Thursday, September 3, 2015

American Ultra (plus brief comments on Ant-Man)

                                     Exercises in Muscle Memory
                                                  Reviews by Ken Burke
                                    American Ultra (Nima Nourizadeh)
An extremely efficient CIA killer has had his memory wiped, then he's placed in protection as a small-town-convenience-store-worker (and constant stoner by choice) when a new boss at the agency decides he must be eliminated, so most of the rest of what we see is him and his girlfriend either on the run or fighting back against an army of government agents.

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
(I guess the publicists at Lionsgate didn't feel that this 
movie deserved much in the way of pictorial support so
I've used the few images that I could find here and below.)
What Happens: It all begins quite innocently in a Hollywood version of Nowhere Land (in this case, fictional Liman, West Virginia) where pleasantly-laid-back stoner/
convenience-store-worker (with priorities in that order) Mike Howell (Jessie Eisenberg) is deeply in love with girlfriend/bail-bonds-office-worker Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) but has yet to get up the courage to ask her hand in marriage, partly because he inadvertently keeps screwing things up, including their planned trip to Hawaii where one of his frequent panic attacks keeps him from being able to make the flight (later he musters up his nerve again but his focus on the proposal causes him to burn the omelet he’s cooking for her, leaving him frustrated despite her easy forgiveness).  She accepts his faults, though, because of her mutual affection for him (in voiceover narration Mike calls them “the perfect fucked-up couple,” illustrated by the matching eye tattoos on their ankles).  However, he’s really a former CIA “asset,” a specially-trained-vicious-killer from the failed Ultra project, run by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) until it was shut down due to Mike being the only trainee to successfully complete the program, along with the ensuing insanity he was beginning to manifest.  Her snotty-up-and-coming-rival, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), is now running his own Tough Guy project so he wants Mike dead to eliminate all traces of Ultra, leading Victoria to take unauthorized-action to protect Mike (who’s had all aspects of his CIA memory wiped, along with having the panic responses implanted in order to keep him secure in one location; we’ll later learn that Phoebe is actually his assigned handler but has fallen in love with him so that when the assassins come after Mike she helps Victoria to protect him, not only in her understanding of duty—unlike Yates’ interpretation of such—but also because she’s personally invested [I’m sure that being a likewise-active-pot-user didn’t hinder her decisions much either]).  

 Once the hitmen start arriving, though, Mike finds that an innate-self-protection-mode takes over, which allows him to fend off any attackers during the moment of crisis only to be clueless—and greatly disturbed—afterward about how he was able to accomplish such physical, violent feats (and they are bloody so be forewarned that you have to match the intentional humor in this script—which includes the various unbelievable strategies that Mike uses to defend himself—with the constant portrayals of on-screen-death, so if you’re not a fan of graphic-novel-level [but not full-blown-Tarantino-level] bloodletting then whatever other virtues this movie may possess in its unusual premise and explications may not be your best investment of time and ticket-dollars).

 After the first “What-the-hell’s-going-on-here?”-attack during Mike’s night shift, in which he spontaneously kills his 2 would-be-killers, he calls Phoebe for help, which quickly leads to them both being arrested when the cops respond to the chaos at Mike’s store.  Soon, 3 more Tough Guys (including a very aggressive woman) arrive at the jail, but Mike manages to kill 2 of them, leaving the other, the very-creepy Laugher (Walter Goggins) locked in a cell where he manages to survive the police station being blown up by a hand grenade intended for Mike (Yates’ crew isn’t very subtle in how they’re trained to go about their missions).  Soon, Yates is on the way to Liman himself, with a quickly-concocted-story on the local news that Mike and Victoria (who’s come to Mike’s aid) have contracted a dangerous disease from monkeys so he has the whole town on quarantine-lockdown while actually just trying to find Mike (by now Phoebe’s had to reveal herself to Mike who’s disgusted by her ruse, not believing that she truly loves him, just as Victoria has explained Mike’s situation to him that at 18 he [real name, Hal something] was arrested but recruited by her for Ultra training—although my notes say it was the Wise Man program, so maybe I’ve got some planted amnesia in effect also).  Soon enough, Yates catches Phoebe (as well as kills Mike’s drug-dealer-friend, Rose [John Leguizamo], and 2 other would-be-helpers), then orders a drone strike on Mike’s house, cancelled at the last second by Victoria’s assistant, Petey Douglas (Tony Hale), finally overcoming his intense intimidation by Yates.  At this point, Yates unleashes a truckful of Tough Guys on Mike but he simply crashes into the K-Mart-like-store where they’ve gathered, taking them on one-by-one until they’re all defeated or dead, except Laugher whom he allows to escape as he’s merely a mentally-unbalanced-man (now with a lot of missing teeth thanks to Mike) recruited from prison by Yates (one of his questionable Tough Guy strategies).  
 Phoebe manages to escape from Yates, she and Mike are captured by a SWAT team (although he manages to propose before they’re both tasered into unconsciousness), top-CIA-honcho Raymond Krueger (Bill Pullman) arrives to kill Yates and is about to do the same to Victoria (it's not so very comforting to see how our government rectifies their errors) until she convinces him that the Ultra program was actually a success, given how Mike was able to take out all of his Tough Guy adversaries, so we conclude 6 months later with Mike and Phoebe on CIA assignment in Manila where Mike allows himself to be captured by Chinese mobsters then contemplates how he’ll dismantle his captors (which occurs in animated form during the closing credits as he [as a fantasy gorilla agent that Mike drew pictures of back in his amnesia days] and Phoebe provide more parting bloodshed but at least this time it comes out of an ink bottle rather than human arteries).

So What? By now, you know that if your movie plot’s going to focus on a super-killer-secret-agent who’s battling both memory loss and government attempts to contain their “asset” then the story needs to do something to differentiate itself from the Jason Bourne movies (and their already-existent-variations such as [the ultimately-better-than ...Ultra] The Equalizer [Antoine Fuqua; review in our October 1, 2104 posting] where Denzel Washington's character isn’t suffering from amnesia but is just as ruthless about taking out his opponents by any means necessary no matter what seemingly-innocent-objects he has to work with, either in turning these things into weapons or disarming his intended-assailants in order to use their weapons against them, although his were usually a bit more initially-intimidating than Mike’s soup spoon), so why not make our besieged hero into a somewhat-comical-stoner whose well-trained-forays into survival/homicidal-mode can allow laughs to augment gasps of horror as his opponents are put down in a bloody manner that suggests this concept had its origins in the fantasy world of black-and-white-print-violence?  Add in a few over-the-top-actions, such as the marvelous slow-motion-scene of Mike taking out one of his pursuers by throwing an iron skillet into the air, then ricocheting a bull's-eye-bullet off of it, and you’ve got the formula for a constant action ride (efficient at a brisk 96 min.) that’s intended as nothing more than late-summer-diversion, as long as the viewer can stomach the justifiably-R-rated-killings in order to enjoy very effective performances from its lead actors (uniformly praised by critics, especially Stewart as she continues to distance herself from the melodramatic Bella Swan of the Twilight series [2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012] into more substantial roles—Entertainment Weekly’s even got an article to that effect, “Kristen Stewart, Reconsidered” in their September 4, 2015 issue [pp. 46-47 in the print edition or here on the Web, with a different title but same text]).

 Apparently, though, that decision of viewer-reconciliation’s not been happening too much as the domestic grosses stand at only about $10.5 million after 2 weeks in release, quite short of the $28 million budget so far, with critical appraisals of the film as a whole running quite low as well. (Only 48% positive reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, 50% from Metacritic—more details if you wish in the links far below; maybe I should have looked more carefully at this wider coverage before taking the much-more-complimentary-words of my local San Francisco-area-reviewers into account when making a viewing decision last weekend, as I’m now thinking that the highly-regarded-animated-comedy, Shaun the Sheep Movie [Mark Burton, Richard Starzak; 99% on RT, 81% on MC] would have been a better investment, so be careful when you base your viewing choices on a limited number of available opinions, especially mine; after the decided-split among my usual-Friday-night-movie-group last week over The Diary of a Teenage Girl [Marielle Heller; see comments far below], followed by our general lack of discussion following American Ultra—except some bemused looks in my direction—I may have to start buying their tickets unless I can pick a winner this week; I hope to put my money—just for tickets for me and my wife, Nina, not everyone else—on Lily Tomlin in Grandma [Paul Weitz], but we’ll see in my next posting how that works out.)

Bottom Line Final Comments: Although I got tired of the ceaseless violence that seemed to be taken for granted by the American Ultra filmmakers as necessary to get their perspective on soulless-government-agency-tactics across to their audience, I did find a lot of the movie amusing, even creative, in its snide attitude and uses of escape-from-sure-death-strategies employed by Mike (Nina and I just watched Harold and Maude [Hal Ashby, 1971] from Netflix; I’ve got the same sense of wonder on how Harold escaped from most of his self-inflicted- “suicide”-attempts).  Further, there’s a nice use of montages to speed us through actions that will either be revealed to us later (the opening, when Mike’s being interrogated, asked “Where did it all begin?”) or to recap Mike and Phoebe’s 5-year-romance when he’s stunned to learn that she’s really a CIA agent sent to keep him under surveillance.  There’s also a touching “tree/car” metaphor that begins early on, then comes back toward the end, where after the Hawaii-debacle our lovers are stretched out on a car hood at night watching the stars when they suddenly witness another car lose control, then crash into a tree.  Mike worries that he’s the “tree” in their relationship, an impediment that will eventually halt her more-positive-forward-motion, but later, after all truths have been revealed and Phoebe’s been captured, she tells him in a phone-call-verification set up by Yates that she’s really the “tree,” destined to destroy him; however, this just spurs Mike into final-rescue-action, where he becomes an unstoppable force that no “tree” could ever hinder.  Yet, even with the various intriguing plot-twists, this amnesia-infected-1-man-army-concept is wearing a bit thin (by chance I’m also reading a novel now—Ken Follett’s Code to Zero [2000]—where the hero wakes up with no memories, is being tracked by the CIA, and seems to be a dangerous man on the loose but apparently is actually a rocket scientist involved with the launch of our first satellite, Explorer I, in 1958; that’s all I know so far and all I’ll say in case any of you would like to read the book), which, along with the opening scene that verifies our harried (no, not “hairy”; this isn’t a werewolf movie) protagonist has survived his myriad trials, results in a challenging-burden to the production team to “keep me constantly entertained” because there’s nothing really significant going on here.  That they do in a way, but with the constant attack-and-repulse-plot-strategies I find I’m too much back in the mode of Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller; review in our May 20, 2015 posting) where such repetition gets tiresome, even when relieved successfully upon occasion.

 Therefore, in hopes of these comments not becoming tedious for you, I’ll wrap up with my standard review-concluding-Musical Metaphor, this time in honor of American Ultra, where I think that the long-known “déjà vu”-ish song, “Where or When” would be appropriate.  It was originally used in the Rogers and Hart 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms (drastically remade by MGM—but retaining this song—as a 1939 movie [Busby Berkeley] starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland [the original, “Come on kids, let’s put on a show!” vehicle; this Classic Studio Era movie also contributed the songs “Good Morning,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” and “Broadway Rhythm” to the even-more-famous Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen; 1952) reuse of previous MGM/Arthur Freed-Nacho Herb Brown hit tunes, although “… Lucky Star” and “Broadway …” were themselves recycled from Broadway Melody of 1936 (Roy Del Ruth, 1935)]).  However, at https:// I’ll offer a version by Dion and the Belmonts (from Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show of February 27, 1960) in that their recording may have risen to the highest level (#3) on the famous Billboard Hot 100 chart (in January, 1960), although there are many other options on YouTube that you could choose from if you prefer renditions by Peggy Lee, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs, Ella Fitzgerald, The Lettermen, Dean Martin (5 versions from different years), Lena Horne, Harry Connick Jr., and Frank Sinatra, along with another one from Sinatra  that’s an all-star-version with quick input from Loretta Lynn, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Martin, Leslie Uggams, John Denver, and Robert Merrill (trust me, I'm not trying to get you to create your own version of TV's The Gong Show [NBC, 1976-1978] where on one notorious episode every contestant sang "Feelings" [I'm not about to give you a link to that tune; you're welcome], leaving the show's judges on the verge of revolt), but if you really want to sample an alternative to Dion and his “Bronx Boys” then we should track back to Mickey and Judy from their movie (although most of the singing there is done by Douglas McPhail and Betty Jaynes, with just a bit from Ms. Garland).
Short(ish) Takes
                                                Ant-Man (Peyton Reed)
The latest big-screen Marvel superhero is impactful only when he’s very small (thanks to his science-fantasy uniform), but he packs a wallop in those tiny fists; there’s a lot of well-scripted humor in this tale of an insect-size-warrior working with a scientist and his daughter to prevent the warped villain from selling an army of such threats to the enemies of decency.
 When something’s already been out for 7 weeks I doubt there’s much more I can say about it that you don’t already know so there’s probably not much need here for concerns about Spoiler Alerts; still, if it’s taken you as long to consider watching it as it did me (it was released when Nina and I were still on our trip to Alaska, then there just continued to be other options that I wanted to explore first), you might still be mulling over a visit to the theater, so keep my plot revelations in mind before reading any further.  One reason why I finally got to Ant-Man (besides Nina’s ongoing-interest in what she considered to be its absurd premise, which did pay off for her because she was laughing at it constantly—in a good way, as there’s a lot of intentional humor, especially deadpan-ironic-remarks delivered by Paul Rudd as the titular hero, allowing this Marvel Universe episode to take on more of the ham-on-wry-attitude of Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn; review in our August 7, 2014 posting] than the more doomsday-must-be-averted-stories of the Avengers, either collectively or in their separate crises) is to see what all the fuss has been about, given the generally-positive-scores from Rotten Tomatoes (79%) and Metacritic (64%), along with a healthy-box-office-response at present of $169.2 million domestically contributing to a $365.8 million worldwide total.
This is especially intriguing, given the wacky premise that a normal-size-man puts on a special costume that—through the magic of Pym particles (discovered by scientist Hank Pym [Michael Douglas, having a blast trying to be serious about all of this silliness]), which reduce the space between atoms—allows him to shrink to insect-size, while retaining the relative strength of his normal human proportions so that even in much-less-than-1-inch-mode he can zip around like a flea while delivering a knockout-punch. As we find out through the course of this movie, Pym was clandestinely working for the government as Ant-Man for years, but way back in 1989 hid his invention away from fellow-S.H.I.E.L.D. agents trying to copy his discovery, then left the group.  Also, along the way he lost the respect of his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly)—she took Mom’s surname—because of the mysterious death of her mother, Janet (Hayley Lovitt; Dad wouldn’t tell her that Mom, functioning as his helper, the Wasp, in a shrinking-suit of her own, became lost forever in the quantum level of existence while going too-small-to-crawl on their dangerous mission to disarm a Soviet missile).  As the deciding vote at Pym Industries’ Board she ousted her father as head of his own company, allowing devious protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) to take over years ago, even though Hope remains (I could have said “hopelessly” here, but the jokes in this movie aren’t quite that silly—most of the time, at least) conflicted about it, although both share a sense of the loss of father-figure-love from Hank that motivates some of their actions.

 Enter burglar-extraordinaire Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, effectively hilarious)—just released from 3 years in San Quentin, trying unsuccessfully to get back into the San Francisco work force as well as the good graces of ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) in order to spend more time with adoring daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), while being discouraged from such by soon-to-be-stepdad/already-hard-nosed-cop Paxton (Bobby Cannavale)—who’s secretly tricked by Pym (shown through a marvelous montage of carefully-planned shared “secrets” that work their way back to Scott) into stealing the Ant-Man suit to see if he’s a viable candidate to use it for breaking into Pym HQ in order to steal Cross’ similar-Yellowjacket technology before he perfects it for military use, then sells it to terrorist agents of Hydra, including Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan).  Through the usual series of last-second-victories Scott manages to get into Pym’s offices (much like Tom Cruise’s frantic underwater episode in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation [Christopher McQuarrie; review in our August 6, 2015 posting]), along with his buddy Luis (Michael Peña) and a hoard of various types of ants (controlled by Scott with a telepathic device of Hank’s), where they set bombs and almost get the Yellowjacket suit but are temporarily foiled by crafty Cross.  Several explosions, battles in Cross’s helicopter, and bad-looking-wounds to Pym (banged up even worse than Mike in American Ultra) later, the final confrontation has Cross in the dapper-but-dangerously-sophisticated Yellowjacket battlesuit (complete with lasers, while Scott has only disc devices to throw that either enlarge or shrink what they hit) using Cassie as a hostage, which forces Ant-Man to go subatomic, with all the entailed risks, to penetrate Cross’ suit, then send it into infinite shrinkage which kills
 Cross but also leaves Scott on the verge of eternal disappearance until he concocts a rescue maneuver (in addition to being agile he’s also about as spontaneously-clever as TV’s fabled MacGyver).  Afterwards, Paxton forgives Lang’s various parole violations, Ant-Man strikes up a romance with Hope (who was secretly working with Dad against Cross anyway but initially resented Scott as the shrinking-warrior because she wanted to do that herself; still, she agrees to train Scott who goes through a lot of funny trials as he finally takes better command of his new identity, allowing his actions to become more automatic rather than labored) who’s given her own new-and-improved Wasp costume by Dad, and Captain America’s buddy, Falcon (Anthony Mackie)—who lost a battle with Scott earlier as he needed to steal a crucial bit of technology from an Avengers’ site to finalize the Pym break-in—tells Cap (Chris Evans) of this potential new ally.  Ant-Man is certainly no more than its official site and trailer make it out to be, a very entertaining introduction to more aspects of the Disney-financial-windfall known as the Marvel Universe, but as such it’s got a lot of well-conceived-humor (including the other 2 of Scott’s crew, Dave [Tip “T.I.” Harris] and Russian Elvis fan Kurt [David Dastmalchian], along with Luis whistling the “It’s a Small World” theme-park-ride’s song during the Pym break-in), fast-flying-choreography in its action, and is well-populated with actors determined that we’re going to have as much fun as they did while on the sets.  Finally, following that just-noted musical reference I’ll offer a Musical Metaphor for Ant-Man with “I’m Looking through You” (from the 1965 Rubber Soul album) at Kif8g (supported by a lot of random Beatle footage but it’s more interesting than other videos that also use the recorded song but just show the album cover), in that when Scott’s in superhero mode he can hardly be seen, plus until he proves himself worthy by the end of the story he’s looked down upon by many of the other characters (“The only difference is you’re down there I’m looking through you, and you’re nowhere"), except for his crime-buddies and his delightful-daughter.  OK, like the Metaphor with American Ultra it’s a bit silly but then so is the movie, so it’s all good, right?

(This is the earliest Ant-Man
comics cover that I could find)
 (Now, here’s some itsy-bitsy-superhero-background for you.  Ant-Man’s first appearance in Marvel Comics was as Hank Pym in Tales to Astonish #27 [January 1962]; along with his girlfriend, Janet van Dyne, as Wasp, they were founding members of the Avengers.  Later, Scott Lang replaced him, with a narrative somewhat similar to the current movie [although others have since used the uniform and the name in various variations of that print universe].  However, a similar DC Comics character called the Atom earlier appeared in Showcase #34 [October 1961]—although there was a 1940s version in Quality Comics called Doll Man, who could shrink only to a size of 6 inches; DC later acquired him and apparently maintains his adventures in some of their titles.  Atom is actually physicist/professor Ray Palmer, who achieves his shrinkage by means of white dwarf star matter that fell to earth, then was discovered by Palmer who refined it into the controls on the costume, which operates like Ant-Man’s.  Also similar to Ant-Man, the Atom joined DC’s prime group of superheroes, the Justice League of America [whose appearance on screen finally arrives with a JLA 2-parter planned for release in 2017, 2019, preceded by the major step of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)—which will also introduce us to Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg—due in 2016].  Further trivia: there was a short-lived-crossover-comics-series in 2003-2004 jointly published by DC and Marvel, with the 2 odd-numbered-issues as JLA/Avengers and the 2 even-numbers as Avengers/JLA, where both of our Mighty Mites could have appeared but I can’t definitely confirm that either of them did.)

 One more follow-up-to-previous-commentary to pass along to you concerns my review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl in  our last posting, in which I had a distinct difference of opinion from one my regular-screening-buddies, Michaele O’Leary-Reiff (you can read her extensive comments, along with mine in the above link); our widely-separated-takes on that film got me to wondering whether gender differences (given that relative age and placement on the political spectrum are similar between us) might have anything to do with our reactions (although my wife, Nina—also of similar age and ideological stances—joined me in liking what she saw on screen quite a bit, making the gender angle a murky hypothesis) so just for curiosity I took a closer look at the male and female reviewers included in the Rotten Tomatoes (93% positive overall) and Metacritic (87% positive) sites for this film.  What I found is that at RT of the 97 “fresh” ratings there were 67 men and 30 women, while the 7 “rotten” ratings all came from men.  In the Metacritic realm there were 34 surveyed reviews, with 33 positive and 1 mixed but all 15 women liked it while 18 men did, along with 1 guy who gave the mixed response.  Just from this statistical standpoint we can draw 2 small-scope-conclusions: (1) female reviewers from these 2 often-cited-sites were unanimously supportive of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and (2) either there need to be more female film reviewers overall in our media-crazed-culture or Rotten Tomatoes needs to include more of the ones who’re already writing/broadcasting when compiling the tallies of their scores—maybe if Minnie Goetze (from the film in question) doesn’t make quite enough to support herself writing/drawing graphic novels (possibly she could do one about the CIA's American Ultra agents) she might try an additional career as a film critic; you sure wouldn’t have to worry about mixed opinions from her.
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Here’s more information about American Ultra: (5:57 interview with director Nima Nourizadeh, producer Anthony Bregman, actors Walter Goggins, John Leguizamo, Tony Hale, along with some behind-the-scenes-production-footage [audio a bit low])

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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