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 a 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.