AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language throughout, Drug Use and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh

Written by: Max Landis

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman & Tony Hale

Sometimes, you walk into a movie knowing precisely what you’re going to get. That was my exact situation with AMERICAN ULTRA. I bought my ticket expecting a batshit insane action-comedy and that’s exactly what I received. Though it’s definitely not for everyone (especially gauging its current low percentage on Rotten Tomatoes), this crazy stoner adventure has a likely chance of going down as a future cult classic. I could see it easily resting next to REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. The film is far from perfect and has its problems, but I found AMERICAN ULTRA to be a blast of entertaining mayhem.

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Mike Howell lives a fairly uninteresting existence. He’s a stoner loser who’s going nowhere and suffers from a crippling number of irrational phobias. The best part of Mike’s life is his long-time stoner girlfriend, Phoebe. One night, a mysterious woman walks into Mike’s workplace and speaks gibberish to him that sound like bad song lyrics. It turns out that these “lyrics” were actually activation code words and Mike is far from your typical stoner. With lots of bad people coming to kill him, Mike finds himself suddenly endowed with a set of deadly skills that he never knew he had. To make it through the night alive, he’ll need some help from Phoebe and a variety of household appliances turned deadly weapons (including a spoon and a dust-pan). Think BOURNE IDENTITY with a BIG LEBOWSKI attitude.

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AMERICAN ULTRA lives up to its expectations as both a stoner comedy and a crazy action flick, but it also serves as an unconventional romance too. The film is entertaining the whole way through. The screenplay also delivers on what audiences going to a movie about an idiotic stoner sleeper agent would expect to see. The cinematography looks great and uses a lot of distinct stylistic touches. I couldn’t help but admire how the film looked as a whole. There’s a constant fast-pace through the first and third acts, but the film drags during the middle. This could be because the middle section has less action than the rest of the story, but I attribute most of the blame to exposition-heavy conversations (enough to temporarily suck me out of the story).

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Jesse Eisenberg is usually hit or miss for me. His geeky shtick can be annoying or charming, depending on the material he’s given. Here, Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the dumb, unconventional action hero. His nervous antics lead to many laughs as his predicament goes from bad to worse. Kristen Stewart, playing Phoebe, manages to be a better romantic lead with far more emotion than many past roles of her career. Connie Briton, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman are side characters who mainly serve to drive the plot forward. Even though their characters are plot devices, they make the most of the screen time they’ve been given. Though Topher Grace may have been woefully miscast as a certain super villain in a well-known comic book franchise, he certainly fits the part of asshole pencil-pusher turned radical villain in this film. His smarmy line delivery and pompous facial expressions make you want to punch him during every one of his scenes. So, a job well done on his part. More intimidating than Grace is Walton Goggins as the simultaneously scary and funny Laugher (one of Grace’s main henchmen). John Leguizamo’s brief turn as a drug dealer is also hilarious, even tough he’s underused.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome the action scenes are in AMERICAN ULTRA. I was shocked at how well-executed these sequences were. Aside from using enough blood to fill a Tarantino shootout, ULTRA gets ultra-creative (sorry, I had to say that) in its violence. We see normal household objects transformed into lethal weapons and these crazy combinations never get old. A sequence in the final third also comes off like the a cross between the KINGSMAN‘s now famous (or infamous) church scene and the final showdown in THE EQUALIZER. Blood splatters all over the place, but never to a sickening degree. None of this is meant to be taken seriously and the movie uses that to its comedic advantage.

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Slight pacing issues aside, I really enjoyed AMERICAN ULTRA. This is precisely the sort of film that might very well become a cult classic in the near future. The combination of a stoner comedy and a crazy action flick are undeniably appealing for certain crowds. It helps that fun performances and palpable creativity are also thrown into the mix as well. AMERICAN ULTRA is a stoner-centric romantic-action-comedy that delivers on its strange premise.

Grade: B

CAMP X-RAY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and brief Nude Images

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Directed by: Peter Sattler

Written by: Peter Sattler

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, Julia Duffy, John Carroll Lynch, Lane Garrison & Joseph Julian Soria

CAMP X-RAY has both controversy and potential going for it at the same time. The notorious Kristen Stewart headlines this unique drama, but there’s also a meaty and important topic being tackled. The events of 9/11 will forever remained etched in America’s memories. I can distinctly remember watching it all take place on the morning before my birthday in 2001. I didn’t fully realize the impact that attack had until later on that day (I was still in elementary school at the time), but the sense of hopelessness that hit then still haunts my memories thinking back on that fateful day in history. Guantanamo Bay is a definitely a touchy issue that resulted out of the Twin Towers. CAMP X-RAY attempts to tell an emotional story around that detainee center and the troubling moral gray area that comes with it.

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Amy Cole has been assigned to guard a block at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Being a female officer already results in a couple of issues with her fellow privates, but Cole doesn’t expect the moral ambiguity that comes with her new position. Things aren’t as black and white as she was told and thus begins an unusual friendship with Ali, an inmate who claims to be innocent and detained for over 8 years. As Amy’s sympathies begin to go towards Ali (he definitely doesn’t seem like the terrorist type), she is ostracized by her fellow officers. Cole must choose between doing what she believes is right or blindly following orders given to her.

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CAMP X-RAY unflinchingly portrays the inhumane treatment of detainees at Guantanamo (to call them prisoners would grant them more rights) as well as opens up the gray areas to explore in such a place. The setting is bleak, grim, and cold. This is how Guantanamo probably looks, though I’d be surprised to find the film was actually shot there (highly unlikely). Besides the quality production values and a heavy topic that’s sure to spark debate, the characters are solid. Kristen Stewart has become infamous for one facial expression, monotone delivery, and frequently biting her bottom lip while looking pensive. Though she doesn’t completely shake that reputation here (it actually creeps its way into an otherwise powerful exchange), these mannerisms actually suit the character in this story. As Ali, relative newcomer Peyman Moaadi shines. He’s the best performer here and really sells his character as someone who you like (even though he might be guilty).

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The biggest flaws in CAMP X-RAY would be the sometimes glacial pacing and an unwarranted subplot. A couple of stretches could have been cut out altogether for a tighter film. There are scenes that wind up having little to no point and don’t necessarily further things along. Some might argue that’s to give the viewer a taste of the slow repetition that both the detainees and guards face at Guantanamo, but I should never be bored during a movie. That’s a cardinal sin of cinema. There’s also a subplot about Cole being a female soldier and how that becomes an issue to a couple of her superiors on occasion. I’m glad they didn’t go as far as they could have with it, though one scene seemed to play out like the script was going to milk this topic for all it was worth, but it was still unwarranted. The movie should have stuck to the main controversial problem at hand and not throw an unrelated problem (sexism in the military) into the mix. Luckily, it was a minor subplot that didn’t take up a significant amount of screen time.

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CAMP X-RAY occasionally lags in its pacing at and tries address too many things at once, but works as a dramatic tale between a troubled soldier faced with morally questionable areas and a prisoner who just wants a friend. The story excels in little acts of kindness being a saving grace to an otherwise harsh environment. This is especially seen in the final minutes (arguably the best moment in the whole film). CAMP X-RAY doesn’t offer any quick solutions or easy answers in solving Guantanamo Bay or terrorism. There’s also sure to be a whole lot of ignorance from both sides that say “America is the devil.” or “All of those prisoners are 100% terrorists because they’re Muslim.” I liked that the film just treated itself as a story of friendship that happens to take place in a troubled setting. The controversial issues are sure to debated between viewers, but after watching this quality movie. CAMP X-RAY is damned good and well worth a recommendation.

Grade: B

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