(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 TV, February 2015) I suppose that every generation deserves its own wild-party movie –or, more accurately, every generation of parents deserves the utter helplessness of seeing a movie showing the depths of depravity their offspring is said to be capable. So it is that Project X is designed to be the wildest party-movie of the decade, showing what happens in an age of social media when a party spins out of control. There’s a tedious found-footage stylistic element to director Nima Nourizadeh’s vision, but the real distinction of Project X is to push the excess as far as it can go. The result are literally apocalyptic, not stopping until there’s a riot and a neighborhood in flames (not to say anything about poor daddy’s car.) Of course the debauchery is meant to be off-putting (although one notes that for all of the film’s vulgarity, drug use and wanton destruction of property, there are other areas where the film stays curiously chaste), allowing the teenage audience to vicariously indulge into what is certain to horrify their parents. It works fine, although Project X would have been quite a bit stronger if it had featured more likable protagonists or, at the very least, a vision of things that wasn’t quite as misogynistic in its treatment of female characters. For all of its faults, though, Project X does have a bit of a narrative rhythm to it, and once you get used to the idea that it’s meant to wallow in excess, there is a bit of curiosity in seeing how far it’s willing to go. For post-teenage audiences, tut-tutting is included in the admission price.