(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) I’ll leave the scholarly analysis to others, but it’s possible that the gradual liberalization of drug laws in the US has something to do with the growing number of movies in which stoner aesthetics are blended with other unlikely subgenres. Or maybe it’s just Seth Rogen’s fault. No matter why, here’s now American Ultra, which takes a small-town chronic user and drops him in a Bourne-style action thriller. It’s not an accidental event, considering the protagonist’s repressed memories and other small revelations, but the result is along the lines of “what if a stoner discovered he was an unstoppable killing machine?” Imagine the movie it could have been, then temper your expectations, because American Ultra is a generic treatment of a promising idea, limited by its budget and (more crucially) a lack of willingness to do more than the usual paranoid “government’s coming to kill you” thriller with small-city drug humour … and not that much humour either. Jesse Eisenberg isn’t too bad as the protagonist finding out that his existence is a hazy lie, but Kirsten Stewart doesn’t impress much as his girlfriend. The script has a few issues (many of them having to do with Stewart’s character) but doesn’t try very hard to break out of formulas. Nima Nourizadeh’s direction does have a few flourishes, even though some of them are overplayed such as the flashforward framing device, or the epilogue-as-cheap-animation credit sequence. As with a surprising number of stoner movies that try to blend themselves in more serious genre, American Ultra’s level of violence seems grotesquely excessive, as if it hadn’t earned the right to showing that much gore in what should be a far more amiable context. It wouldn’t be so bothersome if it wasn’t for the cheap use of anti-government clichés such as assassin squads—not to spend too much time on my soapbox, but it’s trashy thrillers like American Ultra that normalize the idea of a government willing to kill its citizen, and I’m finding less and less to like about that. It’s also in the service of so little: no inspiring message about taking back government, more effective checks and balances or new roles in a digital surveillance age—just dumb drug jokes, a modern “forgotten prince” fantasy trope and bloodshed for all. Alas, American Ultra only amounts to something you’d watch late at night and forget about by the next morning.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) It’s easy to be dismissive of the entire Twilight series as pop-culture fluff for teenage audiences, but the continued appeal of the franchise hints at something deeper than marketing brainwash. While Breaking Dawn is widely acknowledged as the weakest novel in Stephenie Meyer’s series, it does continue the “romantic fears thinly transposed in fantasy terms” trend of the series so far, what with the heroine getting married, having sex and getting pregnant. The pregnancy is terrifying enough without the addition of dueling vampires and werewolves, but that’s the kind of series this is. After the relatively sedate and well-handled Eclipse, which was just good enough to escape ridicule, this first half of the fourth novel renews with insanity and unintentional laughter. The birthing scene is about as well-handled as the material can be, meaning that the most ludicrous scene in the movie is the following battle between the vampires and the teddy-wolves: the CGI of the wolves is noticeably bad throughout the film, and it’s never as bad as when they’re thrown around by vampires. The “imprinting” thing is also very… special. Otherwise, the film plays on the same register aimed at fans of the series: The leads’ acting abilities are still as limited as ever (Kirsten Stewart glowers; Robert Pattinson broods and Taylor Lautner growls), the pacing is deadly slow and the quirks of the series just sound dumb to anyone who’s not emotionally invested in the plot. It’s made a bit more colorful due to the Brazilian honeymoon, and the more adult-oriented plot completely escapes high-school now that Bella is an unemployed pregnant newlywed. The film still works by fits and starts, although some choices (the editing of the wedding speeches, for instance) seem jarring given the series’ demonstrated lack of interest in directorial showmanship. Something that may not affect people who see the film without close captioning is the jarring atonality of the endless song lyrics displayed on-screen. Oh well; if nothing else, Breaking Dawn, Part 1 feels far more self-contained than anyone would have expected from a “Part 1”: The immediate dramatic arc is more or less settled by the time the film ends, with only slight cliffhanger elements. As for the rest, well, it’s a fair bet that no one will see this film completely cold: you will get what you expect from it.