Skip to main content

Your boyfriend isn't real. We made him.

American Ultra
(2015)

(SPOILERS) One would probably be mistaken to put the apparently unstoppable ascent of Max Landis down to Hollywood nepotism. After all, it isn’t as if anyone has been battering down his dad’s door offering him work over the past couple of decades. I suspect the truth is closer to the means by which Seth Grahame-Smith established himself, through readily recognisable gimmicks (of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies genre mash-up variety); Landis has an aptitude for an easy (as in facile), high concept soundbite, of the sort studio execs love to hear, which firmly precludes any attempt to evaluate whether there’s anything of value in them, let alone the finished screenplays. Which is where American Ultra comes in. An appealing-enough premise, even a half-decent trailer. But as a movie, it’s a stinker.


The kernel comes from the legendary MKUltra psy-ops programmes, whereby the CIA would programme/brainwash operatives to do their bidding. It’s a fascinating part of dark (as in not really all that mainstream) US twentieth (and twenty-first, it’s not as if it has all gone away suddenly) history, ideal fodder for the conspiracy-minded, and great subject matter for a Hollywood thriller. Provided the mettle is sufficiently grasped.


It has, of course, been tinkered with; Jason Bourne is essentially a programmed super-assassin, but a faulty one who has developed a conscience and is thus granted the thrilling skill set of a merciless killing machine, but in the reconstituted form of a hero. The Manchurian Candidate was the first picture to really set the cat among the pigeons in this regard, suggesting the establishment’s capacity for eliminating inconvenient political targets prior to the Kennedy assassinations. One could have a high old time in terms of movie potential just documenting the backgrounds and activities of the initiators of the MKUltra project, their theories and experiments, and the whole Nazi legacy, without needing to wrap in the palatable antiseptic scepticism that comes via its iteration in The Men Who Stare at Goats.


From the evidence of Landis’ screenplay, he didn’t even deign to read the Wiki-page on the subject, rather gleaning his marginal insights from movies themselves. Which, I guess, is legitimate, if you want to be responsible for strictly D-grade movies. Mike Howell (Jess Eisenberg, convincingly cast as a befuddled stoner, less so as an invincible death machine) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, their second of three pairings to date) live in a small, middle-of-nowhere town, getting majorly mashed while Mike tries and fails to leave amid difficulty expressing his thoughts and phobias to his ever-attentive partner.


His yen for getting out, rather than getting out of it, has attracted the attention of CIA up-and-comer Topher Grace, however, who summarily orders their ex-asset iced. Yes, Mike’s mental health issues don’t result from copious weed, but from being subjected to government mind control. Which is, of course, something anyone who has been regularly stoned has been paranoid about at some point, but is depicted in such a banal fashion by director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and his (no doubt stoned) writer as to render it creatively a bummer.


Nourizadeh’s action – and the chance to see the worm, or geek, turn, to satisfying effect, clearly the whole point of the exercise – is often incoherent and poorly-paced, accompanied by a noisy soundtrack from Marcelo Zarvos that’s trying and failing to paper over cracks where the editing is at a loss. Nourizadeh has little aptitude for the humour either, much of which, like the premise, has been borrowed from better movies (“He was armed with a spoon, sir”; if you’re going to steal, steal from Chronicles of Riddick).


As for his martialling of the actors. The leads are fine, but Walton Goggins and his magnificently, miraculously regrown hair is irritatingly, rather than appealingly OTT. As is Grace’s increasingly-frustrated CIA nemesis; ridiculous and annoying, and not remotely believable or threatening. John Legiuizamo, continuing with a recent parade of cameos, some of them solid, makes a mark as a paranoid dealer, while Tony Hale can’t help but turn his character into Tony Hale.


This is, at least, brief. But it’s also highly questionable in intent. Come the final scene, Mike and his handler Phoebe (now that was a surprise) are back working for the agency, free from moral qualms. We’re supposed to celebrate their choice, because it’s, like, cool. Which, I suspect, extends to Landis’ criteria with any given writing project. At one point It looks as if Mike might be having a flashback to being programmed as an operative from childhood (shots of boarding a school bus, fitting in with tales from those syphoned off from normal lessons for special careers from an early age), but then we find he simply signed up at 18. That might have given the picture a frisson, but probably not. It’s studiously safe and unchallenging throughout.


Perhaps Landis himself has been programmed, but to churn out formulaic bullshit. Perhaps Chronicle will remain that one exception in both his and Josh Trank’s careers. Somehow, Max has been let loose on a new version of Dirk Gently; at least we we have the half-decent BBC4 version of a few years back. He’s also hit the jackpot with Netflix, which has paid a Shane Black-in-his-heyday-esque $3m for spec script Bright, about cops in a world where orcs and fairies live among humans (that sort of concept worked really well for R.I.P.D., after all). With that and the Adam Sandler deal, their original movie programming isn’t exactly off to a persuasive start.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.