Tag Archives: Connie Britton

Dazed and Conspired

Wild stoner spy comedy is a mashed-up head trip

American Ultra - Comic Con Poster crop

American Ultra

Starring Jesse Eisenberg & Kristen Stewart

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh

R

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is an underachiever pothead, working the overnight shift at a mini-mart and doodling comics in his sketchbook. Mike doesn’t care much about anything, except Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), his his live-in girlfriend, who’s pining for the getaway trip to Hawaii that Mike’s airport panic attacks always seem to derail.

Nothing much happens in their sleepy little hamlet of Liman, W.Va. Nothing, that is, until Mike looks up into the sky one night and American Ultra kicks into to crazy high gear with deep government ops, lunatic hit men and two young lovers caught in the middle.

Everything revolves around Mike, who’s more complicated and skilled than he realizes—or remembers. And Phoebe turns out to have a surprise or two of her own, too.

Soon, we’re up to speed on what Mike pieces together slowly: He’s a high-level government “experiment” genetically programmed with deep, long-dormant classified intelligence and lethal self-defense abilities. And higher-ups in the program are worried that he might go rouge, or haywire—or, most problematic of all, expose their body-and-brain games.

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It’s a weird, wacked-out, sometimes wonderful mash-up of stoner comedy, spy-conspiracy spoof and hyper-violent teen-romance fantasy—think of Eisenberg and Stewart’s characters several years down the road from their 2009 collaboration Adventureland, caught between The Bourne Conspiracy and Pineapple Express, and spattered with Oliver Stone’s bloody overspray from Natural Born Killers.

Connie Britton from TV’s Nashville plays a government operative determined to help Mike evade the efforts of her devious counterpart (Topher Grace), who has marked him for elimination. Walter Goggins from Justified is a cackling killer, Laugher, sent—along with an army of other exterminators—to take him out. The versatile John Leguizamo trades his shirt for a torso swathed in fake tattoos as a local lowlife. Bill Pullman is a Washington suit none too happy that one of his “lab rats” is making such a big, noisy mess in the white-trash hills of West Virginia.

John Leguizamo

Director Nima Nourizadeh, whose only previous movie was the teen-debauchery flop Planet X (2012), sets up the crazy story, but has a hard time getting it out of the grindhouse. He stages some sock-o action pieces, however, and one of the coolest things is watching Eisenberg, typically cast as an obsessive-compulsive nerd, break out his license to kill. He’s deadly with a spoon, a cup of instant noodles or a package of frozen hamburgers, even if he doesn’t realize exactly how, or why. The humor is dark, the body count high and the blood abundant. But there’s a tenderness and a love story behind the mayhem, too, and one final surprise—when Mike and his relentless stalker, Laugher, finally come to blows—will hit you hard in a soft place, in a way you won’t see coming.

“Do you feel sick?” Phoebe asks Mike at one point. “No, I feel kind of amazing,” he says, reveling in his newfound abilities. In the way-out American Ultra, those two extremes—sick and amazing—somehow don’t seem so very far apart.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Terminally Cool

Young stars shine in fresh, quirky coming-of-age comedy-drama

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Olivia Cook, Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cook and RJ Cyler

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

PG-13

A movie with “dying girl” in its title would seem to be giving you a pretty big spoiler right up front.

But don’t let thinking you know what’s going to happen keep you away from the many delights, heart pangs and sweet surprises of this fresh, quirky comedy-drama, the big hit at last summer’s Sundance Film Festival now spreading into the movie mainstream.

Based on author Jessie Andrews’ award-winning 2013 debut young-adult novel, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl unfolds through its central character, Greg (Thomas Mann), who narrates. He begins, “This is the story of my senior year in high school and how it destroyed my life—and how I made a film so bad it killed someone.”

Intrigued? You should be.

Greg, who’s cruised through high school by avoiding close friendships with just about anyone while breezily associating with just about everyone, has only one real buddy, Earl (RJ Cyler). Greg and Earl have been “associates”—Greg can’t bear to use the word “friends”—since childhood, bonding over classic movies and making their own low-budget parodies. Their video mini-masterpieces include Gross Encounters of the Turd Kind, Senior Citizen Kane and A Sockwork Orange.

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Connie Britton & Nick Offerman

Greg’s mom and dad (Connie Britton of TV’s Nashville and the wonderfully dry Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation) inform him that one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cook of Bates Motel), is dying of cancer—and it sure would be nice if Greg reached out to her. Greg isn’t keen on the idea, and neither is Rachel. But soon the ice between them begins to melt, Rachel begins to dig Greg and Earl’s oddball movies, and Greg begins his next cinematic subject—featuring Rachel. But completing it becomes harder than he thought.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, making his second feature film after a run of TV (Glee, American Horror Story), has a real feel for the material with a keen visual style that captures the story’s emotional swirl and its spectrum of teen alienation, attraction, anger, angst, frustration, whimsy

Olivia Cooke as

and wisdom. Subplot threads about a super-cool history teacher (Jon Bernthal) and Greg’s college application process tie up neatly—and significantly—at the end. And the terrific young actors (who actually range in age from 20 to 25) flesh out their characters with relaxed, natural performances that never feel forced, fussy, sappy, goofy or unnecessarily dramatic.

It’s up at times, down at others, ultimately life-affirming and bustling with originality, even while it traverses somewhat familiar teenage territory: Think The Fault in Our Stars crossed with Napoleon Dynamite with just a pinch of The Breakfast Club for seasoning. It may remind you of other things, but it’s definitely got it’s own chill, cool, youthful, coming-of-age vibe.

Just give into it, go with it and let it take you where it leads you—and don’t caught up in thinking that you already know where that will be.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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