Can't Stop the Movies - No One Can Stop The Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

American Ultra (2015)

Love that love that hoochie mama

Mike is trapped in his small town with his menial job and violent panic attacks when he tries to leave.  Even with the help of his love Phoebe he can't overcome his debilitating fear.  But Mike's unaware of secrets in his past because of his prodigious use of marijuana and when CIA handlers come to claim Mike he springs into a violent awakening.  Nima Nourizadeh direct American Ultra from a screenplay written by Max Landis and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, and Topher Grace.

Love that love that hoochie mamaIf I had to consider American Ultra solely on the basis of its acting pedigree it would be an overwhelming success.  My admiration of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart proved to be well-founded in scenes where they need to stumble through a myriad of emotions but still keep the plot rolling forward.  Then you've got a devil's assortment of supporting players chomping the scenery with many clearly enjoying their opportunity to play against type.  We've got John Leguizamo, Connie Britton, and Walton Goggins playing to various degrees of unstable violence.

So why doesn't American Ultra succeed beyond these obviously game performers?  Two issues are clear upfront.  The director is Nima Nourizadeh whose previous film was the putrid Project X.  On the screenwriting front we have Max Landis who did good work on Chronicle then disappeared down the social meta internet commentary hole with shorts like The Death and Return of Superman and The Slap - which was one of many "black and white presentation of attractive people doing things" films made after the popularity of The Kiss.

Much like the disappointing We Are Your Friends from last week, American Ultra is the product of untempered youthful impulse.  It mimics the structure of "one man on a mission" films which became in vogue again thanks to The Bourne Identity and Taken.  But in approaching that structure Nouizadeh and Landis attempt a myriad of tones and storytelling techniques which make for a couple of dynamite scenes but an exhausting watch in the long-run.


Jessica Jones: “AKA Ladies Night”

Jessica Jones, private investigator, harbors scars from a past she avoids talking about and drinks to get through the day.  But when the parents of a missing girl come to her office looking for help Jessica is forced to confront the purple demon lurking around the corners of her consciousness.  Andrew and Ryan look at the first episode of Jessica Jones, "AKA Ladies Night".

A view askewI haven't hid my distaste for many of the Marvel films released over the last six years.  For every Ant-Man we end up with Iron Man 2 or Age of Ultron.  They've got horrifically inconsistent characterization with Captain America being a gung-ho hero in one film, a total dope in the next, and a moody man of conscience in yet another.

So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Marvel's Daredevil.  Freed from the constraints of Kevin Feige's vice-grip over Marvel Studio productions Marvel's Daredevil was free to craft a moody, funny, and violent take on the Man Without Fear.  I wasn't as impressed with the fight choreography at first, but as each episode went on the technical craft grew as the character relationships became more complex.

When I found out Marvel's Daredevil was one in a series of shows designed to create a sort of small-screen version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I grew a tad paranoid.  That paranoia grew as Jessica Jones was announced as the follow-up to Marvel's Daredevil.  As Ryan knows, I was a huge mark for Brian Michael Bendis, the comic writer who created Alias which starred Jessica Jones, and gave us an in-depth look at PTSD through the lens of a drunken, violent, foul-mouthed, and painfully insecure former heroine.  It wasn't a "dark for darkness' sake" comic but one which wanted to grapple with Jessica's serious psychological issues and just what that meant for someone with superpowers.  Now that I've watched the first episode I have to admit I'm still a bit skeptical, but some of the issues I had with even Bendis' stellar writing on Alias have been addressed in Jessica Jones while introducing some awkward twists.

I'll get more specific as we continue on, but how did you respond to "AKA Ladies Night"?RendezvousI have to thank you again for introducing me to this comic series, it quickly became one of my favorites for all the reasons you mentioned along with the dialogue and look of the comic as well.  I was not as skeptical as you when the four character-oriented shows were announced (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist) because I was too freaked out about Netflix getting into my hopes and dreams.  These "street level" characters are my favorite Marvel heroes and I would rather follow them than a romp through Asgard with Thor or Hulk smashing up a city.  I loved Marvel's Daredevil and thought it improved when the Kingpin became as big a star as Daredevil was on the series.  So I had hopes for Jessica Jones and the first episode surprised me.

I was surprised at how "slow" it was and I put that in quotations because I don't want it to seem like I am saying that as a bad thing.  I teach my students in class all the things that a pilot should do and Jessica Jones didn't do many of them.  The show barely gave a road map about what it will be from then on, didn't introduce the characters in 2 or 3 quick minutes and didn't make you love the heroine.  What it did do was give you the tone it was going for and that seems to be psychological thriller/noir.  The one pilot thing it did do was hook me into wanting to watch the next episode, but for having a great idea on what the show is, I am still in the dark on that.


We Are Your Friends (2015)

Sparkle morning happy whatever

All it takes is a solid beat, a good hook, and a receptive crowd to become the next EDM sensation.  That's what Cole Carter believes as he spins at night and creates by day.  A chance encounter with one of his musical idols puts his dream tantalizingly close, but his new mentor's girlfriend seems receptive to Cole's style.  Max Joseph writes and directs We Are Your Friends, cowritten by Meaghan Oppenheimer, and stars Zac Efron, Emily Ratajkowski, and Wes Bentley.

Sparkle morning happy whateverZac Efron’s carved out an odd career trajectory in his cinematic outings.  He started off as a generic teenage cutie in High School Musical moving on to slight fare like 17 Again.  But he’s also sought out roles in films helmed by the likes of Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles), Lee Daniels (The Paperboy), and Ramin Bahrani (At Any Price).  Efron hasn’t exactly blossomed as a performer in these projects but he at least shows a restless spirit willing to take a chance on smaller projects instead of jumping at whatever romcom looks the most appealing.

We Are Your Friends fits comfortably into this niche.  It’s writer / director Max Joseph’s first film after Joseph worked primarily on television and is the sort of “coming of age” story young auteurs like to get out of their system.  This is the sort of project Efron could use to break out as a performer worth taking seriously, not unlike Dustin Hoffman did with The Graduate or more recently Michael B. Jordan did with Fruitvale Station.

The key factor with those two performances, which Efron does not have to work with, is the film backing those performers is solid. We Are Your Friends is not a solid film.  Joseph, along with coscreenwriter Meaghan Oppenheimer, made a terrible if earnest movie about shallow characters.  He switches between narrative and visual styles so often I got the impression he was afraid to cut back because this might be the only time he’s behind the camera.  Unless his craft tightens up this fear is entirely justified.


Mid-week Anger: Puce Moment (1949)

A dark I can't get behind

The Kenneth Anger films discussed as part of this project are available for purchase in a collection from Fantoma.

A dark I can't get behindImitation can be a form of flattery or eerily close to the point of origin and cause discomfort in the audience.  In recent years we developed a term for special effects which approach this level of discomfort as the uncanny valley.  But savvy cinematic artists have used different film stocks, shutter speeds, lighting, and acting styles to create this disconnect for as long as cinema has been around.  Much like how motion smoothing on modern TVs creates more information than our brains can comfortably process between frames, early cameras presented audiences with their own version of "cinematic reality" which changed as the years went on.

This is all to say that I'm aware of the craft behind Kenneth Anger's Puce Moment but this realization does not stave my unease watching it.  Cameras had become capable of smoother motion capture at higher resolutions but Anger was more interested in filming a version of "cinematic reality" which hadn't been in theaters for several decades.  I didn't need to listen to Anger's commentary track to find out  he designed Puce Moment as an ode to the silent era as it's widespread in Puce Moment's mise en scène.


Mistress America (2015)

Rolling out the red steps

Tracy's unhappy with her college life.  She can't motivate herself to turn in assignments, is constantly rejected by the school writing society, put down by her dorm mate, and is too late to catch the eye of the one guy she has a connection with.  But when Tracy's mom announces her 2nd marriage Tracy meets her sister-to-be, Brooke, and is reinvigorated by Brooke's whirlwind life.  Noah Baumbach directs Mistress America from a script cowritten by Greta Gerwig and stars Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Heather Lind.

Rolling out the red steps

"If I'm not in my body where am I?"
"Five feet to the left and unhappy."

Mistress America arrives as a pleasant surprise from Noah Baumbach, who already made one great comedy earlier this year with While We're Young.  Instead of hanging his story around people his own age he enlisted the help of frequent writing partner Greta Gerwig to write Mistress America and give it that special edge which comes with Gerwig's recent performances.  Those familiar with Baumbach's work, less so his collaborations with Gerwig, will find Mistress America plumbing the same depths of college malaise which gave his Kicking and Screaming such a subtle bite.

Don’t expect the same level of energy though. While Mistress America traffics in the same kind of dry witty banter Baumbach built his career on the energy is on a whole different level. Mistress America might be most accurately defined as a farce, which is funny coming from the guy who wrote his characters to say they had nostalgia for a conversation going on right now. Most of the energy comes from Gerwig who adds a level of zany comedy where literary references once ruled the day.

Those intellectual call backs still make up a good chunk of Mistress America’s dialogue.  I especially enjoyed how a half-wine drinking / half-pregnant women’s reading crew dedicates their reading to “…Faulkner’s The Hamlet and some junky Derrida biography” (Post-structuralists represent!)  While Baumbach doesn’t quite hit the same acidic tone he struck with The Squid and the Whale he still gets a lot of mileage out of seemingly innocuous lines like, “My mom never worked and my dad was kind of mad at her for that.  That means their divorce was a lot easier than what you’re going through.”