Book Recommendations – Volume X

The Summer reading session is well upon us and there is no better time to dive into another edition of my book recommendations. Whether you are at the beach, at the pool, or lounging on a rooftop deck, you can take some leisure time to read a great fictional or non-fictional offering to indulge your mind or open your imagination. The three books I cover are all non-fiction, which is the category that my favorite books often fall under. I do hope to dive into some fiction books sometime soon, but I’ll save that for other post.

The three books I recommend vary from personal finance to progressive politics to self-help psychology, but they all are educational and thought-provoking in their own way. These books aren’t mindless reads, so you’ll have to pay attention and even re-read certain chapters twice or more to really get the gist of what the author is getting at. However, each of these three books have staying power and they would make an excellent addition to anybody’s personal book collection since the different lessons that these books impart are timeliness in nature. Without further ado, let’s discuss which books I enjoyed in this latest volume of recommendations.

1.) “Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope” by Mark Manson

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Following up on the tremendous attention and success gained from his previous New York Times best-selling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which dealt with unconventional yet powerful self-help advice, Mark Manson is back with an excellent follow-up book in tackling how to apply similar lessons to humanity as a whole. Whether its today’s turbulent geopolitics, the growing climate crisis, or the negative effects of social media, everything can seem to be f*cked nowadays and hopelessness as a condition of these events seems to be gaining steam.

Manson uses the teachings of Nietzsche, Kant, and other prominent philosophers to denote why humanity is facing these systemic problems and how they came to be based on our collective psychology as a species. He argues that having hope in of itself is a paradox and that it’s best to deal with life’s uncertainties and foibles as they come. Wishing for a better, happier, wealthier, and safer future is unproductive if you do not take actions in the present to create that more hopeful reality. Manson breaks down complex topics such as politics, religion, and even the future of artificial intelligence into digestible concepts on how humanity has gotten to be where it is currently.

One of the aspects I like most about Mark’s writings is that he doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and he allows you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence he presents and the stories he tells. My favorite parts of Everything is F*cked focus on why treating people as means to an end is a selfish endeavor and how our feeling brain has a lot more influence on our thinking brain than we have been told. Also, in accepting what is ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, as Mark cites in one of the first chapters is part of recognizing our innate humanity and what drives us collectively. This truth, while uncomfortable to all, is the main reason why we strive to do what we do in life, for better or for worse, and how we tend to live our lives denying that truth when it is staring us right in the face.

Instead of looking to politics or religion to give us hope, which tends to have its own set of consequences, it should rather be our own individual actions of being kinder, gentler, and more respectful of others that carry the day. We should not wait around for other people to change for you or be better to you. This book, like Mark’s first, is well worth a second and third reading to grasp all the lessons he lays out for the reader. Posing deep existential questions and acknowledging hard truths rarely covered elsewhere in the self-help genre, Manson stands out as one of my generation’s best authors and a good example of how to live a better life, not just for ourselves but for others as well.

2.) “Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World” by Rutger Bregman

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I really liked this book by Mr. Bregman for several reasons. Whereas most books today examine problems and investigate how they came to be, Bregman describes the possible solutions there can be to these problems and how life in the 21st century should be different from the past. Given the rise of automation, how interconnected we have become globally, and increasing efficiencies in the workplace, Bregman dares to ask how we can make life better for vast majority of people in our societies based on these factors.

Rutger Bregman does an extensive amount of research for this book and draws upon years and decades of datasets and public policy to make his three main ideas not only relevant but persuasive to his overall argument. Bregman’s ideas are not new and have been discussed before but in ‘Utopia for Realists’, he really examines each of his proposals individually from a public policy perspective and how the time is ripe to make them become a reality. Today, it seems like we have lost to the drive to implement big changes to both our economy and our society. Bregman asks his readers to think of the plausibility of the 15-hour work week, a Universal Basic Income for all, and an ‘open borders’ policy that would benefits people’s lives in numerous ways as he lays out diligently in each chapter of the book.

While some may not agree with these proposals politically, Bregman backs up his arguments with facts and evidence, as a good social scientist would. One of the things I did not know before reading his book was how close President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress came to passing a universal basic income in legislative form back in the early 1970’s. Giving people the chance to have basic economic security, the ability to live across borders without bureaucratic roadblocks, and having more free time for family life or to better themselves through personal hobbies, interests, or side businesses are related to his three main proposals. These societal changes, he says, would lead to greater fulfillment and happiness and benefit our collective mental health.

While his ideas may be unrealistic today, the way in which the job market is shifting and has become more efficient in terms of productivity over the past few decades, how automation and advanced Robotics may affect millions of jobs being lost, and how the demographic crunch in the Western world may lead to more liberal immigration policies to spur economic growth, the main proposals that Bregman focuses on could become a reality sooner rather than later. It’s not a question of if these utopian ideas could ever happen, it’s more about when they will happen and how they can be implemented successfully around the world.

3.) “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” (2nd Edition) by Ramit Sethi

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I will be the first to say that I have shied away from reading books on personal finance given that the advice given and the person giving it may not be reliable or trustworthy. However, based on the recommendations of other authors I like and how sensible his recommendations are from watching his videos, Ramit Sethi has delivered and recently updated one of the best personal finance books out there. For someone who is just getting started in thinking about optimal strategies for long-term savings and investments, Mr. Sethi breaks it all down from negotiating lower interest rates on your credit cards to how to find the best investment vehicles to deliver you a secure retirement.

If you are new to personal finance, this book is really meant for you. You don’t have to be an expert in 401ks, Roth IRAs, or index funds to make full use of this book. Ramit is not only an author but also provides an additional website, which offers a free blog, multiple courses to improve your finances, and career opportunities. His common-sense finance solutions garner millions of views per month and very positive media coverage. Ramit’s book does not make his readership feel guilty if they have made financial mistakes in the past. Instead, he offers tips and advice as well as personal stories from people he’s helped to get them out of trouble whether its credit card debt, student loan debt, etc. He wants his readers to figure out what exactly a ‘rich’ life is for them and what steps they can take to make it happen.

You are left reading this book feeling uplifted and ready to use his advice to improve your financial situation. You are also left wondering why Ramit’s book isn’t mandatory reading for high school students, given that we tend to neglect this kind of basic financial education for young people in the United States. Whether you are 18 or 28, it’s never too early to start thinking about your long-term finances. With Ramit’s well-written, digestible, and even humorous personal finance book, you are in good hands. He gives you actionable advice on how to greatly improve your finance in weeks instead of years and discusses in detail how many hours it will take you in setting up your savings, investments, and credit card debt payment options with as little of a hassle as possible. While Ramit can give you all the advice in the world, he leaves it up to you, the reader, to take actions yourself to improve your financial situation. Now that you have the knowledge based off his book, you’ll be ready to create a financially secure future for yourself and perhaps your family too.

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‘Limitless’ – Film Review and Analysis

What if there was a special pill out there that you could take once a day that would suddenly allow you to tap into all your brain’s potential? What if you were able to recall everything you had ever learned, every language you had ever studied, and every fight move you ever watched? How would your life change if you able to fully actualize your abilities to your full potential, both physically and mentally? Now, you may think of these as silly questions but Limitless as a film does so in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner.

Instead of working hard, taking risks, and pushing ourselves to be better people, Limitless proposes a fictional scenario where a special pill, taken just once a day, can make all the difference. You don’t have to do any heavy lifting as the pill you take while unlock all your hidden potential allowing you to be free to pursue your dreams and goals. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, Limitless lets the audience decides if this illustrious pill is worth the risk involved and whether you would even truly need a pill to become the best version of yourself.

Released in 2011 by Director Neil Burger, Limitless is a mixture of genres blending together to be quite a unique concoction including science fiction, drama, and even some action. The star actor in the film, Bradley Cooper, plays Eddie Morra, who is a struggling author living in New York City who is going through a serious case of writer’s block. Eddie is your typical Average Joe kind of character struggling to make his dreams and goals a reality. The viewer of the film is meant to feel a bit bad for Eddie’s situation since he seems to be doing his best to become a successful author.

However, from Eddie’s unkempt appearance including shaggy hair and heavy bags under his eyes, one’s sympathy for Eddie is undermined by the fact that he can’t even take care of himself physically let alone his apartment, which is a mess filled with strewn about clothes and dirty dishes. The main problem that we learn about Eddie is that he is a well-meaning guy, but he looks for shortcuts and is undisciplined to the point where he is behind on rent payments and his girlfriend is about to leave him.

Instead of changing his ways internally by looking at ways to make himself have more self-discipline and willpower, he instead looks for a shortcut to get himself out of his career, relationship, and financial woes. Eddie runs into Vernon, the brother of his ex-wife, who deals him a strange, new nootropic drug named NZT-48, which Vernon says will help Eddie unlock his brain’s capacity at 100%. Eddie is skeptical at first until he takes one pill and realizes that it is not just a joke and that he is now able to remember everything through enhanced memory and is able to write for hours without losing his concentration. He can also clean his messy apartment, befriend the landlord’s wife, and start to get his life in order.

Because of what this one pill did for him, Eddie goes back to Vernon for more NZT to keep his peak mental capacity going. Horrifically, he discovers Vernon murdered by people also looking for the NZT as well. Eddie is able to find Vernon’s secret stash, which allows him to keep using the nootropic drug to make his life bigger and better. While concerned about what just happened, Eddie becomes addicted to the NZT because of how effortlessly it improves his life and how much more successful he can be without really putting hard work into it.

The old adage of ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is prevalent throughout Limitless as Eddie increasingly puts himself and his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), into greater and greater danger. By needing to use more and more of the drug, Eddie gets addicted to both the potential and the power he gains from enhancing his mental abilities. He become stubborn enough to put himself in harm’s way all to risk it for a chance to becoming a powerful, successful, and wealthy man. Despite being at odds with an finance and investment tycoon, Carl van Loon (played by the legendary Robert De Niro), and being chased around New York City by loan sharks affiliated with the Russian mafia, Eddie’s life is doing a complete 360.

Because of the NZT, he has no shyness or doubts in his interpersonal skills. He gets Lindy, his girlfriend back into his life, he picks up multiple foreign languages including Italian and Mandarin Chinese, and he is able to build up his body through working out and martial arts. In addition, he can concentrate for hours on end and remembers everything he’s ever read, seen, or heard making him a mathematics whiz and an investment genius overnight.

The accumulation of wealth, power, and status can take a lifetime for some people with most never achieving the level that Eddie does in the film. NZT allows him to do it overnight but at a seemingly great risk to his health and survival. The NZT pill is wanted by van Loon and the Russian mafia with Eddie standing in their way. The climax of the film focuses on whether he will be able to use the pill and its abilities to outsmart those around him who would take it from him and leave him to die.

Eddie Mora is a flawed character who is seduced by a powerful nootropic that slowly but surely takes over his life. Actions have consequences and Eddie started mixing with the wrong people. Due to his frustrations with his life and not wanting to suffer to reach his goals, you could argue that he took the easy way out and it could cost him dearly. Had he persevered with his writing and started to take personal responsibility for where he was in life, perhaps he would have never gone to a drug dealer for the NZT in the first place.

This movie may not be one of the best movies of all-time but it is entertaining and carries a few nuggets regarding how any of us should not look for shortcuts in life when things get hard. Taking the easy way out comes with unintended consequences that may be more severe than we realize even when the payoff is really tempting. Eddie, instead of doubling down on his goals and becoming more disciplined and utilizing greater willpower in order to better his life, took the easy way out because he was not built of strong moral fiber. As a result, Eddie gets mixed in with the wrong people and risks his life for a drug that he can not live without.

Any of us, if we are not careful, can be seduced by quick wins and five-minute solutions when true personal development, both mentally and physically, takes years and even decades to get to a high level. While luck can help us along the way to shorten the road to success, it is perseverance, willpower, and the right mindset that can take us further in the long run.

You don’t need any kind of pill to produce a novel (strong shots of espresso maybe), to learn multiple languages, or to get into great physical shape. What’s holding you back are your excuses and your lack of action. With consistent effort and hard work, the goals that Eddie achieves because of NZT in this film can be achieved by the average person without needing what he needed. First, you need to believe in yourself and then you need to write down your goals and come with a plan of action to become successful. As mentioned earlier, true progress in personal development does not happen overnight but can take months and even years. With sustained effort and hard work, you’ll reach your goals and you’ll do it in the right way.

While far from a perfect film, Limitless is entertaining and thought-provoking regarding human nature and what the average person will do to change their lives by taking the easy way out. The story of ‘Limitless’ is a referendum on hoping for a magic pill to solve your problems rather than working through them by your own grit, sweat, and toughness.

The character of Eddie Morra fell to his own short-sighted belief in wanting success by any means necessary but I hope you, if you watch this film realize that it’s far more satisfying to achieve your dreams and your goals through your own hard work rather than looking for an easy fix in the form of a magic solution peddled by others, which may not work or get you into trouble.

I do want to recommend Limitless for the impressive visuals, the acting by Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, and the important life lessons that it imparts on the audience by the time the final credits of the film begin to roll.

‘Revolutionary Road’ – Film Review and Analysis

The epic saga of Jack and Rose continues in the form of two young, suburbanite lovebirds in Connecticut who discover that married life may not be what they thought it would be. If anyone has seen the movie ‘Titanic’, you’ll notice that ‘Revolutionary Road’ features the same actors, Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio as romantically involved but not as star-crossed lovers but rather as a newly married couple. While this is a totally different film and in a different time period, part of what makes ‘Revolutionary Road’ a great and memorable film is the acting by DiCaprio and Winslet.

Once again, they are the leading roles in a movie where the acting can make or break the film. Similar to their previous movie together in ‘Titanic’, ‘Revolutionary Road’ is a character-driven film with intense emotional moments and a message that stays with you deeply after the final credits roll. Michael Shannon, a very well-renowned actor almost steals the show from Leonardo and Kate as John Giving, the brilliant yet disturbed son of the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Giving’s. Helen Giving (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband help the Wheelers to buy their home at 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.

‘Revolutionary Road’, released in 2008, was directed by Sam Mendes who has also directed other classic American movies including ‘Road to Perdition’ and ‘American Beauty.’ Mendes is a talented director who does an excellent job finding the right actors to fit the character-driven roles that they have to sell to the audience. In a way, ‘Revolutionary Road’ seems like a period piece precursor to the movie, ‘American Beauty’ in terms of its’ suburban setting and overall themes of dissatisfaction of life and a yearning for change.

Similar to his other movies, Mendes enlists Thomas Newman, my favorite movie composer to conduct the powerful and moving score to the film. The cinematography also draws you in especially in the penultimate moments where you see Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) running frantically out of remorse down Revolutionary Road after the climax of the movie. The movie’s title doesn’t give the audience too much detail on what it could be about or what the film focuses on. It is enough however to peak your curiosity especially with the two leading actors involved and the film does not disappoint in this aspect. Awarded with both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, ‘Revolutionary Road’ was a critical success even though it didn’t really light up the box office when it was released.

Unbeknownst to most, the film ‘Revolutionary Road’ was based off of the novel by Richard Yates of the same name. While the book was released in 1961, Yates wrote it as a referendum on the conformity of the 1950’s and how families across America were settling down in suburbs that were safe and secure yet did not leave much to the imagination. It’s a great work of fiction and the movie ‘Revolutionary Road’ sticks to the material quite well.

Like most couples of that age, Frank and April Wheeler meet at a friend’s party in 1948. Frank is a longshoreman and a former soldier during World War II while April is an aspiring actress when they first get to know each other. Frank’s father worked for 20 years for a sales company known as Knox Machines and sees himself in the same position unless he can think of something else. Frank is someone who is bored by the monotony of his work and desires to do something bigger with his life. Ironically, the less he cares about his sales job, the more the bosses like what he’s been doing. Frank falls in love with April and they marry each other.

The courtship and how well they actually knew each other before marrying is not covered in the film but it’s clear that they were both young when they married. The audience is left to infer that they really didn’t know each other all that well and what they expected out of their lives. After they get married, it is mentioned that April is pregnant with the couples’ first child. Because of the cheapness of land and the need for more space like many other American couples in the 1950’s, the Wheelers move to 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.

When April and Frank move in to Revolutionary Road, they are first welcomed by the realtor, Helen Givings (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband Howard Givings. The new couple is deemed to be perfect for this idyllic suburban town by the Givings even though their son, John (Michael Shannon), is unhappy with the way the Wheelers are living to each other. Lacking an understanding of normal social cues, John rants about the ‘hopeless emptiness’ of suburban living and questions the soundness of their marriage in front of them.

While the audience can see John Givings as initially crazy, as the film goes on, he actually starts to make the most sense out of anyone in the film. To The Wheelers, their other neighbors, the Campbells, are what they would aspire to be as the perfect suburban couple. They are a friendly couple, content with their lives, and seemingly in love with each other. However, as we go through the film, we realize that each couple: the Wheelers, the Givings, and even the Campbells are putting on a mask.

Out of the three couples in this film, we do spend the most time with the Wheelers who it seems were never truly meant through each other. They may have connected initially but they seem to us as two very different people. April is very footloose, wanting to enjoy life, and experience the world while Frank is content with who he is, what his career will be, and his contentedness with being a father. They are also not quite settled in their livelihoods when we meet as April is struggling to gain traction as an Actress and Frank is bored stiff at his sales job. Instead of supporting each other through the tough times, it remains a point of contention that either person hasn’t succeeded as much as they would like. While it seems that they are both not content with living in the suburbs or being married, they also have their two children to think about.

Because they are married and have children, it’s nearly impossible for them to uproot their lives as April suggests. A running theme throughout the film is their desire to move elsewhere including Paris which April endorses immediately yet Frank sees as being unrealistic. When you have people who depend on you, bills to pay, and jobs that get in the way, it’s hard to move anywhere including overseas. Their collective boredom at living in the suburbs starts to manifest itself elsewhere as they start to get bored with each other by seeking out extramarital affairs, excessive drinking, smoking, etc. to dull their pain. Instead of trying to work out their marriage problems or seek ways to better their lives separately, they drag each other through the mud with shouting matches and other more extreme actions.

While Paris is an escape for the two of them from their jobs, their repetitive jobs, and their monotonous suburban lifestyle, it’s clearer that they want to escape and get away from each other. As John Lennon famously stated, “Life is while happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Frank and April Wheeler never truly accept that their lives are not truly their own and they do have to make compromises when it comes to money, children, lifestyle, etc. When they plan to actually move to Paris, April gets pregnant again and Frank is offered a lucrative promotion at his sales job. Instead of accepting their new reality together, they lash out at each other and cause a lot of pain and suffering in the process.

You can see from the film that Frank and April Wheeler were not compatible people in terms of their relationship or marriage. As April bluntly opines to Frank during one of their fights, “You were just some guy that made me laugh at a party once.” It becomes clear to the audience that they would be happier living separate lives with Frank living as a successful salesman at his father’s former company in New York City while April tries to make it on her own as an actress working in Paris or Los Angeles. Both of them are not cut out for the married, suburban lifestyle but they are also equally not cut out for each other. They can use the suburbs, their children, their job situations as excuses but at the heart of the issue is their flawed relationship.

American society in the 1950’s helped to put a lot of pressure on young couples like the Wheeler’s to get married, have children, and then move to the suburbs where it’s safe and secure. However, it’s clear that this type of lifestyle is not for everyone. Some people are not meant to be married or to have children. Others are meant to live in cities or travel for their work. I can imagine that the cultural attitude in the 1950’s shunned this kind of critical thinking and encouraged a more conformist lifestyle that stifled people’s personal hopes, wants, and ambitions. You could say that the following decade, the 1960’s, changed American life forever in its expectations of people and how they could and should live their lives.

In closing, this film is a realistic and sobering look at how relationships and marriages can fail sometimes and that it can be very painful to live a life that’s not in line with your personal wants and needs.

‘Children of Men’ – Film Review and Analysis

What would happen to our world if women were no longer able to have babies? How would human society, nations, and the globe as a whole react to such a consequential event to humanity? A dystopian take on the state of a world without children is the focus of the 2006 critically acclaimed film titled, ‘Children of Men’, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. This film stars Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in its leading roles. The film is based off of a novel of the same name, ‘Children of Men’, which was written by author P.D. James in 1992.

The screenplay and the story have both been adapted from the novel but the striking visuals and the memorable cinematography make it fit for the big screen treatment. Despite a limited release and low profit earnings when it first came out, Children of Men has stayed in the public consciousness due to its timely socio-political themes on immigration, the environment, terrorism, and political violence. With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President and the unlikely occurrence of Brexit, the message and themes of the film have turned out to be quite relevant. Although this film is set in the United Kingdom in the future year of 2027, despite the non-issue with the infertility of women, the issues that humanity is dealing with in 2017 are tied directly to different issues that the film brings up in its’ plotline.

Theo Faron, a civil servant for the British government and former activist, seems to have given up his fight for a better future. With humanity on the brink of extinction and with most of the countries’ governments having collapsed, there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. As one of the characters, Miriam, explains to Theo in the film, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.” Theo and his ex-wife, Julian, estranged for years after the death of their infant child, Dylan, are reunited due to a refugee named Kee. Julian and the Fishes, an anti-government and pro-refugee group involved in an uprising, would like to take Kee to the Human Project.

She is known to be the only woman in the world who is pregnant with the world’s first child in eighteen years, and is very valuable. However, things are not as they seem with the Fishes and their motives for helping Kee. Theo, in this film, is a lone character who promises to help Julian to bring Kee to the Human Project to ensure the future of humanity against all odds. Instead of using Kee as a political prop to help their cause against the government, Theo decides to help her escape from the Fishes, bring her to the British coast, and protect the future of humanity. Along the way, the viewer of the film sees the consequences of a world without babies. Where once there was no hope, Theo gains his sense of purpose and faith again as he hopes to redeem himself by getting Kee to safety and away from both the British government and the Fishes group.

Starting from the opening scene where the main character, Theo, is taken aback from a suicide bomb blast in the heart of London after just having left the café where the attack happened, you get a sense of what you’re in for with this movie. There’s a sense of hopelessness, dread, and despair as the audience is thrust into the focus of the movie as it’s made clear that the youngest person on Earth was eighteen years old meaning that something seriously has gone wrong to make that a reality. Although it’s never directly addressed in the movie, a few of the characters speculate that the reasons women can’t have babies anymore vary from environmental degradation to genetic experiments to too much pollution / radiation. The reason for women’s infertility is never addressed but the film makes it clear that the world is without hope because of the fact that there are no children to carry on the future of the human race.

Humanity faces certain extinction and the United Kingdom where the film’s setting is, instead of maintaining its’ parliamentary form of democracy has regressed into a totalitarian police state. Because it is one of the few surviving nations left on Earth, the country has developed a strict anti-immigration and anti-refugee policy. Any refugees or immigrants from outside the U.K. are rounded up and sent to detention camps, which have very poor and inhospitable conditions. The situation is so dire that the Fishes, labeled as a terrorist group, are fighting a guerrilla war campaign against the government to fight for immigrant rights.

The Fishes, with Julian, Theo’s ex-wife as their leader seem like the good guys but they have nefarious intentions in mind when it comes to the righteousness of their cause especially after they discover the first pregnant woman, Kee, in eighteen years. Throughout the movie, Theo is shown to be caught in the middle between the tyrannical government and the nefarious freedom fighter groups who are both trying to get hold of Kee for their own political gain.

The Human Project, believed to be a group of the world’s leading scientists, are thought to be the best people to help Kee with the baby and to perhaps study why she out of all the women on the planet was able to give birth to a child. Theo, having seemingly lost all hope and reason for living after the death of his baby, Dylan, believes again in the cause of getting Kee to be in the safe hands of the Human Project and to keep her from falling into the hands of either the Fishes group or the government. One of the main themes in this film is Theo’s regaining of hope and his quest for redemption after losing his only son years ago with his ex-wife, Julian.

The director, Alfonso Cuaron, does a great job of setting the scene of a dystopian future where humanity has lost all hope. A pill that allows people to commit suicide peacefully called ‘Quietus’ is mass advertised, terrorist attacks are an almost daily occurrence, and the immigrants, refugees who come to Britain are kept in detention camps separate from the rest of the population because the borders of the country have been closed down. In a plot and setting so dark, the only light to hold on to is Kee and her newborn to be. In a particular moving moment, Kee decides to name her baby girl after Theo’s deceased child, Dylan, showing just how much she really cares for the man who is getting her to the Human Project. It’s no coincidence that Kee herself is a refugee from a West African nation where the first humans emerged.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Kee, Theo, and the newborn baby are trying to leave a bombed out building where the rebels and the government are fighting each other in an urban war. The only thing that stops the bombs from falling and the bullets from firing are the sounds of a newborn baby echoing throughout the building and the street. This particular scene is a reminder of how special the sounds of a children’s cries are to the vitality of the world and how without them, it’s likely that humanity would descend into a downward spiral of chaos and violence. When all of the soldiers stopped for a few minutes to stop fighting, they realized that there was still hope in the world and that life can continue. It’s a very special scene for a special movie.

In addition to great directing, and great acting, Children of Men has some of the best cinematography of any movie in modern history. The single tracking shots, and there are quite a few throughout the film are ridiculously well done and help the viewer feel the tension and suspense in every scene. The soundtrack, the setting, and the messages of the film are extremely powerful and relevant to today’s world. I believe the director does a great job of asking the audience about how susceptible we are to either the rule of a totalitarian government or to the whims of absolutist extremist groups when societal collapse is imminent.

When there are no children or future generations, what is there worth fighting for? How also do we prevent ourselves from scapegoating other groups when things go bad? Maybe the issue is not infertility per say but rather climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, or war between nations, how do we prevent ourselves from losing hope when things look bleak? The film, Children of Men, makes the argument that we should never lose hope especially in dire times. The future must be protected however especially as shown by the role the character, Theo, plays in helping Kee in her quest to meet members of The Human Project.

Ironically, there have been news stories out about the precipitous drop in men’s sperm counts over the past forty years in countries such as the United States. While this may not lead to total infertility, researchers labeled it as a cause for concern due to the overall trend of less fertility in men. In addition, birth rates are down below replacement level rates in multiple Western countries causing concern among scientists. Similar to the theories laid out in ‘Children of Men’, it is unclear why male infertility may be on the rise but it may be due to a number of factors, both environmental and otherwise. Where as Children of Men focused on women being infertile and not being able to have babies, the possibility of men being infertile in the future should be a cause for concern. (Source: http://www.newsweek.com/2017/09/22/male-infertility-crisis-experts-663074.html)

It is difficult to see why Children of Men did not win any of the Academy awards that it was nominated for. It’s an excellent, thought-provoking film that raises questions to the audience that are difficult to answer. If you have the chance to rent or buy this movie, please do so because it is widely regarded as one of the best movies of the 21st century.

‘Traffic’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.

When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.

‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.

Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.

At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.

Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.

To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.

Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.

The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.

On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.

The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.

This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.

However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.

Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.

Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.

While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.

The Need for Critical Thinking

Facts are a tricky thing, but the importance and recognition of them is vital in order to consider yourself a critical thinker. In this era of ‘alternative facts’ and opinionated media, it’s necessary to be able to read, analyze, and think about all of the information that you’ve been taking in and figure out for yourself if it’s truthful or nonsense. In this day and age, opinions are easy to find everywhere but what have become harder to find are the cold, hard facts. The famous expression, “take it with a grain of salt” can be applied to you if you want to be a critical thinker.

The first thing you have to do, as a critical thinker is to be able to sort out the facts from the falsehoods. You should be able to use more than one source of information and before you use those sources of information, you need to verify that they are both unbiased and trustworthy. The evidence that you gather for these facts have to be based off of real sources, who have compiled the information and verified its’ authenticity.

For example, if you’re a Chemistry student and you’re trying to do an experiment on making a chemical volcano, would you choose to get the information from an actual scientist who has their PhD and teaches Chemistry at a local university or would you trust the advice of a best friend in your Science class instead?

While it’s desirable to be a good friend and trust them because they would like to help you most likely, it’s likely their advice will pale in comparison to the Chemistry professor with the PhD who wrote a ‘how to’ article on chemical experiments in the latest edition of ‘Science Weekly.’ If you’re a critical thinker, you would choose option #2 100% of the time because you would like to create an experiment that’s going to be the best that it can be and using your friend’s advice won’t get you to that point.

Regardless of what professional or educational field that you decide to pursue, you’re going to need critical thinking. Being inherently skeptical at first of the information you’re receiving is important to do because you need to be able to discern if what you’re reading, watching, listening to, etc. is factual. In your daily life, you’re going to need to identify prejudice, bias, propaganda, etc. that you’re likely to encounter in your daily life. You have to do your best to discern fact from fiction even if it takes some time. You could decide to ingest every bit of information that you see in the news or at the office as being factual but it would benefit you instead to deep a bit digger by doing your research, verify the source(s), bounce it off other pieces of information to see if there’s a pattern, and then decide if it’s factual.

A true critical thinker is not lazy and does not take shortcuts. He or she goes the extra mile to gather the right information, prioritize it to give it credence in your decision-making, and then recognize, solve the problems in order to move on to the next goal. If you’re in a field where you’re working with data on the computer, you have to be able to interpret it, evaluate it, and then use it for your business or company’s needs. By being able to communicate effectively and clearly is also a necessity when it comes to being able to take those fresh facts you’ve verified and then pass it on to the next person so they know that they’re not being misled by you.

As a critical thinker, it’s also necessary to disregard generalizations made about complex topics, which require in-depth research and analysis. Instead, critical thinking also necessitates the ability to draw conclusions from the evidence and the facts that you have gathered. Then, you have to be able to pass those conclusions on to the right people so they know what’s true and what’s false.

Conclusions that you’ve made in the past can sometimes change in the present or in the future so it’s vital to not be stubborn about your beliefs. Critical thinking requires that you also be flexible in your beliefs especially if you’re able to take in new evidence, and logic. A man or a woman who does not change their views on anything despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary cannot consider himself or herself to be a true critical thinker. While it can be difficult to let go of your innate biases and prejudices, you still should be open-minded and be able to accept the truth and the facts even if they contradict with yours.

If your mother, someone who you loved and respected, happened to have told you one day that the sky was the color red instead of blue, would you accept her statement at face value or would you go outside of the house to check, verify her statement to see if it was true or false? If you are not a critical thinker and a great son, you would choose option #1 and believe that statement without actually checking to see if it’s true. If you are a critical thinker but still a good son, you would choose option #2 and tell your mother later that the sky is actually blue because you went outside to see its’ color for yourself. Even if your mom might be offended by your conclusion, she would still love and respect you for being a critical thinker as is necessary.

To put it bluntly, there are a lot of people out there in different industries that are not critical thinkers and they’re hoping the same about you. I don’t want to name names but you’re likely to encounter them in your neighborhood, your city, and your city. However, if you’re able to develop the right personal habits and characteristics, you’ll be able to set yourself apart as a real critical thinker rather than just a person who believes what he hears, reads, or listens to all of the time regardless of the source it’s coming from.

Those habits involve being a problem solver, an evidence gatherer, a decision maker, a rational thinker, being able to reason with others, and an inquisitive learner above all else. While critical thinking isn’t mandatory in life, you’ll still go a lot further and succeed more when you put those skills and habits to use when compared to those who don’t. If you’re an open-minded, intelligent, mature, and inquisitive person, you’ll turn out to be a good critical thinker and a positive example for others to follow.

‘Lord of War’ – Film Review and Analysis

Arguably one of the best movies of the 2000’s and Nicholas Cage’s best performance as a lead actor, The film ‘Lord of War’, released in 2005, is a realistic and unfiltered take in the role of illegal arms dealers, who facilitate the sale and transfer of arms trafficking throughout the international arms industry, which continues to be one of the world’s most profitable endeavors. ‘Lord of War’, while nonfictional in its’ story is actually based off of the lives and exploits of different real-life arms smugglers. ‘Lord of War’ is directed by Andrew Niccol, and stars a cast of Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, and Bridget Moynahan.

Nicholas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, the son of Ukrainian refugees from the Soviet Union, where he and his brother, Vitaly, help their parents out in their Ukrainian restaurant as cooks and helpers. While Vitaly is somewhat satisfied with this simple life of cooking borscht and washing dishes, Yuri wants to achieve the ‘American Dream’ and get out of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he grew up after leaving Ukraine. He struggles to grasp at any real business opportunity in order to get out of the shadow of his ordinary life in Brooklyn.

However, one day when he is dining at a restaurant in Brighton Beach, the business idea he needs comes to life for Yuri in the form of a Russian mobster killing two would-be assassins and fending off their attack with AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles. Yuri believes that there is a lot of money to made in international arms sales and decides to go into business despite the protests of his brother, Vitaly, and the fact that his parents don’t know what he’s up to.

One scene in particular that stands out in Yuri’s beginning as an illegal arms dealer is when he tells his brother that since there are so many McDonald’s and gun stores in America already, he needs his business to be international in its’ focus. At first, Yuri feels that dealing arms is comparable to serving food at a restaurant. He justifies his nefarious business by narrating to the audience that its’ providing for a part of human nature in his opinion, the instinct to kill and harm others, as documented by the “earliest human skeletons who had spears in their heads and ribcages.”

While Vitaly, Yuri’s brother has moral reservations about what Yuri is doing, he decides to join him later on as they crisscross the globe during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s dealing with corrupt governments, genocidal dictators, and other more ruthless arms dealers as their competition. As Yuri becomes more popular and wealthy with the illegal arms business, he runs up against a by-the-book, incorruptible, and idealistic Interpol agent, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who tries unsuccessfully to track Yuri’s business dealings down by air and by sea.

Despite the fact that his brother, Vitaly, becomes a drug addict, and is an unreliable business partner, Yuri continues to run his illegal arms business as a one-man show. While a fictional story, ‘Lord of War’ is based off of real life conflicts and real life people who were involved in the illegal arms trade. These conflicts include the 1982 Lebanon War, the Soviet Union’s War in Afghanistan against the Mujahedeen, the civil war in Liberia during the 1990’s, etc. The movie does not gloss over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the impact that the end of this cold war conflict had on the rest of the world in terms of arms sales. Yuri is able to become a very wealthy and powerful arms dealer in the film due to his family connections in Ukraine and the sheer weaponry, and arsenal that the Soviet military left unused.

Like his arms business, which is run under false pretenses, he does the same with his love life as he falls for a fashion model and childhood crush, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who he sets himself up with under the guise of a false photo shoot. Despite the fact that his parents don’t know about his illegal dealings, he lies to his new wife regularly, and his brother ends up in a drug rehabilitation center, Yuri does not give up on the arms business because he likes it, is good at it and is unable to go straight in legal business endeavors. Howver, in the wake of all of his ‘success’, innocent men, women, and children get killed by the guns, bombs, ammunition, tanks, planes, etc. that he sells and profits off of. As the film progresses, the director makes clear that Yuri has sold his soul in this dirty trade and it may cost him his life or the lives of others close to him if he doesn’t stop.

In a way, the audience who watches ‘Lord of War’ could be most closely aligned with the perspective of the Interpol agent, Jack Valentine. He knows that Yuri is a bad person and he wants to bring him down, but will it make any difference to bring one sole arms dealer down when billions of dollars are exchanged around the world each year through both legal and illegal arms sales. Like Jack, the audience may question the nobility of bringing down one arms sales dealer like Yuri when there are dozens of them out there, and Presidents / Prime Ministers of the major countries are the biggest arms dealers of them all.

Yuri never takes full responsibility for his business dealings during the film even if the sale of his arms causes bloodshed and death. He remarks bluntly to his brother, Vitaly during one scene: We don’t talk about it. How many car salesmen talk about their work? How many cigarette salesmen talk about their work? Both their products kill more people every year than mine, at least mine comes with a safety switch. Those guys can leave their work at the office, so can I.”

In Yuri’s opinion, he may be evil, but he’s ‘necessary evil’ because there are other people or governments out there like him involved in the business, but sometimes they ‘can’t have their fingerprints on the gun.’ Despite the pressures placed on him by family, friends, and the law, Yuri is committed to doing what he does best without having the moral imperative to stop. As I don’t want to reveal the ending, the first time you see it, you may be shocked but this film doesn’t deal in black and white, and that’s what I love about it.

There are numerous shades of grey that go along with the black and white, and the ending of ‘Lord of War’ falls within those shades of gray. ‘Lord of War’ doesn’t have your typical Hollywood ending, and that’s partly what it makes it such an alluring film. On top of the exquisite directing, acting by Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, etc. and the deep political and philosophical themes behind this film, I highly recommend it.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the film that is very poignant and is still true twelve years after ‘Lord of War’ was released in movie theaters. “While private gunrunners continue to thrive, the world’s biggest arms suppliers are the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, and China…they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.”