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Ambedkar and Buddhism
Ambedkar and Buddhism
by Sangharakshita
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great light of the 20th century, 7 Sep 2008
This review is from: Ambedkar and Buddhism (Paperback)
Everyone has heard of Gandhi, almost no one of Ambedkar. If that's true for you, then you might like to pick up this slim volume by one of Europe's most prolific Buddhist writers. In under 175 pages you will be introduced to perhaps the most remarkable man of the 20th century.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born at the end of the 19th century as the last child of 14 into a family of untouchables, the lowest caste in Indian Hindu society. The lives of untouchables were not all that different from the lives of blacks in the southeast United States at the same time. Untouchables were not allowed to drink the same water as other castes, could not walk the same streets, in fact had to be careful of the sun so as not to cast a shadow over higher caste persons. They were denied education or any but the most menial employment, forever cutting of any chance for social or economic mobility. They were denied even the right to hear, sing or read the Vedas, the very scriptures underpinning the moral order enslaving them. If any untouchable contravened any of these prohibitions, or should in any way cause an upper caste person offense, he could be beaten or killed with impunity.

Like a lotus blossoming out of muddy water, Ambedkar grew straight and strong out of the filth of the caste system, becoming not only one of India's first university educated untouchables, but also one of the first of his caste to do post-graduate work overseas, earning degrees at both New York's Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Returning home he took up the cause of emancipation of the lower caste, tussling with Gandhi, whom he found patronizing, and after independence from the British serving the Nehru government as chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. He is remembered in India today as the father of the constitution. After establishing a college for untouchables and an unsuccessful run for political office, he retired to writing about Buddhism and in his final days led a mass ceremony of conversion to Buddhism for nearly half a million untouchables before passing away in 1956.

The author of this book, Sangharakshita, has an equally compelling story that is only briefly reviewed within its pages. An Englishman stationed to India during WWII, he stayed on after the war to become a Buddhist monk, spending 14 years in India during which he met Ambedkar on three occasions, participating in campaigns to empower untouchables through Buddhism. After returning to the UK, Sangharakshit founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and became a prolific speaker and writer on Buddhist topics, including this biography, in which he attempts to trace the origin and development of Ambedkar's interest in and later adoption of Buddhism, as well as to summarize his major writings. Beginning with the time he was presented as a child with a biography of the Buddha, the reader is given a thorough overview of Ambekar's life, as well as his major ideas, including the origin of caste and untouchability, and his conception of a stripped down, socially engaged Buddhism for a new age. Unfortunately in such a survey not everything can be described in great detail and so some particulars are glossed, but nothing so much that it leaves the story incomplete.

Despite having been written by a Buddhist, Ambedkar and Buddhism is pitched to the general reader, does not proselytize, and requires only a passing familiarity with Buddhism and 20th century Indian history. This book is also a worthy companion to the 2000 film, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, helping to fill in some of the detail in Ambedkar's thinking.

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Spinoza: A Life
Spinoza: A Life
by Steven Nadler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £22.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine introduction to Spinoza and his age, 4 Sep 2008
This review is from: Spinoza: A Life (Paperback)
Despite the paucity of source material, Steven Nadler's biography captures the essence of one of western philosophy's brightest minds, as well as the age and place in which he lived. With almost nothing surviving to document his early life, the first third of the book on Spinoza's formative years is largely a history of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, and the Jewish immigrant community of Amsterdam to which Spinoza's family fled. I hadn't expected to read so much about these topics, but Nadler's presentation proved engaging, as it did throughout the book, including accessible summaries of Spinoza's thought and his major works. This is no intellectual history, so ideas are presented in their most general outline, but for someone new to Spinoza this might be just what you need to decide whether you'd like to explore further. This is the first book I've read about Spinoza. It was a good place to start.

What stays with me from Nadler's work is an image of the philosopher, a young man - he died still in his 40's - content with life and his place in it. He ate enough to survive, wore enough to stay warm, and kept only a few boxes of books and the lens grinding equipment with which he earned enough money to support his low-impact life. He never married and never traveled outside the Netherlands. He was offered prestigious academic positions, but turned them down. When confronted with the disputatious, he tried to find some way to avoid confrontation. He lived a quiet, interior life of reflection. If he was hungry for anything, it was ideas, what he called the search for truth. In all other ways, he seemed at ease in the world. And why not? For Spinoza the world is the sum of the long chain of cause and effect, a world that can't be otherwise, a world of perfect imperfections. In such a world, what is there with which to contend except oneself? And this Spinoza did, cleaving true to his vision of reality, a man of admirable honesty and simplicity.

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Flashpoint [DVD]
Flashpoint [DVD]
Dvd ~ Donnie Yen
Offered by rileys dvds
Price: £12.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best martial arts movie in years, 1 Sep 2008
This review is from: Flashpoint [DVD] (DVD)
Flash Point does two things well. It sets up the villains as not only bad guys, but sadistic, nasty, brutish bad guys for whom you have absolutely no sympathy and every desire to see hurt or maimed. The other is deliver some incredible fight scenes, particularly the finale between Donnie Yen and Collin Chou. In fact Flash Point recently won a Hong Kong film industry award for best action choreography.

The story is typical of the genre, about a Hong Kong cop who goes to extremes in apprehending the bad guys. He is given cause and official leave to go after a group of Vietnamese drug smugglers after they blow-up a friend's dinner party, then kill all the witnesses scheduled to testify in proceedings against one of their members. The characters are rather bland and the middle section of the film, including a romance, is entirely forgettable.

I don't claim to be an expert in the genre, just a casual fan who started watching martial arts movies back in the days when they were packaged as something like "Kung Fu Theater," inexpensive foreign films on low-budget terrestrial stations broadcasting over UHF. I've been around and seen a few. And Flash Point is one of the best of recent memory.

Hiyaa!

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Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
by Haden Blackman
Edition: Paperback

5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Same story, new faces, impossible powers, 31 Aug 2008
The Force Unleashed is about a young man with Force powers so immense he can whip Vader and the Emperor simultaneously. Based on a video game in which you get to play this Force-wielding giant, the conceptual emphasis is on action and playability, rather than character or drama. Consequently the graphic novel reads like a series of set pieces, big fight scenes with a bit of exposition to tie them together. Ostensibly the plot concerns the inception of the Rebellion, but as with the beginnings of most things in the Star Wars universe, the origin of the Alliance is more than it seems.

Thematically, TFU cleaves closely to the SW universe formula - young man spends his life doing bad and redeems himself in the end with a tiny act of good. The orphaned Starkiller is raised as Darth Vader's secret apprentice, an amoral assassin who dispatches with equal skill characters on both sides of the war. Somewhere along the way he switches to being a good guy with a conscience and a love interest, though it's not really clear how either develops. Neither is why the leaders of the Rebellion trust anyone who shows up at their door expressing an interest in sacking the Empire.

The artwork is a mixed bag, with Brain Ching opening and closing the story with some finely illustrated chapters. Unfortunately, as with his stint on Knights of the Old Republic, he seems unable to work fast enough to complete an entire project - or takes assignments with impossible deadlines - and so we get a couple of less skilled artists working on the middle sections.

There is a novel of the same name covering the exact same story. I haven't yet read it, but given author Sean Williams' track record (as coauthor of one of the worst chapters of the New Jedi Order), and given that the graphic novel isn't anything worth bragging about, I'd wager the novel is as limp, or with more extraneous material, even limper. My suggestion would be to unleash your own force on the game. That is, if you have a console. PC users will have to settle for the graphic novel.

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Five Deadly Venoms [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Five Deadly Venoms [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Sheng Chiang

1 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Venomously soporific, 26 Aug 2008
The Five Venoms is something of a cult classic, though its hard to see why. There is very little martial arts action, and what there is is not all that spectacular. Most of the film is a plodding murder mystery that will have you reaching for the remote and the fast forward button - insipid dialog, bad acting, zero suspense, no location shooting, and cheesy special effects. Back in 1978 this may have been top-notch martial arts film-making, but in comparison to more recent efforts it holds up very poorly. For history buffs and nostalgia trippers only.

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The Man From Earth [2007] [DVD]
The Man From Earth [2007] [DVD]
Dvd ~ John Billingsley
Price: £4.79

2 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Obscurity is often well-deserved, 20 Aug 2008
The Man from Earth has achieved something of cult status among, well, I'm not sure whom. This is not a film that would appear to appeal to any easily imaginable cult-like demographic. Classic Star Trek fans showed some interest, as the film's writer also scripted a couple of episodes back in the 1960's. After the film flopped commercially, it got a new lease on life through P2P networks; the director even issued a statement thanking file sharers for helping rescue the film from obscurity.

After watching it, you might wish it had never been rescued.

At a farewell party for one of their colleagues, a group of academics learn that the departing professor is 14,000 years old. They sit around and talk about this for an hour and a half, about the places he's been, the people he's seen, the things he's done. The acting is dreadful, as you might expect from a cast that performs mostly in local theater or as television extras, and the script something that might have been penned by a first-time writer. The dialog is lifeless and humorless, and the surprise endings are silly contrivances like those in old episodes of the Twilight Zone, the ones you thought were cool when you were twelve years old but which now seem hopelessly trite.

This is a movie that deserved its obscurity.

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Big Dreams Little Tokyo [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Big Dreams Little Tokyo [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Dave Boyle
Offered by RAREWAVES USA
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A culturally-conflicted Chaplin for the 21st century, 16 Aug 2008
Big Dreams, Little Tokyo is a quirky and refreshing comedy of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the search for identity.

Boyd Wilson is a young, white American who wants nothing more than to be Japanese. With Chaplinesque sincerity, he confounds native Japanese with his perfect language skills, and puzzles others with his mimicry of outward forms of Japanese behavior, including the standard dark business suit and briefcase, oiled-hair, black-rimmed glasses, exaggerated bowing, and what one Japanese describes as his "poker face." Unlike his successful father, who appears in the occasional letter to remind his son that it's never shameful to work for someone else, the young Wilson struggles to build his business empire hawking copies of his language textbook, offering English lessons to Japanese immigrants, and hustling corporate translation work. He's not very successful at any, and so to reduce expenses takes in a roommate, another conflicted young American, this one of Japanese extraction. Jerome (Jason Watabe) was always too Asian-looking to be accepted as an American and dreams now of being a sumo wrestler. He lives with Boyd not only because he's also penniless, but also for the free Japanese lessons.

Together the pair stumble through a number of misadventures teaching language lessons, starting a catering business, and translating corporate negotiations, while a charmingly-played, slow-developing romance blossoms between Boyd and one of his Japanese students. Many of the gags are predictable, which in the end is not terribly disappointing as what really makes this film work are the actors, especially Dave Boyle as Boyd. When was the last time you saw a North American or European movie about Japan in which a non-Japanese could speak authentic Japanese? Besides the authentic linguistic skills, the performances seem unaffected, a genuineness that comes from Boyle and Watabe having lived the conflicts of their characters. The pair first met in Sydney, Australia working as missionaries for the Mormom church. Living among the immigrant Japanese community, they mastered the cultural skills of Japan while dreaming of making movies on their return to the United States.

If you've lived in Japan or among Japanese, you'll find lots of familiar humor in this film. You'll also appreciate the sensitive portrayal of both Japanese and American culture and most likely look forward to the newest project from this pair, a film currently titled White on Rice, slated for release in 2009.

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Forbidden Kingdom [DVD]
Forbidden Kingdom [DVD]
Dvd ~ Rob Minkoff

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Lord of the Forbidden Narnia Kingdom Ring, 16 Aug 2008
This review is from: Forbidden Kingdom [DVD] (DVD)
With anyone but Jackie Chan and Jet Li, this film would be forgettable. The story and the production blend elements of Journey to the West, Narnia, and Lord of the Rings in an unremarkable western take on wuxia, the traditional Chinese marital arts drama. Apparently first developed as a bed-time story for the American screenwriter's son, the plot has a certain unaffected charm that manages to shine through the film's over-polished veneer and poor choices in casting. No one could possibly believe that such slight, rail-thin women could put a whipping on anything but a salad bar, and it's hard to work-up any sympathy for Michael Angarano as the point-of-view character, who with his sad hang-dog face and whiny demeanor fairly invites the bullying thats heaped on him. His transformation from a pasty wimp unlikely to fight his way out of a room of kindergarteners into a kung-fu warrior is embarrassingly laughable.

Ultimately it's Jet and Jackie that make this a film worth watching. Their fluid movement and comedic timing leave the other fighters looking clumsy and overly earnest. The highlight of the film is the pair's extended fight scene, an amazing pairing of talents not likely to be seen elsewhere in martial arts cinema for some time to come. See it now while you can, but be prepared for lots of incredulous eyeball rolling and spot-the-Rings-and-Narnia-references.

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Flock of Dodos [DVD] [2007] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Flock of Dodos [DVD] [2007] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Michael Behe
Offered by supermart_usa
Price: £11.46

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligently produced and entertaining, questions left unasked, 16 Aug 2008
A marine biologist turned filmmaker goes to middle America to explore the issue of Intelligent Design and discovers, to no one's great surprise, a political and social agenda behind a manufactured controversy. Along the way director Dr Randy Olson has reasoned, calm and mostly rational discussions with people from both sides of the issue, allowing each to explain their ideas, but also to reveal their vulnerabilities. The Intelligent Designers for the most part know less about science and more about theology, while the scientists seem a bit smug and unable to communicate with anyone without a graduate degree in science.

Overall, this is an intelligently produced and entertaining presentation of the topic. Three points, though, I wish had been addressed. First, if irreducible complexity demands a creator, then Dr Olson should have been asking, who created the creator? Secondly, why does this science/religion controversy pop up from time to time only in the USA? The rest of the world seems to care not a whit. Finally, why is this question of the origin of life and the universe of any importance at all? It seems obvious that understanding the question means being able to observe and measure the system from outside the system. But as we are (and always will be) a part of the system, this is the equivalent of your eye trying to see itself. It won't happen.

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Dreaming Lhasa [DVD] [2007] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dreaming Lhasa [DVD] [2007] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso
Offered by supermart_usa
Price: £5.29

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dreaming in earnest, 13 Aug 2008
A young Tibetan filmmaker from New York in India to produce a documentary on the Tibetan political prisoners remarks on her feelings of displacement in a foreign land that she seems to be "dreaming Lhasa." Karma's imaginary capital city is to this film what the film was to its makers - an object of intense interest just beyond reach.

Wife/husband production team Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam have been making documentary films for more than a decade, with perhaps the idea of a feature film always out there on the edge of their ambition. For untested directors using an untested Indian/Tibetan crew with non-professional actors, they've reaped a remarkable return on their investment in a dream.

The story itself is quite simple, about an exile Tibetan in Dharamsala to make a documentary on the Tibetan diaspora. Karma becomes involved in the quest of one of her subjects, a former political prisoner who has come from Tibet to deliver a sacred object to a man about whom he knows nothing but a name. Together Karma and Dhondup criss-cross northern India chasing clues to the whereabouts of the mysterious Loga. Along the way the viewer is treated to glimpses of life in exile, from the young kids wasting hours in clubs and pool halls, to the more determined seekers of justice involved in hunger strikes and political organizing, to the average person just trying to make a living.

For anyone who has traveled the Himalayas or had intimate contact with exile Tibetan communities, the film has a beautiful ring of verisimilitude. This probably has as much to do with the production crew having been raised in such communities and being able to get the details right as it does to the directorial decision to shoot in documentary style, with no redubbing.

For a bunch of amateurs, the quality of the acting is high, though hardly of the award-winning variety. More than once Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso's performance as Karma evoked a wince, but her earnestness created a reserve of sympathy that couldn't be completely undone. By far the best performance is Jampa Kalsang's staid and world-weary exile, Dhondup, whose quest leads to an anguishing discovery.

If you're tired of Hollywood movies, tired of pretentious North American indie films, you'll be delighted by the sincerity of this little film with a big heart from the Land of Snows.

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