Friday, August 28, 2015

Frustrating Movies -- American Ultra

Have you ever saw an ad for an upcoming movie or read the back of a book and thought to yourself that this is perfect, this is totally your wheelhouse, and it should be awesome but it didn't live up to your expectation? Who hasn't! You're disappointed and then you move on, right? Right.

What I find more frustrating is if  there were parts of it that you just absolutely fell in love with but the stuff you didn't like is just so glaring-- jarring even -- that you just feel angry. It could have been so much more than what it is but the stuff they got right they REALLY got right but the stuff they failed just was so... bad or off.

I find this is a common problem I have. I don't expect every movie I see to be perfect. In fact many of my favorite films have flaws. The Heat is one of my favorite films but the scene in which Sandra Bullock stabs a guy in the neck in a diner to help him breathe is a scene they could have easily removed. It wasn't funny and was a bump in a smooth ride of good fun otherwise. I can STILL live with that flaw. It kind of irritates me but I don't feel practically affronted by it.

I am even okay with this ridiculous magic

But this post is not about flaws like that. It is about a near great movie that had so much going for it but there is just one or two things that just don't work and it is just so akhkhsownaindnlkanoixhoia. Right?

If I was still in college, this poster may be on my wall -- so cool

The reason why I bring this up is last Friday I had 10 dollars on my AMC stubs card that was about to expire so I went to see an afternoon showing of American Ultra. It looked like it would be fun at least, nothing too serious. Sometimes I like stoner comedies -- I have a soft-spot for Pineapple Express. I also like spy flicks. I'm not the biggest fan of Jesse Eisenberg (don't get me started on the Social Network) but I decided to give it a go.

As the credits rolled, I found myself in that state of being angry at the movie because it did so much  right but there were aspects that just didn't work for me. And the things that didn't work for me irritated me. It was like walking into a completely neat room and one pillow is on the floor. WHY DID NO ONE SEE THAT PILLOW BEFORE THEY INVITED ME IN!? You put ALL this work into cleaning this room but ONE pillow is out of place. It had to be purposeful but it looks sloppy. Why? WHY?

Was this... a failed pillow fort? Laziness?

In American Ultra, it had a pacing problem. Often I found that tension would build only for it to peter out for no reason or something would resolve with little to no tension in advance. I can see how that may be purposeful -- Stoner Comedy amirite? But mostly, there were moments in which I felt a little bored or looked at my clock.

That led to my second problem -- Topher Grace and the other CIA lady. There was something off about both of them. Their characters felt bland and just didn't work for me. I get what they tried to go for -- seasoned vet outdone by obnoxious upstart -- but I don't know. I can't put my finger exactly on why both of those characters just didn't interest me. I didn't feel compelled by them and when I felt bored, it usually involved a scene with the two of them having a metaphorical dick-waving contest. I don't think it was the writing, just the acting.

I just... idk.

Or, maybe they just couldn't hold a candle to the movie's power couple and by far the best part of the movie. Mike and Phoebe, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, were the core and the heart of the film. And I really, really liked it. I loved their interactions; how he was a neurotic loser and she was a rock but also a loser in her own way. The way they interacted felt incredibly REAL. How they complimented and worked off each other felt like a real couple. Sure, Phoebe was frustrated by the cancelled Hawaii trip due to Mike's neuroses but she still loved him, for instance. It was such a romantic, touching film whenever the two of them were on screen -- even when both of them were beaten to pulp, they had more chemistry than a lot of couples in your basic Rom Com.

no reason why this is here

Also, Phoebe passed the lamp test (which is if you replace a female character with a lamp and nothing changes in the story, then she is just there for decoration). Pheobe is incredibly active in her own fate and her own role in the movie. She is not along for the ride, but an active participant.

Then the themes really interested me. Mike feels trapped, inert, and that he lacks a semblance of control in his life. He even feels like he is holding Phoebe back. Coincidentally, Mike actually does lack control in his life. He is but a government experiment. There is a lot about Mike as a character that just speaks to this generation. And it is interesting that everything Phoebe has done was an active choice on her part -- even living as a stoner in West Virginia -- while Mike has had no control over anything in his life except when it came to Phoebe. In many ways, the movie is about choice and control over your destiny and how sometimes it isn't possible. It is dismal in some ways but I couldn't help but feel optimistic... about Mike and Phoebe.

Love lasts through heaven and hell

The movie also had some small, quiet and extremely touching scenes. One of them involves Mike talking to the mental patient experiment the Laugher. They're too tired to fight anymore and the Laugher expresses this lack of control of himself he has. And the two connect very briefly. I wasn't wild about the Laugher -- lumping him in with the CIA stuff -- but I felt a little teary eyed. It doesn't surprise me that the writer of this film also wrote one of my favorite movies, Chronicle, which I like because it is thoughtful and has its quiet moments between action sequences. I feel like Max Landis has a lot of creative ideas and I wish to see more of his work in the future.

Stylistically, I felt the angles and lighting and camera shots were fascinating. It did feel choppy but I kind of feel like that is a stylistic choice which works with a movie like this. It is about a pair of stoner lovers. It works. 

However, the thing that frustrates me the most is Mike and Phoebe is probably my favorite onscreen couple of all time. I would watch this movie again. But just for them. I am going to have to get salty during the CIA scenes in order for me to get through it.

Shoot him in the head, army guy. Just do it.

I feel like Chris Stuckmann does a better job at explaining why I find the CIA scenes so frustrating than I can.

Overall, I do recommend the movie. It's fun and original and man, Mike and Phoebe are my OTP.  And I'm not the type to have OTPs.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Return of History Geeking -- What I Wish I Knew More About

I made a promise to myself a long time ago that if I can learn something new every day, I could die a happy person. Of course, I didn't take to the account I could forget those new things and have to revisit them but you know how it goes. 

After I thought about my Time Travel game, I ended up thinking that there are certain topics of history I just do not know a whole lot about. And even more so, I found I wanted to find more about it and that longing caused me to purchase a few books on those topics. Outside the newest Erik Larson book, all of them are heavy, academic reads but since there is no test later, I find I enjoy reading them more.

I decided I would share blurbs on a few topics I wish I knew more about.

Alexander Hamilton. Back in college I took an American Political Thought class. My final project was about Thomas Jefferson. My thesis was about how his political thought evolved from the Revolution to the dawn of the US and how much it changed by the time he became president. For those of you who just don't know know or slept through High School history, there are generally two schools of thought of what divided this country on how they believed the country should be run. Politically, Jefferson's political party, the Democratic Republicans, believed largely in state's rights. The Federalists, who were dominated by mainly northeast politicians like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, believed in a stronger central government. The two political parties are also often called Jeffersonian for people who believe in strong states and Hamiltonian for those who believe in a strong central government.

At the time, the two camps hated each other. They got downright petty too, publishing articles defaming one another. Jefferson absolutely detested Hamilton and the feelings were mutual. And Jeffersonian scholars often picked up on that strong dislike and placed it in their own writings about him. I never felt I got a balanced view about Hamilton as I undertook my project. Furthermore, I even felt my history books growing up kind of looked at Hamilton in a comical way -- "He wanted a KING" Taken out of context. "HE DIED IN A DUEL WHAT A LOSER!" ... ok? Like my High School history book gave Hamilton credit for the US Treasury and such but there was always this underlying snark about it. Of course, history is written by the victors and there was only one Federalist in power -- John Adams. Afterwards, the Democratic Republicans dominated the White House for a few decades.

In the last few years, Hamilton has been revisited by scholars. Heck, there is even a Hip-Hop Musical on Broadway about him (seriously, I want tickets. Like now). And there is a lot to like about Hamilton. He was a bastard who came from nothing and rose through the ranks using his intellect and charming the pants off George Washington with his military tactics prowess. He also was against slavery and wanted to abolish the whole practice. Also, he advocated for the rights of Jewish people in a time that they they were a small minority but also disliked.

Hamilton was far from perfect but I really want to give him a fair shake and learn more about him outside the point of view from scholars who have a hard-on for Jefferson.

Yosuke Matsuoka -- what were you?
Japan Leading Up to and During WWII. Oh WWII. People talk about you so much. It was the war to end all wars. The History Channel pretty much could be called the Hitler channel... which is precisely the problem. When people think of WWII, they think of Hitler. And I'm not saying we should forget about him. We should remember the horrors his regime committed and do our best to make sure it doesn't happen again. But when people talk about Germany in WWII, they envision Hitler. They will think about Himmler, Goebbels, Hess. When they talk about Germany's actions during that war, people always refer to Hitler. When people talk about Italy, they bring up Mussolini. You are picturing his huge muppet-like face right now.

But when people talk about Japan, most people struggle to remember the leader there. Most people will think of Hirohito, the Emperor. Or the Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. But mostly, people talk about Japan as one entity as if the entire population of that country were somehow like the Crystal Gems in Steven Universe and joined into one body. The government of Japan committed many atrocities that like the Holocaust should be studied and remembered and made sure they do not happen again.

I consider myself an anime fan and am interested in Japanese history and culture. But sadly, I am more familiar with the Meiji Restoration and some Feudal Era History and surprisingly, I know a lot about the Ruso-Japanese War. WWII, I just only know the bare minimum. Japan committed atrocities in China. We got angry at them and cut off their oil supply. They bombed Pearl Harbor. We join into the war and fight in the Pacific then we bombed them back with horrific bombs. That's it. But I really don't know much how Japan got to that point. I don't understand the internal dynamics of the government. Like I said, Japan is always treated as one entity -- which yes, I assume a lot of that is due to racism.

One of my book purchases was a book about exactly this topic. I'm on page 125 or so of an 800 page book and my mind is already blown. Just how decentralized and disorganized the Japanese government was leading up to WWII is mind-boggling. Also the personality clashes. That is why I posted a picture of former foreign minister Yosuke Mastuoka up there. He clashed with so many people and the decisions he made as foreign minister was what lined Japan up for war in many ways. Then he ... was uninvited to the cabinet because he was disliked so much.

It doesn't excuse what happened in the rest of Asia. The Japanese government was at fault. But it does explain how things could have gotten out of control so fast, especially in Manchuria. Essentially, the central government had the least power. They couldn't do anything without the permission of the Army in many cases. The emperor was more of a formality.   This book also discusses the different type of personalities involved too which also brings a clearer picture to what exactly was going on.

 The Eastern Front in WWII. I really didn't want to put another WWII entry on this post. There are thousands of books written about WWII. But most of them seem to be written about Hitler. Man, people have such a romance with Hitler -- kind of like that bad boy you know you should ignore but if you can only get inside his brain and figure out how he ticks. But surprisingly, there is still a lot about WWII I don't know about. Like there was fighting in North Africa. No one would know that though.

Also, the Eastern Front. The bloody eastern front in which Germany fought against Russia. The thing that blows my mind is Russia lost the most soldiers AND civilians out of any country. This video blew my mind because I tend to respond better to seeing visual representation than seeing numbers. I took a Russian Culture class in college and I remember the teacher, who was Russian, said the Russian Army didn't have enough weaponry during WWII, so they would send those to the front line with weapons and when they were shot, the people in the next line would step up and pick up the weapon and continue.

Then I read an anecdote recently about the Battle of Stalingrad (actually it may have been Leningrad) and how as the siege went on, radio stations were slowly blown out so the only stations people could get was the one that tracked airstrikes. It was a slow clicking sound that would speed up. It kind of blew my mind and made me realize how much I didn't understand about the Eastern Front. Americans like to downplay Russia's sacrifice in the war because... Cold War, you know. But all I can think is about living in the Eastern Front and you had the choice of surrendering to Hitler's forces or Stalin's forces. That is like being stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.

We all know Stalin was Scylla
There are a few others I meant to add but this is long enough as it is. I may do a two-parter, but we'll see.