Saturday, January 9, 2016

Movie Reviews: American Ultra, The Gift

American Ultra
directed by Nima Nourizadeh
This is a fairly predictable action-comedy movie made more so by the fact that the film's main twist is revealed in the first ten minutes. The other twist, which I won't mention here is also not exactly hard to figure out. So your enjoyment of this film will depend on how engaged or amused you are by the conceit that small town convenience store clerk, artist, slacker, stoner and nebbish Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who has the musculature of a wet noodle and all the intense machismo of a neutered chihuahua, is in fact an extremely dangerous CIA killer. The hook is that Mike doesn't know any of this at first. All Mike wants to do with his life is get stoned and make love to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Phoebe is very patient dealing with all of Mike's fears, paranoia and quirks. Even so, there are a few times when she wishes that Mike would evince more typically masculine behavior patterns. But Mike is who he is. And Mike loves Phoebe. Mike also loves drugs, which are provided with a side of urban attitude and paranoia by the friendly hyperactive local drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo). So life is pretty good for old Mike. This all changes when CIA agent Victoria Lassiter (Connie Britton) learns that her sexist energetic younger rival and boss, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to take all the credit for his successful version of an Agency hitman program known as Tough Guy. Like most bosses Yates wants to scrub from existence all similar previous programs which he didn't oversee. In this case that means getting rid of the unsuccessful Ultra program overseen by Lassiter. And there's just one survivor from the Ultra program, Mike. So as far as Yates is concerned it's goodbye Mike. Yates is moving up the CIA ladder. He has no time for failed projects. Yates has all the restraint of an irritated rattlesnake and is about as venomous. Get in his way and he will make you regret it.

As Lassiter and Yates truly despise each other, Lassiter decides to throw a monkey wrench into Yates' plans by reactivating Mike. This will give Mike a chance to live and give Lassiter time to publicly expose Yates' wrongdoing. But Mike doesn't realize what happened. He has no memory of his past and doesn't understand why he's suddenly able to do remarkable things. And he's scared. Of course when people are shooting at you, you don't really have time for deep introspection. So this kicks off a series of setpieces in which Mike is horrified, surprised and intrigued to discover all manner of previously hidden talents. Both Lassiter and Yates try to take each other out, bureaucratically and legally if possible, violently otherwise. And in the down time when he's not being shot at, beaten, arrested or stabbed Mike tries to figure out who else in his life has been lying to him. This was an okay film but nothing special. Leguizamo's character irritated me, You'll see the twists and ending coming a mile away. The special effects are decent. Walter Goggins, Lavell Crawford (Huell from Breaking Bad) and Bill Pullman have roles. American Ultra does not contain anything near the ultraviolence of a Tarantino film. But it is bloody. However, with a few exceptions, I didn't think that the film's violence and comedy mixed that well. I've seen worse but I've also seen better. If you can just turn off your higher thinking capabilities for a while, the movie is entertaining enough.
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The Gift
directed by Joel Edgerton
Unless you happen to have a really interesting and furiously energetic private life, two is company but three's a crowd right? Aretha Franklin sang "I don't want nobody always sitting around me and my man." BB King sang "I don't want a soul hanging around my house when I'm not at home." Those emotions are often shared to a greater or lesser extent by most people in pair-bonded relationships. They do things together which aren't done with other people. Exclusivity is key to monogamy, especially when it comes to sex, time and emotions. Well what happens if someone else tries to attach themselves to that dyad? Usually it's nothing good. The Gift is a very well written, acted and directed psychological thriller that uses some classic film techniques to misdirect the viewer as to what's going on in the story. It also does this without reliance on violence or nudity, which is somewhat rare these days.  We open with a married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall) who have just moved from the Chicago suburbs to the Los Angeles area. This is where Simon grew up and went to high school though he hasn't been back for decades. The Callums are well paid yuppies. Simon is a technology security sales executive who is on the verge of a promotion to a national position. Robyn is an interior designer who's going to try her hand at working from home part-time/online as she recently had a miscarriage. Simon is supportive of her in every way but still feels that he's primarily responsible for earning their keep. The two are very much in love. When they're at a high end store picking up some items for their new gorgeous home they have a chance meeting with an old high school classmate of Simon's, Gordon "Gordo" Moseley (Edgerton). Now from the very first you can tell that there's something a little off about Gordo. But you can't quite put your finger on it. 


Anyway Gordo is very friendly but he's friendly in the the manner that someone who has just read a book about being friendly is. It's clear that Gordo's elevator doesn't go to the top of the building. Simon claims not to remember much about Gordo, and quickly hustles Robyn away. The couple makes vague promises to stay in touch with the apparently needy Gordo. But it's obvious that for Simon at least such assurances are those polite lies you say to extricate yourself from an awkward situation. Simon wants to look forwards, not backwards. But the next day a gift from Gordo, complete with smiley faces and self-deprecating prose, shows up on the couple's doorstep. Well although the couple is a little concerned about how Gordo got their address, politesse requires that they invite Gordo to dinner. And the next thing you know Gordo is finding all sorts of semi-valid reasons to show up at their house when Simon's at work. Simon doesn't like this one bit even though Robyn initially finds it cute. Simon's attitude is "Get your own woman and stop hanging around mine!" At first Robyn is somewhat flattered by Gordo's attentions. After all Simon is away from home for ten hours or more each day. Some of Simon's reactions and tells make Robyn start to wonder if there's something else going on between the two men. The Gift has a lot of long silences, awkward moments and slow reveals that really amp up the dread, though as mentioned there is virtually no violence or sex. The couple's home has a lot of glass windows and doors which are used to heighten the sense of vulnerability. This film has a lot of surprises. It's not just your usual home invasion story. There are a lot of questions raised about what would you do to succeed or survive. What happens when someone outside a marriage steps, accidentally or otherwise, on a live wire within that marriage. I liked the three leads in this movie. I can't remember the last time I saw Bateman play someone who wasn't the frustrated straight man. So it was fun to see him do something miles apart from his work in Horrible Bosses. Bateman is not necessarily a tough guy in The Gift but he is serious about protecting his wife, his home and his career. The film is far from predictable. All of the people reveal some things about themselves that are to the say the least, unpleasant. Edgerton nails it as the occasionally sympathetic and oft creepy Gordo. This was a delicious little treat of a film which you should watch. You'll never know quite what's happening until the end of the movie. 
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