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American Ultra Is Supposed To Be Funny, But Comes Across As Ultra-Violent

12 September 2015 | 8:59 am | Anthony Carew

It’s hard to laugh at the sight of civilians being sprayed with bullets by inhuman government operatives.

american ultra

"What if, like, I'm a robot?" wonders Jesse Eisenberg, baked as ever, in one of American Ultra’s funnier lines. It's a stoner comedy that taps right into the paranoia of the stoned: what if life really is an elaborate CIA-surveillance state? What if, instead of being a mere US citizen, Eisenberg is actually a government 'asset'? Its premise is born in absurdity, and the comedy comes when it turns out that Eisenberg —an unambitious comic-artist who works at a local convenience store, and is happily shacked up with grunge girlfriend Kristen Stewart— has repressed killing-machine skills.

He's Bourne played for laughs, but director Nima Nourizadeh goes beyond the regular gunplay of a spy-movie. Using action conventions, he amplifies everything —its mercenaries more evil, its villains more vile, its explosions more epic, its machine-gun fire more endless— to over-the-top ends. It’s supposed to be funny, but it comes across as horrifyingly ultra-violent; it’s hard to laugh at the sight of civilians being sprayed with bullets by inhuman government operatives.

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life

If anyone can get to the heart of a film about a photographer and his celebrity subject, it's Anton Corbijn. The Dutch director spent years working as a still photographer and music-video maker, tending to the images of countless rockstars, whilst hoping to tap into something unique and soulful about them, as human-beings, whilst doing so. This is the central theme —and, at essence, the entire story— of Life, which is based on the time in which struggling photographer Dennis Stock talked budding actor James Dean into being the subject for a Life magazine photo-essay. Though the script is by Australian author Luke Davies, you can feel Corbijn's closeness to the scenario throughout; that he knows how it feels to be a photographer pressing a subject to reveal themselves, that he knows how it feels to be seeking truth in the insincere world of fame.

Dean is played —quite fabulously— by Dane DeHaan as a man of essential conflicts: awkward yet charismatic, self-sabotaging but careerist, abhorred by the trappings of the movie-biz yet driven to chase his seemingly-ordained stardom. He rolls out of bed and into meetings, cigarette hanging from his lips, the whole thing a lark. He’s unreliable and evasive, but only while people are pursuing him; any hint that his meteoric rise will be slowed, and he comes wandering back, aw-shucks smirk on his face, ready to do what it takes. Robert Pattinson plays Stock, behind that chiselled-granite face, as tightly-wound, perpetually unsure of himself, someone who life has happened to. DeHaan is pure charisma, Pattinson rubs people the wrong way. They’re an odd-couple, for certain; and, like odd couples for time immemorial, they get sent on a road-trip.

When the pair head back to Dean’s childhood home in the Indiana heartland —a one-horse, one-stoplight farming town— we go back into his past: hurt, regrets, and ghosts all stirred up. Via the imagined conversations that come with the biopic territory, Life seeks to turn Dean from iconic Hollywood saint —Rebel of the upturned collar— into human-being. And its raison-d’être is to show how Stock, the real Magnum photographer, did the same. Once its drama builds into a bittersweet, poetic rumination on home, family, and temporality, the film closes with the real, iconic photographs that Stock took on the trip. We’ve already seen these images, alive and being created, in the film. Corbijn, as student of this game, recreates these images on film, and stills herein; building a shrine to how the photographs, in their own way, both created an icon and simultaneously humanised him.

people places things

‘Charm’ is one of those things that’s often evoked, critically, yet is almost impossible to quantify. One man’s notion of charming, after all, may be another’s idea of smug. But People Places Things is a down-to-earth, downbeat comedy that gets by on the abundant charms of its cast, and especially its lead, Jermaine Clement. He plays a Kiwi comic-book artist living in New York, whose marriage to Stephanie Allynne goes up in smoke at their twin daughters’ 5th birthday party. Leap forward a year, and they’re struggling with separated-living and co-parenting, with Clement tentatively re-entering the dating world when a student (Jessica Williams) sets him up with her mother (a great Regina Hall).

Clement, essentially, bumbles his way through all this: parenting, his relationship to his ex, his budding romance, his teaching. People Places Things, in turn, takes its cues from him: its moments of drama or conflict rendered as wry, absurd; its sense of romance eternally awkward; Mark Orton's brass-centric score full of humorously-downcast notes. The only time it finds true thematic clarity is in the graphic art sketched by Clement and Williams. True to convention, it uses scenes of Clement teaching his students about visual language/juxtaposition/tragicomedy/etc as a meta-narrative device for its own story. And when the plot of the film is turned into artworks-within by both characters, there’s an elegance and directness to the art that scans as pleasingly at-odds to the awkward, aw-shucks, ambling nature of the film. The charming, charming film.

tangerine

"Merry fucking Christmas," pronounces Tangerine on opening, but this is Christmas in Los Angeles: the radiating sun scorching an urban milieu of hyper-saturated, surrealist colours. Director Sean Baker shot the whole film on an iPhone 5, a prototype of an anamorphic-lens adapter stuck to his mobile. His decision to pump up the colours feels like an idle Instagrammer’s abuse of filters, but perfectly suits the spirit of the movie, which seeks both on-the-ground socio-realism and heightened, high-theatrical, hysterical comedy.

As he did with his previous films —2004’s Take Out about illegal Chinese immigrants working fast-food delivery; 2008’s Prince Of Broadway about bootleg-shillin’ street hustlers; 2012’s Starlet about California kids whose McJobs are in porn— Baker bunkers down in an unfamiliar enclave, amongst those living outside the bounds of 'normal' society. Here, it’s West Hollywood’s world of transgender streetwalkers; as personified by Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, an odd-couple, buddy-comedy duo whose lives come together, apart, and collide oncemore over one wild Christmas Eve.

It's, essentially, a portrait of friendship, where love, rivalry, annoyance, and conflict all nestle intimately together. Tangerine begins with Rodriguez fresh out from a 28-day prison stint, and it gets its sense of bountiful, borderline-delirious energy from the explosion-of-rage that occurs when she finds out her boyfriend —James Ransone’s wigga drug-dealer— has been sleeping with a straight-white-female whilst she’s been inside. From there, the film rattles along to its farcical finale: where the entire ensemble cast is brought together under the roof of the one sketchy 24-hour donut shop.

the duke of burgundy

Peter Strickland is a fascinating cinematic figure: he’s readily championed as England’s best new filmmaker, but he’s shot two of his three pictures (his debut, 2009’s Katalín Varga, and, now, The Duke Of Burgundy) in Hungary, and all his films (2012’s Berberian Sound Studio is the other) are essentially Euro-puddings, unmoored from any notion of a single nation. Strickland makes films that are elaborate homages to '70s schlock: Katalín Varga a rape-revenge movie; Berberian Sound Studio a shrine to Italian gialli; The Duke Of Burgundy a riff on erotic cinema and sleazy sexploitation pics. Yet, rather than works of kitschy irony, each of Strickland’s fabulous films is grim, eerie, unnerving, sly, surreal; out to turn grubby sources-of-inspiration into dazzling, resplendent, auteurist high-art.

The Duke Of Burgundy is set in an alternate, fairy-tale world of high-style and no men, where butterflies are bountiful, wallpaper is wonderful, and hemlines are high. And what better place, then, to abuse the old trope of girl-on-girl action; Strickland mining such saucy sapphistry for both beauty and comedy. Here, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are lovers whose lives involve the repetitious routine of dominant/subservient role-playing; the former posing as the dictatorial lady-of-the-manor, the latter the put-upon maid who must scrub her lingerie and rub her feet. For all its visual splendour (and its sweet, tinkly Cat’s Eyes score), Strickland plays the whole thing as pure absurdism, with town etymological-society meetings populated by mannequins, and human toilets being a popular relationship aid. It’s a piece of pure, personal cinema that, at its core, is a droll comedy on the banality of domesticated fetishry.

how to change the world

This early-days-of-Greenpeace documentary —which charts how a bunch of Canadian eco-freaks and refuseniks turned a protest of Nixonian nuclear blasting into the world’s most powerful environmental lobby— is blessed with abundant back-in-the-day footage. Whilst director Jerry Rothwell still has to assemble the half-a-century-on talking-heads, from future Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson to villainous environmental turncoat Patrick Moore, How To Change The World succeeds because we see them not just in the now, but the back-then. With bounteous beards and flowing tresses, the men-and-women of the budding environmental movement set out on high-seas adventures, attempting to interrupt US nuclear tests and Russian whaling hauls. Rothwell identifies the film’s essential theme early, and has it play out in both archival imagery and to-screen testimony: that any ideological movement will be slaves to the individual, egotistical personalities of its group members.