Film reviews 76: “American Ultra”, “Ricki and the Flash”, “The D Train”, “Repo Man” and 11 others…

ariel aki Kaurismäki kaurismaki Turo Pajala

This month: “American Ultra”, “Ariel” (pictured above), “Bird People”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “But I’m a Cheerleader”, “Creep”, “The D Train”, “Klown”, “The Major and the Minor”, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, “The Nasty Girl”, “The New Guy”, “Repo Man”, “Ricki and the Flash”, “See Girl Run”, “Time Out” and “Wandafuru Raifu”.

Elsewhere I’ve written recently for Sight & Sound (“Cinema Obscura: Daft Punk”), Dazed Digital (“Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality”), Grolsch Canvas (“Problems and solutions for 2015’s trailers”) and others. Look out for London Film Festival coverage – I’ve got a badge and travelcard, anyway.

For more, follow @halfacanyon.

American Ultra
(2015) – 4/10

Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton
“We were the perfect fucked up couple. She was perfect; I was the fuckup.”

american ultra jesse eisenberg kristen stewart stoned cia

Jesse Eisenberg has tackled Mark Zuckerberg and David Lipsky, but I think he’d be better cast in a biopic of Max Landis, a prolific screenwriter who, with enthusiasm and arrogance, speaks faster than everyone in the room. Well, that’s the impression I get from Landis’s podcast appearances, in which he tosses out film ideas in feverish detail, beat by beat, because he already has too many projects to write.

What Landis does is twist existing pop culture staples with a “what if?” hook. In American Ultra, it’s reinventing Jason Bourne as a stoner whose concentration is obscured by week smoke. Throw in an Adventureland reunion for Eisenberg and Stewart as central couple Mike and Phoebe, it should be a hit. It probably works better through the mouth of Landis in a pitch meeting than what I saw on the screen: occasionally a clumsy thriller, sometimes a sweet relationship drama, but elsewhere a sort of lame Veep.

Landis stresses critics are naïve when they blame a film’s faults on the screenwriter, given how much changes from page to screen. Nourizadeh, then, seems even more to blame in his directorial follow-up to Project X. The action sequences, of which there are many, lack bite – even when food is involved – and are distracted by a running joke that Mike – a trained assassin with amnesia – can unknowingly take out hitmen with a spoon and ramen soup. (Whether he can eat the ramen speedily without slurping, we’ll find out if the sequel International Ultra is greenlit.)

Phoebe’s storyline is mostly uneventful, save for an unexpected relationship arc about twentysomething failures trying to make something for themselves (they should just blog to blindfold themselves from existential despair and the realisation that life is meaningless and pointless) without betraying hidden pasts. In a night-time chase that’s slightly Twilight-ish, she chases Mike through the streets after a heartbreaking revelation. This 20 seconds of running is the only action sequence that works.

(1988) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: Turo Pajala, Susanna Haavisto, Matti Pellonpää
“I’ve had it with this shit. But don’t follow my example – this is shit, too.”

ariel aki Kaurismäki kaurismaki Turo Pajala 2

That’s the advice Taisto receives from his father, who a few seconds later shoots himself off-screen in a bathroom. Taisto, clearly saddened, doesn’t emote or move, other than to smoke a cigarette. A fitting entry point for Kaurismäki newcomers, Ariel is a dark, hilarious tale about someone anchored with sadness; yet he perseveres, often looking as cool AF.

Preceding The Grand Budapest Hotel by a few decades, Ariel accomplishes its own comedic jailbreak sequence, while introducing kindred spirits for Taisto: another criminal sucker punched a few times by an unjust world, and a kind woman whose love is expressed in silence. If the Finnish version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is anything to go by, the deadpan obstacles are worth fighting; a Wizard of Oz-style resolution can drift within sailing distance at the unlikeliest of times.

Bird People
(2015) – 6.5/10

Director: Pascale Ferran
Writers: Guillaume Bréaud, Pascale Ferran
Starring: Josh Charles, Anaïs Demoustier
“’Personne’ means ‘nobody’, but me and you…?”

bird people Anaïs Demoustier pascale ferran

Why do magical French films suddenly appear every time I am near the end of my tether? Just like the two lonely protagonists, I long to be floating through foreign air spaces and eating Pringles. Split in half, Bird People is about a hotel plagued by loneliness, shared by its guests and staff. Yet, as Demoustier remarks to her father, why would anyone talk to the maid?

As it turns out, the human spirit is a damaged beast that makes you feel sick and can be improved if someone takes that pain away. Also, I’ve just taken some codeine so can’t think properly.

Brokeback Mountain
(2005) – 7/10

Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, Annie Proulx (novel)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams

brokeback mountain jack gylenhaal

I’m 10 years late, but this is pretty good. Analysis to come in another 10 years.

But I’m a Cheerleader
(1999) – 7/10

Director: Jamie Babbit
Writer: Brian Wayne Peterson
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, RuPaul Charles
“We don’t use profanity or double negatives at True Directions.”

but i'm a cheerleader gay caretaker guy with a boner

I could just list the things made me laugh, but I’m a cheerleader, so I’ll just stand by the side yelling acronyms.

(2015) – 4/10

Director: Patrick Brice
Writers: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Starring: Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice
“This is the broken screen on the window. This is not good.”

creep mark duplass horror

Mark Duplass wants to hang out for a day? I’m already scared. In all seriousness, the Duplass bro is a horror expert, having aced the perfect interview technique of rattling off his impressive CV without any humility, while implying any other wannabe artists lagging behind just aren’t trying hard enough. If I read or listen to a Duplass Q&A before sleeping, I wake up screaming at 3am because I still haven’t hit the five-film mark. (Heh – “mark”.)

To an extent, he’s got a point; Creep itself is about the simplicity of two strangers creating a film with minimal planning. That’s all that’s required for a psychological two-hander that does a sort of “the call is coming from inside the house” with a memory stick, except it bored me to tears. There’s even less character substance that Duplass’ other “people talking in house” entries (The One I Love, Togetherness, Jeff Who Lives at Home, The Puffy House, Baghouse).

The D Train
(2015) – 4.5/10

Directors/Writers: Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel
Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Russell Posner, Jeffrey Tambor
“I peaked in the 11th grade.”

the d train jack black gay

Imagine having gone to school with Jack Black, an A-list actor who made a career out of never growing up – as if School of Rock was needed to emphasise that point. Now, imagine you’re part of the school reunion committee, attempting to snap up a dance floor cameo from Black. So, you trick your father into a business meeting to score a flight (sounds pointless, right?) to bump into Black, but then you bump into him quite a few times, rhythmically.

That’s the prospect of The D Train, except with Black as Dan, and James Marsden as Black, and Dermot Mulroney as Dermot Mulroney. Once you get past a dull subplot about a fake deal (that goes nowhere and takes up most of the first half), the real film involves an actual “bromance” and the consequences – or, rather, lack of consequences.

Hahn and the other supporting cast are wasted, as to an extent is Marsden, with Black’s manic tics and anxious exuberance taking over the latter half. Underneath, there doesn’t seem to be much – sticking the character by a cliff to cogitate doesn’t convince me – beyond the shock value of something that isn’t shocking and doesn’t pretend to be. Perhaps give it a whirl when it reaches Netflix to watch bit by bit on work breaks.

(2010) – 3/10

Director: Mikkel Nørgaard
Writers: Casper Christensen, Frank Hvam
Starring: Frank Hvam, Casper Christensen, Marcuz Jess Petersen
“I agree it’s Tour de Pussy, but it’s turning into Tour de Pussy Kills Dad.”


I first heard of Klown from a news story reporting Danny McBride would star in an American remake. But if the semi-improvised comedy draws from any HBO comedy, it’s Curb Your Enthusiasm rather than Eastbound and Down. Hvam is a less funny Larry David who captures the arrogant asshole aspect of the character without the human elements. What drives the most horrible moments of Curb and Seinfeld is the skewed logic in each episode has some relatability. Klown, on the other hand, jumps straight into the punchline and treats the setup as an afterthought.

Case in point: a “pearl necklace” goes wrong when Hvam shoots a load onto his wife’s mother, because he wasn’t looking properly. It’s an early move that already establishes the main character as a contrived social monster without much room to breathe. Also, if there has to be an American remake, it should star Pat Healy and retain its cameo from the dude from The Five Obstructions.

The Major and the Minor
(1942) – 7/10

Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Edward Childs Carpenter (play)
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland
“You should be very glad I’m not 12. I was a very straightforward child. I used to spit.”

the major and the minor ginger rogers billy wilder

To quote the chorus of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan”, this is fucked up. (Or maybe I am for thinking that.) Either way, some darkly twisted logic must be accepted in the central conceit whereby Ginger Rogers plays a frustrated traveller who can’t afford a train ticket, so dresses up as a 12-year-old for a discount. Not only does she fool the conductor, the disguise has the same effect – and another subconscious one, too – on an adult passenger portrayed by Ray Milland.

What’s worse is the lie continues when she’s invited to stay with her new friend for a few days, still pretending to be a pre-teen, and proves to be popular with the boys. Although it’s largely a single joke on repeat, Wilder’s debut is consistently funnier than you’d expect – perhaps because it persists with that single, absurd joke.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
(2015) – 4/10

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Writer: Jesse Andrews
Starring: v, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II
“Day 85 of doomed friendship.”

me and earl and the dying girl olivia cooke thomas mann

This is the part where I snidely imply the only sad bit was how much time they made on their unfunny Criterion parodies, but I guess the fictional characters (and anyone in real life) can say the same thing about this blog, perhaps dropping in “the dying URL” for good measure.

The Nasty Girl
(1990) – 5.5/10

Original title: Das Schreckliche Mädchen
Director/Writer: Michael Verhoeven
Starring: Lena Stolze, Hans-Reinhard Müller, Monika Baumgartner
“Dear tree, you’ve helped me so often.”

the nasty girl

Introduced as a black-and-white coming-of-age comedy, The Nasty Girl – as puzzlingly titled as it is – teases out a dark, fascinating Nancy Drew premise: a German schoolgirl, for her latest assignment, investigates her town’s history and discovers its Nazi background. Facing violent threats from panicked Neo Nazis and humiliated locals, the not-nasty girl (played as a plucky go-getter by Stolze) has what should be a riveting mission about investigative journalism, the denials that exist within communities, and the value of remembering the evils of history.

But Verhoeven opts for a bizarre kitchen sink approach, filling each scene with eager-to-please Brechtian tricks like a contestant on Brechtians Got Talent, jumping between documentary, soundstages and whatever dice he rolled that day. Regardless of the story at hold, nothing can withstand such erratic direction.

The New Guy
(2002) – 3/10

Director: Ed Decter
Writer: David Kendall
Starring: DJ Qualls, Eliza Dushku, Zooey Deschanel
“I wish God had an ass like that. Does that sound gay?”

the new guy dj qualls

Who’s that guy? It’s not Jess, it’s the worst DJ since Calvin Harris. The guy from Road Trip has a starring vehicle that sets up a dweeb as a high school hero; by picking up tips from prison, he becomes a student rebel who ends up stealing a cheerleader from a jock. To be fair, the central conceit isn’t taken seriously, and the priority is in scoring as many gross-out, slapstick jokes – none of which made me laugh. But then again, I have no sense of humour. Do we need a new guy to write this blog?

Repo Man
(1984) – 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Alex Cox
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez
“The lights are growing dim, Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.”

repo man 1984 emilio estevez alex cox harry dean stanton car

Destined to be a cult favourite, Repo Man is a slacker treasure trove of conspiracy theories coming true, car chases that are simultaneously punk and selling out, and quotable lines like: “Let’s go get sushi and not pay.” Finding inspiration from (I’m assuming) Kiss Me Deadly, a radioactive car sparks a chase from rival repo men, FBI agents, and some madcap teens who believe in aliens.

However, the sci-fi caper is mostly in the background, just about visible through a rear-view mirror. Cox’s debut is just as much about the teen thrills of being paid to steal cars for a living. Bratty 18-year-old Otto (Estevez) is hovered up by repo man Bud (Stanton) to join the business of the Repo Code – do whatever it takes, but don’t harm the car and “only assholes get killed over a car”.

Stanton, weary and drugged up, is the pro who’s seen it all, chasing a dream so fervently he takes speed to fill the blanks. Everyone, it seems, is chasing something that may or may not exist – whether it’s aliens or a car they can’t afford. The very 80s car chases, scored by filthy punk, are riveting and introspective, much in the manner I hoped and didn’t find in Easy Rider. Completely aware of the irony, each vehicle is a middle finger at corporate culture and consumerism, while fetishising punk (and radioactive) aesthetics.

The counterculture rants are absurd, hilarious and knowingly flawed, but still with real venom. Cox’s various characters, right down to the compliant supermarket clerks and receptionists, are outsiders with get-rich schemes and a lack of patience for the inescapable allure of LA. Repo men and UFOs are, like the disenfranchised, another smudge for the government to remove and flatten. Or, as Estevez puts it: “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me.”

Ricki and the Flash
(2015) – 8.5/10

Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Diablo Cody
Starring: Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan
“She’s actually parenting. Somebody get a camera.”

ricki and the flash jonathan demme meryl streep and meryl streep's daughter guitar band

Three Fridays ago saw the competing releases of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Ricki and the Flash, two mixed-reviewed movies about art plastering emotional wounds. Earl was marketed to teens, with its obnoxious title and John Green-esque poster/premise. Ricki, on the other hand, is about an ageing rock star – one banging out Bruce Springsteen covers – trying to reconcile with her daughter, and that maybe life’s passed her by the past decade or two.

Sat down for Ricki, I was the youngest person in the room by approximately 50 years. The person nearest to me left midway with a coughing fit – I thought he was going to die, possibly of old age. My scepticism was unwarranted as Demme’s dramedy is a poignant, joyous tribute to rock n’ roll as a medicine, an ode to music as a tool for connecting with strangers (especially if those strangers were once close relatives), and melds familiar familial subplots into one energised melodic outfit.

Usually prone to over-acting, Meryl Streep is ideally cast as Ricki – a bar singer hooking up with her guitarist – in a role of intended extravagance and warmth: a mother who loves her family, but is so imbued with the spirit of rock music that her natural inclination is to follow the electric guitar cord. After her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer aka Meryl’s real daughter) attempts suicide, she returns home to reform her old group/family.

The reunion scenes are deftly handled by a supergroup of Diablo Cody and Jonathan Demme. The witty dialogue mines humour in culture clashes and the children’s bitterness, as if they treated lonely Christmases as writing sessions to brainstorm future catty remarks. For contrast are the musical scenes that make use of Demme’s magic touch when it comes to shooting concerts. Meryl doing Springsteen karaoke with a guy called Springstreen who isn’t Bruce? No thanks, you’d think. But Ricki’s history and relationship drama are in her vocal release, couple with some subtle in-band politics – including the unexpectedly moving business of selling a Gibson guitar.

When Ricki performs a solo rendition of “Cold One”, an original number written by Jenny Lewis (incidentally, someone whose last 5 albums seem to be a major FU to former boyfriends) for the film, her former husband (Kevin Kline) and Julie prepare for patronising praise, but are surprised and sincerely impressed by her amalgamation of raw emotion and music. So was I.

See Girl Run
(2013) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Nate Meyer
Starring: Robin Tunney, Adam Scott, Jeremy Strong
“When I was in the air force, we had this thing called cybernetic missiles…”

see girl run adam scott Robin Tunney

See Girl Run sees Emmie (Tunney) run through her past, analysing past relationships like an extended trailer for another rom-com you don’t wish to see. The laboured set-ups and dialogues rely on more telling than showing, often with tortured analogies, as if the screenwriter browsed for useless trivia when struggling to finish a scene.

Time Out
(2001) – 7.5/10

Original title: L’Emploi du Temps
Director: Laurent Cantet
Writers: Robin Campillo, Lauren Cantet
Starring: Aurélien Recoing, Karin Viard
“There is a lake if I stretch my neck hard enough.”

time out (l'emploi du temps) Aurélien Recoing laurent cantet

The clue is in the title: patience is required for Cantet’s slow-burning drama about a man who hides his unemployment by driving around aimlessly during the day. Vincent (Recoing) hides his redundancy from his family with a disturbing amount of ease – and by disturbing, I mean for both him and us. He wanders around offices with the confidence of someone who belongs there, and kills the other hours sleeping in his car.

Cantet’s masterstroke is the slowness and surprising lack of tension, despite Vincent’s consistent inability to lie convincingly. Inventing a job at the UN, he then scams childhood friends for francs. Yet his face has the same cold expression of someone who spent a career just killing time. Tellingly, he admits the happiest moments of his early life were solo driving trips, thinking about nothing – perhaps smoking or listening to music. “I could go on for hours,” he admits in a tone that doubles as a wish.

Wandafuru Raifu
(1999) – 6/10

English title: After Life
Director/Writer: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takaski Naito
“Today is the deadline for choosing your memories.”

Wandafuru Raifu after life koreeda

Like your birthday party, here’s something that perhaps works better as an idea. When you die, a team of amateur filmmakers spend a week recreating your happiest memory, then play the clip in a screening room before eternity kicks in. Koreeda mixes up real people with actors in a series of interviews which is moving, and also sort of like strangers trying to recall something they can’t really remember. Might need to watch again.

Follow @halfacanyon for more. Unfollow @halfacanyon for less.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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2 Responses to Film reviews 76: “American Ultra”, “Ricki and the Flash”, “The D Train”, “Repo Man” and 11 others…

  1. Pingback: Kenicky’s 2015 film roundup | HALF A CANYON FILM BLOG: A traffic jam when you're already a plate

  2. Glad I’m not the only one who loved Repo Man. Nice review!
    Always Intense!!!

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