American Ultra

It’s always the quiet ones. As I’ve said before, sometimes the most interesting movies are the ones that slip by mostly unnoticed. In some cases, they’re movies many people didn’t realize were much better than they thought. (I’ve long thought Johnny Mnemonic and Johnny Dangerous both fell into that category.)

Last night I watched American Ultra (2015), directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s either an action-thriller with comedy, or a comedy with action thrills. Those can be hard to pull off well.

I think if you like Quentin Tarantino’s films, you’ll like American Ultra.

The film stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, as Mike Howell and Phoebe Larson, a stoner couple coasting through life (or so it seems). Part of the enjoyment for me was watching these two talented actors work.

It co-stars Connie Britton and Topher Grace, as CIA agents Victoria Lasseter and Adrian Yates, operators of rival spy programs. John Leguizamo has a supporting role as Rose, Mike’s drug-dealing friend, and Bill Pullman puts in a brief appearance at the film’s end.

Director Nima Nourizadeh had only directed one other film, Project X (2012), and so far has only directed two films. He has directed many music videos, which can give one pause (cf. the Charlie’s Angels films directed by McG).

More eyebrow-raising is writer Max Landis. On the plus side he created, wrote, and produced, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for BBC America. It only ran two seasons, but I liked it a lot.

But Landis also apparently has a significant #MeToo stink on him. There is talk of “open secrets” and allegations of sexual assault. (Max is the son of John Landis; both are powerful white men in Hollywood.)

This is the thing about art sometimes. Is art from an evil source itself necessarily evil? Our current “cancel culture” asserts so. But can we only ever appreciate art from people we like and approve of?

Love the sinner; hate the sin. Appreciate the art; condemn the artist’s sins? But how else to make the point than by not buying what they’re selling?

[Oh, if only humanity could grow up a little and not require these choices. Men! Particularly white men: Seriously, dudes, ya gotta cut this shit out. There’s nothing manly about it —  it reveals you as weak, insecure, and ignorant. Real men are smart enough and strong enough to respect and love women. They’re half our world!]

§ §

The story is slightly reminiscent of The Long Kiss Goodnight, a cheesy fun movie with Geena Davis and Samuel Jackson. It was directed by Renny Harlin, who was married to Davis at the time.

The script was by Shane Black, who wrote the first Lethal Weapon movies. He also wrote Last Action Hero, which I would include with the two Johnny movies I mentioned as an unregarded gem of a film. (One of my favorite Schwarzenegger films because of the clever script. An early meta-story.)

Anyway, both The Long Kiss Goodnight and American Ultra are about a highly trained, highly capable (very dangerous) agent who is living a normal life with no memory of their training or agent history.

For Geena Davis, it was the result of an accident and amnesia.

For Mike Howell (Eisenberg), it’s because he was mind-wiped and stashed away after the failure of the super-agent program he was a part of.

CIA agent Lasseter (Britton) headed that program. When we first encounter her, she’s informed by a mysterious phone call that another CIA team plans to eliminate Howell to wipe the slate clean.

Since Howell was the one success the program had, Lasseter determines to warn Mike.

The mind-wipe has not been ideal for Howell.

For one thing, he’s unable to leave the city, due to panic attacks any time he tries. He feels utterly unworthy of his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart). We meet them as he tries to take Phoebe on a vacation to Hawaii where he intends to propose to her.

Instead, he cowers in the airport bathroom until the plane leaves. Phoebe seems to truly love this guy. She’s disappointed, but understands.

Part of the charm of the film is the love between the two main characters.

At first one can wonder why she sticks with him, although it’s obvious she’s a bit of a stoner loser type, too. (She works in a bail bonds office, although we don’t see much of that.)

The story and, especially, the actors really sell the relationship. Watching them work together depicting a loving, honest, supportive, relationship was definitely part of the pleasure of the film.

When Mike finds “the right moment” to finally propose, it’s both heartwarming, really funny, and kind of a perfect moment.

But it’s hard to call Mike anything but a stoner loser. Phoebe seems to be happily riding beside, but Mike is steering. He’s not even the cool wise kind of schtoner, like The Dude. He’s just… lost and treading water. And applying a constant dose of self-medication.


Until Lasseter shows up at the isolated quick-shop and gas place where Mike works (apparently all alone; we never see a boss or co-worker).

Lasseter, under the guise of buying a cup of instant soup, repeatedly says code phrases designed to re-activate Mike. Camera and editing give us a moment of thinking Mike is experiencing some major mental shift…

Only for him to laugh and ask what the heck she’s talking about. It’s not a cover. The code phrases didn’t work. Disappointed, Lasseter leaves (but hangs around).

Since Lasseter didn’t take the soup with her, Mike makes it for himself. He’s eating his hot soup with a spoon when he notices two guys messing with his car. He walks outside to check it out…

Mike about to defend himself with soup and spoon (right hand).

The men approach him, guns drawn, clearly with murderous intent. They accost Mike,… who activates and kills them with hot soup. And a spoon.

Mike is horrified, because he goes back to his “normal” self once the threat is eliminated. He’s not sure how he did what he did, but he’s in a major panic over whatever the hell just happened.

He calls Phoebe, desperate for her to leave work and come help him figure this out. Phoebe arrives just before the local cop, who knows them both from many encounters past. They end up in the police station being interrogated.

Phoebe, who also is a bit more than she at first appears.

Remember, in the first Terminator movie, the scene where Arnold attacks the police station? The CIA tries something like that (but without killer robots, just trained killers).

The movie at this point becomes Mike and Phoebe’s journey to not get killed, which they hope to achieve by running away. There’s no “stand and deliver” moments where desperate heroes turn and attack. It’s more Mike desperately trying not to get killed, and it’s only in moments of extreme peril that his skills kick in.

When they do, he’s pretty awesome. The action scenes are well-staged and fairly believable (except maybe for the trick with the saucepan).

§ §

As I say, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it pretty laugh out loud funny. It does get violent and gory in places (which is common in a lot of action comedies). If Tarantino doesn’t bother you, this won’t.

One reviewer commented that the violence is comic enough to almost feel “cuddly” was the word used. If one is squeamish about blood, it won’t feel so cuddly, but the violent acts themselves are more masked than they are in a lot of films. No loving closeups.

Speaking of reviews, the film didn’t do well with audiences or critics. It currently only has a 43% / 45% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has a rating of 50 on Metacritic, but it does there have a user rating of 6.2 (of 10). To me that’s a bit of an injustice.

Writer Max Landis was also puzzled, and I think his quote is worth repeating, as it applies to filmmaking and storytelling in general:

“So here’s an interesting question: American Ultra finished dead last at the box office, behind even Mission Impossible and Man From Uncle. American Ultra was also beaten by the critically reviled Hitman Agent 47 and Sinister, despite being a better reviewed film than either, which leads me to a bit of a conundrum: Why? American Ultra had good ads, big stars, a fun idea, and honestly, it’s a good movie. […] Is trying to make original movies in a big way just not a valid career path anymore for anyone but Tarantino and Nolan? That’s the question: Am I wrong? Are original ideas over? I wanted to pose this to the public, because I feel, put lightly, confused.”

I would echo that puzzlement with regard to this film and in general.

Judging the film by its own yardstick, I’m inclined to give it a low Wow! rating. Or definitely a strong Ah! — it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun.

I recommend it.

Stay ultra, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “American Ultra

  • Christina Schmidt, MA

    Cool, I look forward to watching this in my downtime.

    You have such a thorough yet succinct way of exploring your interests, I admire that. I’ve so little patience for recommendations. You manage to cover quite a bit of territory while keeping to the point. We should all review so well.

    Love Tarantino. I’d be hard pressed to claim a favorite film. I daresay (to my own amateur opinion, of course) Inglorious Basterds and Django were made largely what they were thanks to the ridiculously talented Christoph Waltz. I’m loyal to a fault for Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs is considered a classic (so many more), but I must say, I’m mostly fond of Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown is an underdog. Between Pam Grier and Samuel Jackson…forget about it. Top to bottom a brilliant movie.

    I know Tarantino wasn’t the point of your post, I just like to geek out about his work. As you see 😀

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, thank you! (I should warn you, flattery will get you everywhere with me.)

      I think I know what you mean about recommendations. Other people’s tastes so often aren’t mine. Perhaps there is also that those who do a lot of recommending have to feed the beast and may cast a wide net. I only recommend stuff I really liked (usually with a taste caveat). I’m more prone to writing about what I don’t like!

      Waltz is amazing. He’s kinda like Chris Walken in elevating anything he’s in. (I think it was Roger Ebert who referred to it as “Walkenizing a film.”) Have you ever seen Carnage? Waltz did it just before Django Unchained. Based on a play, so kind of a claustrophobic movie, but directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Waltz. I was so riveted I watched it twice in a row.

      Speaking of Walken and Tarantino, a favorite bit is the scene in True Romance between Walken and Dennis Hopper. (I get so focused on Tarantino having written it I keep forgetting Tony Scott directed it!)

      “I must say, I’m mostly fond of Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown is an underdog. Between Pam Grier and Samuel Jackson…forget about it. Top to bottom a brilliant movie.”

      Wow. Once again, so much a woman after my own heart. I completely agree; it’s my favorite, barely winning over Pulp Fiction. It’s based on an Elmore Leonard story, Rum Punch, and is quite faithful to the book. It’s the only time Tarantino has done an adaptation; his other films are all originals. (Tarantino was a Leonard fan from a young age, and probably owes some of his renown for dialog to Leonard, who was in turn impressed when he saw Tarantino’s early films.)

      Speaking of things I’m reminded of, ever see Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Also got Val Kilmer and Corbin Bernsen. Another often overlooked gem. Written and directed by Shane Black (who I mentioned in the post).

      “I know Tarantino wasn’t the point of your post,”

      No worries, we rarely stick to the post’s topic around here. 😀 Talk about Tarantino all you like! (Words, alas, are all we have.) I love every film he’s done. (How awesome would it be if he did do the next Star Trek?)

      • Christina Schmidt, MA

        You are giving me so much to work with here. Wow. Because of the predictability factor I experience in fiction (as I’ve discussed elsewhere) I’ve stopped exploring cinema, Tarantino’s work being an exception. He manages to find new ways to present old concepts and is out of the box in the general sense. Can’t wait to delve into all those recs!

        Isn’t Walken something else? He steals the scene without trying – perhaps he is trying – but it works so I shan’t begrudge him. Did you hear him read, Where the Wild Things Are (mostly improvised) on YouTube? Walken is a treasure.

        (I should warn you, flattery will get you everywhere with me.)
        It’s not flattery if it’s true 😉 .

        (How awesome would it be if he did do the next Star Trek?)
        *brain explodes* OMG YES YES YES YES YES YES. That is a shut-up-and-take-my-money idea.

        (Words, alas, are all we have.)
        Alas, so true.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve thought about whether I envy your perception with mysteries or not. In some ways, definitely. In general, I’m a little envious of how Real Writers grok fiction (or how Real Musicians grok music (or how mechanics grok cars)). I grok physics and code, so to each their own; I don’t begrudge it, just envy it a little. Being able to always know ‘who done it’ is an awesome skill.

        But I like surprises, and I’m probably far more a commodity reader than you must be. The price one pays for professional or trained skills. The world looks different. Having more open eyes gives up that comforting security blanket of ignorance.

        So, wow, “stopped exploring cinema.” (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you don’t watch much TV?) In a way that would wreck me; at one point I wanted to be a filmmaker and I never gave up the interest. On the flip side, talk about commodities, films today mostly suck. They’re basically amusement park rides. (Some films are actually based on amusement park rides, thus closing the circle.) They’re the McD’s burgers of stories. (Some are just cans of Pringles. True junk food.)

        On that level, I’ve distanced from films, too. But the gems are the raisins in the manure. Telling a complete cinematic story in 90-120 minutes is truly like having a waking dream. And exactly as you say, the best of them find a new twist on the same-old same-old.

        Tarantino is one of three where, so far, I like every film they’ve done. Wes Anderson is another, and the Coen Brothers together count for the third. (Fargo is a forever favorite, but Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? is the only other movie where I had to buy the soundtrack the next day. (The Firm with piano music by David Grusin.))

        Guy Ritchie started to become a fourth with Lock, Stock,… and Snatch, but then there was Swept Away. Revolver almost redeemed him, but I’ll never forgive those Sherlock Holmes movies.

        I did see a bit of that Walken Wild Things. That man could read the dictionary and it’d be spellbinding.

        Navigating between your patience for recommendations, your keen perception, your love of Tarantino,… have you seen (the first; only the first) Kingsmen movie or Atomic Blonde? (As if Charlize Theron could be in anything bad.)

      • Christina Schmidt, MA

        “On the flip side, talk about commodities, films today mostly suck. They’re basically amusement park rides.” Yes. 100%

        I love surprises! I absolutely covet them as they are so infrequent. I am never so surprised as when people present their truths, without defense or fanfare. Wherein I am not made to work for someone else’s truth by guessing or digging. When someone can straight up tell me what they’re thinking or feeling? Holy hell. When people can say what they mean to say, that’s a true surprise indeed. Breathtaking.

        While I may find story lines, conflicts and their resolutions, predictable what is not is the acting and/or direction. Wes Anderson is THE perfect example of both. Life Aquatic is my favorite Anderson film by far. The story is straightforward but the delivery of the story is complex and the acting is exquisite. This is how I enjoy films, much like the reasons I enjoy Michael Robotham (as mentioned in my latest BOTM) as an author. He goes deeper than the story. He concerns himself with the inner workings and that’s where I find pleasure in fiction and cinema. Wes Anderson is a perfect example of a director who goes beyond the surface, I don’t mean the aesthetic for which he is well known but the delivery as a whole. I loved The Grand Budapest. I also adore Ralph Fiennes (nails his characters).

        I feel surprise in film when everyone contributes their particular skills (I’m grossly attracted to competence and skillsets) to a vision and not for the sake of a story itself. Does that make sense?

        I saw Bohemian Rhapsody (love me some Queen) and while the story was predictable, Rami Malek’s interpretation of Freddy Mercury was so brilliant it made the experience for me. I definitely left the theater with some tears. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood wasn’t that interesting (for me) but DiCaprio’s interpretation of his character felt so personal I was totally engaged. Artistic interpretation is where I feel the greatest pull in film, be it the director’s presentation or actors. Best examples (for me), A Clockwork Orange or Donnie Darko (director’s cut not the theater version).

        I am well acquainted with The Big Lebowski, “I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock.” Laughed so f’ing hard when I first heard that. Who saw that dialogue coming!?!? Who!? Who saw The Big Lebowski coming at all!? Oh yes, I’ve seen O’ Brother, a few times. A tribute to the literary arts in many respects. It’s not that I haven’t seen movies (I have and I do) it’s just a question of whether I can walk away with something after I leave a theater. So many movies I’ve “seen” but can’t recall, nothing to retain. A predictable story is fine, it’s the delivery of said story that makes it or breaks it for me. Man, the glory of 80s SciFi: Alien (1979 technically), Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator, Dune, Blade Runner, Tron…sigh.

        Currently, I am working my way through Ozarks on Netflix. I’m really enjoying the characters and the actor’s interpretation of their character’s but the director’s vision is driving me nuts. Everything’s shot in a cold filter (I’m not sure what it’s called, actually. If you happen across Ozarks, please tell me what that’s called. I want to be able to complain about it properly 😄 ) but it always looks like a cold winter’s morning even when the sun’s out and blazing. I get the metaphor. I GET IT. But oh my god my eyes need relief from the blues and grays! Also loved, I Love Dick (ha) and last I saw that was on Amazon Prime. Again, just an all around package of a show. True, I do not watch much television but I will enjoy a series based on the same parameters I find to be true in film. I love a good standup: Joy Koy, Ali Wong, Sebastian Maniscalco – anyone who can reflect the idiocies of life is a pro in my book.

        Kingsmen is on my to-watch list! Charlize Theron is badass but I admit I have not seen Atomic Blonde so I’ll put that one on the list as well.

        Phew. More than you wanted, I’m sure but I thank you for humoring my nonsense all the same.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “More than you wanted,…”

        Um,… no. 😉

        For one thing, if you look back at my comment sections, this is the place for those who like to chat. (You may not have picked up on this yet, but I like to talk.) There are few things in life I value quite as highly as a good conversation. (If drinks and food are involved, it’s heaven.)

        [From the “I’m not sure I want to know” file: I wonder how high the average word count per comment is here. I have guests that can keep up with me. (Welcome new friend.) More frighteningly, I wonder what my average word count per comment is. 😮 ]

        “I absolutely covet them as they are so infrequent.”

        It seems like a downside to being intelligent, educated, and curious. There’s a sense of “Oh, that!” to more and more. So surprises really are a treat. It gets to the point of thinking there isn’t much that can surprise anymore. Lots of things delight me, but surprise me? Yeah, that’s rare.

        I think I can honestly say no one has ever had to dig for my feelings or truths. I can definitely say they haven’t always dug them.

        I agree, Life Aquatic is my favorite Anderson, but I’ve got a couple of close seconds. Royal Tenenbaums; Hackman, Huston, Glover, and Bill Murray. Who is a big part of why Life Aquatic wins. I adore Bill Murray. (Groundhog Day is among my all-time favorite films.)

        I also loved Grand Budapest — to me that may be Anderson’s cinematic masterpiece. Visually just stunning. And I really enjoyed Isle of Dogs because I love dogs. (I get a kick of seeing Anderson’s cinematic vision in claymation. They become perfect set pieces for him.)

        I intend to checkout Michael Robotham. (I just started watching Killing Eve which is based on books by Luke Jennings. It’s keeping my attention so far.)

        “(I’m grossly attracted to competence and skillsets)”

        Likewise! There are films where I can tell everyone involved was really invested. All the little things show it. One reason I like smaller films is the people making them usually are more invested. The love comes through. The blockbusters are cranked out mainly to make money. I’ll credit the Marvel films with telling a pretty damn good story over 27 films. That alone is an achievement. But the effort is so diffuse it doesn’t really owe to any one vision.

        For me that’s what makes Tarantino, the Coens, Wes Anderson, and a few others, so different. Personal vision, deep investment — the desire, even need, to tell those stories — and artistic commitment. That applies to just about every working writer, painter, most musicians, but it’s rare to see it in such large ventures as films.

        I have yet to see Bohemian Rhapsody (but of course it’s my favorite Queen song).

        I saw your review of A Clockwork Orange. I’ve been meaning to come back around there, but haven’t been on YouTube all that much lately. My comment there would be mostly: Right on!

        Donnie Darko, ha! I really need to watch that again. (I’ve always had a soft spot for the play Harvey.)

        I know several people who consider The Big Lebowski their favorite film ever. How many films have spawned a religion? The Dude abides. (He’d be more of an avatar for me, but Poohbear is my one. If I ever got inked, it’d be of Pooh.)

        “Alien (1979 technically), Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator, Dune, Blade Runner, Tron”

        A classic, a great film, favorite James Cameron, other favorite James Cameron, nope, an eternal classic (Philip K. Dick! I love dick, too), and a revolutionary film classic. Yeah, good taste! ([heartfelt sigh] Damn it! She’s into SF, has great taste in movies, mind like a whip, and rings all sorts of bells. Where the hell were you 25 years ago? Woulda had more than words, let me tell ya.)

        Dune (the David Lynch version, yes?)… (Have you read the book?) The first part of the film is actually pretty good (except for Baron Harkonnen). The second part, for some of us, is kinda WTF happened? (It might play better if one never read the book.)

        I have a personal gripe about the Baron. Lynch portrayed him as visually grotesque — the evil is ugly and repellent meme. But the Baron was elegant and wealthy. To me, the correct meme is the evil lurking behind beauty. Lucifer was an angel. (Great TV show, BTW.)

        Full disclosure: I don’t get David Lynch. His stuff goes right past me. I sometimes wonder if it’s a case of a naked emperor or I just really don’t get surrealism. Probably the latter. My mind just doesn’t go there.

        I was reminded by an Honest Trailers for Twister that [A] Twister was actually a pretty good movie and [B] movies from that time didn’t have the great CGI, so action films involved breaking and blowing up real stuff. It gives those movies a heft modern CGI doesn’t.

        Haven’t seen Ozarks, but any color adjustment too broadly in a TV series sounds wearing. A movie can get away with strong color adjustment, but a whole TV series? Yikes. (FWIW, a common term is color temperature, at least when it applies to adjustment towards the warm or cold end of the spectrum. I’m not sure what they call it when they go green. Matrix style?)

        I’ve been into standup since the Ed Sullivan show. George Carlin is my yardstick. For instance, to me Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle are “Carlin Class” — both highly intelligent and both funny as hell.

        There should be a movie with Charlize Theron and Uma Thurman as super spies. (I’ve been hooked on Theron ever since Monster. Amazing actress.)

        I think we’re just egging ourselves on to greater and greater length here!

        Have you ever seen Secretary or Hysteria? Both with Maggie Gyllenhaal. If not, I highly recommend.

      • Christina Schmidt, MA

        Have to put a pin in this for now but right there, towards the end, “Have you ever seen Secretary…”

        *Chesire grin*
        Yeah…I’m familiar with it.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Can’t recall if I’d ever heard of this one.

    I’m definitely in the camp that judges an artist’s work separate from the artist as a person. I still recall my cousin dragging me to an awful movie because he liked the work the star did for veterans. And I’m generally aware how much I usually enjoy Tom Cruise films, despite having issues with him as a person.

    That Landis quote is sobering. It makes me wonder what about the film turned people off. But the phenomenon of cult films seems to show that commercial success is often about catching the right cultural moment as anything. Maybe this film just missed its moment.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh, yeah, Tom Cruise. It’s surprising how many of his movies I rate pretty high. He’s done a bunch of science fiction films, I’ve really liked: Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, Minority Report, and Vanilla Sky. (I didn’t hate War of the Worlds, which is a pretty good rating from me for a Spielberg film. That I really liked Minority Report says a lot!)

      Factor in the non-SF Tom Cruise movies, and that’s a lot of Tom Cruise movies!

      Timing sure does matter, but looking at some of the posters, it’s possible the marketing missed the mark. I’ve always thought that contributed a lot to Last Action Hero failing. Arnold was hot in action films at the time, so it was marketed more towards his action fans.

      But it’s a pretty miserable action film compared to his others. Way too much character and story and plot. It’s also really funny. It’s a comedy, first, and should have been presented as one. I mean, a deadly fart bomb? And fart bombs apart, it’s actually pretty smart and clever, and it’s always iffy if those will catch on.

      Most people want to treat movies like they do an amusement park ride. Shut off the brain, sit back, and thrill. I love a good ride as much as anyone, but variety is the spice.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It’s definitely not unusual for marketing to screw up a movie’s chances. There have been a number of movies I didn’t see when they first came out, mainly because the trailers and posters gave a certain impression that wasn’t inviting for me, only to stumble on it years later and discover a different movie from the one portrayed in those materials. That’s one drawback to the move toward streaming. It makes it harder to stumble on those movies, at least for me.

        I never saw Last Action Hero. I did see a few minutes of it once on TV, enough to see the kind of movie it was. One of the problems with movies that subvert a genre, is how to market them. If you market it toward the people who enjoy the genre, a substantial portion of them may not react well to the subversion. The question is how to catch the audience that would be open to it, without spoiling the movie.

        Books that cross genres have the same problem. The benefit of identifying a story with a certain genre is you get a built in audience. But the problem is identifying it as part of that genre is a promise of a certain type of experience. If a book is going to violate that promise, its in its interest for the reader to know about it going in.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Same here on getting the wrong impression from the marketing. As you say, marketing is a challenge if a story spans genres. Even without the genre confusion, marketing can project the wrong image of a movie.

        I know of at least two YouTube channels that specialize in making “trailers” of existing films that completely change the tone, even the genre, of the film. In one case, they make multiple trailers of the same film, each one presenting it as a different genre. They’re kinda fun, but I found it wore out quickly. The first one I ever saw is still my favorite.

        Last Action Hero might seem a bit dated by now, but it’s a surprisingly sly comedy in a lot of ways. The premise involves Schwarzenegger’s series action hero, Jack Slater, existing in a real film world that a magic movie ticket opens a portal to. First the movie’s protagonist, a kid who’s a huge fan of Jack Slater, goes to the movie world, which is kind of the best part of the film for the meta and self-referential stuff.

        Then the kid and Slater return to this world, but one of Slater’s movie villains follows them, so bad things happen. Slater ends up meeting Schwarzenegger at one point. Punches him, as I recall.

        There are great bits, like Slater assuming he can punch through a car window like he aways does, but just really hurts his hand. Or the bit in movie world where Slater gets a gal’s phone number, which of course is 555-something. The kid is trying to convince Slater his world is just a movie, so asks why all the phone numbers start with 555 given all the people in LA? Slater’s laconic reply: area codes.

        My favorite bit, though, is the “Terminator” poster which has Stallone (who was Schwarzenegger’s action film rival at the time (as if it was a contest; only one of them can act)) as the Terminator. I forget Arnold’s line at seeing the poster, but he’s very disdainful of that action star. 😀

        It’s a deconstruction of action films, written by Shane Black and directed by John McTiernan (!), both of whom have considerable action film experience. It really is one of my favorite Arnold films. The pity is that Arnold was popular with both comedy fans and action fans, and marketing picked the wrong crowd by a mile. Should have targeted fans of Twins.

        Overall, I guess genre is another Yin-Yang. The existing audience versus the cage of meeting their expectations. That might be another reason I like SF so much,… I don’t see it as a genre but a platform for other genres, so there seems a lot more variety and mixing and perhaps fewer expectations.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        The part of Last Action Hero I recall seeing was that the hero gets shot, but because he’s in the real world instead of the movie one, the gun shot has real world effects. I did think the idea was a clever way to illustrate how unrealistic most of those movies are.

        I’ve seen science fiction described as almost a meta-genre rather than a genre itself. What’s interesting is that, from a market perspective, the advice to authors is that once you publish in SF, you can’t publish anywhere else, at least not under the same name. It’s why some authors go to extreme lengths to not have their stuff in the SF section of the bookstore, even when their story is clearly SF. (Michael Crichton comes to mind here.)

        Personally, if I had to choose between being caged within science fiction or caged outside of it, I’m much rather the former.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Totally 100% with ya on that!

        I’ve heard about how authors can resist the dreaded “SF” label. Even today it does certain flavor on a work. That works both ways. I know people who watch movies just because they’re SF. That was a draw for me in the early days, but so far into Anno Stella Bella it’s almost more like what movies don’t have a dash of SF?

        This movie, American Ultra had some technology that isn’t real, but I doubt anyone would think of it as an SF movie. We’ve gotten so used to futurism and magic that we just take it for granted in movies. (Nothing wrong with it, it’s just funny how SF has blended into so much.)

        The irony of bookstores is that I mostly hung out in the SF and mystery sections. Those were the books that interested me.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        For me it was the sci-fi/fantasy section, the science section, and the history section. Oh, and for several years, the computer section. But the sci-fi/fantasy one was always my first stop. The other sections were utterly pass through for me, barely noticed.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, yes, the science section. I’d forgotten about that. But the cooking, gardening, or romance sections might as well have been invisible. No doubt the browsers in those sections thought the same of the SF and computer sections.

        The computer section varied a lot for me. It’s more evident that some books aren’t of interest, whereas with fiction, and maybe even science, the boundaries are fuzzier. But with computers, if you’re not into SQL, say, then all those SQL books are a miss. There would be little point in even trying one to “see of you like it.” Even science books, try a new subject, see if it appeals.

        There was also that most computer sections, as most books stores, stock what sells, and what sells are the books for newcomers. Most book stores rarely carry specialized books of any kind. So between “Learn Java in 30 Days” and “Programming for the Apple II” the computer section often disappointed more than the others.

        I suspect we’re both the type that rarely left a bookstore without buying something. Or lots of somethings. But thinking back, mostly SF, lots of detective/mysteries, quite a bit of science, various cartoon collections (e.g. Far Side), and a few computer or technology books.

        Then came Amazon, followed by Apple ebooks, then Prime, and most recently Cloud Library. I don’t exactly miss bookstores, but I do miss the smell of new books and the idle browsing.

        Earlier you mentioned browsing wrt streaming video, which is a problem. I used to find gems at the video store, those one or two copy movies where the more popular ones had dozens.

        But thinking about it, I think it’s really as much a matter of will and risk as anything else. With libraries and video stores the browsing is physical. With Netflix or whatever, it’s virtual. In both cases, though, it’s a list of unknown titles and self-serving, often inaccurate, descriptive blurbs.

        In both cases, I consider the blurb, the artwork, the director and writer, and even the actors (there are some whose choices I respect; in this comment section I mentioned Charlize Theron; she’s one of those — I’d be inclined to consider any movie she felt worth her talents).

        (A perfect example, Robot & Frank, which is one of those little gems we’re talking about. Found it browsing Prime, saw it starred Frank Langella, took a risk, was delighted I did.)

        It does take a conscious effort going through their lists. It’s possible that after many years of seeking film gems I’ve developed an old prospector’s instinct a little. There are duds, but the gems make it all worthwhile.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        My interest in the computer section was definitely focused on whatever technology I was learning at the time. I still remember in the mid 90s going through and buying several large books on web development. (I was amazed how much easier it was (at the time) than Windows API development.)

        I virtually never left the bookstore without at least one book or magazine. Didn’t mean I always read it. My eyes were often bigger than my reading capacity.

        Yeah, Amazon and then Kindle completely ruined bookstores for me. On the plus side, my house is a lot less cluttered since I started reading digitally.

        On the streaming video, yeah, I know my issue is I just need to try more stuff. One of the things I find interesting, is how poorly beginnings often work for me. This is true both for movies and books. I’m a lot more likely to get into something if I land on it somewhere past the beginning. I think the reason is most beginnings take too long to introduce me to the main character(s) and their challenges.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…how much easier it was (at the time) than Windows API development.”

        Funny how many things one could say that about. 😀

        “On the plus side, my house is a lot less cluttered since I started reading digitally.”

        Likewise, especially with DVDs which I went a little crazy collecting. A lot of them are gone (donated to the library) and most of the rest will go once the library reopens and I get around to parting with them. (Pretty much if the show is on Netflix or Hulu, what’s the point of the DVDs?)

        “One of the things I find interesting, is how poorly beginnings often work for me.”

        That is interesting. Hmm, not even something I’ve thought about. It’s true that the Act I stuff can be tedious. My epitome of that has to be Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. It’s a very thick book, and he spends forever getting all the pieces into place. I can kind of translate that to what you’re saying.

        For me there’s a strong fear of missing something, so I tend to want to start at the beginning. That’s kind of why I took some form of “Electronics 101” three different times — three different situations, and I was afraid to jump ahead in case different groups had a different sense of what was “101”. The upside is that my foundation theory is pretty solid. 🙂

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