Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets (7.9/10)

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A thoroughly enjoyable film from start to finish, “The Secret Life of Pets” boasts an interesting premise, exploring a question many of us asked as children, which was “what do our pets do when we’re not home?”  While interesting, I did wonder if the premise can sustain a feature length film.  The filmmakers succeeded in doing so by adding an adventure element for the two main characters,   Max and Duke, as they dash and tumble through New York City being chased by an array of sort-of villains including stray cats, anti-human animals, and animal control.

The film had plenty of laughs, and some of the visuals not necessarily the action animation, but the still frames, namely of the city skyline, were stunning.  I just might find a poster of it and make it my wallpaper.

The voice cast was very solid, with the main characters voiced by Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, and a stand-out performance by Kevin Hart, who voices one of the support characters.

The film doesn’t have quite the social relevance / commentary displayed by  “Zootopia” or “Inside Out”, but I think adults could still enjoy watching this film.  One thing that did catch my attention as the film’s soundtrack and score, composed y the prolific Alexandre Desplat, which elevated the film up a notch with dashes of liveliness.

A brief mention should  be given to the opening Minions short film.  Perhaps the makers of this short discovered what was wrong with the feature-length “Minions” film and rediscovered what worked for the minions in the “Despicable Me” films, but this was pretty much what I would’ve wanted the feature-length film to be.  I know it’s hard to turn this goofy and hilarious short into something that’s 90 minutes long, but I think it’s doable.

For those living in the U.S. / Canada, I haven’t see “Finding Dory” yet as it is not out here in Hong Kong, but I would still definitely recommend it!

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Movie Review: Captain America: Winter Soldier

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In a somewhat surprising turn, the sequel to 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” not only tops its predecessor, but also outdoes the last two sequels released by Marvel, “Iron Man 3” and “Thor 2.”  While the plot of “Iron Man 3” is more of a character study of Tony Stark’s personal struggles since the events of “The Avengers”, and the plot of “Thor 2” focuses on the peace on a galactic scale, “The Winter Soldier” brings us back into Earth and continues the mission of keeping peace on our planet.

The stakes are never higher.  The plot and set pieces are well laid out and the audience is never confused as to what is going on.  The special effects perfectly accompanies the humanist story.  Finally, even with the obvious political undertones exploring the devastating potentials of state overreach, and laying the ground work for the next Avengers movie with the introduction of the Hydra organization and new villains, the film does not seem too preachy or drags along.

I chose to watch the film in IMAX 3D and it was worth every penny.  Every time the Winter Soldier punches Captain’s shield the theatre vibrated along with it.

As I mentioned, “The Winter Soldier” is the best Marvel (by Marvel Studios) film probably since 2012’s “The Avengers.”  Definitely catch it before “Avengers 2.”

Am I A Leader? Turns Out, it Depends

A recent article from Forbes magazine discusses why some people might think that they’d make good leaders where in fact they’re not.

The article lists out the reasons why some people are better suited to be leaders.  Recently, I’ve been pondering on this question myself, on whether or not I am a good leader.  I’d say that, over the course of my life so far,  I have had to assume leadership positions on a bit more occasions than the average person, although I certainly wouldn’t put myself within the top percentiles.

Ultimately, what I gathered from the article is that whether or not I’m a good leader is dependent on who I am leading and the type of activity / event in which I am involved.

Rather than paraphrasing, I’m going to reproduce the list below, and underneath each point, I will discuss how they relate to my own leadership via my own experiences.

1. You don’t get results: Real leaders perform – they get the job done – they consistently exceed expectations. No results = no leadership – it’s just that simple.

Aptly chosen as the first point, because without results, everything else is worthless.  This is immediately relative to what my main point is, it being that it depends on the activity.  For example, my passion lies in hosting events; I thrive on performing in front of an audience, especially when I am well prepared.  My passion is often reflected on my work, as the feedback on my performances have been overwhelmingly positive.

On the other hand, if I were handed a task where I’m less passionate, my results would reflect that.

2. You get results the wrong way: If the only way you can solve the deficit described in point #1 above is through chicanery or skullduggery you’re not a leader. The ends don’t justify the means. If you abuse your influence, don’t treat people well, or confuse manipulation with leadership, you may win a few battles, but you’ll lose the war. Optics over ethics never ends well, and being a jerk doesn’t make you a leader.

I don’t see much of an issue here.  As far as I can tell, those who have had to come under my leadership have been satisfied with how they were treated.  How do I know this? Well, if I’d been a jerk, they would’ve quit.

3. You don’t care: Indifference is a characteristic not well suited to leadership. You simply cannot be a leader if you don’t care about those you lead. The real test of any leader is whether or not those they lead are better off for being led by them.

Again, the point falls under my idea of how much I’m passionate about the subject affects how much I care about it.  For example, if I am have assumed the leadership position in a music band, I will try to the best of my abilities to help others with their music, whether if it is technique, or learning a new instrument.  If I care about the group and the cause, I’d gladly take the time to help others improve so that the group on a whole can improve faster.

4. You’re chasing a position and not a higher purpose: If you value self-interest above service beyond self you simply don’t understand the concept of leadership. Leadership is about caring about something beyond yourself, and leading others to a better place – even if it means you take a back seat, or end up with no seat at all. Power often comes with leadership, but it’s not what drives real leaders.

Along those same lines, I think that, for leaders who care about the cause and those under their leadership, sacrifice becomes a mute point, as they wouldn’t view it as sacrifice because they are helping to achieve a higher purpose.  When I perform well in hosting an event, I think about the brand that I represent, because often times, my actions set off a chain reaction; those impressed by my performance will spread the word, letting others know of the brand, and more people will come to this brand looking for the same high quality service.

5. You care more about making promises than keeping them:Leadership isn’t about your rhetoric; it’s about your actions. Leadership might begin with vision casting, but it’s delivering the vision that will ultimately determine your success as a leader.

6. You put people in boxes: Stop telling people why they can’t do something and show them how they can. Leaders don’t put people in boxes, it’s their obligation to free them from boxes. True leadership is about helping people reach places they didn’t know they could go.

This is perhaps the hardest thing to do as a leader from my experiences.  As a leader, you know, after a short period of observing, what the person is capable of.  As a result, your natural instinct would be to categorize them according to their abilities, or how far you think their abilities go.  You make judgments about their strengths and weaknesses, and allocate tasks accordingly.  Thus, it becomes difficult to free them out of their boxes, for doing so you run the risk of achieving sub-par results.

It is up to the leader to assess the importance of achieving immediate results versus freeing team members from their boxes, as the latter would help the group improve in the long run.

7. You follow the rules instead of breaking them: Status quo is the great enemy of leadership. Leadership is nothing if not understanding the need for change, and then possessing the ability to deliver it.

A little surprised that more emphasis was not placed on this point.  Resistance to change is the worst quality a leader could have.  A leader needs to adapt in order for progress to be made.

Having said that, there’s a fine line between being ambitious (adventurous, even) and reckless.  Change for the sake of change achieves nothing, either.

8. You churn talent instead of retain it: Real leadership serves as a talent magnet – not a talent repellent. If you can’t acquire talent, can’t develop talent, or can’t retain talent you are not a leader.

This works in tandem with points 3, 4, and 6.  If you care about the cause and those you are working with, naturally, you will try to find those who are equally passionate, and retain those who you believe can contribute the cause’s success.  If you are a talent repellent, then it is obvious that you are doing something wrong.  I have not had to lead groups on such a scale where this has really come into play, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind.

9. You take credit instead of giving it: True leadership isn’t found seeking the spotlight, but seeking to shine the spotlight on others. The best leaders only use “I” when accepting responsibility for failures. Likewise, they are quick to use “we” when referring to successes.

Anyone who has participated in organized sports or music knows the importance of this.  Unlike in an office, where credit is often distorted, team sports and music bands display the importance of team work before our eyes.

A quarterback in football is quick to compliment his offensive line for keeping the defense off his back and buying him time to make a good pass.  The singer of a band is quick to thank his drummer / bassist for keeping the beat and being the stable of the group.

10. You care about process more than people: But for the people there is no platform. Without the people you have nothing to lead. When you place things above the people you lead you have failed as a leader.

Ultimately, a cause is made up by people, for people.  It is through people, that the process exists.  Good process is created through good people management and good teamwork between people.  So if the process takes precedent, then the leader is committing a serious error.

Society’s ‘Elites’ and My Inner Bane

Those of you who have read my review on “The Dark Knight Rises” will know that I am not the biggest fan of the film.  Having said that, I have, not entirely on my on will, gone to see it a second time at the theater.  Proving the fact that when I saw the film the first time it was a 12:30 pm show had no effect on my view on it (as that’s quite early in the day for me), I felt the same after the second viewing.  The film still felt clunky, uneven, and tainted with illogicalities in the plot. I did, however, gain some new perspective, not about the messages and themes that the film expressed, but on a rather personal basis.  It has to do with the allure, desire, insanity, and chaos, that money, and the idea of money, brings to society.

This train of thought spawned from a conversation in the film between John Daggett and Bane.  Daggett is a billionaire investor who financially backed Bane’s operations and sought to take over Wayne Enterprises.  After (small spoilers) Daggett realized that he failed to become head of the Wayne board, he confronted Bane, yelling at him to the point where it was obvious that he had forgotten his place.  When Bane revealed a glimpse of his madness on Daggett, the conversation went as follows:

Daggett:  “I gave you a lot of money.”

Bane: “And that gives you power over me?”

What happened next isn’t really relevant to the discussion at hand.  This little verbal exchange, and the subsequent chaos that Bane laid upon Gotham and its privileged class, provided me with a fresh basket of food for thought.

Coincidentally, recently, I have been presented with the opportunity to become a part of this elite class of society, where money is in the blood and veins of its very own infrastructure.  I found myself indulging in the same things that the privileged folks in Gotham indulged in.  Luxury. Whenever I am at a place of glorious opulence I found myself feeling like I’m in a different world, somehow establishing the dynamic of ‘us’ and ‘them’, because of where I was and what that meant.

We are in a society where money rules.  Like it or not, capitalism is the way of the world right now, and as long as it remains so, society will always be driven by the accumulation of wealth.  Now, there are arguments both ways on whether if it’s a good or a bad thing.  Some might even argue that it’s neither good nor bad, that it’s just the way of the world and doesn’t affect people on a personal basis (who they ‘are’, their morals, etc).  I happen to believe that personal wealth and the accumulation of wealth significantly influences a person’s character, demeanor, and morals beliefs.

Some people are born into well-off families and thus might have an easier path towards accumulating wealth, others might have to fight a lot harder to gain the same amount of wealth.  Everyone in society today have to make decisions involving money, whether if it’s spending it, betting it, investing it, burning it… and seeing Bane utter those words reminded me that we should be the ones in control of money, not vice versa.

It is perhaps unclear though, Bane’s specific targeting of society’s affluent.  Was he waging war against Gotham because of the class inequality? Is this what he and the League of Shadows fought for, albeit through extremist means?

I might not be the excommunicated leader of the League of Shadows who is looking to terrorize a city, send it into anarchy, and tear down the upper class.  The method with which I strive to combat the corruption of money is much more introspective.  When I am faced with thematic decisions in life where money might be a factor, everything from work, education, even relationships… I need to conjure up my inner Bane: Stay true to myself, and don’t let money control me.

Tap Water And Starving Kids

This has been a reoccurring sentiment for me for many years.  I haven’t exactly shared it or discussed it in-depth with any of my friends, but it’s something that’s been at the back of my mind since, well, when I started college.

It goes something like this:  Whenever I turn on the tap / faucet and let the water run a  little while longer than I needed it to, I would think “how many lives could I have saved if I saved this water and given it to someone in extreme poverty-stricken Africa, where food is scarce and water is unclean if available at all?”

Of course, I am well aware of the fact that my usage of water does not directly (not to the average eye, anyway) affect the availability of water to hungry children in Africa.  But at a more personal and moral standpoint, I can’t help but think of how lucky I am, as a person living in an advanced city, to have access to water, the most important source of sustainable life.

Note that I employ the term ‘lucky’ here to describe myself as being in a statistical outcome of not being one of the millions of people who do not have access to clean water (check out my earlier post for a focused discussion on the concept of luck).  It was by pure chance that I was  born in an advanced city.  But in a different universe, ‘I’ could have well been born in Somalia or the Nuba Mountains in Sudan.

I hear many parents, mine included, always telling their children not to take things for granted; they would tell them that not every kid gets to enjoy video games, smartphones, and ride in luxury cars.  However, not all of them would list things such as food, water, clothing, as things  their children should be thankful for, often because they themselves take those things for granted.  But for those who do try to make the children aware of their lucky access to the basics of life, many of them fall short in providing a compelling example for the kids to relate to just how lucky they are.

Admittedly, it’s not easy.  I always had a sense of how lucky I was, but the compelling (albeit a bit peculiar and bizzare) example that I experienced from observing the relationship between my usage of water and those in the world who do not have access to water was purely self-discovered.

Sadly, and perhaps strangely, my ‘luck’ realization has not prompted me into any drastic actions to help more people gain access to clean water.  It has, however, made me do the two very least things I can do: use as little water as I could at home, and frown at people who takes lots of baths and long showers.

When To Take People Seriously

In this post, I’m going to discuss some personal experiences in when to and when not take people’s words seriously, specifically in situations where qualifications and credentials matter.

For example, if I were taking golf lessons from a teaching professional, I would listen intently, respect his opinions and criticisms, and obey his instructions, because he is the expert in the discipline.  However, once the lesson is over, and the teaching pro and I are chatting about other things, such as music, then I have to immediately have a completely different mindset in judging what he has to say about music.  Because he is not an expert in music, I have to take what he has to say with a grain of salt.  That is not to say, of course, that I should (or I would) brush off his opinions on music, but it’s as if a music pro is talking to me about golf; I wouldn’t take it in the same way as I would from a golf pro.

Often times I’ve found this transition difficult, especially when interacting with people who speak as if they are very knowledgeable in a discipline but turns out he’s ‘all talk’.  For me personally, this has occurred to me most in sports and music, with golf being the dominant examples.

Golf is a sport that, ultimately, like all sports, takes time and practice in order to improve.  But due to the rocketing rise in popularity of the sport in the past twenty years or so, golf has become accessible to more people than anyone in the industry could have imagined.  As such, the business aspect of golf has taken over, as high-tech equipment are glamorized, and clubs are sold at higher and higher prices to people who just want to ‘show off’, the result of which is a large percentage of the golfing population wielding expensive clubs but haven’t the slightest clue in what determines the quality of golf clubs.

As someone who is in the golf industry, talking to these people requires the uncanny task of taking in whatever ignorant statements they make with a smile and correcting them without making them feel ignorant.  You can’t just tell people “expensive doesn’t mean good,” it’s an art form to have the ability to make them realize they are ignorant without making them feel that way.

The equipment aspect of golf is only half the story.  The even more unbearable part, and this speaks more directly to my topic of when to take people seriously, is the people who likes to teach others while not being good at golf themselves.  This is a general sentiment that applies to anything that one can teach another, but golf epitomizes it there are beginner golfers everywhere and the not-so-beginners are teaching the beginners as if they are themselves professionals.  Yes, most of the times, the idea of teaching comes out of good will, but the standards of humility that golfers possess are much below those of most other disciplines, and as a result, many golfers blow it out their asses in talking as if they are experts in the game.  Everywhere I go, half-decent golfers will teach beginners as if they know everything about golf; it’s sad, because as soon as they take a swing themselves, the folks who actually are knowledgeable in golf, the pros, will know right away if this player is a pretender or the real deal.

Similar things can be said when I hang out with my music enthusiast friends.  I know, for a fact, that they are professional level musicians, so I respect their opinions and criticisms when I share with them my work.  So it’s somewhat a bit strange when we switch topics and we talk about things where I’m more knowledgeable than they are.

Anyways, this was more of a rant than my previous post.  I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, but perhaps I will come back to this topic later and elaborate!

Lucky vs. ‘Lucky’

“You’re so lucky!”  “Wow that was such blind luck.”  You hear these statements all the time, everything from (perhaps in a movie) a person narrowly escaping death by being shot and the bullet misses an artery by an inch, to the poker table, where a player has a mere 2% of hitting his winning hand and gets it.

Luck is also attributed to many mundane daily activities; people would consider themselves ‘lucky’ when it rains just as they arrive at their indoor destination after forgetting to bring an umbrella.

But how does one define ‘luck’? It seems like the term is often used and interpreted in a variety of ways, some are more instinctive while others are more mathematical.  To me, the concept of luck is generally divided into two:

1. Lucky – Good fortune as a result of chance.

2. ‘Lucky’ – The outcome of a series of deliberate, calculated decisions, that has numerous outcomes with different percentages in the chances of each happening attached to each outcome.  In this case, ‘luck’ refers to the minority outcomes.

The important thing to note here is, the two ‘lucks’ are the same, almost all the time.  But while the latter is an admittance to being faced by a minority occurrence (i.e. the opposite of “beating the odds”, or having favorable odds but not turning out the person’s way)  those who declare someone or something got ‘lucky’ in the former are usually clouded by emotions. Note that upon acknowledging the fact that a person was hit by a minority occurrence, he can still call the event ‘luck’, although he would be using it as a labeling tool for said minority occurrence.

This also speaks to the classical philosophical concept that everything is numbers, first developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras.   My take on this is slightly different: I do not liken everything – that is, literally all shapes, objects, existence, and actions – to numbers.  But I do believe that all acts can be related to in a mathematical way.  Everything is chance, even for acts which we usually do not associate chance with.  Everything, from the chances of one inserting a key directly in the lock to the accuracy of the laser in an eye surgery, is chance.

Yet, it seems like the frustrations and anger associated with the first type of luck are experienced by those who cannot or do not come to terms with the randomness of chance.  Perhaps for some it is a spur of the moment outburst of emotion, but there are many who believe in factors other than the randomness of chance that affect their ‘luck’.  Some might believe it is karma, but the majority usually possess a religious belief in divine intervention, a deity that seemingly gives them a purpose in life rather than believing that they exist because of chance.

This religious aspect of ‘luck’ shall be visited another time, during a religion-focused discussion.  Suffice to say that religion provides people with an alternative to believing that they exist solely by chance.

So, next time when you think you got ‘lucky’, give it a quick thought: was it really just ‘blind’ luck? Is it God’s work? Or were you just struck by a small percentage occurrence?