American Bipolar

American Ultra wants to be Jason Bourne riding the Pineapple Express – an action/adventure stoner comedy. You don’t usually think of high powered weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and a high body count when you think “slackers.” The weird thing is American Ultra comes pretty close to making it work.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner living in a backwater West Virginia town. He’s been hassled by the police so much that they have a first-name, semi-friendly relationship, so it’s helpful that his girlfriend Phoebe Larsen (Kristen Stewart) works for a bail bond company. Mike has a raging case of agoraphobia that hits him if he ever leaves town. A planned trip to Hawaii so he can propose to Phoebe ends with him physically sick in the airport bathroom. Instead they return to town where Mike manages a mini-market and draws comic books starring a gorilla.

At CIA Headquarters in Langley, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), an agent who’d been in charge of a top-secret project to turn losers into lethal operatives, receives a coded call. A former agent in the project has been determined to be a security threat and is scheduled for termination – Mike Howell, whose memories have been suppressed. Rather than leave him a sitting duck for a former underling (Topher Grace) who now outranks her, Victoria heads to West Virginia to activate Mike’s memories to give him a fighting chance.

Ultra boasts an exceptional cast. In addition to those mentioned above, you have Walton Goggins (“Justified”) as a semi-psycho hitman named Laugher, John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug supplier, and Bill Pullman as a shadowy person in the CIA hierarchy. The screenplay was written by Max Landis, the son of John (The Blues Brothers, Animal House), so outlandish comedy may be a genetic trait. Max has established his own bona fides with the exceptional Chronicle in 2012. The plot is familiar, since aspects were taken from the Bourne series and Pineapple Express, though it is executed with energy.

Director Nima Nourizadeh has done one other feature, the found-footage wild party Project X from 3 years ago. The scenes he’s shot are set against rust belt bleakness, but he doesn’t give you a sense of the town. It’s like there’s no one else there except for those directly involved in the plot, so the mayhem seems unattached to reality. On the other hand, he works well with his cast. You do believe Eisenberg could be a secret agent

The major surprise of the film is in Kristen Stewart’s performance. She was lampooned for having almost no range of expression in the Twilight series – and rightfully so. However, starting with The Runaways and building with Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria, along with American Ultra, she’s developing into an effective actress. Sometimes early success is the high-water mark for a young actor, and it sadly goes downhill from there both on and off the screen, such as with Lindsay Lohan.  It’s rarer for one to have great success at first and then develop into a good actress and build a career. It looks like Stewart is accomplishing that.

If you don’t have high expectations for American Ultra, it manages to pull off its bipolar nature, at least for its 95 minute running time. It didn’t cost much to make – a lean 12 million – so it should recoup its cost plus extra. It would count as a modern B picture that’s not a first string entertainment but does have its pleasures.

Turnabout is Fair Play – and a Great Movie

It’s interesting when someone becomes an overnight sensation, because they’ve usually paid their dues with years of toil. The overnight is of the North-Pole-in-winter variety. When they finally have their breakthrough, we get to savor their genius. In the case of a comedian, we get to laugh our heads off. Amy Schumer is having one of those breakout seasons that started with her show on Comedy Central and a couple of filmed concerts, and now has jumped to feature films with Trainwreck.

The first film for a hot comedian can often be an embarrassment. The hall of shame includes Ellen DeGeneres (Mr. Wrong), Billy Crystal (Rabbit Test) and Robin Williams (Popeye). On the other hand, Eddie Murphy struck gold with 48 Hours, though his career over the past decade or two has with few exceptions been cringe-worthy. However, none of the above wrote their first major movie. That’s not the case with Schumer, who has the sole screenwriter credit for Trainwreck. She matches her sharp wit with a deep understanding of character that makes the movie much more than a bunch of one-liners strung together. Trainwreck tickles your funny bone, but at the same time it sneaks up and pulls your heart strings.

You could look at the movie as Schumer telling Hollywood that turnabout is fair play. The romantic cad has been a staple of films going back to Tom Jones and Alfie in the 1960s and beyond. In Trainwreck, Schumer plays Amy, a magazine writer for a trendy New York publication. While she has her steady boyfriend Steven (John Cena), when she’s not with him she picks up guys for drunken sex but never stays the night or calls them again. The movie begins with the adolescent Amy and her sister getting a talk from their father Gordon (Colin Quinn) on why monogamy isn’t natural. It’s a stunning mix of bizarre logic and self-justification that’s funny even as you know it will completely screw up the child’s life, as it does with Amy. But then she’s assigned to profile Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor who’s pioneered surgery to save athletes’ careers. She seduces him, but he doesn’t play by her rules, and she finds herself experiencing a very scary new feeling – love.

In some ways a romantic comedy, even an R-rated one, is as constrained an art form as Kabuki Theater. You know pretty much from the time you settle in your seat where the story is going. What separates movies in this genre is not where they take you but how they get you there. Schumer excels in that with surprising comedy sequences that go in ways you don’t expect. Schumer is completely fearless in the role – especially so since she wrote it herself. She’s ably assisted by Hader who’s both human and humane as Dr. Conners, but who can also handle Schumer’s tossed off, did-they-really-say-that humor.

She’s also in the best of hands with Judd Apatow directing. He’s shaped comedy movies in the past decade with his writing, producing, and directing of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up along with individual writing and producing projects. This is the first time he’s directing a feature film that he didn’t write, but he works beautifully with Schumer and captures the nuance of her comedy perfectly. Hopefully they will collaborate more in the future.

A stand-out aspect of the film is the supporting characters. Much has been made of LeBron James playing a wicked parody of himself as Dr. Conners’ best friend, and rightfully so. He pretty much steals his scenes. However, there are other delights as well. You have Tilda Swinton almost unrecognizable as Amy’s hard-driving boss, while John Cena completely lampoons his wrestling persona. Colin Quinn’s performance as Amy’s father is enough to even give the audience daddy issues just by watching it. For movie lovers, there’s Norman Lloyd as Gordon’s nursing home friend, still sharp even at 99 years of age. There’s also a number of celebrity cameos; one of the funniest is by Marv Albert doing play by play for an intervention. A beautiful counterpoint performance is given by Brie Larson as Amy’s younger sister Kim, who’s pretty much chosen the opposite path through life but who still loves her sister.

Trainwreck should cross the $100 million mark at the box office this week, a milestone for an R comedy, and its showing good legs for a longer run into September. It’s definitely not a family-friendly comedy, but it is a funny, well-written and well-acted movie that’s satisfying to watch. In this case turnabout isn’t just fair play, it’s well played.

Don’t Cry UNCLE

The original series “The Man From UNCLE” was supposed to be TV’s answer to James Bond. It did boast some formidable guest stars, including Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Steve McQueen, Yvonne de Carlo, and John Carradine, and featured scripts by writers like Robert Towne and Harlan Ellison. As it went on, though, it slipped more and more into a parody of the genre, with campy villains and over-the-top stories. However, it was in competition with “Batman” and there was no way it could out-camp the caped crusader, so it vanished from the airwaves.

Now it has become another early TV show remade for the big screen, always a risky proposition. For every The Fugitive or Get Smart, you have several  Dark Shadows, Lost in Space, or Starsky and Hutch level movies. It’s hit-or-miss, with a lot more misses than hits. Fortunately for The Man From UNCLE, Guy Ritchie was both in the director’s chair and collaborated on the script (with Lionel Wigram, who also produced with Ritchie, working from a story by Jeff Kleeman and David C. Wilson). Ritchie knows how to blend humor and adventure, as he proved with Snatch and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes. The story is set in the early 1960s, when the Cold War almost went hot, and Ritchie mines the history and the visuals of that time beautifully.

The characters of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin are fleshed out a bit more than they ever were in the series. Solo (Henry Cavill) isn’t just a secret agent but also a thief who’s working for the CIA rather than sitting in jail – which basically makes this a remake of “It Takes a Thief” as well. In contrast Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a straight-laced and lethally strong KGB agent al a Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love, but played for comedy rather than menace.

In the opening sequence, the two are antagonists as Solo seeks to extricate a young female car mechanic named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin. Gaby’s important because her father, a nuclear physicist, has gone missing, and the CIA wants her help to find him. Solo manages the extraction with a great deal of daring do mixed with suavity, leaving Kuryakin embarrassed and itching for revenge. The next morning Solo and his boss have a meeting at a West Berlin café – with Kuryakin and his handler. The two spy agencies have decided to work together to stop an independent group led by the Italian heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) from getting their hands on an A-Bomb. After a rough introduction, Solo, Kuryankin, and Gaby head for Italy.

Cavill handles the role of the charming rogue/ruthless spy with aplomb, and can throw away a line with the best of them. Hammer must be thankful for a role that will make moviegoers forget about The Lone Ranger, and he’s a great foil for Cavill while still excelling at the physical demands of the role. Vikander and Debicki both look like they stepped out of an early 1960’s movie directed by Fellini or De Sica, though they’re both better actresses than models from that era. Vikander has passion and fire, while Debicki plays an ice queen on the surface though hot-blooded beneath.

There are as many wise cracks being shot off during the film as there are bullets, but it never slips into parody like the original series. The edge of danger keeps the plot and the quips under control. Special kudos must go to production designer Oliver Scholl and costume designer Joanna Johnston. They perfectly present the early 1960’s world with the sets and costumes.

While it doesn’t transcend its roots as The Fugitive did, The Man from UNCLE does improve on the original rather than just packaging it as nostalgia. It also works as a decent spy adventure, and there are enough twists and turns to make it a fun ride that’s worth the trip.

Not So Fantastic

Most people who grew up on superhero comic books (back when they were comic books rather than graphic novels) have a particular series that was their favorite – SpiderMan, Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, etc. For me it was the Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, his girlfriend and later wife Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and test pilot and Reed’s oldest friend Ben Grimm, who get exposed to cosmic radiation on a space mission and become, respectively, Mr. Fantastic who can stretch, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing (indestructible with super strength). They were the first superhero series written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the start of the Marvel Universe.

The series also had Victor von Doom, a genius inventor as well as Romani sorcerer who was disfigured in an experiment and became the masked and hooded supervillain Doctor Doom. He blamed Reed for his disfigurement, thereby setting up the classic struggle of good and evil, and perhaps preparing the way in the 1960s for Obi-wan and Lord Vader in the 1970s. The series also introduced other facets of the Marvel Universe including the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans who are now being featured on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.”

While the rest of Marvel’s heroes have had movie success, that hasn’t happened with the Fantastic Four. There was an el cheapo version made in 1994 with a cast of unknowns; Stan Lee later said it was never meant to be released and was shot only to retain the movie rights for the series. The 2005 version with its 2007 sequel were light-weight when compared to the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman movies or the beginning of the Marvel movie renaissance, 2008’s Iron Man. I hoped that that would be corrected in the new Fantastic 4, released this weekend.

It had potential. The director Josh Trank made one of the best and most original superhero movies, 2012’s Chronicle, and he was once again working with actor Michael B. Jordan, who’d followed up Chronicle with a stunning performance in Fruitvale Station. Trank also wrote the script along with Simon Kinberg (2009’s Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and newcomer Jeremy Slater. The early trailers featured a darker look to the story that was missing from the earlier movies.

The first part of the film is decent, even if it makes major changes to the backstory and progresses at a leisurely pace. The earliest sign of weakness, though, is in the casting. While Jamie Bell is an excellent actor, having him play Ben Grimm is like having Tom Cruise play 6’6” Jack Reacher. In the comic book Grimm is a football hero with strength to spare. In fact, the genius of the Fantastic Four was that the cosmic rays gave superpowers that highlighted the character archetypes: the scientist is flexible, his love interest becomes invisible, the young brother is a hothead, while the jock becomes raw strength. With Jamie Bell in the role and with the changes, Grimm is diminished from part of the team to a good luck charm for Richards.

Jordan and Kate Mara, who plays Sue Storm, are decent in their roles but are underutilized. Most of Mara’s time on screen is spent staring at a computer screen. The biggest weakness is with Miles Teller as Richards and Toby Kebbell as von Doom. Teller is an incredible, intense actor as he proved with Whiplash, but he can’t breathe excitement into the underwritten role, while Kebbell comes across as a 2nd tier Euro-trash musician.

Once the trip to the other dimension is made, the rest of the film feels truncated, as if the main plot development got left on the cutting room floor. That may be true, since scenes featured in the trailer are not in the film. Trank tweeted that the version he made was recut by 20th Century Fox executives. The film comes in at a brief 100 minutes. Ant-Man, in comparison, is almost twenty minutes longer. There’s also no cameo by Stan Lee, who showed up in Ant-Man and even made an appearance in Big Hero 6. Worse for fans of the interconnected Marvel Universe, there are no tags at the end.

With a 4.1/10 rating on IMDb and a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, people will stay away from this movie in droves, and that’s as it should be. It is a major disappointment. IMDb notes that a sequel has been announced, but that’s highly unlikely now. Maybe in 10 more years a filmmaker will finally give the Fantastic Four their due with a good movie that captures the feeling of the comic books. I’ll keep on hoping.

Going Rogue

The Mission: Impossible film franchise is fascinating for a couple of reasons. It’s the only multi-episode series that has had a different director for each film, so each episode has had a different style. Brian De Palma’s original was a straightforward “bigger = better” version of the original series while John Woo brought the ying-yang dichotomy of Hong Kong cinema to the table – the hero and villain were opposite sides of the same coin, as in the classic Infernal Affairs, the basis for Scorsese’s The Departed. (Woo also brought his trademark kung fu and gunplay.) With J.J. Abrams the story became more personal with hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting both for his country and the love of his life, while Brad Bird reminded the viewer that it was always the I:M team – not just one main character – who saved the day. Bird also infused the story with surprising humor as well as stunts that took your breath away. The other reason the franchise is fascinating is it gets better each time.

Now we have Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, this time with Christopher McQuarrie in the driver’s seat as director and screenwriter, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3). McQuarrie wrote the classic screenplay for The Usual Suspects. His follow-up screenplays were less well received, though he established a relationship with Cruise by doing Valkyrie and Jack Reacher before they both had success with last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. For Rogue Nation, McQuarrie uses the template of James Bond, with a globetrotting story that has stops in Russia, Austria, Morocco, and London. He also exceeds the stunt work of Ghost Protocol and that’s not an easy thing to do.

The movie begins with the transport plane sequence featured in much of the publicity for the movie, with Ethan Hunt hanging off of the side of a plane in flight while trying to get inside with the help of computer geeks Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). (The sequence was done old school, with Cruise actually doing the stunt.) At the same time, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is trying to save the IMF from a play by the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), to roll the force into the Agency.

Ethan is convinced a force of former intelligence officers that he calls the Syndicate is operating in secret to destabilize the world. When he goes into a record store to receive one of the classic self-destruct mission briefings he finds himself trapped by the head of the Syndicate (Sean Harris) and then brutally interrogated. He manages to escape with the help of a female Syndicate member, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Branded a rogue agent himself by Hunley, Ethan has to track down and expose the Syndicate.

McQuarrie keeps the story from going too far over the top and fills it with plenty of twists and turns, most of which pivot on the Faust character. Rebecca Ferguson is a Swedish actress with an English mother who had impressed McQuarrie with her work as Elizabeth on the miniseries “The White Queen.” She performs an incredible balancing act as Faust so that the audience is never sure which side she’s on throughout the movie.

Pegg and Renner are now firmly established as part of the IMF, and after only a cameo appearance in Ghost Protocol Ving Rhames is back as a full part of the team. Even though the movie slips back into centering on Cruise’s character, it does overall keep the importance of the team working together to stop the Rogue Nation.

The stunt work is exceptional, in particular a chase sequence through Marrakesh with cars and motorcycles as well as the opening sequence. It’s the literate script, intricately plotted, and that lifts this film beyond a simple string of action sequences and makes it one of the more satisfying thrillers to come along this year.

Driving to Adulthood

John Green is in a position similar to Gillian Flynn where an effective movie based on an incredible bestseller has fueled Hollywood production of other books in their oeuvre. With Flynn, the Gone Girl author has an adaptation of Dark Places, starring Charlize Theron, coming out later this year. For Green, the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars has now been joined by Paper Towns.

Quentin (Nat Wolff, who played Isaac in Stars) has been semi-obsessed with Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) ever since her family moved in across the street from him when they were both elementary school age. They’d bonded then, but as Margo developed into a wild free spirit the relationship between them cooled until she doesn’t acknowledge him at all when they pass in the high school halls. Instead Quentin has a deep friendship with Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) that has lasted through most of their school years. Radar has a girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair), while Ben is desperate for a prom date.

Then Margo appears at Quentin’s window one night, just as she use to when they were kids, and invites him on an odyssey of epic revenge after her boyfriend cheats on her. Nate throws caution to the wind and assists Margo, and the adventure makes him feel more alive than he has for years. But after that night Margo disappears. Quentin, like many in the school, wonders what’s become of Margo. One of her friends, Lacey (Halston Sage), is devastated that Margo disappeared while thinking she’d betrayed her. Then Quentin notices that Margo, who’s always loved mysteries, has left a clue to where she’s gone.

The movie has a much different feel to it than Stars, though it was adapted for the screen by the same team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who did the first movie. Green was also available on the set during the production, as he was for Stars. The story covers a much larger time frame and doesn’t have the life-and-death imperative. Instead it’s more of the classic coming-of-age story, though with Green’s sharply drawn characters and surprising twists it breathes refreshing life into the genre.

Sophomore director Jake Schreier takes a straightforward approach that at times drags a little, though he works well with his cast and he has an interesting visual style. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg follows his fine work earlier this year on Age of Adeline with richly lit scenes that give the feeling of shadows on regular film while working with the clarity of digital photography.

Nat Wolff is excellent as Quentin, the lynchpin role that holds the movie together. It’s not as showy as Isaac’s struggles with losing his eyes to cancer in Stars, which makes the embodiment harder since it must be more nuanced. With Margo, you needed an actress who makes such an impression that even though she’s off screen for much of the picture, she’s still a major character at all times. Cara Delevingne provides that presence and more. It appears she will follow the path of Charlize Theron and others, models who step off the runway and step into an even bigger career as actresses.

The title Paper Towns refers to a way cartographers prevent plagiarism of their work. Green expands it in the story to a metaphor of how much around us that seems permanent is actually as flimsy as paper, and that our challenge as we approach adulthood is to find what is strong and lasting. In the satisfying end Quentin finds it, though not in the way he (or the audience) expects. It’s a worthwhile reminder even when you came of age decades ago.

Big Laughs, Big Thrills

I never was a fan of Ant-Man when I was a kid. My earliest favorite comic book was The Fantastic Four – I started reading them with the first issue – and I enjoyed Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the others from the 1960s. But the idea of a miniscule superhero wasn’t big enough to capture my interest, so I ignored him. Thus I was a skeptic about how it would play as a movie. After seeing Ant-Man at an early showing last night, I’m happy to report the film is one of the best movies to come from the Marvel Universe.

There were other reasons for concern. The original story and screenplay was written by Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), with Wright scheduled to direct. For geeks, that was a dream pairing. However, the head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, wasn’t pleased with the script and had revisions made without Wright’s input. When he saw the changes, Wright walked away. Instead Marvel brought in Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) to polish the script along with star Paul Rudd, and gave the movie to Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love) to direct. Such conflict can often sink a movie, but instead it seems the best parts were kept in the script, and the movie even made its original release date.

The movie begins with a preface from the 1980s. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, meets with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) to resign from SHIELD when he discovers Carson is trying to fabricate the formula Pym uses to miniaturize. (Note: There is gaff in the scene: look for the disappearing blood.)

Fast forward to the present day. Pym has been ousted from his own company in a boardroom revolt led by his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly from “Lost”). He’s invited back to witness Cross’s announcement that they will soon perfect a new version of Pym’s formula, allowing for the creation of an army in high-powered suits that would be unstoppable by conventional forces.

At the same time Scott Lang (Rudd) is being released from San Quentin. The mechanical engineer had turned into a Robin Hood burglar to take back the money a corrupt businessman had stolen, but instead of thanks he’s sent to prison. When he gets out he tries to go straight for the sake of his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). It’s tough, since no one will hire an ex-con, and to add insult to injury his former wife (Judy Greer) is engaged to a cop (Bobby Cannavale).  Eventually Lang goes along with three other ex-cons (Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, and rapper T.I.) to break into a house. It leads to one of the wildest job interviews ever.

Ant-Man balances off-kilter comedy with its thrills and manages to succeed on both levels, not an easy thing to do. While all the Marvel movies have an element of humor, the laughs are secondary to the action. In Ant-Man, it’s beautifully blended so that you’re rolling with laughter even as you’re breathing fast from the thrills. Rudd is the perfect actor for this role, handling the performance with tongue-in-cheek intelligence. Michael Douglas is in excellent form as well, capturing some of the cocky attitude from Romancing the Stone along with a droll humor. The writers gave him and Evangeline Lilly a complex relationship that, like flint and stone. keeps sparks flying, though they manage to pay it off in a way that makes it understandable.

While it isn’t Wright directing, Peyton Reed’s work captures Wright’s spirit and supports the script beautifully. I would have liked to have seen what Wright would have done if left on his own, but I have no complaints about the final product.

While Avengers and dinosaurs have been the big items this summer movie season, it’s worth it to aim small and see Ant-Man. The filmmakers have crammed a lot of delights into a tiny package. Also make sure you stay to the very end as there are two tags, one after the initial credits, and another at the very end. The one at the end is a lead up to probably the most anticipated movie of 2016