AMERICAN ULTRA. Here's a stupid thing I did, an illustration of my occasional inability to get even simple things right. Having glanced cursorily at show-times and decided I had it all figured out, I sauntered casually down to the movie house to see American Ultra on a weekend afternoon, a full 25 minutes after the thing had started. It seemed silly not to stay and watch the rest, so I did. The next screening was timed just so, and I was able to run a couple of quick errands, then back to the theater sharpish to catch the opening minutes of the movie.
Here's the thing: Wandering into the middle of what I assumed was a fully formed scene, but which in fact was as fragmentary as it first appeared, was a happy accident. Skipping the first however-many minutes, I accidentally made American Ultra a better movie.
Part of the problem, of course, is in the publicity. If one has seen the trailer, one knows this is a sort of millennial stoner-Bourne scenario. Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) wiles away the days in dreary Liman, West Virginia, punching the clock at a little-frequented convenience store, sketching comic book ideas and punctuating his prodigious weed intake with psychedelic vacations and overnights in jail. He lives with his long-suffering girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is mercifully tolerant of Mike's crippling anxiety, a condition that prevents them from ever leaving town. Meanwhile Mike's other, submerged identity as a CIA operator threatens to break the stoned predictability of their day-to-day.
Back at HQ in Langley, there's a management shake-up in the works. Ruthless go-getter Yates (Topher Grace) has pushed veteran Lasseter (Connie Britton), Mike's former handler, out of a job. In the process of cleaning house, he intends to eliminate all vestiges of Lasseter's old projects, Mike included. This results in a protracted standoff/military occupation of Liman, which ends rather predictably.
Even if the plot is fairly derivative and the climax lacks some punch, writer Max Landis (Chronicle, 2012) brings a distinctive voice to American Ultra. Mike and Phoebe, thanks to sensitive, naturalistic performances by Eisenberg and Stewart, look and act like people most of us have known, and who usually don't get to be the leads in major motion pictures. Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X, 2012) lends a frenetic, sometimes over-polished aspect to the proceedings, a style that works better visually than it does narratively. Small, repeated continuity flaws were the main reason I thought I had missed something crucial in the opening. And to end at the beginning, I'll say this: On my first viewing, I entered on a scene of Mike and Phoebe smoking a joint on the hood of their car, watching police and firefighters clean up an accident. It's a heartfelt scene and valuable for its concise description of their relationship, even if it feels a little disconnected and forced. More to the point, it makes for a much better opening than the actual one, which plays the annoying trick of starting at the very end, then blasting through a montage of everything in between, which feels lazy and rushed at the same time. R. 96m.
THE END OF THE TOUR. I didn't know David Foster Wallace, needless to say. I've barely even read him; every time I think about acquiring Infinite Jest, I have a minor out-of-body experience, picturing myself judging myself for being "one of those guys" with the unread copy asserting its dominance on his bookshelf.
The main backlash against this movie seems to be coming from vocal Wallace associates declaiming Jason Segel's performance as the acclaimed late author. As someone without any skin in the game, I think Segel does a fine job, bringing a level of ambiguity and hurt to the role heretofore unseen in his work.
The End of the Tour takes place in the closing days of Wallace's Infinite Jest book tour and may actually be more about writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg again), from whose book the movie was adapted, than about Wallace himself. Lipsky, a novelist in his own right, has recently taken a position at Rolling Stone and manages to convince his editor that a profile of Wallace would be just the thing. He flies out to the snow-quieted Midwest to meet the already-canonized genius, from which point the two set out for the last stop on the tour. The two men settle quickly in to a natural, occasionally difficult rhythm, living for these few days in close quarters, seeing the better and worse parts of each other's personalities. Lipsky accuses Wallace of being disingenuous in his insistence that he is, at the end of the day, a regular guy. Wallace bristles at Lipsky's idealization and accusations of ironic distances. They also laugh a lot, eat McDonald's and smoke 500 cigarettes.
The movie has a disarming, lived-in quality, much like director James Ponsoldt's last feature The Spectacular Now (2013). Its naturalism and ease let us ride along with the characters, enjoying the detours of their conversation as much as we are made uncomfortable by their disagreements. This feels like a real road trip with real people, and it is an enjoyable experience. Whether or not it captures the actual identities of the actual people in question is for someone else to say. R. 106m.
— John J. Bennett
DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL. Bel Powley plays a wide-eyed, feisty, imaginative and sexually curious girl in 1970s San Francisco. With Kristin Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård. PG13. 98m.
PHOENIX. Set in 1945, a disfigured concentration camp prisoner finds the husband who sent her there. (In German, English subtitles.) R. 97m.
NO ESCAPE. An American family newly arrived in Southeast Asia winds up in the middle of a violent coup. With Lake Bell, Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. R. 103m.
WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS. Zac Efron as a DJ, bro. R. 96m.
ANT-MAN. Clever asides, Paul Rudd's likeability and subversive darkness almost distinguish this entertaining action flick from the Marvel mass. Supporting sidekick Michael Peña might be a comic genius. PG13. 117m.
FANTASTIC FOUR. Not so fantastic. Marvel's thinly plotted reboot of the comic book action flick lacks heart, style and fun. Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan star and will hopefully recover. PG13. 100m.
THE GIFT. This smart, mean, stylish little thriller about a marriage unraveling and past misdeeds is perfectly paced and brims with dread. Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall and Joel Edgerton star. R. 108m.
HITMAN: AGENT 47. A genetically modified assassin reveals a civilian's latent super-killer skills (does everyone have these?) to take down the suited villains who created them. R. 96m.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Director Guy Ritchie's exercise in style skirts global politics for minis and hangs its retro chic on a plot that's not vintage, just old. PG13. 116m.
MINIONS. Sandra Bullock and John Hamm lend voices to the Despicable Me spin-off starring the goofy, Twinkie-esque henchmen. PG. 91m.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION. Cruise and company return with thrilling action (motorcycles! cargo planes!) and an under-developed plot that lacks real danger. PG13. 132m.
MR. HOLMES. Ian McKellen plays the mythic detective late in life, combing his memory over an unsolved case with the help of a precocious boy. With Laura Linney and Milo Parker. PG. 105m.
PIXELS. Still playing. Really? PG13. 105m.
RICKI AND THE FLASH. Meryl Streep plays a rock star reconnecting with her ex (Kevin Kline) and grown kids. Also starring Rick Springfield (not a typo). PG13. 101m.
SHAUN THE SHEEP. The wordless, woolly, stop-motion hero takes his farm-based escapades to the big city, aided by his flock and pursued by animal control. PG. 86m.
SINISTER 2. Because people can't resist moving into creepy farmhouses with histories of grisly murders. R. 97m.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. A fluid and immersive drama with strong portrayals of NWA's now mythic members (give or take an assault) against the background of all too familiar racism and police violence. R. 147m.
VACATION. It's true what they say: You can't go home or to Walley World again. An un-funny reboot despite Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. R. 99m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill