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Posts Tagged ‘Topher Grace’

There was a time when I prided myself on seeing pretty much every interesting-looking film that came out. Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra, released in 2015, didn’t make the cut: I wish I could remember why. Certainly, as a slightly batty-looking genre movie, it’s the sort of thing I would usually take an interest in. But there you go.  Finally seeing it now, do I regret not catching it on the big screen? (Bear in mind I have often knowingly turned up to see the most outrageous tripe at the cinema.)

The protagonist of the movie is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a twitchy stoner and general loser who at the start of the film is being questioned for his part in a series of spectacularly violent events in a small West Virginia town: most of the film is thus a flashback. It transpires that Mike has been living a quiet and unambitious life here with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart – and yes, you might be forgiven for thinking that Eisenberg is once again punching above his weight a bit) for as long as he can remember, although this is not entirely of his own choosing. Every time he tries to leave the area he suffers a crippling panic attack, which is a real deal-breaker when it comes to his desire to fly Phoebe to Hawaii so he can propose to her.

Unfortunately, Mike’s failed attempt to leave town still attracts the attention of elements within the CIA led by a man named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who decrees that he is in danger of breaching their security and orders that he be liquidated immediately. This goes against the grain as far as senior agent Lasseter (Connie Britton, in a role which feels like it was written for a bigger-name actor) is concerned: she gets to Mike first and gives him a code-phrase which just seems to him to be gibberish. Until two of Yates’ assassins appear and try to kill him, at which point his conditioning kicks in and he rapidly and spectacularly executes them both.

Yes, it transpires that Howell is a former subject of one of the government’s mind-control and conditioning programmes (the title of the movie alludes to MKUltra, a project along vaguely similar lines which ran for a couple of decades from the early 1950s): he has been trained as a covert operative and assassin, but has no memory of how or why this happened. Will he figure out who he is and how he got this way? And, more importantly, will he be able to manage this before Yates’ men kill Phoebe and him?

American Ultra didn’t make much of an impression on its release, and only barely recouped its budget – the dark arts of Hollywood accounting mean that as a result it actually lost the studio money – despite headlining two bright young things like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. This occasioned another notable person involved with the production, screenwriter Max Landis, to take to social media and publicly wonder whether it was possible for a movie which wasn’t a sequel, remake, spin-off, or adaptation to succeed in the summer marketplace – and given that some of the duffers outperforming American Ultra at the box office that year were films like The Man from UNCLE, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Terminator Genisys, one might concede he had a point.

It is a good question: only a tiny number of directors have sufficient clout to get original scripts made for a mainstream summer audience these days. What’s more debatable is whether Landis is the right person to be making this point, and American Ultra the right film to be making it on behalf of. Now, leaving the murky issue of Landis’ personal life to one side (google, if you really must), it’s not as if he’s been turning out great, underappreciated gems in the course of his career: he wrote Chronicle, which was very good, and was apparently involved with Power Rangers at some point (not enough to get a credit, though) – but since then, the movies with his name on them have been Bright (significantly flawed, at best), Victor Frankenstein (terrible), and this one. Which is…

Well, as you may have noticed, I don’t normally go in for the lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulation, but American Ultra almost demands it – the basic premise is The Bourne Identity meets Clerks, the central gag the image of a slacker played by Jesse Eisenberg gorily disposing of large numbers of big tough enemies. It also almost feels like an Edgar Wright pastiche – it seems to be aspiring towards the same kind of twitchy energy and breezy cool, underpinned by genuine heart.

The problem is that however you slice it, at its heart it’s a comedy, and that as a comedy it just isn’t funny enough. The premise is sort of vaguely amusing, but it needs to be shored up with better gags than we get here. Instead of genuine wit and snappy dialogue we end up with a sort of splatstick, by I mean very graphic violence apparently played for laughs, some of it extremely cartoony (at one point Eisenberg throws a frying pan in the air and ricochets a bullet off it to dispose of a bad guy). For the most part, though, the action is just not expansive or inventive enough to make the film distinctive or enjoyable as a piece of kinetic art, and the characters aren’t well-drawn enough for even charismatic performers like Eisenberg or Stewart to do much with (and Eisenberg doesn’t quite have Stewart’s gift of coming across well even in a bad movie).

In the end it passes the time reasonably pleasantly, provided you can deal with the fact the story mainly progresses through outbursts of rather bloody violence. It’s not completely without laughs, nor is it without ideas, and there are touches of cleverness here and there in the script. Not enough, though: it doesn’t come close to the level of the films which appear to have inspired it. Given the actors involved, at least, one would have been forgiven for hoping for something a bit better.

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(Yes, I know that’s a reference to a film by a different director. Stand down.)

I have to confess that I can perhaps be a bit oversensitive about some things: in other words, it occasionally doesn’t take much to put me off a movie, and this can even extend to (what looks like) excessively affected titling. I’ve never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I do wonder if that isn’t just because there’s a plus sign in the title where a more conventional conjunction would have done the job just as well.

I suppose the same may partly explain why I didn’t rush to see Spike Lee’s (deep breath, gritted teeth) BlacKkKlansman when it was originally released last autumn. (I think you can see where the issue lies.) Of course, I also had the (reasonably good) excuse of being in the Kyrgyz Republic during most of its UK run, but even so it wasn’t on the list of films I hoovered up as part of my catch-up regimen when I eventually returned.

In the end it turned out that this was the only film on this year’s Best Picture nomination list that I hadn’t actually seen, and this sat even less well with me than the weird styling in the title. So I was quite pleased when it popped up on the in-flight entertainment menu on my flight back from the States the other day. (There were a couple of other films I had meant to see but ended up missing, and so I abandoned my plan of trying to get some sleep on the overnight flight and buckled down to watching three movies back-to-back, which the schedule looked like it would just about accommodate assuming there were no pesky tail-winds or anything like that.)

Lee’s film opens by assuring the audience (using somewhat idiosyncratic language) that it really is based on a true story; ‘based’ being the operative word, of course – the implication throughout is that the film is set in the early 1970s, when the real life events took place some years later, and some elements of the story have been heavily fictionalised too.

John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department after a diversity-based recruitment drive. (He is even allowed to keep his beard and Afro.) However, he initially finds himself consigned to the records department and exposed to the casual racism of various fellow cops.

Even when he is allowed out of the filing section, it is to go undercover at a rally being held by ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (who at this point in time has adopted the name Kwame Tura) and record any especially provocative or inflammatory rhetoric that he may hear. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself torn between his duty and the way that Tura’s message of black liberation resonates with him.

Shortly afterwards Stallworth is reassigned again, and it is now that he embarks upon the deeply unlikely exploit at the heart of the film: he answers an ad placed by the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and declares himself to be an angry white racist, keen on joining the organisation. Obviously, there is one small barrier to the success of this operation, which is that he can’t actually meet up with his new associates face-to-face. Step forward fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who will handle all the face-to-face contact with other KKK members, while Stallworth continues to talk on the phone to them. Soon enough they have managed to reach the upper echelons of the Klan leadership, particularly Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), and come across worrying signs of serious plots being put into motion…

Most of the publicity for BlacKkKlansman has focused on the absurd comedy inherent in the premise of the film: various scenes of Washington on the phone, earnestly making profoundly racist declarations to his KKK contacts (there is, needless to say, a lot of strongly discriminatory language throughout this film). There is also a sense in which some of the KKK members are presented as comic stooges and played for laughs.

However, watching the film makes it clear that for Lee this is a very serious project, shining a light into an important and perhaps too-obscure area of American history and particularly the struggle for civil rights. Ultimately, the threat of the Klan is treated very seriously and the consequences of the philosophy they espouse are addressed head on – one sequence intercuts a clan ritual with personal testimony of a racist lynching (a cameo from Harry Belafonte) to disturbing effect. Questions of just how black Americans should respond to racist social institutions – through active resistance, or trying to change the system from within? – are articulated and seriously considered. It is, and this is not meant to denigrate this year’s Best Picture winner, all considerably more hard-edged and politically sophisticated than anything in Green Book.

That said, the film never completely loses touch with its identity as a thriller, and functions quite well as such – though you are never in doubt that these are just the bones of a different kind of film. It takes a while before the whole infiltrating-the-Klan element of the story gets going; at least as important is the section with Kwame Tura’s speech, which introduces a number of significant themes and characters (not least Laura Harrier as a young activist who becomes Stallworth’s love interest). And while the story seems about to conclude relatively straightforwardly, it – well, it doesn’t, Lee choosing to become openly political in the closing moments.

It is clear that this film is meant to be about America today as much as in the 1970s, and there are moments throughout which reinforce this – the first person on screen is Alec Baldwin, playing a cartoonish Klan mouthpiece, and most people will be aware of Baldwin’s most famous satirical performance of recent years and make the appropriate connection. It doesn’t even stay that subtle – Klan leader Duke speaks of ‘America first’ and ‘making America great again’, while the film concludes with footage from the Charlottesville riots and Donald Trump’s repugnant equivocal non-repudiation of the racist groups involved in them. Perhaps it’s the case that in its closing moments the film sacrifices finesse for raw power, but that doesn’t make this any less effective as an attack on its chosen targets. In the end it manages to be palpably angry and political while still remaining an engaging piece of entertainment, and that’s no small feat.

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