Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


January 1, 2016

Rob uses the magic red machine to catch up on some of the films he missed in 2015.

American Ultra

The Big Lebowski met The Borne Identity and everyone lost. American Ultra is a tonal nightmare, an attempt at genre-bending action comedy that doesn't ever find its footing. It's full of boring and useless characters doing ridiculous and stupid things. It's not funny. It's not exciting. It's not action-packed. At its core, it's a lame revenge fantasy for every burnout who's ever been left for a convertible-driving stockbroker. 

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is your everyday stoner clerk living the small-town life with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Little does he know he's actually a CIA sleeper agent whose former supervisor (Connie Britton) re-activates him in order to save him from her rival (Topher Grace), who wants him eliminated. Now Mike must fight back against a series of enemies who want him dead for unspecified reasons while coming to terms with some alarmingly predictable elements of Phoebe's past and generally just doddering around like an idiot. 

American Ultra is full of naive politics and immature character stereotypes. Mike is a schlubby idiot who is a hero because the screenwriter likes schlubby idiots. The plot happens at him while other characters clean up the mess. Phoebe loves him because she loves him and he's amazing and that should be good enough for us. She's alternately empowered (SPOILER! She's secretly Mike's CIA handler!) and belittled (SPOILER! She gets captured and does nothing most of the film!). CIA bad guy Adrian (Grace) is a violent sociopath who hates women and wields nuclear missiles with complete impunity. He's a ridiculous farce of a character, clearly modeled after whichever jock stole screenwriter Max Landis' girlfriend in high school. We'd probably cheer for his eventual downfall if we knew or cared about what he was doing or why.

But somehow, the problem with American Ultra isn't the story. In fact, the film might have had a chance in the hands of Matthew Vaughn, a sure hand who could keep the tone consistent enough to appreciate the genre deconstruction that American Ultra shoots for. Instead, the film bounces between attempts at humor and action and seemingly throws together its elements at random: In one scene, Phoebe is frustrated by Mike's relentless fuck-uppery, while in the next, she's cuddled up and cooing over him. A meaningless framing device assures us that Mike survives his ordeal and negates any narrative tension. Stuttering awkwardness follows over-the-top violence, and no one cares enough to laugh. The film is nothing but a long string of these problems.

Inside Out

There are entire generations of children who will have never known a time before Inside Out, and for that we should all be thankful. They'll grow up knowing what it took the rest of us so long to learn: our emotions are our friends and we need each and every one of them to survive. Inside Out isn't just Pixar's best movie, it's a Rosetta Stone for the human condition. It's heartbreaking and life-affirming, the kind of art that makes us remember why art matters. Where other children's films condescend and coddle, Inside Out challenges and enlightens, proving that films for children are some of the most important ever made. 

Riley is an eleven-year-old girl who has just moved to San Francisco with her mother and father. She's trying to be supportive of her parents, but she misses home. She misses her friends and her hockey team. She misses the simple and joyous world of her youth. Luckily, she's got help. The stars of Inside Out are the tiny anthropomorphized emotions that man the control center inside Riley's mind. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) all do their best to keep Riley safe, balanced, and happy. But Riley is growing up, and when she enters an emotional tailspin, the group delves into the depths of her psyche to help her find that balance again. 

Inside Out's genius is its imaginative and entertaining deconstruction of the nebulous complexities of the human mind. The film's best moments come when Joy and Sadness get trapped in the abstract thinking centers or when the loss of Riley's core memories force the shutdown of her most important relationships. It's heavy stuff, but it's so universal that it only takes a tweak or two to make it resonate with even the youngest audiences. It never cheats, never resorts to the "movieness" that so often plagues children's films. Riley doesn't get her wish. Instead, she learns why that wish was misguided. She learns what that wish is saying about herself and how she can instead find emotional catharsis in a healthy way. Inside Out is a masterstroke of empathy and essential viewing for anyone with a heart connected to a brain.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This year's indie twee bullshit adventure is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a film so ironically detached from its audience that it equates awkwardness with misanthropy and laziness with profundity. There are no actual people in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, only self-righteous caricatures bumping into each other and scowling defiantly at their shoes. It is the very definition of style over substance. In fact, the more it evokes Francois Truffaut and Wes Anderson, the clearer the absence of the naked vulnerability at the heart of their work becomes. 

Greg (Thomas Mann) is Standard High School Loner, malcontent and abrasive. Earl (RJ Cyler) is his lifelong "co-worker" (not friend, mind you, because ironic malcontents don't have friends). When his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, the film's only bright spot) contracts leukemia, Greg is pressured by his parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton, both wasted) into helping her pass the time until death. Greg assures us through narration that the two will not fall in love, so they instead spend the film searching for platonic friendship in the face of Rachel's inevitable death.

That's my best guess, anyway. Greg is yet another male slacker protagonist who believes himself misunderstood, an ubermensch above all of this college-and-prom nonsense. He eats lunch with the "cool" history teacher (Jon Bernthal) to avoid exposure to any of his school's cliques. High school doesn't actually work that way, but the trope helps the screenwriter mold everyday teenage ennui into one-man crusades against the proletariat. The major issue with Greg is that he does nothing, wants nothing, and learns nothing. He is not driven by any underlying trauma; he clearly understands the value of human connection but chooses not to pursue it. This is our hero, folks.

And then there's Rachel, Manic Pixie Dying Girl. She's unforgivably underwritten and exists purely to justify and forgive Greg's social detachment. She's the insecure male screenwriter's answer to a year of cinema almost defined by strong female leads wielding buckets of agency. Greg's narration insists she's generous and sympathetic, but the film never gives us a chance to see it. Here's hoping the film's puzzling success provides better work for Olivia Cooke. She's wonderful in her limited screentime, never letting the cliched role drift into self-parody. 

The operative word here is "dishonesty." Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the film equivalent of a friend showing you an elaborate drawing they insist was "just sketched real quick out of boredom" in order to avoid honest criticism. Greg's final gift to Rachel is presented with assurances that "it sucks," saving him from earnest connection with anyone or anything. It's almost as if director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is presenting the film with a similar caveat. He tilts and pans the camera wildly, over-directing nearly every sequence. But it only takes a minute of thought to discover what he's trying to hide: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is as shallow, soulless, and derivative as the iPhone remakes of classic films Greg and Earl are so fond of producing. 


Rob DiCristino writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club. Follow him @RobDiCristino. He mostly tweets about Ben Affleck. 


Post a Comment