Lessons From…American Ultra

Alright, so this post is going to be a little different from the standard Monday/’Lessons” post. Normally, I mention seeing, reading, or playing something and then analyze a few possible takeaway morals or ideas from the overall work. This time around, the “lessons” won’t be concerning the narrative but more the actual film and how it worked, or more accurately how it didn’t. However, as always there will still be SPOILERS ahead.

Should I get a new image?

Should I get a new image?

So before we really dive into the issues I had with American Ultra, I think you will need to see the trailer at the very least for any of this to make sense.

Doesn’t that pretty much scream stoner action comedy? It did to me, so when I went to see the movie that was pretty much what I was expecting. Unfortunately, that is not what I got in the theater. Now, that is not to say that a film cannot subvert expectations for entertainment or social commentary. Many great films (both big budget and indie) have in the past to great results. Some random examples, and quality movies you should see, of such a thing are Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Cabin in the Woods, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Dot the I, and many more. Had this film attempted some form of subversion, I think I could have forgiven a few more aspects and enjoyed it more, but it didn’t even try that. Instead, what I was treated to was a jumbled mess of intriguing possibilities but ultimately unfinished and underdeveloped ideas and tangents.

So much damn potential...

So much damn potential…

Okay, before I get accused of trashing this film without cause, let’s get down to the finer points. First off, let this film be a lesson to all future productions in marketing. By that, I mean studios/distributors need to learn how to market the product they have and not the one they wish they could deliver. This film, based on the trailer, posters, and many of the interviews, was marketed as a stoner action comedy a la Pineapple Express for a younger generation. The problem is the film was never really any of those things. Yes, the two lead characters smoked pot, but were hardly stoners/potheads and weed had little impact on their overall lives. There were a few action sequences throughout the film, but they were all relatively short except for the final one near the end of the movie. And finally the comedic bits were few and far between within the film.

In all honesty, the movie was more of a romantic drama/coming of age story between the two main protagonists, Mike and Phoebe (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart). Had the promos and marketing strategy revolved around that aspect, it would have been better done and possibly better received. Yeah, it might not have been seen as the stoner comedy of the summer, but isn’t it better to be more honest with your audience than to deliver a flop. Though, to be fair, the romantic subplot had its own major issues that will be discussed later. Overall, when your stoner action comedy has little action with a few comedic bits thrown in while one dude occasionally smokes weed, you have some issues with your film.

This promo banner has more smoke than the movie.

This promo banner has more smoke than the movie.

Beyond the marketing, which directors, actors, or writers rarely get a vote on, the actual narrative of the film was full of inconsistencies, incomplete tangents, and underdeveloped ideas. Seriously, I saw this movie about two weeks ago and still have questions/concerns about it.

Basic synopsis is Mike Howell is a burnt/forgotten/former CIA asset who lives in bumpkin town in Virginia with his girlfriend Phoebe and no memory of his past as the sole survivor/”success” of the ULTRA project. For some unknown (no seriously, the film never really bothers to explain why) reason, a new CIA sub-director decides that he needs to be killed, so he sends assassins, top secret (recently trained) TOUGHGUY  (again, not joking that is the code designation) assets, and essentially an army battalion against this one guy in a “covert” mission to end Mike’s life. Along the way, Mike is “activated” by his handler but still manages to be an ignorant nuisance while also being a fighting badass. We also learn that Mike’s entire life as he knows it has been a lie and that his girlfriend is actually also a former CIA asset. Eventually (rather quickly actually), Mike gets over this betrayal and takes down all the CIA assets that were sent against him. He then becomes a top secret Bond/Bourne style agent at the end.

Also, maybe Jesse Eisenberg is not the best action star material...

Also, maybe Jesse Eisenberg is not the best action star material…

Seems like a pretty good movie, or at least interesting, movie from that pitch right? Well, movies are longer than two minutes and that is where a lot of the problems come into play. The story just doesn’t make a lot of sense. To begin, the movie states that certain aspects of Mike’s brain were altered to ensure his safety, e.g. his crippling panic attacks whenever he tries to leave the town and all knowledge of his former life. Sure that makes sense to a degree, but did the CIA also deprive him of desire, passion, and basic common sense? Just because someone smokes pot doesn’t mean they want nothing out of life, but that is essentially the best way to describe Mike’s character. Lazy, impotent slacker who smokes pot and is mildly obsessed with his girlfriend. There was never a singly point in the film when I empathized or really cared about Mike’s story or progression/evolution (though there really wasn’t any on that front either). You can have stoner characters. You can write slacker characters. You can create pure evil or even ambivalent nuisances, but you must still make the audience care about them in some way or for some reason. If you don’t, you failed at your job.

Moving on to the character of Phoebe. Unlike Mike, she is fully aware of both her and Mike’s CIA past. She knows that he cannot physically leave the town without dire consequences beyond his panic attacks. Still she has, on multiple occasions, attempted to do so and then has the gall to be angry that he is unable to do so. If she loved him, wouldn’t she try to dissuade him from leaving since there would probably be a CIA death squad waiting for them at whatever their final destination happened to be? Secondly, the audience is supposed to believe that Phoebe was so in love with Mike that she literally gave up her life to be with him, but there is no evidence to suggest this. The movie begins with her being angry and disappointed with him about their inability to go to Hawaii (even though she knows they can’t go) and criticizing his slacker actions and ambitions. At no given point in the film, do we get the notion that they share a bond worth the sacrifices she made. In fact, half the time I wasn’t even sure she liked him so much as tolerated his actions.

This was about two to five minutes in and is the only time I thought they were a loving couple.

This was about two to five minutes in and is the only time I thought they were a loving couple.

Then the CIA comes into play. The lead antagonist, Adrian (played by Topher Grace), is characterized as a cowardly, narcissistic, brown-noser who got his high position on a technicality and through kissassery. Fine, I can see that. I have known several people like that throughout my life. Here’s the thing. Those type of people are not risk takers. They are not proactive go-getters. They are at best opportunistic scavengers. They would wait for the perfect easy win to impress their superiors. What they wouldn’t do is send their brand new assets to cause a lot of destruction and attention. They also would never act without their superior’s knowledge for fear of repercussion. More importantly, once failure kicked in, they would most certainly never double down on their bet as they would flee immediately and find the nearest scapegoat to pin it on. Basically, hardly any of the actions taken by the character of Adrian align with the type of character the film has developed. Also, it was never really clear why he wanted Phoebe taken in alive since she was, at that point, a major liability. I thought the movie was alluding to some sort of romantic triangle between Mike, Phoebe, and Adrian as the unrequited/scorned ex or something but if it was, again it was way underdeveloped.

Add to this a bunch of underwhelming secondary characters and unclear moral lessons and notions and you get a messy, incomplete story which is the major issue I had with the film. The tagline pitch sounded amazing. Stoner action comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg as a pothead who learns he is actually a CIA super killing machine. But here’s the issue, what’s the rest of the film? A two minute elevator pitch is great but a solid 90+ minute story is infinitely better.

It probably seems like I bagged on the writing a bit before, right? The reason it might seem that way is because I tend to focus on the writing (given my background) and because the screenwriter is what prompted me to consider this film. So, the screenwriter of American Ultra is Max Landis. Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t know the guy. I have never met him before. I don’t follow him on any social media site. And any opinion I have of him is completely informed and based upon interviews and social media retweeted/tumbled/etc. by someone else. If you want to get a glimpse of that, Google him yourself.

This guy.

This guy.

Now, I really liked his last major screenwriting project (that was actually made because, with my limited understanding of Hollywood, a few of his scripts have probably never seen the light of day much less actually created) Chronicle. Again, another solid elevator pitch. Three friends find this thing in the woods and develop super powers. Yeah, sounds cool. I’d go see that. However, that is just the weird add on because the core of the film is really the story of three friends from very different backgrounds/situations growing up and figuring out who they are and what they want out of life. Might not be the best elevator pitch, but it is a relateable, universal story. The whole superpower thing just makes it more interesting and gives it an edge. In comparison, the underlying story of American Ultra, slacker trying to get the guts to marry his girlfriend, is not quite as good because the end goal is too easy with the resolution being kind of unearned. Why? Well, simply because the slacker in question is not really trying to be or do anything other than the girl and has no real moment of change. Yeah, he finally goes and saves her from the CIA at the end, but 1. it felt too easy, 2. already had the skills built into him so no real development of abilities, and 3. for Mike saving the girl was the endgame. He would have seemingly been content to go back to working at the corner store and smoking pot for the rest of his life.

Anyhow, the reason I was focused on this film in particular is because of Landis’s criticism during the opening weekend of the film. Once more, you can Google it yourself, but essentially he was lamenting about the American movie going audience concerning their tastes. He could not understand how an original [emphasis mine] movie with two high caliber stars could do so poorly in theaters. His guess was that the current public is only interested in superhero movies or sequels. Now, I agree that there is definitely a deluge of superhero films, sequels, and movies with built in franchises and a severe lack of original IP. However, you don’t get brownie points for just being original. You actually need to deliver a wanted, quality product.

During the week leading up to the release of the film, a few people who had seen an early release or screening were hyping up the film as usually happens. Looking back, on the other hand, I noticed that almost all the positive praise was concerning the fact that the film was an original movie. Honestly, that was almost all that was positively said on social media (maybe I follow the wrong people).  Not much was said about the story, acting, cinematography, style, humor, characters, etc. It was about how they were glad there was an original film competing against the sequels. Which, once more, is great that original films can still get made, but if it does not do well (and if you have only had one prior ‘success’) maybe the audience is not the issue.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

(As an aside for the sake of discussion, maybe I am in the wrong here (though box office numbers and criticisms do not suggest it) and this will end up being a sleeper hit or cult movie. What do you think? Tell me below.)

On Memoir & Self Stories

Lately, I have been reading memoirs and advice books by celebrities, activists, academics, and experts on a variety of subjects. Seriously, my last major haul of literature involved autobiographical memoirs and advice books by Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Ronda Rousey, Felicia Day, Bruce Lee, and a random assortment of others. Not on my usual big fiction kick for some reason.

So, an obvious question comes to mind. Why the hell am I reading so many books about self-help, opportunity, and general self improvement? The apparent answer would probably be because they are written by people I like, follow (through social media; not in a creepy stalker way), and admire. While this is very true, it doesn’t seem to fully satisfy the query.

Beyond my admiration for the authors and interest in the subject matter, I honestly think my recent literary interests have more to do with my innate desire to change my circumstances and life in general. The texts I am reading don’t offer a plan or even a real ‘how-to’ of doing things; instead, they offer more a life story of how someone succeeded and some general advice as to how maybe you can have some success.

That’s the unfortunate truth: if you find someone’s success and life that you want to emulate, chances are that you won’t be able to because no one’s path is ever really the same. I can’t do the same things as my favorite author and expect to be like him mainly due to the fact that he has already done it. Essentially, the books have been more inspirational than instructional and to some degree they have actually been useful.

I am currently studying for a major test that I will be taking in October to apply for graduate programs. As well, I am beefing up my skills and resume to get a different job. Whatever happens, I know that I will not be in the same place (physically, emotionally, etc.) by next August because I just can’t for my own well being.

So, thanks to all the random writers and books that I have read for that. It was necessary and long coming. Any book or film or piece of media that has inspired you recently? Would actually be curious to know what it was and how it helped.

Lessons From…The Admiral: Roaring Currents

I am a big fan of Asian cinema and movies. Loved the over the top Chinese kung fu (still think Drunken Master is the epitome of Jackie Chan’s work) and martial art films and the suspense thrillers that South Korea (Old Boy, anyone?) has been making recently. While the films from before 2000 were usually low budget and more campy/kitschy, recent movies from the East have been well done and more concerned and attentive to story, effects, characterization, and utilizing the medium to greater narrative potential. (Similar to the evolution of film in the West because our early films were not exactly high art either).

Honestly, this is probably why I have no issue paying for Netflix or Hulu because there are always random foreign movies and television shows to watch and enjoy. (Seriously, Korean dramas are infinitely better than 90% of American ones) During the weekend, a recommendation kept popping up and I finally gave in. I saw The Admiral: Roaring Currents on Saturday and was pleasantly delighted by the film.

Right? Don’t you want to go see this now? Anyhow, the film got me thinking and as usual I felt the urge to write a post on some thoughts. As always SPOILERS ahead.

Spoilers...

Spoilers…

The film, as seen in the trailer, tells the story of the Battle of Myeongnyang, a famous naval battle in 1597 between the Korean Joseon kingdom’s navy led by Admiral Yi Sun-sin against the invading Japanese navy in the Myeongnyang Strait. However, the actual battle does not really happen till near the end of the movie as most of the film is about Yi Sun-sin strategizing how to overcome the greater Japanese force and deal with his dwindling, frightened soldiers. In fact, this is one of the core themes of the film; fear and how to utilize it. Not coincidentally, it also happens to be the first lesson. Fear is simply an emotion and state of mind that can be used, controlled, and wielded like any other tool at your disposal.

All of Yi Sun-sin’s men have heard about the vast number of ships that the Japanese navy has. On top of that, they are aware of the losses suffered by another general at the hands of Japanese ships and the massive army that is on route to the capital. They are a small band of warriors, only 12 ships, against the full might of a superior force. Every single soldier is basically shitting themselves and spreading their fear and doubt to their fellow fighters and the peasants of the small village they are currently at. Yi Sun-sin sees this and understands that his men have lost heart. He knows that the odds are stacked against them and that they are probably doomed; however, he also is aware that the loss of hope is the worst possibly outcome. For his country and people to survive whatever outcome awaits, Sun-sin knows that they cannot succumb to the uncertainty and horror of their fear.

To be fair, I would probably be terrified if I had to face this with only 12 boats and a handful of men.

To be fair, I would probably be terrified if I had to face this with only 12 boats and a handful of men.

While I definitely love big action movies with idiotic fight sequences, what I really love and prefer about these types of films is that the protagonist has to implore some actual strategy to win. Frankly, the best generals, fighters, and battles were not the ones that were just tough and hearty. The ones that stand the tests of time and are remembered throughout history are the ones that involved a bit of intelligence, cleverness, and strategy. The Battle of Thermopylae (aka 300 Spartans thing) only happened because Leonidas was not an idiot and realized he could use the area to his advantage against the superior numbers of the Persian army. Same for most other well known military individuals, honestly. Strategy and intelligence trump sheer will, power, or strength 9 out of 10 times.

Yi Sun-sin knows how perilous and dire his circumstances are. However, he is no ordinary soldier. He is an admiral of the Joseon kingdom. The Japanese navy know this man. Its generals and admirals have lost battles and ships and men to this Admiral Yi Sun-sin. They know what he is capable of and a few among the Japanese ranks fear what he can do. Yi Sun-sin knows this and decides to use fear as a weapon and source of inspiration. He faces the immense Japanese forces alone, ordering his forces to stay behind, because of their fear. During the initial battle, he uses his knowledge of the waters and weather to trick his opponents and over power them. Granted its only the vanguard of the full force but that small victory inspires his men to finally move and great fear in the Japanese forces.

Yeah, I wouldn't want to be in a fight against this dude. Even 1 on 1.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be in a fight against this dude. Even 1 on 1.

Eventually, Yi Sun-sin’s actions are enough to show the Japanese navy what they can expect if they continue to act against Joseon. The Japanese navy knows the costs of victory and turn away instead. That is the final lesson. Sometimes the only win we can achieve is simply making the other player leave. It’s not total. It’s not glorious. There will probably not be ballads and stories told about how you kept them at bay or from completely winning, but it keeps you alive and able to go on. And that is something worthwhile.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

On Media Perception & Effect

I have expressed a similar thought before on other social media, but I am genuinely surprised by current perceptions/thoughts/emotions/concerns of law enforcement and the glorification of it in popular media. Most, if not all, of the programs starring or involving law enforcement have the cop(s) as the protagonist and/or hero, but in virtually all of the current programs they are also unquestionably corrupt and break so many laws, practices, and procedures to “do what is right” and “get shit done.”

What’s odd to me is these characters are praised, seen as heroic, or at worst seen as a necessary evil. Seriously, look at any current law enforcement program (non-reality) and the cops have done illegal, unethical, immoral, or highly questionable acts to catch the bad guy. And of course the justification for this is that the law enforcement officials are the “good guys” so if they have to break the rules to do their job then it’s okay.

But it’s really not. When you have to justify your actions, then there is probably some questionable aspect to the taken actions. Why do we romanticize these individuals as some sort of anti-heroes that are worthy of praise and glory?

The thing is I truly believe that the media we consume affects us to some degree. Now, obviously you are not going to become a proponent of police misconduct or questionable law enforcement practices because you saw a couple of episodes of Chicago PD or Longmire, but most science and surveys suggest that you will be influenced somewhat.

Is there a direct relation between police representation in popular media and police conduct in the real world? Probably not, but there is most likely some correlation between the two. Rolling swimming pool cop anyone?

Anyhow, what do you all think? Am I completely off? Do any of you find the disparity in media, real life, and perception weird or scummy?

Lessons From…Peaky Blinders

So, I seem to be on a Netflix original kick lately and just got around to seeing Peaky Blinders. If you have yet to see this show, I highly recommend that you remedy that foolish error immediately. Here’s a taste:

Right? It’s like a perfect combination of every current television trope Americans love but with a British filter. Morally ambiguous anti-hero trying to make it big? Check. Family drama? Check. Oppressed minority fighting against oppressive system? Check. British accents? Check. Gratuitous sex and violence? Multiple checks.

Of course, this program provided insights beyond its base entertainment value, and I decided to analyze and write on some of them. As always SPOILERS ahead.

It's back after a short reprieve.

It’s back after a short reprieve.

The show focuses on the actions of Thomas Shelby (played by the incredible Cillian Murphy) as he tries to gain an upper-hand in the British criminal underground for himself and his family. Being Irish in early 1900’s Britain, Thomas is already at several disadvantages in life. However, he has clear goals of what he wants to accomplish and, unlike his family and peers, actually has the ambition and brains to make his dreams a reality, regardless of the consequences or costs.

For most of the series, Thomas’s rise and actions mirrors those of his nemesis, Inspector Chester Campbell (played by Sam Neill in an odd Irish accent). They are both ambitious, ruthless, intelligent, cunning, and dangerous individuals at opposite ends of the law (though not necessarily the moral or ethical spectrum). In fact, Campbell makes a note of their similarities later on in season 1, but Thomas remarks that unlike Campbell Thomas has his family, so he will never be alone while Campbell will most likely die so. This brings us to the first lesson of Peaky Blinders, and in many ways the rules of being the oppressed minority, when faced with impossible odds family & comrades come first.

Brothers in blood & battle.

Brothers in blood & battle.

While Thomas’s devotion and affection for his family and loved ones is exploited by Inspector Campbell, it is ultimately his saving grace and driving force. As well, it is a trait that Campbell envies in Thomas because he knows that it is something that he cannot have; family and actual love. Thomas manages to exasperate Campbell with this knowledge and understanding throughout the series to his advantage.

Thomas is trying to rewrite his stars and create a new world around him. Such actions usually require a certain level of blind naivete and sheer force of will. Everything and virtually everyone is working against him, at times even his own family. The sheer nerve of a man wanting to change his position in life; what arrogance he must hold. Yet, here he is doing what must be done to do so. It is within this miasma of uncertainty and chaos that Thomas thrives. It is probably the within these situations that the audience sees him as he truly is.

To all outsiders, he is simply an undeserving upstart unaware of his true place in life. A yelping dog that must be reigned in and reminded of his position; that is what Thomas Shelby is to all those he opposes. However, it is this notion that gives Thomas a needed advantage because unlike his idiot enemies he does not underestimate the tenacity, intelligence, or ability of his opposition. Thomas used every available resource at his disposal and never once considered himself above his foes because he knew what the results of such arrogance could be from his time in war.

Sometimes you have to bring a drunk with a machine gun to a fight.

Sometimes you have to bring a drunk with a machine gun to a fight.

Still nothing can ever be gained if nothing is ventured. Thomas is trying to build a legitimate empire that will last generations for the Shelby clan long after his demise. Ambitions of such a high nature and stake require stark choices and sacrifices. Thomas is ready to make those choices. He manipulates his family and friends and allies. He kills those who oppose him and even those who call him brother when necessary. He is perfectly able and willing to play king, crown, and the police to further his agenda.

Thomas Shelby knows who and what he is. He knows what he wants and what it will take to get there. He is even willing to surrender and give up his own heart to ensure his, and his family’s, legacy.

Love is always hard when she works for your enemy.

Love is always hard when she works for your enemy.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

On Context

Does context even matter anymore? No, seriously, I am asking. In the modern world of offense and entendre, it seems as though intent are no longer of any worth or value and all that matters is the reception. I am not suggesting that anyone should be offended by the words or actions of someone since there are plenty of legitimate cases of assholes being assholes and wanting to get a reaction out of the objects or targets of their vitriol. In those cases, yeah definitely call out the douchenozzle for being such and, if possible and applicable, makes sure there are some consequences for their actions. Frankly, they deserve it.

However, there has to be some middle ground where words, and even actions, can be calmly examined for intent and worth and not just automatically discounted or attacked. It happens quite a bit particularly to public figures. For some reason (I know the reason), people will latch onto anything that could even be interpreted as a misstep and shine a huge light, analyze it to death, and basically just shit on a public figure for having expressed something, and in a lot of cases not necessarily anything that was actually offensive just something that the contrarian dislikes.

Guess what humans. Just because you happen to dislike or disagree with something/someone does not automatically make that thing/person problematic, offensive, or wrong. Now, they very well could be one, two, or all of those things, but that judgement should require actual analysis, thought, and evidence beyond your distaste. A friend mentioned in conversation a while back how we, as a society, don’t really seem to have any “big” conversations anymore, and to some degree we no longer really have “small” conversations neither. Basically, he was referring to the idea of a group of people getting together and simply having a talk about anything and everything. It seems like such a small gesture but I think it would have an immense amount of value.

Like usual, I don’t have any solutions at hand. Hell, for all I know this is only an issue in my head and not in reality. So what do you think? Does context and intent matter anymore? Should they?

 

Lessons From…Watsky [Tiny Glowing Screens Pt. 2]

Spoken word is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. Spoken word in rap form with a hook and music attached is most likely even more niche. Add to that the fact that it is a dorky looking white boy performing a spoken word rap on YouTube and I imagine that most will be put off from the whole video.

However, I strongly recommend you listen (actually listen) to it in its entirety before passing judgement. Considering the short length and slightly interpretive nature of poetry, I will not be conducting a point by point breakdown of this one. Instead, I hope you will hear it and come up with your own conclusions, possibly even stating them in the comments.

Again, I don’t want to simply state my assessment on this one, but I will say that at least one of the lessons to take away is to have audacity and belief because it beats out the alternatives. Or as Watsky puts it:

"And I have the audacity to think I matter I know it’s a lie but I prefer it to the alternative"

“And I have the audacity to think I matter
I know it’s a lie but I prefer it to the alternative”

Thus endeth today’s lesson.