American Ultra • No Escape
August 27, 2015
American Ultra (**) R
You have to give it to the filmmakers behind the action/comedy American Ultra for at least attempting to do something different with a premise that, admittedly, reeks of cliché. The film is brimming with ideas and some of them are actually interesting. Unfortunately, the there’s too much of a lack of focus in the proceedings for the audience to genuinely invest itself in the film. Saying that this film is all over the map is putting it mildly.
Coming on the heels of his more nuanced performance in the winning indie film The End of the Tour, it’s a real study in jarring contrasts to see actor Jesse Eisenberg taking the lead in American Ultra. Of course, Eisenberg has been known to make questionable choices in terms of the films in which he chooses to participate. The wretched ‘comedy’ from several years ago 30 Minutes or Less is one of several examples that come readily to mind. I guess the actor just wants to prove that he can let his hair down every now and again and American Ultra is the kind of film that falls into that category—only slightly better than that aforementioned film.
Interestingly, it turns out to be not that much of a stretch to see Eisenberg as Mike Howell, a stoner living out his days in a small West Virginia town, planning on proposing to his girlfriend, and working in a convenience store.
Eisenberg & Stewart in American Ultra
He lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, who actually manages the improbable feat of smiling several times during the film), blissfully going through the days with no signs of any real ambition of which to speak.
Mike has all kinds of psychological quirks that make him constantly suspicious that something’s wrong one, particularly the fact that he has a sudden anxiety attack every time he tries to leave his small town. The small town stoner’s existence is forever altered when a CIA head, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), in charge of a program called Ultra, decides to terminate the program. Trouble is that Mike is an assassin in the program, which explains his anxieties and phobias. Mike, of course, doesn’t know it, having had his memory erased.
When Adrian decides to clean the slate of all remains of the Ultra program, CIA agent, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), reactivates Mike in order to save him. From that point on it’s Mike against agent Yates and his forces as he slowly comes to terms with who he really is and the prospects of his previously blissful and care-free existence coming to a screeching halt.
Stewart and Eisenberg have decent chemistry so they can’t be blamed. No, the fault of the film’s failure is mostly at the hands of its half-baked script by Max Landis (Chornicle) and lackluster direction by Nima Nourizadeh, whose only previous credit was the atrocious 2012 picture Project X. Nourizadeh doesn’t seem to really grasp how to handle action scenes and so the film’s finale, which should be the best part, falls flat and comes across as just an excuse to set us up for a potential film franchise, a prospect which certainly doesn’t excite me.
No Escape (***) R
The decision to cast actor Owen Wilson as a standard action hero in the nail biter No Escape seems like a logical one to me. I can just hear the casting agent’s argument that probably went something like this, ‘Hey, it worked for Liam Neeson so why shouldn’t it work for Owen Wilson?’ Actually it suits the actor to a T and it’s probably good timing as audiences are surely tiring of the comedic persona for which Wilson is primarily known, a recent example being the lame 2013 film The Internship. There are other examples but surely you get the point. Let’s just say that it’s great to see the actor portraying a character motivated by something other than his own narcissism for a change.
Wilson, as convincing and interesting as he is in the film, is well served by a story written by the John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle and directed by John Erick Dowdle.
Pierce Brosnan & Owen Wilson in No Escape
The film manages to wring every bit of suspense out of its individual set pieces as is possible. Admittedly, the whole affair does require a certain suspension of disbelief but that’s okay. If you’re in the right frame of mind, as the audience I attended this screening with certainly were, you’re likely to find much to embrace. More jaded filmgoers may tend to disagree but it’s just engrossing and exciting to please the film’s basic target audience.
The premise is a fairly simple one. Jack Dwyer (Wilson) is relocating his family—wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two daughters—to a Southeast Asian country (unnamed in the film) for a new job that Jack has taken. It seems that Jack and his family have barely gotten off the plane before they find themselves caught up in a political uprising, precipitated by the murder of the country’s Prime Minister. Next thing you know Jack and company are on the run, aided by a fellow passenger (Pierce Brosnan) whom the family befriended on their plane.
The violence quotient in the film is pretty high but I didn’t have so much of a problem with it as it’s in service to the story. It’s the kind of film where the audience is witness to such sights as the hacking to pieces, courtesy of an ax, of one of the film’s villains by our protagonists. I guess the logic is that it’s okay because it’s for the sake of the children, or so we’re led to believe.
The biggest problem with the film is the thinness of the characterizations of Jack and his family. We don’t really get to know much about them or what led Jack to take a job in this foreign land in the first place. I guess it doesn’t matter as long as the film delivers on its initial premise which I think No Escape certainly does, if only on a visceral level. There may not be much take away here but you may find yourself surprised at how much you enjoy the journey.
Sinister 2 (**) R
In the annals of disappointing sequels to recent horror films Sinister 2 may not be the worst but it’s certainly high up on the list. It may not be as god awful as something along the lines of Insidious Chapter 2 but it comes close. It’s always troublesome when a film isn’t pre screened for critics, as was the case of Sinister 2. I suppose it’s one of those films that the studio assumed was critic proof and, indeed, it may coast along to decent business at the box office for a little while before the word gets out. Once it does, however, the film is likely to die a quiet death and that’s too bad considering how great its 2012 predecessor was and how much it deserved a truly great follow up. Unfortunately, Sinister 2 isn’t that film. Instead it’s just reeks of an excuse to grab cash by coasting on the well earned reputation of the original film.
Sinister 2 picks up immediately following the events of the first Sinister. If you recall, a crime writer played by Ethan Hawke, along with his family, perished in the first film under mysterious circumstances. That is, the circumstances were mysterious to everyone except the audience who were obviously clued in to what was really transpiring.
Here the unnamed deputy (James Ransone) who assisted Hawke’s character in the first film is back, investigating the supernatural events that claimed the late crime writer and his family.
Scene from Sinister 2
You see, he’s been fired from his job in law enforcement and has now opened his own business as a PI for hire. Along the path, while doing his research, he chances to get involved with single mom, Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon), who along with her two boys, are hiding in an abandoned and apparently haunted house as they attempt to extricate themselves from the boys’ father and Courtney’s estranged husband, Clint (Lea Coco). This leads to a romantic subplot between the deputy and Courtney that isn’t necessarily bad but just doesn’t belong in a film that’s supposed to be spending its time scaring the audience instead of wallowing in the plight of a lonely single mom.
The film uses sequences of the snuff films that made the first film so unique again this time around. They’re still very effective here but, unfortunately, not much of anything else in the film is on that level, in terms of actual scares.
Probably one of the film’s biggest transgressions is in trying to build the film around the deputy/PI character. He’s just not a compelling enough character to attempt such a thing. Then, there’s the problem of abusive husband/father, Clint, who’s so overwritten that he makes Yosemite Sam look tame by comparison. He’s scary but the film isn’t and that’s the problem.
Questions or comments? Write Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.