager is wearing at the local mall?

In the author's thinking, the progression from virtual unknown to cultural necessity is not gradual.  Between obscurity and overwhelming success (or society-wide failure), there is a tipping point beyond which a thing becomes part of the fabric of our lives.

And how are we to anticipate this tipping point?  The author points out three types of people who tend to incite trends: the Maven, the Connector, and the Salesman.  The Maven is an expert on a particular subject, someone looked to by others for his or her abundance of information.  The Connector is the person who inhabits the most wide-ranging social group, and a person who brings people of varied interests together.  The Salesman is, as you might imagine, a person skilled at converting others to their point of view.  All three types of people have important roles to play in any social network, and all three types contribute to pushing things toward the tipping point.

The author points out other important features of the social landscape.  One such feature is the "stickiness factor," or how well an idea is communicated across mediums.  Another is the power of context over individual and group decision-making, and the fact that a person's character varies a bit from situation to situation.  The author backs up these concepts with a wealth of examples, and I could find no flaws in his arguments.

The only problem with this well-researched book is its age.  Written in the late 90s, and published in the year 2000, its discussion of societal norms takes place in the absence of Google, in the absence of Facebook, and in the absence of smartphones.  Some of the examples he uses are also dated, and in light of recent events could cut both ways.  Using New York City's fight against crime, for example, is less convincing in the presence of recent social unrest and pressure to reform law enforcement.  This book was, after all, written before 9/11, before Black Lives Matter, and before Donald Trump was President.

But this is a small complaint.  The Tipping Point is still a great book, and I found it very informative.

2017年4月30日 星期日

"A Loyal Character Dancer" by Qiu Xiaolong (2002)

"'Do you think what people practice here in reality is capitalism rather than communism?'

"'You have to find the answer to this question for yourself,' he replied evasively.  'Deng's openness to capitalist innovation is well-known.   There is a saying of his: 'It doesn't matter whether it's a white or a black cat, as long as it catches a rat.'"

Qiu Xiaolong is a Chinese author living in the United States.  A Loyal Character Dancer, his second novel, is part of his "Detective Chen series."  The first book in this series, Death of a Red Heroine, was also reviewed here. 

In this book, the intrepid Detective Chen has to rescue a pregnant woman from the clutches of a Fujianese triad.  In this endeavor he is assisted by his trusty partner Yu, and also by Catherine Rohn, an American woman sent to China by the U.S. Marshals service.

The plot is fairly cohesive, and most of the loose ends are tied up in the book's final chapter.  As a story it's less convincing than Qiu's previous book, it's too convoluted for its own good, and the novel's conclusion relies upon too many coincidences.

Detective Chen also grows increasingly annoying over the course of this book.  He spends so much time quoting ancient poetry, and one begins to wonder how he ever managed to survive as a policeman in the first place.  With his heart in ancient dynasties, I doubt he could ever cope with the tedium of police work, and most of his colleagues wouldn't have been able to stand him for long.  I suppose that the author viewed him as a noble, oft-misunderstood "man out of time," but I think that in reality most people would see him as a pretentious ass.  His poetic inclinations were used to much better effect in Death of a Red Heroine, while in this book he quickly wears out his welcome.

Catherine Rohn's characterization is another problem.  Is her Chinese good?  Is her Chinese bad?  Is she familiar with Chinese culture?  Is it really her first time in China?  At times she describes herself (and is described by others) as an outsider, but at the same time she seems entirely too familiar with the workings of China, and her interactions with Chinese characters, involving someone who is supposedly visiting China for the first time, seem as if they were written for another, Chinese character that was eliminated from an earlier draft of the story.

Between Detective Chen's flawless English (despite the fact that he's never left China), and Detective Rohn's flawless Chinese (despite the fact that it's her first time there), we are confronted by a mystery novel with a Western character it doesn't need.  In a way this is really too bad, in that glossing over the differences between these two people makes a more fruitful discussion of their cultural differences impossible.  Such a discussion would have added a whole other dimension to this book, and would have given the author more opportunities to explore the state of late 90s China.

But maybe I'm being too hard on A Loyal Character Dancer.  While it's not nearly as good as Death of a Red Heroine, it's still more interesting than most of the other detective novels crowding bookstore shelves.  If you enjoy this kind of book, and if you're interested in China, I would still recommend it.

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  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)

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