Monday, August 24, 2015

A Stoner Finds Out That He's A Super Soldier In AMERICAN ULTRA

Now playing a multiplex near you (at least for a week or two):

AMERICAN ULTRA (Dir. Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

With its hyperkinetic editing, head-banging score, and high body count I kept thinking that this amped up, noisy action comedy must be based on some graphic novel I’ve never heard of.

That its hero (anti-hero?), a shaggy stoner named Mike played by a Jesse Eisenberg, draws cartoons about a monkey astronaut also added to that impression, but no, this isn’t based on any pre-existing property of any kind. So, for a summer movie, it’s got that going for it.

The scenario that on the surface, Eisenberg’s Mike is a small town slacker convenience store clerk, but underneath he’s actually a highly-trained CIA assassin, is, as many critics have pointed out, a one-joke premise. As such, I really dug the set-up, but wasn’t so hot on the punchline.

Mike, who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, who was also Eisenberg’s love interest in ADVENTURELAND) in the fictional burg of Liman, West Virginia, doesn’t know he’s a genetically engineered killing machine because he’s been “de-activated.”

But when two black-ops gunmen approach him in the parking lot of the Cash-N-Carry where he works, and he is able to swiftly disarm and kill them - with the help of a cup of soup and a spoon, mind you – he knows something is up.

Mike has been re-activated by Connie Britton as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter because her young assholish boss Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to end the Ultra program - the government experiment that had brainwashed Mike to begin with - and our pot-smoking protagonist is tagged for termination.

So the movie becomes a manhunt for Mike, with he and Phoebe being pursued by a bunch of Ultra operatives, including the creepy Walton Goggins and stand-out stunt woman Monique Ganderton, through a police station shoot-out, a raid at their drug dealer friend Rose’s (John Leguizamo) pad, and finally a box store climax where things get more than messy.

The bombardment of the second half’s series of shoot-outs, fight scenes, and chases got very tiresome as there have been so many movies about indestructible bad-ass with unique sets of skills, and there’s only so much of seeing Eisenberg offing attacker after attacker that I could be amused by.

There is a funny thread about Mike trying to pick the right time to propose to Phoebe amid all the chaos (Eisenberg sells this sort of neurotic, lovesick stuff much better than the killing machine material unsurprisingly), and a batch of good lines sprinkled throughout (like “They had guns and knives and they were being total dicks!”), but there’s not enough of a spark of real inspiration to make this a truly memorable experience.

Screenwriter Max Landis may have thought that the love story part of it would give the rest the gas to power it on through, but I really wasn’t buying Stewart’s role particularly when it came to the big reveal about why she’d stay in a long term relationship with such a deadbeat.

AMERICAN ULTRA is an ultra violent mash-up of THE BOURNE IDENTITY and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, with a fair amount of the comic carnage of KICK-ASS (minus the superhero angle) mixed in as well. It has its moments, but I wish Max Landis’ screenplay took more chances, and didn’t just stick to a done to death formula. The idea that a stoner comes to find out that he’s a super soldier in secret is a good one; if only they had one or two more good ideas for it to rub up against.

More later...

Monday, August 17, 2015

THE END OF THE TOUR: A Hangout Movie About Being Hung Up

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

THE END OF THE TOUR (Dir. James Ponsoldt, 2015)

I have to confess that I’ve never read any of the late David Foster Wallace’s work, but after seeing this thoughtful, insightful and thoroughly moving movie, his highly touted 1,079-page novel “Infinite Jest” has rocketed to the top of my list.

The film is centered around Wallace, played by Jason Segel, being accompanied by journalist David Linsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, to Minneapolis for the last stop on the promotional book tour for “Infinite Jest” in the winter of 1996.

Linsky is doing a profile of Wallace for Rolling Stone, that he says will be about “what it’s like to be the most talked about writer in the country.” Linsky’s editor (Ron Livingston) approves his pitch to do the piece on the condition that he asks Wallace if the rumors of his heroin use are true.

Linsky is a big fan of Wallace, and wishes that his writing was as successful, as his own novel “The Art Fair” failed to make much of a splash in the literary world. Linsky is even annoyed that his girlfriend (an extremely underused Anna Chlumsky) seems to like Wallace’s work better than his.

“He wants something better than he has, I want precisely what he has already,” is how Linsky succinctly sums up the situation. The two meet at Wallace’s suburban house in Bloomington, Illinois where he lives with two dogs, and their rambling yet consistently fascinating conversation begins.

In the first of many scenes set in diners, Wallace senses Linsky’s nervousness and reassures him by saying that he’s terrified too and that they’ll get through it together.

Then the two Davids bond over a junk food run to a convenience store (“if we ate like this all the time, what would be wrong with that?”), and continue their conversing at Wallace’s house over smokes and R.E.M. on the stereo (I swear that “Perfect Circle” played twice in the background before going on to the next song on “Murmur,” “Catapult” but that’s neither here nor there).

The next day, Linsky and Wallace fly to Minneapolis where they are greeted by the always welcome Joan Cusack as Patty, a perky, quirky book tour escort, who drives the two to Wallace’s scheduled events including a bookstore reading and a radio interview. During their time in town, they also get lost in Mall of America, and take in a movie there: the dumb John Travolta action flick BROKEN ARROW funnily enough.

At the bookstore appearance, Wallace introduces Linsky to a couple of female friends, Betsy (Mickey Sumner), who Wallace used to date, and Julie (Mamie Gummer - you know, Meryl Streep’s daughter) as a groupie turned friend. Wallace and Linsky hang with the two ladies at Gummer’s apartment because she has a TV, but the evening gets a bit tense when Wallace thinks that Linsky is hitting on his ex flame. After a period of barely speaking the following day, their last one together, they hash it out and Linsky finally puts the heroin question to Wallace.

THE END OF THE TOUR, director James Ponsoldt’s follow-up to last year’s much buzzed about THE SPECTACULAR NOW, is a hangout movies about being hung up. As fame approaches, Wallace wants to be seen as a regular guy whose only addiction is television, but Linsky questions this: “You don’t crack open a 1,000-page book because the author’s a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant…So who the fuck are you kidding?”

The spectre of Wallace’s suicide twelve years after the events here can’t help but loom over the proceedings, but Segel’s warmth and humor as Wallace is so in the moment that we can forget that he’s ultimately a tragic figure. This is undoubtedly Segel’s most layered and lived-in performance, and it’s probably the most accomplished acting by any of the Freaks and Geeks alumni. Sorry, James Franco.

Eisenberg holds his own with Segel, but his part isn’t anything we haven’t seen him do before. If you want to get a slice of Eisenberg with a twist, see AMERICAN ULTRA.

Scripted by Donald Margulies (DINNER WITH FRIENDS) from Linsky’s 2010 book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” THE END OF THE TOUR is somehow simultaneously breezy and deep. It’s like one of those late night talks that feels initially feels laid back, but, in the middle of all the shooting the shit there’s some heavy soul barring going on.

Put another way, in this series of loose chats between these two soul searching writers, there’s one of the best movies of the year going on.

More later...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Grand Self Mythology Of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. F. Gary Gray, 2015)

This super-sized (nearly 2 and a half hours!) biopic of hip hop legends N.W.A., co-produced by the group’s key members, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, is undoubtedly a work of grand self mythology. But since self mythology is a large part of the hip hop game, it’s hard to imagine it any other way.

The flashy, larger-than-life sweep to the story of how Dr. Dre, Easy E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella - portrayed respectively by Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Neil Brown Jr. - rose out of the poor South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton is initially intoxicating; at times it feels like you’re a fly on the wall of a chaotic in-your-face party.

Of course, it’s a party that’s interrupted by the police every so often, as those infamous clashes with the law are a large part of what gave the West Coast gangsta-rap pioneers the moniker of “the most dangerous band in the world.”

In a role that’s not entirely unlike his part in the Brian Wilson biopic LOVE & MERCY – (i.e. the questionable manager/mentor archetype), Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, a longtime music industry maven who befriends Easy E after the single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” makes a splash. Heller and Easy E start Ruthless Records, Heller lands N.W.A. a deal with Priority Records, and the band start recording the move’s 1988 namesake album “Straight Outta Compton.”

As per the formula, the film is broken down into a series of greatest hits highlights. The most effective of which is the sequence surrounding their signature anti-police brutality anthem “Fuck Tha Police.”

The controversial track was inspired by an incident dramatized in the film in which the group was harassed by asshole cops during the recording of their debut, and it caught the attention of the FBI. At a show in Detroit, N.W.A. is ordered by a local police chief not to play the song, but, of course, they defy the order and the audience goes from wildly chanting to rioting as cops rush the stage.

In between these energetic bursts of beat-filled energy we get a lot of complaining about not getting paid. Dr. Dre and the rest of N.W.A. bitch about not getting their contracts while Heller and Easy E are eating lobster dinners; after leaving the group, Ice Cube busts up the office of Priority Records exec Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington) because of non-compensation, and so on.

The rivalry between Ice Cube and his former band members, who call him “Benedict Arnold” on a track from their second and final album “Niggaz4Life,” makes for another entertaining back and forth, but the film peaks around the time that the Rodney King beating became a major part of the 24 hour news cycle in ’91. The narrative gets messier after that, with a mess of characters popping in and out of the mix, much like the brief guest cameos that pop up on many of hip hop albums. For example, Keith Stanfield puts in an appearance as Snoop Dogg, does a dead-on impression of the young rapper, then disappears.

There is a lot of criticism that the movie, which was scripted by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (WORLD TRADE CENTER), sanitizes N.W.A.’s story by leaving out such incriminating events as when Dr. Dre attacked hip-hop journalist Denise “Dee” Barnes in a nightclub in ‘91, and that it glosses over the frequent charge of misogyny in their lyrics. Indeed, women do the short end of the stick in this celebratory boys club of a biopic – they are the girlz on the side of the boyz in the hood, often appearing only as groupies in hotel scene backgrounds or extras at topless pool parties.

The men dominate the proceedings so much that when Carra Patterson appears as Easy E’s girl Tomica in the final act scenes that depict the rapper on his deathbed with AIDS, I wasn’t sure how much she had been in the film before.

As for the leads, Hawkins and Mitchell nail their parts as Dre and E, and Giamatti puts in another reliable performance that's equal parts sincerity and sleaze. And, having done no research beforehand, I was floored by how much of a dead ringer for Ice Cube that Jackson Jr. is - I was like 'kudos to the casting director! They must have searched the globe to find a guy that looks and acts that much like the iconic rapper!' Then I find out that he's Ice Cube's son. Man, I'm such an idiot sometimes.

However, the rest of the playas hardly register. MC Ren and DJ Yella consulted on the film, but their onscreen doppelgangers have little to do or say, and R. Marcus Taylor as producer/promoter mogul Suge Knight, one of the film's other villains, casts an imposing shadow but little else.

Now, I was a white teen who was just starting to get into hip hop at the time that this stuff was going down. I was more a Public Enemy guy, but I remember having “Straight Outta Compton” on cassette back in the day. This successfully took me back to when I was working as a record store clerk reading about these stories in music magazines, and seeing it covered on MTV News.

Despite its self serving short-comings, this big screen bio captures the look, sound, and spirit of both N.W.A. and the era in spades. Just don’t go in looking for anything less than pure legend.

More later...