American Ultra (2015)

cyz1mvnhma54ho3dpqx9Roze-Rating: 3 / 5

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner, convenience store clerk, deeply in love with his long time girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). So in love; he is ready to make it official. Although when a planned trip to Hawaii is derailed by one of Mike’s uncontrollable panic attacks, he has to reconsider when to pop the question and if to pop the question at all. Having lived his life burdened by his anxiety, he worries that he is holding Phoebe back and if marriage would only hit the nail in the proverbial coffin. This all changes when a strange lady visits him at his convenience store, and utters what can only be deciphered as song lyrics at first interpretation. Little does he know, he is a sleeper agent, being activated in anticipation of an attack against his life.

American Ultra gives you exactly what you expect to get. A stoner romance with a secret agent backdrop. The trailers and promotional materials tell us that it’s a film that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. We know to go into it prepared for a pretty crazy romp, that has enough weed and bullets to last us ten Harold and Kumar films. Does it succeed? Absolutely. For a film of its scale, it delivers enough explosions and mayhem, to give the Michael Bay’s of this world, raging hard-ons. You might be thinking, “Jesse Eisenberg? An action star?”, and you would be right in thinking that, but that is exactly the point. This is a dude who is completely oblivious of the fact that he is a secret agent. So when he inevitably kills two guys, with only a cup of noodles and a spoon at his disposal; it becomes quite fitting that he is just as shocked as we are. I mean, he’s basically the stoner version of Jason Bourne… and with that thought in mind; imagine a Jason Bourne, Mike Howell crossover. I can see it now. Two best friends, fighting corrupt government agents with a spliff in their mouths, contemplating existence and humanity… isn’t it absolutely delightful. Although we wouldn’t want Aaron Cross getting jealous would we?

Even though the film hits on every level we want in terms of action, I just wish it was filmed with a bit more style. After watching Kingsman this year, it really opened up my mind about how unique an action sequence can look, and how much more it can add to a film. A lot of American Ultra is by the books, with exception of that frying pan ricochet shot. That was actually pretty badass! If it possessed a bit more of that ingenuity, this film could have hit the cult heights of John Wick of last year.

Nevertheless, beneath all that mindless action, is actually some heart. Within two minutes of the film, I bought into the relationship between Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Their love, although kinda dysfunctional, totally works. Phoebe almost possesses this unconditional love towards Mike, as she evidently plays the mother role as well as being the girlfriend. Despite all of his fuck ups, she still loves him for who he is, and that connection is felt throughout the film. As well as their relationship, there is a brilliant moment at the end of the film between Mike and one of the CIA agents trying to kill him, (Laugher). With all that has happened, you instantly enter the psyche of someone who has been experimented on and then used as an expendable entity. Admittedly, it sounds a lot deeper than it was, and most of the praise could probably go to Eisenberg and Goggins for selling those emotions. Regardless, I really enjoyed that moment. Man, I’m sensitive… That being said, it would have been interesting to explore that a bit more, just to give the film something extra to chew on.

Ultimately, with a couple of twists here and there, and enough comedy to inspire laughs, this film strays away from becoming a snooze-fest as we so often see with films like this. American Ultra is true to what it is on the surface. A fun, action-packed, stoner flick, with an endearing romance at its core.

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Off The Radar: Grand Piano (2014)

grand_piano_still_a_lRoze-Rating: 3.5 / 5

Tom Selznick branded as the most talented pianist of his generation returns on stage for a comeback performance after five years of retirement, as a result of nightmare performance that halted his career in an instant. To add to his ongoing nerves, during the opening of his concert he discovers a message on his score sheet stating that he will be killed if he makes a mistake. While playing in front of a large audience, Tom must figure out who has him at gun point and for what reasons.

This isn’t your average thriller as the premise may suggest, and that may be why the film isn’t a complete flop. That being said behind the preconceived premise, the twists and turns that take place may not be as inventive as one hopes. What saves it from becoming a generic thriller is the direction of Eugenio Mira and performance of Elijah Wood, who has relished his freedom lately and taken up a number of low budget projects. Grand Piano is set in one location and is filmed in real time, yet it remains engaging and is rarely dull.

As classical music is, the camera work is elegant in its movement and is reluctant to use the same angles excessively keeping the location fresh but also working hand in hand with the music as a way of expressing the chaos taking place in front of a clueless audience. The cinematography as a whole is a good enough reason to watch this film. The editing is also masterfully utilized on occasions to symbolize violent acts, such as suddenly cutting to the stroke of a bow along a cello’s strings to show what crime had just occurred. Without the sophisticated camera work, Grand Piano would lack the thrills and tension which make the film at times exciting.

Upon doing some research I was surprised to find out that Elijah Wood has limited piano playing abilities and that most of what was filmed was the craft of his hands, and that alone merits praise for his performance. Having to concentrate on his precise hand movements, acting and listening to John Cusack via an earpiece takes some major multitasking skills and it totally succeeded. Despite not seeing much of John Cusack, his voice succeeds in being convincingly menacing.

It is an unusual film but that’s what gives it character, providing quite a pleasantly unique viewing experience. It’s tense when it intends to be and quirky in others, despite underwhelming twists and perhaps a payoff too, it’s a film definitely worth watching as a guide on how to make a low budget film that looks classy and is as intriguing as any other blockbuster thriller; and hey it make even convert you into a classical music enthusiast too.