Film reviews: American Ultra | Me, Earl and The Dying Girl

Jesse Eisenberg, right, with John Leguizamo in the ill-judged American Ultra. Picture: Contributed

Jesse Eisenberg, right, with John Leguizamo in the ill-judged American Ultra. Picture: Contributed

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DESPITE the chemistry of its co-stars, this Bourne-inspired thriller trades promising humour for absurdist violence, writes Alistair Harkness

FILM OF THE WEEK

American Ultra (15)

Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace

Star rating: **

Anyone who’s seen the trailer for American Ultra might have the wrong impression about this stoner riff on Jason Bourne. Featuring Jesse Eisenberg as a hippy-haired burnout who discovers he has deadly skills when some goons attempt to jump him in a parking lot, the trailer suggests an action comedy along the lines of Zombieland, Eisenberg’s previous stab at blending straight-up genre thrills with a sly, referential humour. But whether by accident or design, American Ultra is pretty low on jokes and a bit too heavy on grim violence, suggesting a failure of tone in either the script (by Chronicle writer Max Landis) or in its transition to the big screen (it was directed by the British-born Nima Nourizadeh, who made the teen gross-out comedy Project X).

That the idea itself is solid enough suggests the filmmaking is more at fault than the writing. Indeed, the way Landis sets up his characters is initially quite intriguing, with Eisenberg’s character, Mike, coming across as a dime bag of squandered potential who loves his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) so much that he worries about screwing up her life as much as he’s screwed up his own. That hasn’t stopped him scraping together enough money to buy her a ring, however, although constant harassment by the authorities and a weird travel phobia that repeatedly prevents him leaving town has screwed up his plans for the proposal.

The film is actually at its best in these early moments. An opening montage that rewinds all the action from the end credits to this starting point clues us into how crazy things are going to get, but the calm before the storm at least gives us a chance to enjoy the off-kilter chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart. Re-united for the first time since co-starring in 2009’s post-college coming-of-age film Adventureland, they bring a real tenderness to characters, whose relationship is far more complex than it at first seems, particularly with regards to the roles they actually fulfil in each other’s lives.

Alas, from the moment the aforementioned goons attempt to jump Mike, the film starts to lose all sense of what’s entertaining. We already know Mike’s not quite who he seems to think he is thanks to the interest two rival CIA agents have taken in him. To Agent Lasseter (played by Connie Britton), Mike is a deprogrammed asset in need of protection from Yates (Topher Grace), her former underling who has managed to weasel his way into a bureaucratic position that has technically made him her superior. Yates wants to eliminate Mike for reasons that get somewhat lost in the ensuing mix, but which basically boil down to providing the film with an excuse to activate Mike so we can watch as he begins to instinctively, and with bewildering proficiency, dispense gangs of similarly deadly assets – led by a maniacally grinning psycho called Laugher (Walter Goggins) – that Yates has put on his tail.

Though The Manchurian Candidate popularised the trope of the hitherto oblivious secret agent suddenly activated for field duty, the more recent success of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity and its two Paul Greengrass directed sequels have inspired a raft of imitators that have now rendered this particular idea an action movie cliché. Which isn’t to say it can never be used again. Indeed, had American Ultra been more of a send-up, it might have worked. But aside from naming the film’s anonymous-seeming setting Liman (presumably in tribute to The Bourne Identity/Mr & Mrs Smith director), the film plays everything surprisingly straight, as if this is somehow taking place in the real world – or at least a movie world we’re suppose to take seriously.

Perhaps the original idea was to do a darker, Coen brothers-style comedy – to essentially do for the spy movie what The Big Lebowksi did for the detective film (though arguably the Coens themselves already did this with Burn After Reading). If so, the film botches the switch between black comedy and absurdist violence that’s so often a feature of the Coens’ signature work. That’s a shame too because it means the director has also wasted a good opportunity to make the kind of Pineapple Express-style caper to which its premise more naturally lends itself. The end result is simply a grind to watch, made worse by the fact that it’s just not credible to have someone like Eisenberg play a genuine ass-kicking hero. Though good at delivering the sort of throw-away utterances that underscore the character’s distress as he slowly realises what’s been done to him, the guy looks like he weighs about seven stone soaking wet, and yet we’re expected to believe he can take out armies of highly trained agents without his subsequent years of heavy toking having any detrimental impact on his fitness. American Ultra should have activated its comic instincts, not its action ones.

Me, Earl And The Dying Girl (12A)

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon

Star rating: **

Teenage solipsism gets taken to the extreme in Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, an excruciatingly self-satisfied Young Adult adaptation, the precious, almost-rhyming title of which should clue you into the degree of irritation the main character inspires. This is Greg (Thomas Mann), a film-obsessed high school senior who has maintained shallow acquaintances with every clique in school in the hope of getting through adolescence with minimum hassle – like a wallflower Ferris Bueller.

This carefully cultivated social camouflage is destroyed when his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate newly diagnosed with leukaemia. Neither party is particularly thrilled about this – Rachel because she doesn’t necessarily want to spend what may be her final months in some kind of pity friendship with a mopey guy she hardly knows; Greg because he knows that enforced proximity to someone potentially dying of cancer is going to make his own teen-angst-wallowing seem pretty lame.

That’s actually an intriguing dynamic for a teen movie to explore. Empathy is something adolescents only really start to learn as the narrow prism of their own experience is widened by exposure to the plights of others. But despite Greg repeatedly being called out on his self-obsessed behaviour – by his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), by his mother, by his Werner Herzog-loving father (Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman), and by his macho history teacher (Jon Bernthal) – director Alfonso Gomez-Redon makes the film a tribute to the character’s own narcissism rather than a critique of it. A girl facing her own mortality thus exists only to teach this insufferable teen life lessons that will help him grow, get into college and potentially become the filmmaker he dreams of becoming.

The last of these really ups the irritation factor as Gomez-Redon uses Greg and his best friend Earl’s preferred pastime of remaking arthouse movies with bad punning titles (sample title: Pooping Tom) to overload the film with egregiously quirky references to the likes of Scorsese, Herzog, Kubrick, and Powell and Pressburger (whose movies Gomez-Redon also references in his shot design). The end result comes off more like an ersatz Michel Gondry movie for adolescents who don’t yet understand that cine-literacy isn’t a replacement for actual life experience – a concept to which the film, somewhat ironically, pays lip-service without demonstrating any emotional understanding.

Indeed, the hipster movie references feel more manipulative than the flat-out button pushing of last year’s similarly themed YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars. At least that film was honest about what it was. Like its protagonist, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl – which somehow won two major awards at Sundance earlier this year – thinks it’s much deeper than it is.

NEW RELEASES

No Escape (15)

Directed by: John Erick Dowdle

Starring: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan
Star rating: ***

An exploitation movie in every sense of the word, this politically dubious, entertainingly ludicrous action film stars Owen Wilson as an American engineer who moves his wife (Lake Bell) and two young daughters to an unnamed country in South East Asia at the exact moment that a genocidal revolution turns said country into an apocalyptic war zone. As hordes of faceless Asian revolutionaries shoot, hack and beat to death white foreign nationals, the film comes dangerously close to an Orientalist view of its setting that isn’t quite excused by the anti-corporate subtext or by the bluntly ironic ending writer/director John Erick Dowdle adds to the film. Yet despite the film’s Taken-esque belief that the plight of an American family fighting for survival in a scary foreign land is inherently gripping, Dowdle takes admirably sick delight in putting his protagonists through the wringer. It helps that he has two leads as charismatic and likeable as Wilson and Bell. They bring a naturalistic vibe to their characters that hints at plausible marital strains even before the bloodshed kicks in. In an era of uber-capable protagonists with very particular sets of skills, it’s also good to see in-over-their-heads protagonists who don’t know what to do – though perhaps having them hurl their children over the side of a building in a panicked attempt to keep them out of the clutches of a machete-wielding maniac is a tad extreme.

Miss Julie (15)

Directed by: Liv Ullmann

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell

Star rating: **

August Strindberg’s play about class, sexual mores and gender politics gets its umpteenth adaptation courtesy of former Ingmar Bergman collaborator Liv Ullmann, who transposes the action from Sweden to 19th century Ireland and casts Jessica Chastain as the eponymous aristocrat who engages in a game of sexual power play with Colin Farrell’s servant over the course of a Midsummer’s Night. Essentially a two-hander between Chastain and Farrell, with occasional interactions from Samantha Morton as the cook whose sense of propriety becomes the moral barometer against which the shifting social structures of the times is measured, the film feels like an acting exercise rather than a relevant piece of cinema. In maintaining the period setting, Ullmann hasn’t found a way to make the themes feel particularly relevant and, despite the committed performances, the intended naturalism of the play feels too theatrical on film.

Dope (15)

Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Zoë Kravitz

Star rating: ****

Like a John Hughes film for kids with more than detention to worry about, this joyous, big-hearted teen comedy seems almost revolutionary in the casual way it makes race a major theme without getting all heavy-handed and worthy about it. It revolves around Malcolm (Shameik Moore, inset with Zoë Kravitz), an academically gifted African-American teen whose life in a crime-infested LA neighbourhood adds a genuine element of danger to the usual bullying meted out to those who share his geeky proclivities. Determined not to become a cliché, he nevertheless finds himself launched on a series of character-building misadventures after he accidentally becomes embroiled in an epic drug deal following a visit to a night club with best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel). Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa slyly embraces the conventions of both the teen movie and old school ghetto dramas like Boyz n the Hood here and proceeds to upend expectations at every turn. The end results are fresh and funny and mercifully free of angst-ridden navel-gazing.

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