Archive for August, 2015

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In 2009, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart co-starred in ‘Adventureland,’ an excellent, soft-spoken charmer about theme park workers in the 80s.

It’s been a winding road for both actors since then. Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination for The Social Network while balancing paycheck work like Now You See Me and Rio with obscure indie projects like The Double and Night Moves.

Similarly, Stewart presumably bought several houses with her Twilight money before spending the last few years rebuilding her indie cred with prestige dramas like Camp X-Ray, Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria.

Which brings us to 2015, with the actors reuniting to star in ‘American Ultra,’ an action comedy that tries to be both fresh and familiar, and ends up befuddled in the process.

Eisenberg and Stewart play Mike and Phoebe, a pair of underwhelming stoners in love in Liman, West Virginia. He wants to give her a better life, but his panic attacks and frequent drug-related interactions with law enforcement keep them firmly rooted in a status quo.

But their inertia is actually part of a government conspiracy. Their lives are blown up – literally and figuratively – when CIA assassins are sent to kill Mike, who is in fact a latent government operative with a bad case of the Jason Bourne memory wipe.

Mike is reactivated just in time to defend himself and his lady love, prompting an ever-escalating amount of government fire to rain down upon them. But no amount of action choreography and shaky camera can mask the fact that Eisenberg is completely unconvincing as an action star, and the movie’s BIG TWISTS are as easy to spot as a freight train in broad daylight.

The carnage, which arrives in abundance, is played for laughs. But the attempts a Pineapple Express-esque synergy are squandered by lazy corner-cutting by the writers. For example, Walton Goggins plays a particularly deranged assassin named Laugher, who laughs a lot. It’s supposed to be clever, it’s not, and it speaks to the glaring lack of anything that resembles character development in the undercooked script.

Stranger still is the cast that turns up to stain their reputations. I can only assume that everyone owed the producers a personal favor, as there’s no other way of explaining the presence of Goggins, Connie Britton, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale and John Leguizamo.

All involved would do well to let ‘Ultra’ fade into obscurity.

Grade: C

*American Ultra opens nationwide on Friday, Aug. 21.

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When an atomic weapon falls into the wrong hands, two elite intelligence agents from the United States and Russia are forced to set aside their Cold War differences and work together to bring down a Nazi-influenced criminal organization.

That’s the set-up for ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” the latest from ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Snatch’ director Guy Ritchie. It stars current Superman Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo – a gentleman thief turned CIA master spy – and erstwhile Lone Ranger Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, an emotionally disturbed and volatile KGB operative.

One part Scotch-swilling period piece and one part buddy cop comedy, U.N.C.L.E. is a globe-trotting romp that keeps one eye firmly winked, evoking the memory of the classic James Bond films with all the befits of modern cinematic technology

The presence of Henry Cavill is a particular coup by Ritchie, who creates a world in U.N.C.L.E. that is the functional antithesis of Zach Snyder’s dour, monochromatic Man Of Steel. Ritchie’s spy-vs-spy tale is practically drowning in bright colors, jazzy soundtracks, double entendres and the gleaming white smiles of its leading men, who it turns out are quite winning when their actually allowed to enjoy themselves.

Hammer, lately adrift in the forgettable streak of Lone Ranger, J. Edgar and Mirror Mirror, takes a slight backseat to his costars, including Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander. But he’s also given plenty of screen time to chew on his faux-accent as a Russian volcano perpetually on the verge of eruption.

It’s easy to imagine studio heads pushing for a “gritty modern” remake of the Cold War-set property, but luckily the screenwriters resisted that urge. As intriguing as a forced U.S.-Russia team up in the modern era could be from a thematic standpoint, there’s no trading the bouncy charm of U.N.C.L.E.’s period details unencumbered by realism.

The bubble of style over substance threatens to pop in the film’s third act, when the action shifts to a frenetic car chase that – one signature stunt notwithstanding – plays jarringly generic after two hours of sizzle. And the ultimate resolution is as tidy one of Napolean Solo’s tailored suits.

But that breezy finish is also earned, and a late entrance by Hugh Grant provides an energy jolt for a sequel that Hollywood could – and has done – significantly worse than greenlight. At worst, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is guilty of being too enamored with its own sense of fun, which is hard to hold against it.

Grade: B

*The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens nationwide on Friday, August 11.

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I participated in my first Ukulele competition, although “competition” in this case is a very loose term.

Little Logan Utah (population 49,000) decided to hold the Utah Ukulele Festival last month. As it turns out, it’s one of several “Utah” ukulele festivals held in the state, and would much more accurately have been labeled the Cache County Ukulele Festival.

Still, it was charming and exactly what I expected it would be. And since we were camping in the area already (more on that later) we decided to stop by.

The festival was mostly centered around an open mic competition, split into two age divisions of 14 and younger or 15 and older. There were also a few vendors, with both high- and low-end ukuleles for sale.

The kids’ division was a hoot, including two separate renditions of Jason Mraz’ “I’m Yours” in which the performers struggled over the syllabic gymnastics of removing “God” and “Damn” from the lyrics.

I performed “June Hymn” by the Decemberists. In the end I think I got demerits for not performing an original song but that was fine because the winner really did steal the show, playing a great tune about saying goodbye to her boyfriend.

Liz filmed my song, which you can watch above. I tried to crop it as best I could but unfortunately my girlfriend is that type of person who films vertically. We’ve talked about it. That, and her opinion of Tom Cruise, are the two most challenging divisions in our relationship.

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The festival came at the end of our trip, which started with a campout in Logan Canyon and a hike up to the wind caves. This was the first time we’ve attempted a Family Camping Trip and I’d say it was, overall a success, although some members of our group were less inclined toward the finer points of outdoor adventuring.

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We also took advantage of the trip to make a detour up to Bear Lake, where we paddled around and got some lunch at La Beau’s. Liz isn’t from Utah, so I explained to her that we are a La Beau’s family and will never, under any circumstances, eat at the Quick N Tasty, which is neither Quick nor Tasty.

Also, because it cracks me up, here’s a picture of Truman creepily staring at us through the tent screen like Paranormal Activity rather than go play in the great outdoors.

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