Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dear Salvador - Stress

Dear Salvador,

You're kind've like a rat.

That's not meant to be an insult, because I'm kind've like a rat too. This is true for me especially, but humanity in general has a lot of rat-like qualities when it comes to thinking. We like to think that as humans, we are totally in control of our facilities at all times -- free will and all that -- and that we can't be tricked or controlled without our knowing. You are much better off accepting that this is not true as soon as possible, and instead of fighting against it. Work with your stupid rat brain instead of thinking you're better than a rodent.

But what do I mean by rat brain? Well, you've seen that stereotypical laboratory on TV where they have beakers full of bubbling green liquid and a rat maze just hanging out. In it, the rat might get taught to avoid a red platform because every time he steps on it, he gets zapped, and taught to go for a green platform, because every time he steps on it, he gets a piece of cheese.

This is called conditioning and you are not immune to it. In fact, I can guarantee that all of your teachers up until now -- yes, even your university professors -- are doing this shit to you. You get a gold star every time you do something good in class or get an A on the test or whatever. You get punished every time you do something bad like be noisy in class or watch porn on your laptop during lectures. You and I are already conditioned human beings, so there's no point in denying it.

A lot of people -- and especially myself at a younger age -- don't realize that we also condition ourselves. We reward or punish ourselves, but usually in more subtle ways. I know that I still justify games of League of Legends to myself by saying that I studied hard all week, and I deserve these 45 minutes of killing cartoon characters dammit. It can even be less concrete than this, though. Have you ever felt bad after doing something shitty? That's negative conditioning: Your bad mood helps condition you to stop doing dumb shit in the future.

With this type of "bad mood conditioning" you may have noticed that this depends on whether or not you actually feel bad about something or whether you want to feel bad about it. I'm sure you're already well aware that people don't like feeling bad, so they will avoid it as often as possible. If you ever wondered how somebody can be an absolute dick and not be remorseful about it in the slightest, it's because remorse is a shitty feeling and they're actively trying to avoid.

Ok, so what can we do this knowledge? Well, let's say you get stressed out at work or in class or with your friends. Somebody says something to you and it pisses you off, or you put off an assignment until the last minute and it stresses you out. Afterwards, you go out and have a few too many beers, or you complain to someone, or you hit something or someone, or you eat too much. This is called "catharsis" and Freud was one of many who suggested that it works to "cleanse" the mind and prepare you for further challenges. Despite being the only psychologist you can name, Freud was not always right.

Go back to the rats. In the multiple scenarios above, ask yourself what the "cheese" was. It was, of course, the booze, the food, the fighting and the complaining. All of the shit feels good, and you're going to "step on the green platform" to get it. The problem is that stepping on that green platform is the bad mood that you started off in. If you condition yourself in this way (stress --> something good) then what do you think your little rat brain is going to try and do? That's right, your rat-ass self is going to seek out that stress.

What's funny is that this is hard to counteract. Even when you're aware of it, you can't help but go, "Ugh, today sucked. I deserve pizza." But again, this only makes you fatter and angrier. This is actually why it's so hard to lose weight actually. People try to positively condition themselves by working out and then rewarding themselves with cake, or they misunderstand negative conditioning and try to soothe themselves with food when they're too tired to exercise.

You can counteract it though. Number one, you should always be thinking about Future Salvador. You have a tendency (we all do) to push all of your problems onto that asshole, but that asshole is actually you. He will have to deal with the problems that you create for him, so don't forget about him.

Also, start rewarding your accomplishments. If you want to do that with booze or food or whatever, go for it. If you accomplish everything you set out to accomplish in a day, give yourself a beer or a cookie. I'm almost 30 years and every day that I feel like I worked hard the entire time, I give myself a gold star sticker. Right there on my calendar.

If you can, punish your failures. You can beat yourself up every time you fail, which contrary to what people tell you when you're in a bad mood, is a good deterrent and will help you from doing it again. Nobody else will be as hard on you as you are on yourself, so go nuts. Also, do not seek comfort from your failures in other people. If you get into the habit of saying to your friends or girlfriend, "Ugh, my day sucked. Let me tell you about and you can give me compliments to make me feel better," you're going to be having shitty days more often. Finally, try and shoot for the opposite of whatever kind of reward you were giving yourself before. I have a tendency to feed myself when I'm in a bad mood, so I'm trying to do the opposite more often. When I'm in a shitty mood, I will eat a big bowl of shredded cabbage. It's good for me, and it doesn't reinforce my awful behavior.

You get the idea, rat-boy. Go out and make it happen.

Your Useless Mentor,

Friday, December 19, 2014

Top Ten Movies of 2014 - Part Three

3. Fury
These next three movies feel a bit pointless to rank in any order, since I loved them so much, but I suppose if I had to choose, the worst of the small group is Fury, but not by much.

I saw this movie fairly recently, and so I don’t have a lot to say aside from that review. Again, my own personal experiences factor into my decision here. I’ve been studying international relations for the past year or so, with a concentration in conflict management. Because of this, I get to talk about how unceasingly awful war is all the time. This movie is not a documentary, but I don’t think that should stop me or anyone else from imagining the true horrors that people experience during a war, especially the soldiers who must bear the brunt of the trauma, whether physically or emotionally.

As if the entire time spent showing us all awful and bloody war is wasn’t enough, the final lines – “You’re a hero.” – add a brand new dimension to the story as well. War is not only hard on the soldiers and civilians, but it also pointless and overly glorified. We remember the battles and who won them, but we forget the soldier at the end, sitting in the back of an ambulance, unable to cope with the world around him anymore.

The only complaint that I have about this movie – which is sadly a fairly large one – is that it degenerates into a standard war movie for far too long. The first three-fourths of the film are brightly lit, and show each and every bit of death right in front of your face, including the time someone gets stabbed in the fucking face. It is an extremely intimate view of war. The final scene however, is shot entirely in the dark, with wave after wave of autonomous German soldiers walking about to be dumbly shot dead by our heroes. It is still an emotionally charged and exciting scene, but it lacks the weight and obscenity of the scenes before it.

2. The Babadook
When I talked about Guardians of the Galaxy last time, I mentioned that a big part of my enjoyment from that movie derived from the fact that I not only had low expectations, but was actively hating the entire concept for a long time before seeing film. That helps out quite a bit for a movies enjoyment, as high expectations can easily ruin a perfectly good movie.

The opposite of this, however – having high expectations that are actually met – is a much higher high. I had heard about The Babadook quite a bit before actually seeing it – all good things – and yet my high expectations were actually exceeded.

There was a lot riding on this movie, too. I had just recently lamented at how awful the horror movie genre had become, and was practically begging for something fresh. This movie does everything that I think a good horror movie should do. There is a very specific (very German Expressionism-esque) style to the movie that makes every shot aesthetically pleasing and artistic. A lot of sharp shadows and wide open negative space create a jarring atmosphere inside the house, even when there’s no monster around.

The Babadook itself is genuinely creepy and originally, without being over the top. Its design is simple to the point of being, well, childish. The kind of thing you actually would expect to find in a children’s book. Moreover, the presence of the Babadook is pervasive at all times and in all places. While the scariest moment is elsewhere in the movie, the scariest establishing scene is the police office, where we see that the Babadook can be anywhere and take the form of anything. We see the Babadook attack the mother and son in broad daylight, in the car, which segues into my next point…
There is more at stake here than just escaping a monster. The car crash is an ideal example in that it is caused by the monster, yet the result, the lasting damage, is on her insurance premiums and checkbook. The movie never fails to remind us that these are real people dealing with real problems. These problems just happen to be exacerbated by a monster.

Or are they? This is the final and maybe my favorite aspect of the Babadook. Like many great horror stories, it is largely a metaphorical tale, where instead of just being a monster, the Babadook stands in for depression and the overwhelming sense of loss felt by our characters.

1. The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Deep down, I think I always knew that if I compared this film with other great movies of this year, it would still come out on top. Again, the fact that I’ve been learning so much about war and conflict factors into decision quite a bit, but still, it is hard to deny how unbearably tragic this story is.
The seminal disaster here is the inevitability of a war. It is clear on everyone’s face, almost as soon as each character is introduced or reintroduced in this film, that war is coming for them and there’s nothing to be done to stop it. I’ve heard some call this plot predictable, and I suppose that’s true, but I think this criticism misses the central focus of the movie, which is the long, unavoidable path that finds two societies at war with one another.

What makes this story so interesting is that each character never acts out of place. You are aware from the onset what their priorities and desires are, and hence are never surprised or dumbfounded by any of their decisions. Even the antagonists (if one can even call them that) have clear, understandable motivations. What would you do if your leader had gone mad and allowed outsiders into the deepest political circles, even his or her home? Imagine if Obama decided to make a high-ranking member of ISIS a cabinet member. Despite any good intentions on anyone’s part, you would still be understandably frustrated trying to explain to the leader that, hey, maybe don’t trust these guys 100% right away.

And the human leader. Can you imagine the insanity? The human race is close to extinction thanks to a disease carried by apes, and you want to just go hang out with apes. Yes, Felicity is probably correct that the survivors are immune, but do you really want to take that chance? With the future of the human race? As you’re already living in, like, huts? I think some caution is more than warranted.

The true beauty of this movie is that we don’t see these two completely rational people who have their people’s best interests at heart as the good guys, and the brazen, death-wishing assholes as the bad guys, and yet, the movie is a great big long love letter to peace. It dares to say that yes, we have reason to be afraid, we have reason to distrust each other, but if we do so, we will perish. We need to work together even when it’s terrifying to do so. That’s a beautiful sentiment and I’m so glad this movie exists and forced me to put it as #1.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Ten Movies of 2014 - Part Two

Part one of this list is right the ef here.

7. Interstellar
I really do have a hard time ranking Interstellar out of 2014's movies. On the one hand, this is a deeply flawed movie that left me feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, it tackled some big issues and tried some daring things with subject matter. I feel like I would much rather see a movie ask a big question and come up with a bad answer than watch a movie ask a simple question and give an easy answer.

6. X-Men: Days of Future Past
I try not to let stories about how a movie was made or the background of its production influence my decision on whether or not the movie was good, but sometimes, it can't be helped. The fact that this movie attempted to repair the damage done by some awful, awful films and rest the universe with crazy-go-nuts time travel plots and succeeds...Well, fucking well done.

Not only does DOFP bridge the narrative gap between the "past" X-Men and "present" X-Men, it is a fun movie that focuses largely on the relationships between three characters. (Four if you count Beast, who was fighting for screentime in this film and deserved more, considering his importance to Raven, the character whose actions determine the success or failure of the events in the film.) I can't overstate how important it is to keep your movie focused on character development while maintaining a certain level of fun. It's a hard line to walk between Raven's desire to kill Trask to avenge the death of her friends and chuckling at Quicksilver giving a guy a wedgie, but this film walks it and walks it well.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Alright, top five. Now we're really getting into it.

The Winter Soldier was a good movie. Like, a really good movie. As I sit here at this moment, I konw that it was amazing, but I can't quite bring myself to move it up any higher than number five on my list. Honestly, I can't think of any flaws that precludes it from being higher up on the list, but it's just that #4-1 were better than this one.

Why were they better? Out of all the movies in the top five, I was engaged in The Winter Soldier the least. That's not to say that I wasn't engaged, because I was very fucking engaged in this film (all three times I saw it in the theaters). I was very pleased that they veered away from the "get the infinity stone" type of plotline, and that they focused on something important like the issue of security versus freedom.

I think my only problem with the film is that it makes it easy to choose the "freedom" side of the argument. Initially, you have a government-run program spying on its citizens and being prepared to take out threats preemptively, without a trial and with extreme prejudice. That's a huge fucking deal to put that in a movie and have its characters examine that issue. In fact, I can't think of anything else that was willing to even come close to tackling these sorts of themes.

The problem though, is that we later find out that the warship is being controlled by Hydra, a group of Nazis. Any semblance of examining this issue goes out the window when one side is Nazis. (The Dark Knight had the balls to have our protagonist doing the spying on civilians, and that movie came out years ago. Why didn't The Winter Soldier have Captain America struggling against his own government instead of an easy target like Nazis?) Following that, the climax of the film comes between Captain America and his best friend Bucky. Not that this wasn't a compelling aspect of the story, but it was not the most compelling aspect, and so to have it be the climax of the film makes it feel like the ending fell flat.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Again, I have to talk a little bit about the production of this movie.

The Guardians of the Galaxy was such an awful idea on paper. Born of hubris, Marvel basically created a brand new superhero team and pushed it as hard as they could in the comics to build up support for this movies. As a comic-reader, I fucking hate the Guardians of the Galaxy. They have a tendency to pop up in stories and derail whatever else is going on, even when there's absolutely no reason for them to be anywhere. It's really frustrating for both the reader and probably the writer too, to have corporate demand that Rocket Racoon just absolutely has to be in this issue of the Hulk. All of this for the sake of selling movie tickets.

But I'll damned if the movie wasn't almost perfect. From the moment the title card lit up in the screen to the tune of "Come and Get Your Love" comes up, I was convinced this was something special. Similar to DOFP, Guardians is able to skirt the line between touching and irreverent. Hell, the opening scene with Chris Pratt's mother dying is immediately followed by him singing into a lizard. Remarkably, both scenes work. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Starlord hangs a lampshade on the quest to find the infinity stone by calling it the Maltese Falcon and then outright calling it a MacGuffin. This is the films entire attitude about itself. "This shit isn't very serious. You're watching a movie. Let's have a good time. Here's a racoon."

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How to Fix Your Group

So, in the past few days there were two incidents of Islamic terrorism -- one in Sydney and one in Peshawar -- that I wanted to talk about. Here are some unnecessary disclaimers:

1) Just because one person of a group does something bad does not mean that everyone in that group is bad.
2) There is a difference between someone who is X doing something bad, and someone who does something bad for X.
3) No position, ideology or religion is allowed to be free from criticism, especially if that criticism is pointed at the ideas and not the persons.

Also, I am a straight, white guy, so I don't get a lot of prejudice from sight alone. I am an atheist though, and even if this experience is not quite as intense as experiencing prejudice being a Muslim or black in America, I will be relying on my experience in the atheist community for this blog post.

So, let's say I join the KKK, an unambiguously evil group.

1) Your first instinct should be to just leave and focus your efforts elsewhere. After I see the KKK doing and saying evil things, my first instinct should be to leave. If I am in the group by choice and can leave by choice, and that group is doing a lot of bad things, I should just disassociate myself with that group.

I kept wondering about this during the gamergate fiasco that just occurred. People would say and threaten evil things so much so that the title "gamergate" was pretty much stained. If you truly believe that the people in your group are giving you a bad name, and if you truly believe in whatever cause it is, you can disassociate yourself from that group, easy.

For example, the atheist community has a horrible misogyny problem. A lot of us don't take too kindly to this kind of nonsense, so one of the things that many of us did was disassociate ourselves from these people. This is kind of hard, because I can't suddenly believe in a god just because some atheists I know are assholes. That is not a good reason to believe, first of all, and secondly, not really possible for me. So instead I choose to identify more with two other groups, rather than the atheist community at large -- atheism plus and humanism. Both of these groups have a tendency to reject any type of prejudicial thinking and emphasize helping other people. If you think the KKK group you joined is no longer representing your interests, make a new group. "Colorblind Power" or something. Ku Klux Friendship.

Let's go back to my joining of the KKK. If I were in that group, and I told you that not every KKK member is evil (which is true) and not every KKK member has done something bad (which is true) and some KKK members are actually good people (which is true, probably) than you wouldn't believe a bit of that, would you? You would say, sure, you may be alright, but everyone else in that group is a racist asshole.

Now, remember my disclaimer up at the top. For sure, not every KKK member is an asshole, not every gamergater is a misogynist, and not every Muslim is a terrorist. But if you're that one lone good guy, there's no reason to offer your support to a bunch of bad guys.

2) What you should not do is claim that you and people like you have ownership over the "true" such-and-such. I feel very strongly about this for two reasons. The first is that we're not allowed to do this in the atheist community, so it's taught me not to pay attention when other people try to pull this shit. You can't say, "This guy isn't a true atheist," just because of the nature of atheism. (Atheism being more about a lack of belief than the presence of one.) The second reason is terrorism.

You would think that there would be some cognitive dissonance between religious terrorist groups and the killing of civilians. Every child in that school in Peshawar was a Muslim, yet they were killed by Muslims, for the sake of Islam. Shouldn't that cause some sort of fundamental disconnect in the minds of this killers? And yet when you read interviews with Al-Qaeda members or the press releases from ISIS, you see that they see no disconnect. That is because they believe that they are the "true" Muslims and the people they kill are wrong. Which leads me to my third point:

3) If someone in your group is being awful, you are the person most responsible for denouncing them, especially if you think that they are not representing your group in the "true" way. It doesn't do any good to say, "Oh, he's not really one of us, so it doesn't affect us." If this person is a member of the group (which they are, no matter how much you hate the fact that they are) and doing bad things in the name of your group, you need to let the world know how much you hate it.

Let's say an atheist bombs a church today. Overnight the reputation of atheists gets much, much worse, and now everyone is looking at every person with a copy of a Carl Sagan book like they're arsonists. It's not fair and it's not true, but it's bound to happen. However, I believe that bad reputations like these can be countered if you make enough noise in the opposite direction. If your group can overwhelmingly come out in opposition to church bombings, then perhaps your reputation will become being anti-violence. The alternative is that you stay silent about something and let everyone form a reputation around you. What if some atheists think, oh, that wasn't that bad. It was just a church that shouldn't have existed anyway, and besides, there were no people in it.

I hope that I apply this principle to atheism as best I can. I can't leave atheism, and I can't claim that some bad atheist isn't a "true" atheist, and so if you're in the same situation as me, the best you can do is hope that your positive noise cancels out the negative.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Movies of 2014 - Part One

Looking back on the movies that came out this year, I feel like 2014 was a pretty good year. In general, I'm not a fan of top ten lists. There's a lot of objective comments that one can make about a movie to defend one's position, and I prefer reading those types of reviews (and hopefully I write those types of reviews). One of my literature professors in school once told us that you can have any opinion or idea about a book, but when you come across the correct meaning -- and I will argue that books do indeed have a correct meaning -- that it feels like a "key" that you've just unlocked the book's secrets with. You can argue that "Hills Like White Elephants" is about a sex change operation, and probably get a long way with that analogy, but in the end, the idea that it's about an abortion makes a bit more sense, and is the key to unlock that story. Movies are the same way.

One of the things that I never liked about top ten lists is that it is more subjective than other forms of criticism and reviewing.  I've argued before that saying a movie is "good" or that I like it or that's it's important are all totally different and not necessarily mutually exclusive things. Did I enjoy watching Ghost Dad more than The General? For sure, but Ghost Dad is still an awful movie and The General  is a classic film that changed cinema. But then, how do I rank those? Which one is "better"?

The other thing is that I haven't seen all the movies that came out in 2014. In fact, I tend to watch more old movies than new releases in general. (More on that in a second.) How can I claim which ten movies are "the best" when I haven't seen most or even a significant number of them? To state this a bit more specifically, I saw only 20 films that came out in 2014, and something like 50 movies this year total. The good news is that even though I saw only 20 movies debuting in 2014, it's hard to narrow that down to ten.

For the record, those twenty movies are:
Days of Future Past (One Two Three)
Muppets Most Wanted
Mr. Peabody and Sherman
The Lego Movie
Justice League: War
Interstellar (One Two)
Hunger Games: Mockingjay
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Guardians of the Galaxy
Gone Girl
Edge of Tomorrow
Dracula Untold
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Captain Winter: The Winter Soldier (One Two Three)
La Belle et El Bete
The Babadook (One Two)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (One Two Three Four Five)
300: Rise of an Empire (한국어)

All that being said, I would like to reflect on what came out this year, because I feel like it was a good year and I'd like to examine that. After that's finished though, I want to write up a second list about all the movies that I've seen in the past year. Again, going back to the example of The General, sometimes a movie just doesn't hold up as well later on and sometimes a movie only looks good in comparison to other films. On the flipside, there are probably some films that I've seen this year that are still much better than films that came out recently. So I'll be making a "Top Ten of 2014" and a "Top Ten Movies Seen in 2014".

Today, we'll start the Top Ten of 2014 list:

10. Gone Girl
Gone Girl is in my mind the best reason to even bother with a top ten list. This movie did make the cut, but as time goes on, my opinion of it keeps getting worse and worse. I definitely liked it best after walking out of the theater. At this moment though, I'm realizing more and more how flawed the plot was, especially in a few potentially misogynistic ways. This was certainly well-made, but compared to some other movies in this year and compared to some of David Fincher's other works, it doesn't stand out too much. Definitely not a bad film, but I'm sure it won't be remembered in 2015.

9. How to Train Your Dragon 2
Admittedly, I am something of a How to Train Your Dragon fanboy. In fact, probably the reason that this made it as high as it did on this list is because I'm a fanboy. I was very pleasantly surprised with the first two-thirds or so of this movie, especially in the changes made to the characters. I cannot stress enough how great it was that they made a sequel with characters aging in real-time instead of directly copying what they had in the first film. Not only did this allow them to essentially introduce us to a brand new cast, but the way they delivered that information was outstanding. I don't want to write a full review at this time, because I want to give this film the space it deserves. Suffice it to say, this did not leave me as wowed as the first one did, but still a very good movie and one that I hope to watch again soon.

8. Edge of Tomorrow
These next two films were very, very close together, and I'm still not sure whether I did the right thing ranking them in this order. It's an interesting debate though: On the one hand, Edge of Tomorrow takes a previously-used premise, adds nothing new to the genre, but does everything almost exactly right, for a dumb action movie. Number seven on this list, Interstellar, takes a huge overarching concept with grand themes about humanity and love and fucked it all up towards the end. Which one is better? Although I can be swayed, I would argue that a perfect rehash of old ideas and themes is not quite as good as a brand new concept done just fine.

Friday, December 5, 2014


If Fury is still out in a theater close to you, please go see it. Unless you're a minor in which case, you can't and shouldn't. Also, if you're not a fan of gore or extreme violence, you should skip this one. And, if you're looking for an action-packed adventure movie, then you won't enjoy this either. Actually, most people won't appreciate this film for what it is, but just take my word for it: It is damn good.

It is crucial that we never mistake form for function. That is to say, if a movie has all the trappings of an action-adventure war film, with its grizzled, womanizing soldiers, shooting guns and fightin' for the good guys, it doesn't necessarily mean it's being glorified. Fury may perhaps be the most blatantly anti-war movie since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The story follows 4 soldiers who have essentially lived inside a tank -- named Fury -- for the entirety of World War II. (I think at one point, the commanding officer -- played by Brad Pitt -- mentions that they fought in North Africa, then Italy and now are in Germany in 1945.) Before the opening of this film, one of their fellow soldiers who has been inside the tank with them has been killed, and a painfully unqualified new recruit takes his place. It is his story that we follow throughout the film.

The new recruit is critical for two reasons. One, for the obvious storytelling aspect of it, that a character unfamiliar to the events going on around him needs things explained and shown to him. We learn quite a bit about the war through him. It also serves a greater purpose and the overall message of the film. By connecting us with this rookie soldier who still maintains a sense of morality and righteousness, we see how different he is from the other soldiers who have been in the war for quite a while. As a result, the humanity of the other soldiers fades further and further away.

The beginning of the film is fire and blood and barking orders. You get your ass in that tank and clean it real good, maggot. I know we're all sad about Red's death but we gonna kill some Nazis. You shoot those children before they shoot you.

These moments -- which, by the way, are not limited to the opening of the film -- had an additional effect besides showing how hardened and tough these veteran soldiers have become. I think it's fair to see that out of all wars, we tend to glorify World War II the most in America. That was "the good war", and its soldiers are the greatest generation. This film immediately shocks you by showing them more than just tough soldiers. These are truly disgusting. They kill prisoners of war for no reason. They fight among themselves. That line about killing children was paraphrased from the movie. They are heartless. Truthfully though, this is probably how soldiers during this era really behaved. We are fooling ourselves if we think that any soldier can behave righteously during a time of war.

Therein lies the true antagonist in Fury. War itself is the problem. These men are not losing their humanity because they're awful people. Indeed, they show a great deal of nobility and kindness hidden past their gruff and disgusting exteriors. They were probably all really nice guys in the 1930s. However, it's the war and the death that has turned their hearts cold. It's an emotionless pragmatism to stay alive that leads them to idea that they should shoot a child or a prisoner. This is of course, unconscionable behavior under any circumstance, but the movie does not paint the soldiers as maniacs or murderers. They are instead victims of the war they're in. They are not distant from the civilians around them because they were originally heartless, but because they have seen so much death and pain that they can't handle any more.

I really do want you to go see this movie. A lot of scenes are physically repulsive, but that is their intention. The movie wants you to be disgusted and offended by the violence, because that is what a real war looks like. (Sidenote: The film is so violent that a few scenes needed to be censored here in Korea where I saw it.) The whole thing makes me wonder about what a film's purpose really is. This movie is engaging; almost every scene is tense, knowing that someone might be killed at any second. However, it's not an enjoyable experience to sit through in a strict sense. The movie seeks to make you disquieted, frightened and disgusted by the war you're watching on the screen, and it certainly succeeds in several of those aspects. It left me feeling pretty disturbed by the end (especially after the haunting final lines in the film, which I invite you to consider deeply if you see this movie.) My only true complaint is that the last act is a bit too long, and a bit too tedious and somewhat disjointed from the rest of the film. (I remarked to one of my friends afterwards that I wonder what would have happened if the film had ended prior to this last part. I'm not entirely convinced that's a good idea now, but I still contend that the final act is relatively vacuous compared to the very dense 2/3 of the movie preceding it.)

Also, don't be a dummy like me and see this movie while on a date.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Eric Garner

I'm going to be honest with you here: My mood is just too awful to write about movies or comics today. Not only do we have the news that the officer who performed a chokehold on Eric Garner enough to kill him, but I actually found that the two videos from the scene online. I'm sad and I'm frustrated and I have no idea how to channel either of those feelings.

I try hard to keep an open mind about these sorts of things, to allow as many people the benefit of the doubt as possible. However, I'm not quite sure I can even begin to wrap my head around these events. I saw someone die today that was very, very far away from deserving it. He went out without an ounce of violence or intimidation in him and instead a simple whimper of "I can't breathe".

When the EMTs arrive, their first response is to, like, poke at him. Yo dawg quit fakin it. Time to get up. That may have upset me the most.

Race, race, race. Again, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I don't think any of the officers there had a plan in their heads, like, "Let's get this n* and act like he threatened us". I'm sure two things were going through their heads: This guy is dangerous and this chokehold couldn't possibly do any harm or come back to haunt me in any way.

When we talk about incidents such as these and police brutality, it's that "This guy is dangerous," mindset that we need to fight against. Being conscientious and openly racist is thing that isn't allowed in our society today, but thinking that black people are scary is. You can't openly admit to hating black people, so nobody does. You can however get this subconscious impression in your head about black people and the law. Nobody is immune to this. I'll repeat: Nobody is immune to this. The thing is though, is that if you're going to be a publicly-funded defender of the peace, in possession of lots of mortally dangerous gadgetry, and supported by other people just like you, you need to be held to a higher standard than us gunless schmucks. People with more power and more weapons have a greater responsibility to be fair-minded.

It should be troubling to everyone that a police officer decided to attack this guy. Yeah, Garner was yelling at the officer, but didn't do anything threatening or even say anything threatening. From what I understand, Garner attempted to break up a fight that was going on, and the police were asking him about selling cigarettes. If anyone out there can correct me on this, please do, but until that moment, I remain convinced that selling cigarettes illegally is probably more of a finable offense rather than an arresting one.

But I suppose because the guy was confronting an officer, the police felt the need to restrain him. Why is that? See the previous comment about Garner looking more dangerous than he actually was. Moreover, I guess the police officer didn't like getting yelled at or spoken to that way, which is understandable, because nobody would enjoy being publicly embarrassed like that. Afterwards, the officers gathered attempt to use their power and control to keep this guy from embarrassing them any further. Again, stuff that we all feel, but if you have the ability to kill someone and get away from it, you need to act better than the rest of us.

Finally, like I mentioned when the decision about indicting Darren Wilson came out, these events open up questions as to whether the officer was behaving in the best way. Somebody is dead when they didn't have to die. I think that's reason enough to ask some questions about why and how that happened, and at the very least discourage other officers from engaging in other aggressive behavior. There's a big difference between, "Imma choke this guy and it'll be fine," and "I'm not even going to lay a finger on this dude unless I absolutely have to because I hate going to prison and/or losing my job."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One

I don't get these movies. I really, really don't.

What's worse is that not only do I not see the appeal to these films, like at all, but I can easily envision how they could be great. By the way, I'm about to spoil this shit out of this movie, so if you're planning on seeing it regardless of what I say, don't read it. If you're wondering whether or not to see this based on what I say, well then, first of all, what is wrong with you for depending on me for advice, and second of all, don't see it.

I think my problems with these films -- which are technically-speaking just fine -- is that I don't understand three things in any of them. I do not understand what makes Katniss so great in this universe, I do not understand why Katniss loves Peeta, and I do not understand any of Katniss's motivations. Maybe I am a dum-dum and just don't get things, but I'm pretty sure these movies have never done a good job explaining this to me.

Ok, so to summarize the first two movies, Katniss is a mother-effing celebrity in this world of reality-TV style battles-to-the-death, and then in this film, she becomes the symbol of the insurgency. Objectively though, why  is she so famous and popular? What has she done to inspire such devotion? She volunteered for tribute in the first movie, which was cool. Good job, Katniss. Plus ten points.

But then, she displays virtually no other talents in the rest of the franchise. She is not especially gifted in a fight, nor is she some sort of tactical genius. In the first movie, she wins basically by process of elimination, as everybody who tries to kill her either kills themselves or gets killed by someone else. I might appreciate this a bit more if she were, on principle, a pacifist or something or intentionally set out to undermine the battle-to-the-death competition by not participating in it, but she clearly intends harm on a few people, and usually has a weapon on her most of the time, so....

And let's talk about that weapon. A bow is relatively smart in a death match in the middle of a wilderness. You got some long range capabilities, stealth, basically unlimited ammo as long as there are sharp sticks around; it's pretty great. (As long as the people in charge of this death match who have explicitly stated to wanting you dead do not provide you with this weapon that you've demonstrated great proficiency with.) However, this is not the weapon you want to use in an actual war, nor does Katniss have any experience fighting in one either.

To go along with that, she displays no abilities for tactics either. In addition to the whole, waiting-until-everyone-else-kills-themselves strategy from before, she didn't participate at all in the rebellious plans in the second movie. Not only did she not make any plans for this, she didn't even know they were going on. Wouldn't a character who was wildly passionate about bringing down an oppressive government, upholding a strict moral code while possessing great tactical or battle skills been a much more interesting character than this one that doesn't fight, doesn't plan and doesn't care? For some reason this person who has no skills is chosen as the symbol for the insurgency.

For the first two movies, I had no idea whether Katniss loved Peeta or not. In fact, I was relatively certain that she actually loved Gale, but was just pretending to love Peeta for...some reason. I guess if you're in love, people will airmail you stuff during the death match, but that didn't happen a whole lot, did it? Like twice over the course of two movies? So...yep, I'm extra confused now.

I also don't understand why she would choose Peeta over Gale. This sounds like I'm making a Twilighty type of argument, like I personally prefer Gale over Peeta, so I hate her for choosing Jacob or something, but no. Peeta has only ever been an asshole to her and in general. In the first movie, he tries to kill her, and before that, threw pig food at her in the rain. That doesn't even seem like a nice person, let alone someone you could fall in love with. Further, Peeta displays virtually no good qualities. I mean, he's just a guy. Katniss is not only Jennifer Lawrence, but she is also Jennifer Fucking Lawrence. In the world of the Hunger Games, she's the celebrity. Why would she bother this guy  who does and says nothing interesting ever.

Gale, on the other hand, shows himself in the first movie to care about Katniss, shows himself to be brave and selfless in the second, and is an actual hero in the third movie.

So until this movie, I was certain that she was actually in love with Gale, but starting now, Katniss is fucking in love super duper obsessed writing Mrs. Peeta in her math notebook in love with this asshole, and it sucks. It sucks not only because I don't understand why she loves him, but also because this love is extremely distracting to fucking everything else going on.

At this beginning of this film, Katniss is offered to be the propaganda symbol of the revolution. Because two films usually make more money than one, she spends a good deal of time wondering whether or not she'll accept the position or not, while being angry at the same people who saved her life and are sheltering her family and friends because they didn't also save Peeta. Gee, thanks for taking care of my mother, best friend and little sister that I was willing to die for two movies ago, but you didn't save my death match teammate so fuck you. Teenagers, amiright?

Compare this to Imagination Katniss. Imagination Katniss gets her life saved by these people who are fighting the oppressive government that tried to kill her. Recognizing that she has no useful skills aside from her celebrity status, she agrees to be the poster girl for their revolution, knowing that she is working towards ending a world where a love like hers cannot flourish, and strives to ensure that future generations will have opportunities she never had. You know, like a person who is not a selfish asshole.

But no, Imagination Katniss is not real, and we're left with plain ole' Katniss, who expends no real effort towards the people she claims to care about, ending the war, toppling the oppressive government, or the soldiers who depend on her. She just harps on and on about Peeta, while occasionally kissing Gale. At the end of the movie, the revolution is able to knock out communications and electricity in the capital city, so they sneak in and run a rescue mission for Peeta. This is the culmination of stupidity, that Katniss's obsession with Peeta results in the revolution wasting this opportunity to end the war by assassinating the president under the cover of darkness to instead save a useless little shit, because if they don't, Katniss will pout, like, super hard.

I will say that there are parts of this movie I liked. One of the main problems with the first two is that they were not brutal enough. I say that not only because teenagers are annoying and I wouldn't mind watching them die on screen, but because we are expected to believe that the Hunger Games are these awful, traumatic experiences, but they never look so bad. Katniss never has to compromise on her morals and nobody ever gets their hands dirty. These movies get compared to Battle Royale a lot, and the one thing that Battle Royale did so much better was to show how awful a fight like this between children can get. You have people committing suicide and killing their best friends and begging for mercy and getting killed in unfair ways, and it's all bloody and gruesome. In Hunger Games, Peeta decorates himself like a cake.

But this one almost skirted into interesting territory, with an entire city and an entire hospital full of people getting killed. It started to be the kind of thing that made you care about the world as a whole. But then the nonsense with two teenagers being in love gets in the way.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Most Important Videogames of My Childhood

Just recently, I saw a video on Youtube from one of my favorite B-movie reviewers, Fanboy Flicks, talking about the ten most important video games to his childhood. That of course got me thinking about the ten most important games to my childhood, so I wanted to write a bit about it. Also, Tuesdays at my job are hard, so anything I can do to make it easier and involve less deep thought, the better. Onto the pointless top ten list!

10 - Harvest Moon
I am embarrassed to admit that I love any entry in this series, despite the fact that they are all completely the same. There's something zen-like about the absolute lack of action and plot that occurs in any entry in this series that makes it so to play. No, it's never "fun" in any sense of the word, but it is relaxing in a strange, repetitive way. This game is the digital version of being in prison.

When I was younger, I used to rent this game for a weekend, and not go out and see my friends, and probably didn't eat or poop either. For that reason alone, it was crucial to my childhood, which I am just now realizing was apparently extremely boring.

9 - Goldeneye
This is probably a very negative statement on myself as a person, but the only reason that I didn't get into Goldeneye as much as every other child my age back when it came out was because I wasn't as good at it as my friends were. You will see this trend play out in other entries in this list, which is telling me something else about myself that I didn't realize until now: I am a total asshole.

8 - Streets of Rage 3
Really, I wish I could include a whole slew of side-scrolling beat-em-up games on this list, since they were inevitably what I chose to play when I was by myself, and the learning curve was easy with lots of opportunities for co-op that I could play them with my friends or even my little sister

Streets of Rage 3 stands out in my memory though, simply because it was the coolest to me at the time. Seriously, that's it. Battletoads was great, the X-Men games were great, the arcade TMNT game, the Simpsons arcade game...these were all loads of fun, but Streets of Rage was just cooler. I liked all the characters, even that fucking kangaroo.

7 - Mario Party
I'm cheating a little bit here, because this series and a few other series later on in this list followed me all the way to college. While I had a lot of fun with this game and those other games, I got serious about them as a university student, and my memory of that time is probably leaking into my actual childhood. (Although, really, being a college student is not a far cry away from being a child, at least in my case.)

A lot of the games that I truly love are either completely solo-driven and utterly isolated from the world, or entirely competitive and something my friends also enjoy. Even today, I follow this pattern, playing Final Fantasy VII on an emulator when I'm by myself and League of Legends with my friends on the weekends. Mario Party was one of the most frustrating competitive games I've ever played, because a lot of it can be determined by luck. It is part skill and part gambling, and that is what makes it so addicting.

6 - Capcom Vs. SNK 2
By all rights, this game should have been number one, since I probably spent the most time out of any game -- maybe any other activity in my life -- with CvS2. However, do you remember before when I said that I never got into Goldeneye  (or any other first-person shooter, for that matter) because my friends were a lot better at it than I was? Well, that was basically the same situation here, only instead of everyone else being really really good, it was only me. I was miles ahead of everyone else in this game that had such a steep learning curve that nobody ever wanted to play it with me. As a result, I spent the vast, vast majority of time with this game playing by myself against the computer.

5 - WCW Revenge
Here is where it starts getting nuts. For whatever reason, my friends and I got obsessed with this game. We had made several of our own characters and used them almost exclusively, each of them with their own backstories and personalities. Sometimes two of our characters would even be enemies, my characters Factor X and Ju Son, for example. We even made up "belts" that could be won from each other if we happened to win a particular match. On more than one occasion, I would get so angry at losing, I would storm out of my own house.

4 - Ocarina of Time
This game was really fucking good, you guys. Especially to an 8th grader.

3 - Pokemon Blue
You're supposed to title this game "Pokemon Red/Blue", but I never had "Red/Blue", I had motherfucking blue, and in motherfucking blue, I had motherfucking Charmander and he was my boy. I went through a phase where I was so into this game, it carried over into my real life. Like, the thing I did when I was not playing video games. I starting watching the anime. That theme song is still my hype music; I play it before I have to take a test. I even went to a tournament. And won.

2 - Super Smash Brothers
This is the other game that I carried with me through college. This is also yet another game that was made more fun by the fact that my friends and I played it together, and that we were all about equally as good. This is also a game that I went to a tournament far. And did not win :'(

1 - Final Fantasy VIII
Keep in mind, this is not a "top ten best games" list. These are the games that were important to my childhood. And while as a grown-ass man, I recognize that FF8 was not the best game in the series, and that it suffers from a weird, tedious fighting system, and that the plot goes off the fucking rails at one point, this game meant a lot to me. I had played the first Final Fantasy on the NES, but it didn't really impress me that much, and since I bought 7 and 8 at the same time, I was more impressed by the graphics on 8 and played that one first and most.

As a grown-ass man that spends a lot of time talking about movies and comics, I try to remember how much Final Fantasy VIII meant to me as a teenager. I found myself identifying with the main character quite a bit, who was stand-offish to people that he cared about, and slowly learned that he had a responsibility to them. For some reason, that reclusive, unfriendly attitude resonated with me at this point in my life, and the idea that I was becoming a person with real responsibilities not only to myself but to the people in my life that I cared about...well, that was a brand-new idea at the time. And again, the plot to this game is fucking dumb; people have attempted to fix it by describing it as the main character dying early on and experiencing a fever dream before his death. And yet, it had a strong effect on me. I try to remember that when I talk about how stupid some movies are. Maybe they're having a strong effect on some other retarded teenager.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Babadook - Part Two

I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks this, but I believe that the sign of a great movie is that it sticks with you for a while. I watched The Babadook for the first time two weeks ago and I've seen a dozen other movies -- some of them really good -- since then, and yet all I want to do is talk about The Babadook

There's a lot of individual elements in The Babadook that are amazing and deserve their own separate praise. In my first post about The Babadook, I talked only about dicks and I only barely scratched the surface of that topic. I only barely dick-scratched. Dick-scratching was at a minimum.

Today, I wanted to talk about the film as a whole, so if you haven't seen it yet and don't want to know all the details, I give you permission to stop reading this blog and go play on Reddit or something. However, I would argue that knowing the details of this story will not necessary ruin it for you, so you may just want to read anyway.

The Babadook may be the best horror movie I've seen in years, perhaps even in the last decade, and part of the reason is that it is a story not entirely planted in the horror genre. It is a script that revolves entirely around its characters first and foremost, and the "horror" aspect second. Think about your average horror movie and more importantly, the thought process that went into creating that particular film. I imagine that the plot begins with a "how do we incorporate the monster into this story" angle. Like, ok, we got a creature, it's a guy with a hockey mask and a machete, how do we make a story around this? Our zombies are going to run, let's make a movie about that. We have this idea with a demon-possessed doll; now what does it do?

The Babadook is unique in that it is so character-centric that at the end of the movie, you're not sure whether the monster is real or imagine, whether it is metaphorical of the problems facing this family or a manifestation of them. You're not even sure where the problem stems from -- the child's fears or the mother's depression -- and it doesn't matter. Because whether the monster is real or fake has no bearing on the effect it has on the characters, which is the true focus of the film.

Fuck, I just love this movie.

So the mom, Amelia, loses her husband in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver her firstborn child, Samuel. Samuel is difficult as hell, probably on the spectrum, suffers from nightmares, and is becoming increasingly more violent. Not only does Amelia have to deal with the loss of her husband, but she now this objectively awful child to raise by herself and she does not take it well. She is depressed and struggling by the beginning of the movie and even before the monster arrives, things begin getting worse, with Amelia's job in danger and Samuel getting kicked out of school. The fact that the friction between these two characters is building up to a showdown (read: murder suicide) lends credence to the idea that monster was just a manifestation of this conflict or just an idea in both of their heads.

However, there is of course an event that sparks Mr. Babadook's entry into both their lives (which happens while both of them are together, I might add) and that is the reading of the Mr. Babadook children's book to Samuel one night. As mentioned before, this act is this mother and son's nightly ritual, one that causes them a great deal of stress, so already the monster Mr. Babadook is associated with this personal, filial conflict. Not only that, but it is mentioned early on that Amelia used to write children's books for a living. It is left unanswered as to whether she created the book Mr. Babadook herself as a way to introduce the monster Mr. Babadook, which is just a stand-in for the frustration she's feeling.

I am going to spell out exactly what happens at the end of this movie in this paragraph, so if you don't want to know just stop reading now.

Alright, so the end of the movie reinforces this idea that the monster is Amelia and it's simply an expression of her frustration. For one, the Babadook possesses Amelia and tries to kill Samuel by strangling him at one point. (I should also point out that this is a vaguely -- very, very vaguely -- sexual scene with Samuel being strangled while completely on top of her.) If the Babadook was a living monster, it would make just as much sense for him to kill the family himself. He also loses control of Amelia once the kindly neighbor comes over just to tell her that she's there if she needs to talk. In any other horror movie, the old woman entering into the scene would signal her immediately demise (You can picture it can't you? The old farmer or shopkeep walking around outside with a flashlight. "Who's out there? Show yourself!") But in this movie, her calming presence weakens the hold that the Babadook has on Amelia, and she doesn't get killed for it. This is not a film out for blood.

The final scenes has Mr. Babadook retreating to the basement after being confronted by Amelia. Not fought with, but confronted, which is a necessary step if you have depression. The final scene is her "fighting the monster" by acknowledging its existence, and working to contain it, instead of ignore it or let it roam the house as it was before. The movie seems to be almost completely allegorical at the very end, and I understand some audience members' frustration at the fact that she doesn't "fight" and "kill" the monster. In the logic of the movie this wouldn't work, however, because that's not how depression works. You can't say, "I'mma kill this depression rel good," and then wake up the next morning and have everything be perfect. Amelia's husband is still dead, Samuel is still not going to school and still a perfect little asshole, Amelia's job still sucks -- these are things that require constant attention and care to keep in check. The only alternative to this ending would be if Mr. Babadook killed both of them, but in a way, the movie isn't finished yet. It's still possible for the Babadook to get lose and kill.