Sunday, March 9, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014): Movie Review

If you were a diehard fan of “300” (2006), then “300: Rise of an Empire” (2014), stylishly directed by Noam Munro, will not miss its mark. Thieving audiences of their breath, this retelling of the ancient Greco-Persian spectacle is charged with a relentless war thrumming intensity that quells only when it rams into its own goose bump inducing finish. Not exactly a sequel or a prequel, the movie rows itself to life in a concurrent time frame that is in line with the events of "300": shortly before, during, and after the march of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), and his three hundred.

While “300” showed us the Battle of Thermopylae, “300: Rise of an Empire” simultaneously directs us to the strategic naval battle at Artemisium in 480 BC, which was led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). A heroic Athenian politician, he is a seasoned warrior blessed with a rare sense of battle wisdom and war planning that would do even Athena proud. What this movie does right is unveiling the missing back-story of what happened before “300”, and elucidating the motivations for why this eight foot quasi-hermaphroditic Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), son of Darius (Igal Naor), is suddenly banging war gongs on Greece’s door. While the ancient source text is derived from the Greek historian Herodotus, the screenplays aren’t entirely inaccurate if we appreciate the larger brush strokes. So indeed, our story begins 10 years after the stalling of the Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, also led by a younger Themistocles.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Unlike Leonidas, Themistocles’ character has a milder shade of belligerence. Perhaps it is his ever-pondering fuzzy countenance, or his lesser adrenaline pumping speeches (relative to Leonidas), or maybe, let’s face it: it’s him being paired up against the ruthless testicle-crushing Artemisia, played by French actress Eva Green. If Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, Artemisia is that sole reason for she must have raped Satan himself before stabbing and slashing herself through to earn the naval command of the Persian armada. Green’s chilling performance is so indulgently fantastic it is almost frightening to gaze directly into those dark crazed kohl eyes. Her laughter borders manic; her motivations are visceral; and her sinister movements are viciously slicing, almost seductive, like a slithery shiny black mamba which tempts to kill.

That sex-scene should be forbidden to avoid future screens from melting. The sword and the sheath rage against and resist one another, rocking to and fro, evoking the nautical imagery of the screenplay. [Spoiler Alert: skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie] Themistocles’ resistance to her charm in the cabin explains his being the only man able to pierce her with his long sword at the end. His initial resistance marks him as her equal, the one that can end her by the very feat of resistance, be it consummation or battle. From a feministic theoretical lens, it makes you wonder, did Artemisia lose because she was a woman or did she lose because she was the bad guy (gal, whoops! I’m being sexist) and that good has to triumph over evil? In a heavily male dominated series which borders on homoeroticism, this movie makes amends by introducing strong female representation, as also seen by Queen Gorgo (Game of Throne’s Lena Headey). It is not Stapleton, but Eva Green who gives this movie what Butler gave its last.

Renowned as a technical innovator, "300" used superimposition chroma key techniques to harness stunning photography as a layering of film—particularly relevant for replicating the graphic novel feel from Frank Miller’s works (from which these movies were adapted). “300: Rise of an Empire” uses these same filters and palettes more expansively. Unlike the previous installment that was drenched in browns and shades of crimson, this rendition also uses hues of transient blues and grays. The dark blue filters accentuate the oceanic thrust of the movie, with aqua as a plane that moves, carries, and crashes the warring armada. In “300”, the war was on the ground and the use of browns and earthy shades was fitting against backdrops of blood-red sunsets and dusks.

Similarly gratifying are the realistic tracking shots, as when one Athenian jumps off a shipwreck with sword in hand to the bottom of a deck to fight. We follow his motion path with stunning velocity and lift, like jumping off a cliff in 3D, except our eyes aren’t closed. The point-of-view shots and frames were also tastefully done. One which comes to mind is Leonidas’ beheading. When Xerxes, on top of his high horse, swings the axe in one long arch, we see the slash coming from the point of view of the gravel resting next to Leonidas’ head, rendering the effect that we ourselves are being beheaded through his unseeing eyes.

The slow-motion sequences could remind one of the Matrix trilogy, but it also more strongly recalls the Max Payne gaming experience of hyper slowed frames that allow for suspension and detailed observation of the action. The battle choreography was, again, spectacular, where the lead characters were given their own “solos” to leave us in awe. Though heavily reliant on green screens and CGI to birth this artistic mastery of the image, the technology seamlessly integrates the movement of well toned muscles flexing to slash, crush and bleed enemies against a backdrop of blood-soaked seas and shores.             

Often neglected is that a movie’s mise-en-scène is also a product of costume. In one particular shot, a vertical tilt, we first see Artemisia’s feet covered in a black dress of sorts and while the camera moves up we find she is seated, and then her black fitting garment is split in the middle with a poisonously gold trim. The symmetry of the split and the fanning throne is reminiscent of a reared cobra ready to strike. Artemisia’s clothes give us insight into her mood, as when she broods over Themistocles’ victories, and as with the last chapter when she is horn rimmed at the back and ready to puncture anyone. Xerxes’ perverse vulgarity is as foreign as it is sexless. The bangles that jangle, and the rimmed golden chains suggest a display of golden excess of a god-king that is not truly a god but an imitation of a lesser malformed form—I think I’m getting platonic here. The Greeks’ costumes, however, typically consist of three elements: sandals, tight leather codpieces, and capes. Their minimalist clothing is a metaphor for their freedom, unlike the slaves of the Persians who are tightly wrapped in yards of black, looking like rolls of carpet wearing silver masks. Cunningly, the Athenian dress code is also to flaunt those stone chiseled bodies. God dayamn; if you need a six-pack just start auditioning for a male role in the 300 series and you should be set for life!

My brother would say the movie “300” is the best way to get the rugby team pumped before the big day on the field. While both movies are action-porn flicks indeed, this movie was like a race to the finish where your tiring oars just kept creaking from each catch of water as you splinter and pull, knowing you are almost there. Each bursting stroke severs another blister, and splits open a callus as the oars gain more weight. This fits a storyline that uses the plot formula of a battle of successive stages where each batch of the enemy proves to be more formidable than the last. The plot was predictable, yes, but if you know what you are coming for, as was my case, then you won’t be disappointed with this movie. You watch it for the spectacle; you watch it for the grace, gore, guts and glory. Critics can yap and criticize till the end of ink, but you are the viewer and your judgment is yours. I would give it an 8.1/10. Adieu.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

How to Deal with Your Moods

Knowing the difference between feeling dull vs. sobbing rain showers from a break-up is a coarse way to distinguish from being in a mood vs. being the puppet of Emotion, the chief puppeteer. Humans, though, are puppets who can fight back. It is just that they need to know who is pulling the strings, and which strings they should yank down on to topple the puppeteer. 

During the past five years I’ve been developing a growing fascination for learning more about the role(s) played by moods in influencing our state of mind, feelings, decisions and actions. 

When you reply to a text, how affective is your mood on drafting that text? Were you to be in a slightly different mood, how might that have altered what you would have texted? When you are happy, what role does your mood play in sustaining that emotional toothy grin? How do you know if you are in a mood? How do you know when you are "normal", and not in a mood? Is there even a normal, down-to-earth, back-to-reality mood? I believe there is. It is just a matter of identifying it.

If mood is an emotional state, then happiness, for example, can only be a momentary state of mind. I’ve noticed that you can be happy only for the duration of that mood—swinging up and down, to joy and back, until you get tangled up in a depressed mood swing. It is a depressing thought to think that happiness is fleeting, but it is fleeting only to the extent that you need to keep swinging on those (happy) mood swings that nourish happiness. So when those classic fairytales end with “and they lived happily ever after,” what they are really saying is a permanent non-swinging mood named “Eternal Happiness” was prescribed, and then screwed into the minds of Cinderella and Prince Charming. Sorry if that sounds a bit graphic.  

Let’s step back though from confusing emotions with moods. Moods cover the abstract, while emotions are sharper, specific, intense, reactive, and more likely to be triggered by particular stimuli. 

Moods generally tend to last a bit longer, usually for at least half a day or two. Similarly, moody periods occur in stages, are harder to shift, and usually elusive to pinpointing one causal reason. Ian Faria, a writer specialized in psychology, expresses the difference between a mood shift and a mood swing as when “[e]very time you lose your temper, you get scared, or you get excited, remember that you are experiencing a mood shift. When these mood shifts are intense, they're called mood swings.”  Clinical depression and bipolar are elongated disturbances in mood, and are typically internal subjective states with no intentional object that causes them. Moods and mood disorders can arise from genetic predisposition or a variety of other factors (weather, music, color, situational circumstances etc…). According to the The Mood Treatment Center (MTC), your moods can take on any of the following shades:

  • Anxious Mood: Worried, nervous, tense, overwhelmed, stressed, fearful.
  • Irritable Mood: Easily annoyed, angry, argumentative or aggressive.
  • Depressed Mood: Sad, down, tired, unmotivated, tearful, low self-esteem; thoughts that turn to guilt or pessimism. It can feel like there’s no reason to live. Patterns of sleeping and eating may change and physical pain may worsen. 
  • Empty Mood: Unable to find pleasure in anything, not interested in people or activities (the medical term for this is anhedonic, which means “lack of pleasure”).
  • Brightly Elevated Mood (or Sunny Hypomania): Self-confident, happy, out-going, active, running on high energy and little sleep, spontaneous or impulsive, thinking quickly, creative, making lots of plans. 
  • Darkly Elevated Mood (or Dark Hypomania): Edgy, agitated, impulsive, impatient, irritable, distracted and unfocused, not sleeping much, anxious. making unwise choices, feeling distrustful or paranoid.  Often this mood makes people want to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine or other drugs.
  • Mixed State: This happens when depression overlaps with a dark mania. You may feel “tired and wired”, restlessly driven but not knowing what to do.  Anxiety and irritability tend to be very high and sleep very irregular. It is very hard to concentrate
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Moods can also be affected in a variety of ways. Music or even food can help adjust your moods. When you have those food cravings at work or in college when you’re stressed—that’s you looking to create a mood shift. Particular foods are known to be able to uplift moods. Chocolate for instance raises serotonin (hormone for the feeling of well being) levels and  releases endorphins, mimicking the same feeling of being in love. Blueberries, mint and sweets etc. also contain similar attributes. In contrast, meat and spices “tend to make us more angry and aggressive. Eating less spice and less meat can work like a charm for people who are constantly angry” says Faria. Who would’ve thought?

An emotion on the other hand is a short-lived “complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response"(Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2007). This means that something causes it (an experience), and you may encounter a physiological response (rising heart rate, sweaty palms, jitteriness) leading you ultimately to behave and/or express your emotion in response to the stimulant. They tend to come and go quickly, and are usually triggered by immediate circumstances. Researchers have tried to identify and classify emotions in a variety of ways. In 1972, Paul Eckman (renowned psychologist) came up with six universal emotions:
·        Fear
·        Disgust
·        Anger
·        Surprise
·        Happiness 
·        Sadness 

In 1999, he expanded this list to include:
·        Embarrassment
·        Amusement 
·        Excitement 
·        Contempt 
·        Shame 
·        Pride 

·       Satisfaction

Emotions can be brought about by moods, but moods can affect judgment, thought, action and other aspects of your psychology and physiology. MTC concludes that:

“Emotions are adaptive responses to life; all emotions are normal in themselves. In a mood disorder, people lose the ability to see their emotions in perspective and to act wisely in the face of them. 

Deviantart - Boogienight
Mood disorders actually disrupt the connection between the brain’s emotional center and action center. These two parts of the brain are tightly connected, so that our actions and judgments are always influenced by our emotions (this is why we’re not like computers!).  When the connection is disrupted by a mood disorder, people may act too quickly (as in mania) or not act at all (as in depression).”

Some moods force us to be painfully self-aware, as seen with self-consciousness or anxiety or even the self-critical guilt of depression. Other moods can actually diminish our self awareness, similar to the effects of alcohol. 

What is important to keep in mind are the negative triggers. These are the culprits that can push you to do negative things and be a slave of your emotions. At the mercy of emotions, rationality can be shoved aside or brought to the knee, allowing some emotions to be so powerful that at times they overrule logic, ethics, and morality. As Faria notes, hence the Law’s acknowledgment of crimes of passion and temporary insanity. 

So what does this mean for us? I think it pays to be self-conscious of your mood, to know if you are in a mood swing before you do what you do, say what you say, and type what you type. 

Don’t always be fooled into thinking you are “normal” when in actuality you are being puppeteered by a mood/emotion. When you are in the moment things seem to make sense, but it's important is to step out of that momentary perspective, and ask the question: is this what I would normally do/say/type etc.?

For example, if Gregory is in the heat of a passionate moment of arousal, where the mood is Brightly Elevated/Sunny Hypamania (refer shades of moods above for symptoms), and he has Gloria by his side, Gregory’s actions might be immediately influenced by his momentary mood. The aftermath of those actions could be minimal or catastrophic—depending on the outcome and situational context. But, if Gregory had self-consciously stepped out of his Sunny Hypamania mood by 1) identifying that he was in a particular mood at the time and 2) removing himself from that mood to think “moodless-ly,” he would be more likely to make a reasoned decision that he would be less likely to regret in the future. 

Moral of the story? Recognize your mood, and don’t always assume you are in your “normal” phase. Thinking with this frame of mind will help you avoid regrets, and enable you to make the most reasoned decisions and judgments, allowing you to be the puppeteer of your own life. This innate level of self-awareness that we all possess is too oft forgotten, don't you think? Adieu.      

An interesting activity:

Test your emotional intelligence. How well do you understand and read other people’s faces? The picture test below will give you some idea. I’m marginally average at judging the true emotions of others and scored in the average range.   

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Meaning of Life: A 20 Something’s 300 Word Ramble

Life is just weird.

Not in a bad way, just that it is. This is an unusual post penned by moi. It is random, alien, and deviant, relative to the rest of my works. I know my opening sentence isn’t monumentally mind blowing, but neither is life. Especially not life. Now I sound depressed don’t I—I’m not, really. I don’t think so...or I hope not. It’s just…I dunno, this is my quasi-free writing ramble during a moment in life. A moment in my life. A reflection on the ‘what are we doing here in this specific moment’, and the ‘why are we doing the things we are doing?’

Everyone has problems—another fact of life. Isn’t that a weird fact though? Why should they? Answers can be found in religion, philosophy, science, theology, ideology, wherever your thirsty mind wishes to lap sense from. Mine personally are found in religion—I'm sure you know which. But it also makes you think about the ultimate reality doesn't it? What is that—you tell me. 

When you’re in your early-mid 20’s, you can’t help but wonder, where the hell am I going with all of this? Where am I going to end up, what am I going to end up doing, or how is my life going to turn out in the end? What will I have ended up being? Well does that even matter, because are you ever done ending up being?

"And, The purpose of this article is?" you ask, with your skeptic eyebrows crossed with, impatience? I dunno…what’s the purpose of your life? You tell me. Most people find meaning in life. But people also find meaning in anything they want to find meaning in. I just think that that last line might just have been the subjective moral of this piece. Adieu.

PS: If you thought this article was meaningless, you've tripped on a meaning drenched paradox. For the meaning of meaningless is meaningless, meaning it has a meaning. BOOM! 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - Movie Review

Ragnarok by Harry Buddha-Palm - Devian Art
Coincidentally, I was reading a book about Norse mythology just a few weeks back that suddenly started charging my level of excitement for the upcoming sequel of “Thor.” While I must admit that real Norse mythology is quite different from Marvel’s quick Shake ‘n Bake version, some of the older North Germanic roots that Marvel draws from are still recognizable, though highly exaggerated and frilled. The locus of the Norse tradition is depressingly grim. Geographically chained to the bleak North European landscapes that cower from the relentless battering of harsh frostbiting winters, it is no wonder these age-old stories feature long drawn-out wars, belligerent deities, hardened monsters, and battle feverish heroes who possess an un-snapping tenacity for fist pounding resilience against the larger elements that strive to suppress, ultimately building to the Ragnarök (the ultimate cataclysmic battle that ends it all). It is also from this ominous origin of darkness that I think “Thor: The Dark World” seems to unknowingly trample upon its own mangled roots. An innocent homage to its origins? Yes. But a purely intentional trespassing? I hope not.

“Thor: The Dark World,” true to its title, begins in its own dark past. We are presented a world where once the “Aether” (pronounced ee-ther), an ancient amorphous source of power that fluidly turns matter into dark anti-matter, was almost harnessed for the destruction of the nine realms (Norse cosmology describes the universe as having nine worlds) by the dark elves of Svartalfeim, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) whose name itself is malevolently scything. This was put an end to by King Bor (father of Odin, the Allfather). Alternatively, in present-day Midgard (where humans live), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the love-interest of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), of course, soon finds herself tangled inside the “The Aether.”  Unfortunately, the newly powered-on Malekith is also seeking this source of eternal darkness for his second sprint at universal ruination, which further results in an unlikely yet necessary coupling of the should-hate-but-gotta-love Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who joins his burly half-brother, Thor, to battle for the survival of their cosmos—from the Yggdrasil to Asgard, and Alfheim to Niflheim.  

The casting is spectacularly appropriate. We see no unwanted Affleck-ian Batmans (ouch) or Toby-ish Spidermen. Hemsworth is perfection, flavored with the right amount of wit, muscle and accent. Harvard alumna, Natalie Portman; do we even qualify to say anything against her? Even the timed blushes in her cheeks are flawless as she effortlessly slips into her role as the quirky yet attractive astrophysicist Jane. Anthony Hopkins as Odin the Wise looks the part, yes, but ironically, as the most experienced and well-respected of the lot, comes across as displaying a half-hearted performance plagued with fatigue. Could it be that he is indeed now ageing? As ‘The Atlantic’s’ Christopher Orr writes, he “seems vaguely dyspeptic at the very thought of having to play Odin again.” Rene Russo as Thor’s mother Frigga, though, was a tastefully rewarding addition. What a nice surprise she gives us; feisty, that one.

Characters might just be what save this movie, especially Hiddleston’s performance as Loki the trickster. Unlike Marvel’s always sinister Loki, the true Loki in mythology is both good and bad. “Thor: The Dark World” definitely pays due respect to Loki’s more duplicitous nature than other renditions have in the past. Arguably, Loki would be the audience’s favorite pick, given that he is the unfiltered critic and voice of the audience, never failing to hammer down punch lines left, right and center at the expense of Thor.

Wit also helps salvage this film for laugh-out-loud humor is lavishly peppered all throughout. But was it overdone? I’m not sure I agree with my own opinions here, because I think it works at times, and at other times it threatens the credibility or the seriousness of the film. The constant humor has an almost meta-narrative echo that displaces the escapism. It definitely makes Thor more lovable, though. He, with his deep throated almost Old English accented speech that grates against Portman’s nasally New England accent, is positively received.

But really, it is Kat Dennings (Jane’s intern) and Loki that give one another a run for their lightning rods, in terms of the film’s glowing comedic hilarities. Running through the narrative current is that same Avengers-type humor, which is ad-hoc and laughable even at the most serious life threatening scenes (like when Downey just wants a God damned shawarma in the midst of an alien invasion). We see this for example when Malekith and Thor are sliding down a building’s windows trying to kill each other while white collar workers obliviously continue with their mundane office errands; or when Thor hangs up the ton weighing Mjonir behind the door of Eric's apartment like Aunt May would hang a knitted scarf.

Costume designs were a good fit, although those elfish masks were a bit comic. Having them look more like the Orcs in Lord of the Rings would have gotten more pazazz out of it. Instead, they looked like anorexic teletubbies, especially ridiculous-looking when clumsily running after Dennings and her intern during the climax.

The plot was okay. If it refrained from using Loki as a crutch for its mirage-like complexity I think it would have been more impressive. Using Loki’s abilities as a plot driver gets old by the fourth time around. I was patting myself on the back and smiling inside when I thought I knew what I was sure that others who were watching with me didn’t know. But that was also the problem, because you can’t use Loki’s powers as a crutch to move your movie forward. I mean yes it is momentarily genius, but also, no it is not. There is only so much you can do with the appearance versus reality theme.

And, for the love of Stan Lee, Marvel needs to break away from the constant need for world and universal damnation! Holding a gun to the universe, threatening to blow it up every next movie, like the “Transformers” series, just won’t keep cutting it. I mean look at the Batman trilogy. You don’t see those movies always having inter-cellular plasma beams ready to vaporize all existence (not that I’m saying this happens in this movie). No, the Batman movies have micro stakes that have viewers heavily invested in them; what draws us is the writing and the complexity demanded to follow the story alongside the flawed multi-dimensional characters that make us care about them enough to be dangled willingly in their fictional realms. We know this mistake was made previously in "The Avengers," and we see it in so many other recent Marvel concoctions, so much so that they need to start swerving away from the same end plot to something more realistic and potent.

Overall, here are some review metrical highlights (out of 10):

Plot – 6
Acting – 8
Directing – 7
Cinematography – 7
Costume – 8
Writing – 6.5

In general, the film was constrained in its own gloominess. True to my hunch another astute critic writes that the film is “coated in this dark filter and isn't nearly as bright and vibrant as "Thor" is.” Things were also almost too convenient at times, like when Jane walks in and out through Svartalfeim and Midgard as a result of the gravitational warps. On a similar vein we were left wondering why this rendition did turn a bit Star Wars-ian with all those flying machines zipping around the Bifröst trying to zap one another. I’m not much of a Sci-Fi fan (whoops! I’m sure I lost readers by the droves there) so seeing that come up in mythological comic fiction about the paganic ancestral Gods of the Vikings wasn’t as appealing. Get me some flying chariots with lightning in the front and thunder in the back instead.

So what was new? In the first movie we saw more of what Thor could do with Mjonir, and I thought we would likely see newer tricks from him this time around as well, but guess not. It really seems to be a continuation of where we left off than an introduction to a new chapter. [Spoiler Alert—skip this sentence] Chris Evans, a.k.a. Captain America’s cameo from “The Winter Soldier” was a delicious treat.  It really is true, like Roger Ebert’s Simon Abrams says “Thor: The Dark World” might just be a movie “whose plot is never as exciting as its characters.” And what’s wrong with that? Nothing really, if the characters are just that good. And when they are that good, they can easily help pull a movie with a fledgling plot to new heights of success. We saw this with "The Avengers," and there's definitely a strong trace of this here too. I quite frankly enjoyed “Thor: The Dark World.” Overall, a 7.6/10.  Adieu.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa – Review

Went in looking for nothing but laughter, and that was what I got.

For a movie like this, I think you go in knowing what to expect. You go for the senseless laughs, and get served a feast of slapstick choking hilarity. The plot is simple, loosely strung from a recognizable template that features a heartland American road trip that bonds two characters to the point of union, against the climax that predictably aims to separate them. But see, plot complexity, that’s not why you go for a movie done by “Jackass.” You go for the kicks, the raunchiness, the pranks, and the laughter derived from being in the loop, watching the people out of the loop suffer at the hands of Johnny Knoxville (Irving Zisman – the 86 year old grandpa) and the adorably menacing Jackson Nicoll (Billy – the 8 year old grandson) who looks like he’s about to burst anytime, but truly the only thing bursting is the breathless audience watching him. Some scenes just standout as classics in the making—the beauty pageant scene, the cringe worthy black strip club, and possibly that funeral that truly is the semi-reincarnation of “Death at a Funeral”.

In an entertainment world obsessed with “reality” TV, and with the coming of movies like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat”, “The Dictator,” and shows like MTV’s “Punk’d,” it becomes challenging to pull off secret camera humor to outdo what’s already been or being done. Knoxville though, with all his menace, comes out on top to produce a hilarious piece that has you clapping and gagging for the most of it, tied in by an ironically touching, yet perverse story of events. Some parts were drier than you would like, but promisingly hilarious. If you don’t laugh at least once, get a funny bone implant.

Amidst the entire craze, you can’t help but wonder if the people who are being hoodwinked are in on the joke or not. This is important because all the humor, for us as audience members, resides in their obliviousness to the camera, which seems genuine enough for us to go along with. You realize this when the credits start rolling and it all makes sense, along with the blurred faces of those who didn’t want their identities revealed in theaters nationwide.

All in all, “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” is worth that ticket. A solid 7.9/10. Adieu.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

From College Graduation to Employment: 7 Best Tips for the Job Search

Be you a freshman or a graduating senior, college life forever involves panting from stress. It’s kind of like running a 4 year long marathon ridden with the occasional shin splint, while sweating from a heatwave of endless nerves. Even when its 3AM and you’re pulling up that unwashed dorm comforter to cover yourself to sleep (when finally the loudest roommates down the hall have passed out from their own loudness), still, there’s always that stubborn nail-scraping itch at the back of your mind. It’s the itch that makes you fret about the next set of immovable boulders that you need to try rolling aside in the mornings to come. It’s not to say that college isn’t fun, it’s just to say that it isn’t easy.

Some hurdles are minor, as minor as passing that surprise pop-quiz in PSYC 101. But the others though, now those are major. Those are the ones weighing down your backpack every day and hawking over your head each night: Like facing your student loans; figuring out your road to freedom from debt, 15 long years down the road; scraping the bank for tuition to make grad school, or more immediately, dreading landing that job you need after college which you so want, but don’t have. Worry not; if you came here looking for help with the last one, well that’s exactly what you are going to get!

Credit - HGTV Dream Home Dorm
I know what it’s like to wonder “what am I going to do after college?” “Did I even choose the right freaking major!?” “Will all this get me the job I want?” “Am I actually going to be unemployed after my last paper is done?” Or “with no more parent-funding, where will the money I need to live come from?” Listen. All that matters is that you try hard, but do so smartly. Follow these tips and you might just give it your best shot ever and smash a boulder or two either on your way in, or at least on your way out.

1. Forget wearing Armani, first iron out and tailor your best academic suit: people might tell you that internships, experiences, and inside contacts matter most when you start job hunting. Or they might proclaim that your GPA “isn’t everything so don’t worry about it.” While some credibility exists in the importance of experiences beyond your academics, understand that your academics can sell you like a hotcake.

Maxwell Scott - Gentlemansgazette
If you have a mediocre GPA, don’t let someone falsely comfort you with an “it’s okay because everything else matters more.” No. If you have a mediocre GPA, you work thrice as hard in your remaining semesters so that you jack it up. When you submit that printer crisp resume to a prospective employer, you need to be confident about that 3.5 or that 4.0. It might be just a number, but that number tells employers what your standards are, and how hard you’ve worked to maintain it. Doesn’t matter if you took easy-A courses all through college or enrolled in just-stop-n-shoot-me-now graduate classes. An A is an A, and the more of them you have the more impressive you are on paper. Resumes knock, and interviews open doors. So better start knocking loud and hard.

But what if I already graduated and it’s too late to get a better GPA? Then, my friend, you will have to ramp up everything else to make up for it by presenting a stronger “whole package.” AKA – experiences, internships, qualifications, references, contacts, charisma etc… Don't forget to also be resourceful. Use the resources available to you - career guides, career centers, search engines, tip sheets etc. I was heavily reliant on the AU Career Center, and other career guide books. Their influences are imprinted all over this piece. 

2. Expectations can be the root of all heart-ache: it really is okay to adjust your expectations early on. If your dream in life is to go out there and work for the U.N. or the State Department, and nothing you do (and you’ve done everything) seems to work to get you there, be flexible with your immediate aspirations. Maybe now’s not the time and something will come up later. I’m a big believer in “everything happens for a reason,” and that God has a plan. You’ve got to realize that you are young (20 somewhat I’m guessing), and this is only your first or second job. You have your whole life and career ahead of you to start making turns as you go along, so don’t be afraid to settle at first for something less.

Some of you probably scowled at point 2’s advice, because you are of the kind that won’t stop until you get what you want. That is somewhat admirable, but it’s also not for everybody. Think about what matters most to you, and also what is most necessary. For example, is it more important for you to make the bills on time and be employed, or continue to be in the 1000+ candidate database for your dream organization and be jobless? Make the hard choices but be smart about it by not neglecting your own context. Well planned choices are the number 1 cause of death in regrets.

Credit - HTEG Positive Thinking
3. Networking, and not just the social media type: Be a busy bee, and talk to everyone. When you are newly on the market and looking for employment, you should let everyone you know know that. You never know where one conversation might lead you to. Someone’s someone’s friend’s daughter might be in HR and looking to hire for their department for all you know. Or, Aunt Nancy was gossiping the other day with a CEO’s wife and might just have happened to name drop you if she had known you were on the prowl for employment. Whatever it is, talk to people, make meaningful relationships, and start networking any and every way that you can. People hire, and some people know these people.

4. The Game of Internships: Internships are very important; you don't, however, need 6 to land a job. For me, graduating from AU (#1 University for internships in 2012 - U.S. College News) leaves one almost peer pressured to rack up as many internships as quickly as possible, almost like that eager old lady who cuts the line every time, just to speedily collect more ExtraCare Points at the pharmacy. It doesn’t really say much if you have 4 internships, and in three of them you did the coffee rounds and you were recognized by the team as an amazing barista or known as: His Grace, The Copy Machine King, the First of His name, and Lord of the Seven mail rooms. What really matters, though, is that you have solid internships in your field(s) of interest. These should be ones that provide you with usable experiences that grow you professionally. They provide you a cutting edge advantage over other candidates via personal experiences, recommendation letters and stellar references. Internships will help you realize what you like and dislike, but go for quality over quantity.

5. Success comes easier to those who strive harder: Truth be told, most of the success stories that you drool over have been built by the sweat, blood and tears of hardworking people who have worked their #%@$$’s off for what they've accomplished. I think Anderson Cooper was spot on when he said go out there and be a “Rock Star”. You should strive to be that one person they cannot do withoutin the classroom, your internship, or that part-time job. Everyone recognizes the one they cannot do without and turns a blind eye to the ten they can do without.

Credit: The Literary Lady - The Interview
6. Every rejection brings you closer to perfection: People have been rejected for more jobs than accepted. When rejection punches you square in your face the clobbering leaves you hunched and stunned. Your self-esteem starts to wobble and your self-worth trembles like Jell-O at the mercy of your own judgment. You thought the interview went so well, but you were rejected, with a capital R; and now you begin to lose all hope.

When I look back at times, I think about how happy I am to have been rejected by some of the positions I interviewed forbecause my life would have turned out so differently had it not happened that way. Like I said before, I think everything happens for a reason and you, my friend, are just waiting for that moment where your paths are meant to be aligned with your destiny. Oprah once said, “there is no such thing as luck, only preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.” You won’t get there however, without perseverance, so keep striving onward. Just do it.

7. The secret recipe for a successful interview: You will need all of these ingredients at hand (resumes, cover letters, thank you notes, references, pens, notepads, suit and tie etc.). Begin, preparing with a dash of confidence, a pinch of marketing, and a whole lot of likability. Serve only after warming up.

The people that interview you are going to be, in most cases, the people that work with you. Amidst all the preparation, what some interviewees really forget is to be likable. It’s not just enough to demonstrate that you have the chops for the position. People hire people they like. The competent likable people are who they remember at the end of the day, especially when 20 applicants were interviewed for one opening. So smile away, and jump on making a connection with your reviewer like you would a friend, not forgetting to reaffirm your skills as related to the job description(s) (which you should know down to the T).

Also, little details go a long way. When shaking hands, make sure your hands are warm (!) Cold handshakes can dampen first impressions. Either hold a hot cup of coffee before you go in, or rub them hot. Have thank you cards with you on the day of the interview. Once everything is done and you have their business cards, cross the street, go to a café and start writing your thank yous then and there. Deliver them to the reception desk and ask that they be given to each of your interviewers. They'll never expect it, which is a good thing, because no one else did it but you.   

Failure in past interviews can only make you stronger for the ones in the future. Take note of all that you did wrong in the past to make it right for all that you will do in the future. Know the job; use buzz words; and always provide vivid, real-life past experiences as examples to make your case. Nothing like a rich colorful story to make the stiff hiring manager remember that crazy Starbucks Mocha latte driven 19 hour workday you pulled off in Quarter 2 in your last job/internship to ensure the client’s deliverable was handed over on time.
Credit - Bible Study Image

No one can tell you how to get a job with 100% certainty. What people can tell you is how to have the best shot at it. Never stop trying because every next knock can be the door that opens. I hope these tips help you and motivate you to know what you need to know, to go do what you need to do to secure yourself a spot in the real world. Until then, let me know if I’ve missed anything or if you have other helpful tips you’d like to share as well. Adieu.

Context for this piece: Being on an alumni panel last month was great. But I also left the event feeling like there were so many things left unsaid. So here’s my way of making up for that.    

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Britney Spears - Work B**ch: Music Video Review

Nothing much to say. The video is solid, reverberating the fact that Britney is indeed back!

Not even a second into the song the first thing that lashes at you is her body. Ben Mor (Director) makes this the focal point of attention for the introductory shot doesn't he? Well, with all good reason, given that the shot has the camera panning out while leaving us suspended in disbelief as we take in Queen B’s tantalizing bodily transformation. You remember that time when Britney came out with her single “Gimme More,” and before viewing it for the first time we were all psyched up with anticipation fed on starved hype? So eager were we to see her again it was like as if the Gods of Olympus were coming back to reclaim the world or something! Of course you remember. You were expecting that once-in-a-lifetime comeback, fit only for a blazing phoenix burning her way back to the music spotlight from the dusty has-been ashes. And…and..well instead you got an eager beaver plump white chicken, clucking away at the VMAs-to the delight of TMZ-ish tabloid vultures.

Yeah, well this comeback bitch slaps back; so well done Brit. I’ve always liked her pop Highness to be honest, and it relieves me deeply to know that she is sane now, and actively taking control of herself, her children, and her career. She has come back to us with a serious mental composure that could/should inspire anyone who is in a rough spot in their life to go kill off the “in” in insanity. Though a mother, there is a sex appeal that Britney channels through this video that makes you lift an eyebrow (no wonder it was banned in England till an edited cleaner version was made available by RCA Records).

Ironically, though the song is a female anthem that encourages the woman to work for what she desires, the video has everything a “guy” desires—sexy women, sexier cars, leather, twerks, money, fun and fame.  

The song itself is more conducive to be a club banger than a pop hit. Its heavy reliance on the EDM styled tunes is unmistakable, given how the background beats remind you of floating high over an electronic rave. The base heavy beats will do well for suggestive moves on the dance club floor. You know is also behind it (rolls eyes); you can almost hear him and his constant lack of creativity because, well, if you haven’t noticed his trademark almost-always-the same thumping electro beats that are heard in probably every single Black Eyed Peas song ever released (Boom Boom Pow, Pump It, Imma Be, Don’t Stop the Party, My Hump etc.) then there’s something wrong with you and your unhearing ears. Britney’s vocals don’t seem to carry the song to great heights, and that’s okay because the tune and chorus are both catchy enough to have your mind’s radio go into record mode to give you ample playbacks on your commute to work or sing pitchy high during that hour long shower.

The quick step dance moves also give the video its oomph by increasing the video's pace as the song races through the different frames. The choreography for Britney has improved significantly, reminding us more of the days of “Toxic” and “Slave 4 U”  while helping us forget fiascos like “Gimme More”. When you think dancers in entertainment you think Michael Jackson, Shakira, Janet, J.Lo, Beyonce, Paula Abdul etc. Britney’s never been known for her stellar dancing, but here you can definitely give her a T for trying, and an “A” for amazingly better than what you did in your last comeback. Also, I don’t know if it was just me but the desert dancing scene for some reason reminded me of the Spice Girls and their set in their number 1 hit “Say You’ll Be There” (others have made allusions to Ciara’s video). The multitude of sets and different scenes in this music video give it an interesting alternating current that has the song energized by its quick succession rapid transitions, buzzing away to and fro like a live wire at the mercy of a Britney power surge.

Fun fact: Many have pointed fingers at the out-of-nowhere English accent that runs through the song. Yes, it is there, and it works well as a prop for satirically drawing up polished class lines of the upper crust per se, who we assume are enjoying this type of flashy lifestyle that Britney is describing. But reviewers always halt when confronted as to why her accent breaks down when Britney pronounces “France” like someone would say “ants”. Some think it’s her American accent resurfacing unconsciously, undermining her execution of a consistent mock-Brit accent. No, this is not so. It is definitely purposeful, mainly because her pronunciation has to rhyme with “fancy”, “mansion” and “France”. It might be jarring to the ear, but necessary for the rhyme.  

But what about that entire overdose of product placement? Britney’s own Fantasy perfume, Beats by Dre’s new product the Pill, Planet Hollywood, and the other name dropping mentions of Lamborghini, Bugatti etc. Some of them seem to be necessary for the lyrical thrust of the song, while others, I’m sure, have to be commission based additions. Makes you wonder how much that costs doesn't it. Well too bad, you better work b**ch, to find out!

Reviews for the song have been generally positive. The benchmark of music reviewers, Rolling Stone, gives it 4 out of 5 stars and remarks that the song is “the perfect nü-Britney blueprint." E! on the other hand is just plain happy because it’s “so friggin' great to have Britney circa 2001 back”.

Overall, for the impressively toned comeback that took me by surprise, the song receives an 8.6/10. But more importantly, what did you think of Britney's latest piece of work? Adieu.