American Ultra has surely got to be the worst — or the least — promoted film with “name stars” to be released this year. Despite a cast featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, among others, I didn’t even see one trailer or poster for the film until just a couple of days before I watched it.
That’s very strange, because apart from the stars, American Ultra can also be considered a fringe superhero film, and we all know how popular that genre is these days.
And so I thought American Ultra must suck pretty bad to receive this kind of silent treatment from the studio and fans alike. In reality, it’s nowhere near bad. It’s not even bad. It’s just not as good as it should have been.
The premise goes like this: Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike, a stoner who works at a convenience store, and Kristen Stewart is Phoebe, his girlfriend. His life is blissfully banal until one night, Mike discovers that he’s basically Jason Bourne, and so begins a night of crazy mayhem as the young couple is hunted down by lethal assassins.
I know what you’re thinking — American Ultra is based on a comic book, right? I thought so too, but it’s not. It’s just a movie that feels like it is. I have a feeling the film was aiming for that Kick-Ass vibe — stylish, unexpectedly and brutally violent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and way over the top.
However, American Ultra is just a class or two below Kick-Ass in just about every category. It doesn’t have that same exuberance, sense of fun or confidence. The action is also nowhere near as stylised. And most of all, despite being called an action-comedy, the film is surprisingly light on the comedy, with nary a laugh to be found throughout the 96-minute running time.
You might disagree, though for me it makes sense after discovering that the director of the film is Nima Nourizadeh, the Iranian-British dude who made Project X, one of my most loathed films in recent years. I just found that film stupid, obnoxious and unfunny. American Ultra is a lot better, of course, but I still feel like it was a waste of a huge opportunity because of the intriguing potential of the premise.
The performances are not the problem. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are fairly good in their roles, and John Leguizamo always brings some extra pizzazz to every movie. Topher Grace, however, seems like he’s trying a little too hard to be the archetypal cardboard villain. Maybe it’s way of protesting such a one-dimensional role.
On the whole, my opinion of American Ultra is lukewarm. It doesn’t quite deserve the box office failure it has experienced (barely scraping back half of its US$28 million budget), though it probably deserves its fate of becoming one of those movies that barely rings a bell in a few years.
The Avengers was an ambitious experiment that surprisingly succeeded despite the naysayers and the weight of expectations. The idea that you could create an ensemble superhero feature by taking a bunch of characters with their own franchises was risky, but thanks to the genius of Joss Whedon it turned out to be one of best superhero films of all time.
And so I was excited about the inevitable sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I was also wary of unreasonable expectations. After all, what else could they do to improve on what was essentially a near-perfect formula?
As it turns out, not a whole lot. Joss Whedon tried a few new things and did all he could lift the bar again on the coolness and wow factors, though when you boil it down, Avengers 2 is basically the same movie as its predecessor. For a lot of people, that’s good enough.
You have the same superstar cast with a few notable new additions, some fresh faces and some familiar faces from existing franchises (I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say there were will be surprises unless you’ve been following the production closely). You have eye-popping special effects that turn the screen into a beautiful and coordinated mess of flying bodies, projectiles and explosions. You have an intelligent villain who controls an army of fairly useless robots and appears to have a bunch of mysterious schemes, but all he really wants to do is what all supervillains want to do: destroy Earth. And of course tensions will flare between our heroes and all will seem bleak, but in the end they realise — yet again — that unity is their greatest strength.
Running alongside this proven formula is all the stuff the comic book geeks want. Most of it will likely go right over he heads of regular viewers, but from what I understand there were plenty of well-placed leads into other characters and comics in the Marvel universe that set up the future direction of the franchise as a whole (you can read up on all that in your spare time if you can be bothered).
Despite not doing a whole lot different, Avengers 2 is still an entertaining blast fans of the first film will no doubt enjoy. Whedon finds creative ways to pit different members of the Avengers against each other and show off cool new powers and gadgets, while also giving existing characters opportunities to develop and evolve. Much of it is fairly shallow but I suppose it’s better than not trying at all.
The action itself is also varied and clever so that it’s not just a rehash or imitation of what has been done before. As usual, it’s all heavily reliant on CGI, though it’s done seamlessly enough that it allows you to be immersed in the action. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s an upgrade from the original, but it’s at least different enough so you realise you’re not watching the same film.
The cast is of course spectacular, with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye (also known as the shittier members of the Avengers) getting upgraded roles to get equal screen time — at least — with the main leads of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans. Of the four, it felt like only Chris Evans did not display noticeable signs of character fatigue. Downey Jr, in particular, simply looks like he’s fed up with playing the same character over and over, and he’s pretty much said as much interviews about the future of Iron Man.
The two new characters introduced are Soviet twins the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) — who coincidentally played wife and husband in Godzilla last year. The former has mind control powers and what appears to be a similar power to The Force, while the latter has the ability to move extremely fast. Both were kind of disappointing, to be honest, partly because of the strained Russian accents and partly because they don’t get much time to develop, especially Quicksilver, who pales in comparison to the version of the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past played by Evan Peters.
The titular villain, Ultron, voiced by James Spader, received a lot of attention throughout the production but ultimately wasn’t as impressive as I thought he would be. He’s formidable and intelligent, much like Loki was in The Avengers, but he didn’t add as much to the table as I had wanted. Spader’s voice is great, but never did I feel like he was truly capable of defeating the Avengers.
On the whole, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t as fun as The Avengers, but Joss Whedon fuels it with just enough enthusiasm and excitement for me to rate the experience as on par with its predecessor. As a piece of popcorn entertainment there’s not much I can complain about. He took the “why fix it if it ain’t broke” approach, upped the ante on the action and special effects, took the characters to the next level in their natural progressions, added some faces he knew fans would like to see, created new branches for future storylines, and even threw in a few nice little surprises. It is of course not as fresh as the original, and it’s also not as funny, though all things considered the film takes the Avengers formula about as far as it can go. From here, it’s clear that Marvel has even bigger things planned for the future, and while the Avengers could very well return in future films, their presence and involvement will have to be very different to what it has been.
4 stars out of 5
PS: There’s a short mid-credits scene this time, but don’t bother sticking around until the end because there’s nothing there.
I had been importing my short Flixter entries for all my movie reviews up to now, but I thought if any movie deserved a full review, it would be Watchmen, possibly the most anticipated movie of the year for many (unless Harry Potter 6 or Transformers 2 is more your thing).
Disclaimer: I will preface this review with two comments: (1) I am going to stick to my convention of not revealing much about the plot or what happens in the movie; (2) I have not read the Watchmen graphic novel yet (thought it might ruin the movie experience if I read it beforehand).
Director: Zack Snyder
Main cast: Malin Ackerman (Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Dr Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Ozymandias), Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II), Carla Gugino (Silk Spectre I)
Rating: USA: R, UK: 18, Australia: MA
Running time: 163 minutes
4 out of 5 stars
Watchmen is likely to be one of the most unusual films you will ever see. It’s about superheroes, but it’s not your typical superhero movie. Most of the superheroes don’t display any obvious supernatural abilities (which really just makes them people who like to fight crime and have costume fetishes). It’s often difficult to discern who is good or evil, right or wrong. Probably all of the main characters exhibit some form of mental disorder at varying levels of seriousness. In a sense, they are the anti-superheroes.
As I said, I don’t like to reveal the plot for those that don’t want to know about it (but I assume most people who go to see it have a rough idea). All I will say is that the story takes place in an alternate historical version of 1985, during the peak of the US/USSR Cold War. This becomes clear in the opening sequences.
However, to some extent, it doesn’t really matter what the plot is about, because at its heart, Watchmen is a character movie. The story is told in non-linear form, jumping from character to character and revealing their back stories through flashbacks. There is a central line in the plot, a mystery waiting to be solved, but the focus is firmly on the characters – who they are, how they became the way they are, their personal struggles, their fears, desires, motivations and ambitions. At the same time, there is this constant undercurrent about the nature of human beings, and in particular, their capacity (or lack thereof) for understanding and compassion.
The Watchmen graphic novel (by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins) first came out between 1986 and 1987, which explains the setting. For many years, it was regarded as unadaptable, and after seeing this film, I got a sense of why that may have been the popular opinion. It’s a shame that the movie was not made closer in time to the graphic novel, because the story reflects many of the contemporary anxieties of the American public of that period. Many of those anxieties are still relevant today, but they have evolved (in the wake of 9/11) and the impact is not quite the same as it would have been.
Directing and Screenplay
Director Zack Snyder and writers David Hayter (who wrote the original script) and Alex Tse (who kept the best elements but amended much of it) should be commended on bringing Watchmen to life at last. As I haven’t read the graphic novel, I cannot comment on how good the adaptation was, but as a standalone film, it was very good, though not great. The difficulty may lie with the running length – at 163 minutes, it is very long for a superhero movie (though not as extraordinary as it would have been a few years ago) – but at the same time, you get a strange feeling that there was much more of this bizarre world yet to be explored. Perhaps the director’s cut, which is supposedly 191 minutes (and coming out with the DVD), will be a more complete picture for those that want to see more of it. For some, I imagine 163 minutes is already too much.
The importance of the acting in a film like this cannot be understated. For the most part, the actors in the lead roles delivered believable performances that traversed a plethora of emotions. The clear standout would undoubtedly be Jackie Earle Haley as the freakish yet intriguing Rorschach, the best character by far. You’re already impressed with him when he wears a mask that obscures his entire face. You then become even more amazed when he takes off the mask. Truly brilliant.
Not far behind is Patrick Wilson (Haley’s co-star in the magnificent Little Children), an extremely underrated and underappreciated actor who plays Nite Owl II, a slightly overweight and awkward social misfit.
If there is a weak link, it would have to be Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias. While he may fit the bill physically (tall, lean and traditionally handsome), he doesn’t quite exude the charm and presence needed from the character. Not to take anything away from Goode’s performance because it was adequate, but if you have to pick on someone it’s him.
Violence, Sex and Special Effects
Given the classification ratings for Watchmen, it’s not surprising that there is an abundance of incredibly bloody and gruesome violence (as well as ‘normal’ violence), a bit of sex and nudity (both real and assisted by special effects) and some coarse language (though not as much as I expected). I’m glad they made this film for adults rather than worry about the classification and go for a toned down version that simply wouldn’t have worked.
The fight scenes were superbly choreographed – smooth, crisp and whole, thankfully avoiding the rapid cut scenes that have plagued action films of late. And from the guy who directed 300, I would have expected nothing less. On the other hand, Snyder didn’t shy away from some of the more frightening scenes either, displaying the pain, gore and blood in all its glory.
As for the special effects – they were good, but certainly not groundbreaking. They did a fairly decent job with Billy Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan, but there were times when you could easily spot things that were completely computer generated (not that you would expect them to build the real thing).
On the whole, Watchmen was very very good – but it fell considerably short of the masterpiece some it expected to be. It may seem unfair, but you cannot NOT compare the film to its source material (or at least its reputation if you haven’t read it), which is considered by many to be the greatest graphic novel of all time.
There were some absolutely brilliant sequences littered throughout this movie, but it was more scattered than consistent. Those expecting an all-out action flick might be disappointed because there are quite a few ‘dull’ character development moments in between. I assume there will probably be 4 broad classes of reactions to Watchmen: (1) loved the graphic novel and therefore loved the movie; (2) loved the graphic novel but felt the film did not do it justice; (3) haven’t read the graphic novel and now want to after seeing the film; (4) thought it was weird and stupid and didn’t get it.