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Archive for December, 2006

movrev: Fearless starring Jet Li

5 stars: Not just a fantastic martial arts moving, but an instant classic

Jet Li, champion wushu practicioner and martial arts movies star, has out done not only himself, but other martial artists as well. He, along with director Ronny Yu create not only one of the best martial arts films ever, but an excellent historical story about a man’s (Huo Yuanjia) conflict with himself, on his journey to represent an entire country.

This movie showcases some of the most magnificently staged sparring, including matching and different styles and weapons. The first two major fights are “wushu vs. wushu” style fights, as Huo Yuanjia, who taught himself wushu against his father’s wishes, tries to egotistically turn himself into a local champion, forgetting what his parents tried to teach him, forgetting what wushu and the martial arts are truly about and going only for personal glory. Due to circustances about the 2nd of these fights that should not be revealed, he exiles himself, and learns through self-examination and self-awareness the lessons his parents were teaching.

Upon returning, and seeing the ridicule forced upon the Chinese by other countries at that time (1900′s), he takes on the reigning US Champion Hercules O’Brien (played by Nathan Jones, WWF wrestling champion). Truly one of the best choreographed fights in recent film history, the massive Jones against the dimunitive Li is one of the martial highlights of the film.

Huo Yuanjia, with the help of his childhood friend, then founds the Jin Wu Sports Federation (still in existence today), to rebuild pride in China.

The beginning and ending of the film spotlights Huo Yanjia vs. four champions (three from the west and one from Japan). The bonus material in the film briefly reviews these four champions true to life martial arts expertise and experience, giving credence to why these fights scenes are so amazingly real.

The bonus material, especially the “Fearless Journey” piece, is an excellent albeit short review of Jet Li’s vision of wushu.

This movie is on my list of top ten martial arts films of all time, besting even Jet Li’s Fists of Legend and some of Bruce Lee’s best. While the martial arts sequences are the centerpiece, the story represents truly what wushu and martial arts are about: the struggle we all have with ourselves to be better tomorrow that we are today. It is an enjoyable film to watch.

bookrev: The Way of Energy by Master Lam Kam-Chuen

bookrev: The Way of Energy by Master Lam Kam-Chuen

Excellent step-by-step introductory Qigong (Chi Kung) manual

The Way of Energy provides a step-by-step, almost month-to-month introduction to the practice of Qigong.

Many Qigong books are too “Eastern” for Westerners to read, or are too technical/textbook like, spending many pages going over the meridians, cavities, times of day and orientation. This is required knowledge for advanced practicioners, but gets in the way and is intimidating for introductory students.

The Way of Energy starts of with a simple, straightforward standing meditation. After a brief introduction to Qigong, Part One introduces two standing positions, discusses how to start with a few minutes then work your way up to many, a good section on breathing and has an excellent section describing the sensations most people experience when starting Qigong practice (this section is worth the price of the book for most beginners).

Part Two (which the text recommends proceeding to after a few months) introduces the Eight Pieces of the Brocade Qigong exercies (called Ba Duan Jin in this text) and introduces three additional and advanced standing positions. The reader is instructed on how to integrate these two new pieces into their practice. While the Eight Pieces of Brocade positions vary slightly from other texts, their descriptions are excellent and their purpose briefly but clearly explained.

Part Three describes four advanced standing positions and imagery exercises for the practicioner to begin managing their Chi. The last part of the book describes how to integrate these disciplines into everyday life.

In summary, an excellent introductory step-by-step guide. For more technical works, I would recommend the Qigong Meditation series by Dr. Yang, Jwing Ming (Embryonic Breathing, Small Circulation and the forthcoming book on Grand Circulation).

bookrev: JLA Vol. 6: World War III by Grant Morrison

5 stars: The best one yet!

These were originally published as JLA #34 – #41.

The World War III story is the best one of the JLA series so far. Not only does it bring together many of the previous stories, it also yet again brings forth the basic characters of several of the key JLAers.

This is the end of the world saga foretold in several earlier JLA issues. The Injustice League is back as well, recruiting previous nemesis Prometheis (although Batman, whom Prometheis handily whooped last time, has a few tricks in store for him). The injustice league also rescues General Eiling from an asteroid where he was marooned several issues ago. But the return of the Injustice League isn’t the main event; the end of the world as foretold by many (Meteron, Hourman, Zauriel to some extent) is coming, in the form of the aptly named Mageddon. This is the threat that Orion and Barda were sent to Earth to fight, although it seems even greater than their powers.

Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and Plastic Man all get to show their character, flaws and all. Again, this is what makes JLA among the best graphic novels: the heroes have character flaws, even Superman, and the JLAers sometimes dig into each other.

The best bit is Batman, the king of despair, helping Superman, the eternal optimist, overcome mental anguish caused by Maggedon.

The worst part of the JLA is all of the changes that happen in the characters own comics. Diana is back as Wonder Woman, replacing her mother with no explanation. Other characters wander in and out (though there is some great interaction with Huntress, Superman and Batman).

Fav panel: pg 176: Zauriel, getting volunteers from the Pax Dei!

bookrev: JLA Vol. 5: Justice for All by Grant Morrison

4 stars: One poor story at the beginning, then three excellent ones

These were originally published as JLA #24-33.

The first story arc (Executive Action, Scorched Earth and Our Army at War) has a pretty lame premise and a weak ending. The premise is that a General would override the President of the US and would authorize an action against the JLA because they were protecting the rest of the world (in addition to the USA). The Army Ultramarine Corps are X-men knock-offs. The villan is pretty interesting, but the way that get rid of him (no spoilers here) is lame.

The last three stories are quite good.

The Atom gets recruited back into the JLA and saves the day against Amazo…although the way they beat him is trite, it’s the only way they could given that Amazo absorbs all their powers.

The Crisis Time Five story arc is excellent, and brings back the JSA members to fight alongside the JLAers. Two 5th dimension beings, including original JSA/JLA founder Triumph’s (I missed the episode where he was the founder?) Thunderbolt, are fighting and destroying the Earth. Interesting new non-JLA characters in this story.

And in the last one, a nice “Gotham City is a disaster, Bruce Wayne is to blame story”.

Favorite panel: page 132, where Captain Marvel (guest star) KO’s Superman!

bookrev: A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber

4 stars: World evolution, personal evolution, and the state of the world today

Ken Wilber’s book is separated into three parts, with the last chapter of the third part being an epilogue of sorts. I was riveted in the first two parts, partly bored in the third, and enjoyed the ending.

The book is written in Q & A style, which I thought worked quite well with the subject matter. Although the questions were, of course, leading the reader to a certain path, it did help me think through the points the author was trying to make.

The first part (“Spirit in Action”) I thought of as “world evolution”. This section lays the foundation of Wilber’s thinking, how systems evolve, and proposes a four-quadrant approach for thinking about that evolution in a holistic fashion. The four quadrants encompass the inside and outside of the self (“I” and “it”, the conscious and the physical) and the inside and outside of groups, or cultures (“we” and “its”). This leads to an discussion about world evolution, describing how the world has evolved from archaic to magic to mythic to rational and on.

The second part (“The Further Reaches of Spirit-in-Action”) I thought of as personal evolution. Using the same framework and providing background from psychology and philosophy studies, Wilber shows a personal evolution through “fulcrums” or steps (eureka moments?) as a person moves up the spiritual/thought evolution. Parallels are drawn between the world evolution and personal evolution, and it is reinforced constantly that this must be an integral approach, i.e., it cannot just be logical (“it”) and it cannot just be consicousness (“I”) but must be a non-dualistic approach.

The third part (“Beyond Flatland”) was a much too-long treatise on Wilber’s opinion on why and how we have gotten off of the path of these two evolutions, personal and world. He makes quite a good argument, but goes to great lengths to categorize previous philosphers and thinkers into different buckets to prove his main point (which is that we have gone into many different dis-integrated directions, lead by the “Ego” set (logical thinkers without spirituality) and the “Eco” set (back to nature, everything is feeling) when we should be heading for a non-dualistic integrated approach). There is much too much academic argument in this section than there were in the previous two parts, and, while I am certain it serves the purpose of making Wilber’s point, I found it slowed the book down tremendously, ala a textbook.

The last chapter of the third part is a summary of where Wilber thinks we are now in our evolution and where we should go. This was a excellent ending to the book, pulling together his thinking of an “Integral Vision”.

This was my first Ken Wilber book. Although the Q&A turned me off at first, the first two parts were quite readable and accessible. I reccommend those two sections for any and all. I look forward to reading more of Mr. Wilber’s works.

The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore

bookrev: The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore

A Christopher Morre book for the holiday season!The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore

I’ve read most of Mr. Moore’s books, including Fluke and Lamb which I’d rate at the top. The Stupidest Angel isn’t his best, but it is still an enjoyable read.

Fan’s of other Christopher Moore novels will find familiar characters (including Tucker Case and Roberto the Fruitbat, my favs from The Island of the Sequined Love Nun) and new ones. Readers new to Mr. Moore’s work will enjoy the characters, as they try to keep up with the interestingly complicated storyline.

The storyline involves several misunderstanding and misinterpretations, starting with a child who thinks he saw Santa get hit on the head by a shovel (it wasn’t really Santa) and a none-too-bright Angel looking for something to fix who thinks he found it. It culminates with an excellent holiday party, where, as usual, imminent destruction by forces not necessarily natural is fought by our somewhat heroes (as his characters are always full of character flaws, even when heroes).

But I read Christopher Moore for the wit. Like the three word Chapter 16. And the great play on words.

I give it four stars because it isn’t Lamb, which is Mr. Moore’s greatest book. Unlike Lamb The Stupidest Angel’s plot sometimes goes somewhat into dead end alleys, and the characters aren’t as fleshed out as in Lamb. But it’s hard to compare any book to Lamb, which is one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read.

bookrev: The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

A new type of fantasy

After a while, one grows tired of elves and orcs and barbarians and the typical fantasy stories. Steph Swainston has invented a new and unique world with none of the normal suspects in it, with great imagination that still leaves a lot to the readers to ponder.

She creates a world with mortals and immortals, where the immortals must earn their place by being the best at what they can do: the best swordsman, the best sailor, the best archer. Immortality is betowed upon them by the Emperor San…where he got the ability to do this is one of the mysteries of the series.

Jant Comet is one of the immortals, called the Messenger because of his unique ability to fly. Because he is the Emperor’s Messenger, we get to see the politics of the realm, and even see Jant change a few things.

The Emperor’s realm is at war with the Insects, who look like bugs many times the size of humans and who build paper nests out of counqueorer lands. Where the Insects have come from is yet another of the mysteries in the book and series.

Jant is an addict to a substance called Cat. Ms. Swainston’s portrayl of Jant’s addiction, in this book and the next, is dead on…she must have known or studied addicts quite closely.

Jant’s addiction gives him entrance into a parallel world, a world he and we the readers are not sure is real until we explore it further. Then it becomes tied in with the Emperor’s world and the Insects.

Ms. Swainston mixes political intrigue (immortals battling each other for position; non-immortals vs. the Emperor; mortals vying to become immortals), war (vividly imagines human vs. insect fighting scenes, shades of Stormship Troopers!), addiction and Jant’s journey of self-discovery into an excellent fantasy novel. As an author, what I most admire about the writing is her ability to not tell the reader what is going on (at least for the big stuff) but to let us figure it out. The novel held me in suspense till the end, made we eager for the next (which is equally good).

Highly recommended.

bookrev: JLA Vol. 4: Strength in Numbers by Grant Morrison

4 stars: Some great opponents, two many JLAers

These stories were originally published as JLA #16-#23.

The stories begin with Superman, Aquaman and Batman reforming the JLA that was disbanded in the last book. It is never made clear why the JLA was disbanded by the three, and, when it is put back together at the end of the first story in this issue, it is the same characters as before, plus Zauriel, Huntress, Steel and Plastic Man (with Oracle behind the scenes). Maybe they disbanded cause the old rules said they could only have seven? And, not that I’m arguing, but who put Superman, Batman and Aquaman in charge? I guess no Wonder Woman at the top because she died and her place was taken by her mother? Superman says the league is the world’s only hope, it may be that they needed to add more talents to defeat upcoming opponents.

The storylines with Prometheus and Julian September are excellent, the last two with Adam Strange and the Sandman less so. Prometheus makes his powers equal to all of the JLAers…but he forgets a couple of new members and interlopers. He escapes so expect to see him in later books. Julian September opens up the world to probabilities and events that are million to one shots begin happening regularly. Both of these are great challenges for the team.

Favorite panels: the pictures of the reformed JLA, pg 24, 52 and 90 are spectacular. And the panel on page 202 with J’onn looking down on the eastern Canada, Great Lakes, Greenland area with the monster in the water is great.

bookrev: Getting Back by William Dietrich

Large ideas, a fast paced read, an interesting vision of the future

William Dietrich’s novel Getting Back is one of those rare novels that is both interesting and well-paced; I sped through it over the span of three evenings. It meshes several large ideas together with a well thought out vision of the future and some characters that most readers will identify and sympathize with. Its minor drawback is a rather predictable and sappy ending.

In the future, the society is one of uniformity, controlled by a company that has merged with the government (or vice versa). Billions of people work for this company, and while some are content, others long for adventure and a way to be individualistic. One of these is Daniel Dyson, the main character of the story, an intelligent young programmer, history major, who is so bored at work he makes catapults to launch love notes to fellow workers and tried to hack into the expense reporting system.

He is “led” by underground internet contacts and a subversive young lady whom he is smitten with named Raven to Outback Adventures, a hidden, shady group that offers to drop people in Australia (which is now completely abandoned and quarantined because of a plague) with the goal of crossing the continent to get to an Exodus point on the far east coast.

To review the rest of the story would be to spoil it. Suffice to say that the trek and adventure lead Daniel, Raven and the others they encounter through a lot of self and cultural examination (has our society evolved the right way? could there have been another way? am I really a non-conformist or just an individualist?)

Some books who take on so many large ideas (world dominated by corporation, plague, conformity vs. individuality, etc.) get lost in the discussion of them, and, while I did find myself scanning through on a couple of pages of arguments about whether the current society was good or bad, for the most part Mr. Dietrich weaves these into an action packed adventure story. It is science fiction in the sense of the events that have happened and that it is placed in the future, but the trek across Australia makes it more of an adventure novel.

Highly reccommended. I go now in search of Mr. Dietrich’s other novels.

bookrev: JLA Vol. 3: Rock of Ages by Grant Morrison

4 stars: An excellent time travel story

These were originally published as JLA #10-#15.

The story throws a few large curves in the beginning. The unexpected part of the Justice League is that all of the characters have their own story lines, so major events like Wonder Woman dying and Superman turning into pure energy contained in a blue and white suit happen outside of the JLA stories. But having Aztec join the JLA in his own story, not in a JLA story is asking a bit much of the reader (at least he has the grace to leave the JLA in a JLA story!). This should have been handled in the flow, kind of like the old Green Arrow’s son taking over his place when the JLA fought the Key.

The other major twist is that the plot starts out as a battle with the newly formed Lex Luthor brainchild The Injustice Gang. This would have been quite ho-hum IMHO. I am quite happy that it took a mind-bending turn into back and forth time travel and multiple-dimensions, in a story worthy of our heroes. The ending of the story is a little forced, but the storyline gives the members many situations to show who they are beneath their powers, which is what makes the League a great book.

Our favorite panels: my son’s is page 129, an excellent sketch of J’onn, Superman and Batman with Plasticman in the background. Mine is page 50, Bruce Wayne and Robin in the batcave, with Bruce, mask off, half way being Bruce and halfway being Batman.

Re-reading MSandT

Re-reading Tad William's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn

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Dusk Before the Dawn

Dusk Before the Dawn

Software By the Kilo

Software by the Kilo

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