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American Ultra

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Scott Roberts
American Ultra
on Aug 27, 2015 at 9:47:07 pm

Premise: I spent way too much time trying to come up with a good Adventureland 2 joke to open this review, but then I remembered that the reference would probably go over everyone's heads because no one saw Adventureland, and even fewer people saw American Ultra. Did you guys even know this movie came out? Do you even know what Adventureland is? Did you stop reading this already? You did, didn't you? Awww, crap...


-Max Landis (son of John, writer of Chronicle) wrote a screenplay that, while not entirely *original* original (isn't this just a funny version of Bourne?), it was still more original than most anything else out there right now. It felt different enough to where I knew it wasn't ever going to be successful or popular.

-The comedy blends really well with the action of the film. Like, you know how a lot of action movies (especially Marvel movies) can be funny by having comic relief characters popping up, but they often feel out-of-place and forced in there? Well, American Ultra's comedy goes hand in hand with the action, and the dopey characters interacting with their violently serious situations is a big selling reason as to why it's kind of decent.

-Can we finally stop comparing Jesse Eisenberg to Michael Cera? They're both fidgety weirdos in completely different, equally good ways.

-Was this perhaps the most depth I've ever seen out of Kristen Stewart? I think she works best when she's deliberately supposed to be playing some burnout millennial.

-I don't really know who Connie Britton is, but my mom really likes her on some show called Nashville, whatever that is. She was pretty good in this movie, too.

-Topher Grace has a punchable face, which is a compliment, because he was BORN to play the smarmy guy you want to punch in the face in movies. I hope his business card reads "TOPHER GRACE - Professional Weasel / Supporting Actor". An interesting list someone should compile would be all the best actors in Hollywood who play the "promoted young guy who undermines the protagonists for no legitimate reason other than being a jerk" role.

-They called in Bill Pullman for five minutes. Nothing wrong with that.

-The end credits animated sequence was awesome. Like, really awesome.


-I'm not sure where the singular meeting ground is for audiences when making a mashup of a dumb stoner comedy movie and a sleeper cell spy action movie? I mean, I like the idea, but what about Tammy from accounting? Aunt Laura? Your dentist? I'm not entirely sure this movie should have existed outside of a festival setting or an Amazon Prime queue, because I don't quite understand the universal demand for it.

-Is it a negative thing that I find myself not really having *that* much to say about this movie, good or bad?

-This is not related to American Ultra in any way, but a commercial for The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials just came on TV, and it looks very awful.

Final Thoughts: Hey, I liked this movie plenty. I'd watch it again. I'm sure if you saw it, you probably wouldn't hate it. Do I recommend it? Sure, maybe on Redbox or Netflix or something. It's nothing groundbreaking or amazing, but it's a perfectly cromulent movie.

8 out of 10

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Tim Wilson
Re: American Ultra
on Aug 27, 2015 at 10:35:48 pm

[Scott Roberts] "I don't really know who Connie Britton"

Her most recent high-profile gig was Season 1 of American Horror Story, where she tried to save some the scenery from being chewed by Jessica Lange, with moderate success. Got her an Emmy nomination, her third.

The first two were for Friday Night Lights, extremely highly acclaimed as one of, if not THE best drama on TV at the time (in no small part because of her), and shot (on 16mm!!!) by longtime Creative COW member Todd McMullen. 76 episodes across 5 seasons.

The place most people (including me) were introduced to her was her 6 seasons on the millenium-bridging sitcom Spin City (1996-2002 if memory serves). I'm sorry that this one isn't more widely remembered. It was among the best of the Friends era, with the misfortune to air on ABC, one of the networks that didn't have Friends.

It got a ton of Emmy nominations, most of them for Michael J. Fox, who had to drop out after Season 4 after his diagnosis with Parkinsons. Maybe that's why it dropped off the radar? He was great of course, a master of the form, but lots of other fun performances, including Alan Ruck, Richard Kind, Barry Bostwick, and a pre-psycho Charlie Sheen, who was in fact pretty darn good.

Anyway, Connie was on 99 episodes of that.

She also had long arcs on The West Wing and 24....although on 24, it turned out she was on the show for less than a day. **Ba-domp-DOMP**rimshot

I recommend her work in any of these.

Needless to say, I am a fan.

Needless to say, nothing can induce me to follow her to Nashville.

Needless to say, I'll watch her in whatever she does after Nashville.

[Scott Roberts] "a commercial for The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials just came on TV, and it looks very awful."

Did you see the first one? The Maze Runner was better than it had any right to be. A 63% among the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, which is higher than it had any right to be, with a 68% positive from the audience. I was entertained, and I'm weirdly looking forward to the sequel.

Hey, and not that you can use Rotten Tomato scores to compare movies -- they don't work like that -- but in fact, The Maze Runner at 63% positive ratings outperformed American Ultra at 49%.

Just saying.

Maze Runner is also another one of those movies with terrific VFX, and a terrific story here at the COW covering said VFX by yours truly, that got overlooked because the movie kinda did.

Even if you know nothing about the movie, even if you HATE the movie, I still recommend the story, which, even if somebody else wrote it, I'd say is a pretty exceptional example of the genre. See for yourself.

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Scott Roberts
Re: American Ultra
on Sep 1, 2015 at 9:49:46 pm

[Tim Wilson] "Did you see the first one? The Maze Runner was better than it had any right to be."

I did see it actually, and I didn't hate it. But I don't think I enjoyed it enough to see the movie that I'm seeing being advertised as the sequel... But I thought the first one had a neat enough concept to get me to go see it in theaters. To be honest, I'll probably watch the sequel on TV.

I'm gonna bookmark your VFX article on it, I definitely overlooked it when it first came out! I didn't rag on the special effects when I saw it. Mostly just complained about how it didn't have an ending.

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Tim Wilson
Re: American Ultra
on Sep 2, 2015 at 3:54:08 pm

[Scott Roberts] "Mostly just complained about how it didn't have an ending."

Fair enough, but neither did the source material. It was written as a trilogy.

This brings up the broader notion of adaptive storytelling, which I plan to write an article on, but it's really fgjking complicated.

The first question is, what's the fundamental unit? The atom, so to speak. Historically, yeah, it's been "one book" which translates into "one movie."

-- You know where I think that started changing BIG? Game of Thrones, where "one book = 13 episodes." So, there's no use complaining that any one episode doesn't have a conclusion. The assumption is that you'll watch all 13.

If not, you know what? Ew-scray you. You're not the target audience, and I have no obligation to serve you.

-- The first shift AT ALL that I can think of was in the Star Wars trilogy. It was original of course, not an adaptation, but the fundamental unit, the atom, was the trilogy. Of COURSE the second one didn't have an ending. It's the nature of second acts. Second acts only exist to feed third acts.

The further assumption is that you'll watch all three. THAT's how you get to the ending. Because otherwise, again, ew-scray you. I have no obligation to you.

-- People were prepared for this with the Star WARTS trilogy that said with every frame across three movies, Ew-scray you, if you're not ME, George Lucas, you're not the target audience, and I have no obligation to you.

But there was certainly ZERO expectation that the films would be self-contained.

-- In television, this first showed up in Hill Street Blues, with the concept of an arc: a story-within-a-story that bridges multiple episodes, and which might not even resolve within a season, which might otherwise have a neat and tidy ending...because the "atom" of a story is not necessarily a single episode. It's not even a single season. Even though some stories ARE resolved in those spans.

When Hill Street Blues started doing this, it got slammed. People had no idea what they were looking at, and hated the idea of a storyline hanging for who knows how long. It wasn't an obvious 2-parter. It might be a 4 or 6 or 12 parter. And what??? THere are different storylines that resolve in different time frames? What's even happening???.

But once audiences went along for the ride, it became a hugely popular show.

-- Historical footnote: HSB was produced by MTM Enterprises, MTM being Mary Tyler Moore. The Mary Tyler Moore show was the first to have exactly two storylines per episode - roughly divided as one "work" plot and one "home" plot. She continued this as a producer for The Bob Newhart Show, which also had exactly two plots for every episode.

Which Seinfeld picked up to have as many as FOUR plots per episode...although sometimes as few as one.

While with the comedies, all plots tended to resolve at the end of every episode, it shouldn't be surprising that the production team responsible for throwing out the idea that one episode could only have one plot should be the one to introduce the idea that an episode could have any number of plots that spanned any number of episodes.

-- The TV show that turned this into an artforum was X-Files. Almost every single episode's main story was wrapped within an episode. At the end of the episode "Squeeze," we know exactly who Eugene Virgil Tooms is, and why we won't be hearing from him again anytime soon...

...but there are three more storylines that won't be resolved until another 200 episodes and maybe a movie or two.

Anyway, swinging back to movies:

-- Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games followed the Star Wars trilogy, and were in fact adapted with the SERIES as the atom.

Fuzzy or unresolved endings to the movies were both expected and DEMANDED. The only way to avoid them was to fundamentally deviate from the level of faithfulness that the series warranted -- not just for the hardest-core fans, but in fact for the 10s of millions of readers for the three most popular sagas in the history of the written word.

-- re: the breaking of the final film into two pieces for all three series. You know how one book = 13 episodes for GoT? Each of the final THREE Harry books is LONGER than a single GoT book! It's insanity to think that the only only only ONLY way to POSSIBLY adapt them is as a single film. It's ridiculous, frankly.

Most movies are already way too long, but as any viewer of the deluxe Lord of the Rings editions knows that cutting to theatrical length made the movies suffer. Return of the King would DEFINITELY have benefitted from being two movies.

-- This assumes that the filmmaker isn't out of control, as in The Hobbit, which needed to be 2 movies, definitely not three, but also DEFINITELY not one.

-- Worth noting, too, that many early epics, notably Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia, were in fact two pretty long movies separated by an intermission.

Deviating from that approach into RELEASING two films isn't greed on the part of the filmmakers. It's the reality of contemporary distribution and exhibition. The economics simply don't allow it...and I don't think audiences would tolerate it either. They'd just fgking LEAVE at the intermission.

I certainly did during one of GWTW's theatrical re-releases. Still haven't seen the end. Frankly, I don't give a damn.

And for that matter, the same with the Star WARTS trilogy. Jake Lloyd wasn't gonna grow up into Darth Vader, and I didn't need to sit through two more bowel movements worth of movies to know that, a) I can't imagine that Hayden Christensen would either, and b) even if he plausibly does, I don't care anymore.

But NOT because the first movie didn't have an ending. But because it was awful, and clearly hated me as much as I hated it.

-- Rather than write my whole article in this one post, I'll note that Maze Runner's "atom" is the trilogy, both for the books and the movie.

Of COURSE the first one doesn't END with an ENDING. The "ending" is right where it's always been, at THE END of the atom.

In the third movie.

Just like Star Wars trilogy.

The REAL Star Wars trilogy. Not the ew-scray you Star Warts trilogy, which still did the same thing.

-- This raises a further question: what obligation does a filmmaker have to satisfy a potential new audience vs. appeal to the fans?

Ideally, producers and studios will try to generate a new audience the same way the author did, with an ending at the END of the TRILOGY, rather than force the source material into an unnatural shape to serve an audience who's not going to be invested enough in the source material to follow the author's vision in the first place.

(Or, say, adding a girl lerv interest, because the new audience won't like an all-boy version of The Hobbit. Nonononononono.)

-- Which is to say, feel what you feel about whatever you want to feel, but I'm not sure it's fair to criticize the film for doing exactly what it's supposed to do: serve the source material, and treat the series itself as the atom.

--- Which is also to say, you can stop watching any series of GoT at any episode in any season, but the fact that any episode doesn't have an ending doesn't really belong on the list of reasons to not watch the next one.

== Which is to say, saying "I don't CARE about the next one because nothing about it looks like anything I'd enjoy" IS a reasonable criticism within the framework of still treating the series as "the atom."

But that's where we're at. One book, one movie, one episode, one season, one plot -- that equivalence is gone forever. Not that it might not still happen now and again, but now, mostly, not.

So there's the outline of my article anyway. LOL Thanks! LOL

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