Saturday, November 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015) and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)

(US - 2015)

Over her legendary career, Meryl Streep has demonstrated that she's capable of pretty much everything, so while it may seem like a stretch to imagine her as an aging rocker, it doesn't take long to accept her in the role. Streep is Ricki Rendazzo, who's more or less a D-list Bonnie Raitt in the grand scheme of things: her classic rock cover band Ricki and the Flash have a loyal following as the house band at a Tarzana bar that draws the same crowd every night of the week, but after one unsuccessful album over 20 years ago, she never came close to hitting the big time. Ricki's pursuit of fame and fortune came at a price: in the late '80s, she walked away from her life as Indianapolis housewife Linda Brummel, and though she's made sporadic appearances in the lives of ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and their children, her job as a mother has been fulfilled by Pete's second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Now, Ricki has been summoned back to Indianapolis after her daughter Julie (Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer) attempts suicide when her husband leaves her for another woman. Had RICKI AND THE FLASH kept that dysfunctional family dynamic as its focus, it would've been a lot better than the film that screenwriter Diablo Cody (JUNO) and the great director Jonathan Demme (STOP MAKING SENSE, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) ended up making. For a while, it goes along similar lines as the Cody-scripted YOUNG ADULT, even resorting to some well-done scenes of squirming discomfort, as when Ricki and Pete confront Julie's estranged, dickhead husband at a bar. I also like the approach Cody takes with Kline's Pete, who's happier with Maureen, has made peace with the past and, surprisingly by Hollywood standards, has moved on with his life and honestly harbors no resentment toward his ex-wife. Even more against convention, he may still have feelings for her but stops himself from acting on them. And Ricki's presence--and her tentative reconnection with her daughter and her sons, one sympathetic and forgiving (Sebastian Stan), the other bitter and resentful (Nick Westrate)--does manage to pull Julie off the ledge and get her taking steps toward rebuilding her life.

But then Demme abandons that, almost completely. Pete, Julie, and the rest disappear for a long stretch as Ricki returns to Tarzana and gets serious with her guitarist/boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield) before heading back to Indianapolis for her son's wedding. It's here where Demme sees fit to turn the film into a less caustic version of his own RACHEL GETTING MARRIED before letting it careen into full-on feelgood bullshit with a cast sing-along as Ricki and the Flash boot the wedding band off stage as the uptight onlookers sneer their disapproval but are eventually won over, get up and start dancing. Yes, a blunt and honest film about fractured family dynamics and decades-old wounds turns into a movie that ends with everyone getting over hating Ricki (and her far-right politics, which are introduced and promptly forgotten) and joining her onstage for a big, triumphant jam session at her son's wedding reception. Streep, Springfield (who's quite good here) and the band playing the Flash (featuring guys like keyboardist Bernie Worrell and drummer Joe Vitale) are really playing the songs, and Demme seems more interested in letting Streep show off her rhythm guitar skills and her singing voice in full-length Tom Petty, U2, and Bruce Springsteen covers. RICKI AND THE FLASH just utterly collapses in its second half to the point where it's not out of the question to wonder if Ricki is imagining the whole thing. The first half is honest, smart, and occasionally scathingly funny (Julie to Ricki: "Do you have a gig or do you always dress like a hooker from NIGHT COURT?"), but it just skids to a halt in the second half with one endless song after another and that godawful finale. And why is the bartender from Tarzana dancing at the wedding in Indianapolis?  The band making the trip is silly enough, but the fucking Ricki superfan bartender? Was Demme shooting the movie and realized Cody only had 50 minutes of script, so he decided to wing it the rest of the way? (PG-13, 101 mins)

(US/Switzerland - 2015)

A one-joke comedy that plays like a mash-up of screenwriter Max Landis' DVD collection, AMERICAN ULTRA initially seems like one of those movies that's trying too hard to be an instant cult classic until you realize it isn't trying to be much of anything at all. A splattery, stoner take on THE BOURNE IDENTITY, AMERICAN ULTRA takes place in the fictional West Virginia town of Liman, where pot-addled slacker Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a carryout and spends his free time getting baked with his live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). But it turns out Mike is a CIA sleeper agent in the top-secret Ultra program and only becomes aware of his abilities as an unstoppable killing machine when he's activated by Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), who's trying to save him from the machinations of Yates (Topher Grace), an ass-kissing agency douchebag hellbent on eliminating all traces of the Ultra program. As CIA agents and covert assassins converge on Liman, with the media being fed a story about the town being quarantined, Mike and Phoebe try to stay alive, with Mike instinctively--though he's too perpetually high to figure out how--using anything at his disposal to kill the assets sent to make him vanish.

I'm not sure anyone was demanding a BOURNE movie filtered through HALF-BAKED, but the results are neither as goofy as you'd expect nor as funny as Landis (son of John and writer of the overrated CHRONICLE) thinks. The weed angle is eventually abandoned altogether as ULTRA becomes a lot like a conventional thriller with only the cartoonish, PUNISHER; WAR ZONE-level splatter and would-be CRANK-style gonzo attitude to indicate that it's supposed to be played for laughs. Eisenberg and Stewart fared much better together in ADVENTURELAND, and director Nima Nourizadeh (the found-footage teen comedy PROJECT X) has a great supporting cast at his disposal but doesn't do much with them: Grace, not the most plausible casting for the head of a secret division of the CIA, can play this kind of unctuous turd in his sleep, Bill Pullman has a few scenes as a CIA big shot, John Leguizamo pops up as a strip club owner who's also Mike's dealer, Tony Hale does his umpteenth variation on Buster Bluth as a needy, nervous Lasseter underling, and only Walton Goggins makes a memorable impression as a constantly-laughing assassin named (wait for it) Laugher, whose comedic demeanor masks a depressed cognizance of his autonomy and individuality being stripped from him by his CIA brainwashers. That's as close as AMERICAN ULTRA comes to making a statement about anything. In the end, it's a lot of noise, a lot of CGI (even the exhaled pot smoke is CGI'd!), and not much funny. THE BOURNE LEBOWSKI, it ain't. (R, 96 mins)

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