Monday, August 31, 2015

American Ultra, No Escape, and the messed up state of original cinema

There are a few reasons why American Ultra may not have attracted much attendance in its first week. One of them screenwriter Max Landis might be right about, regardless of whether he's a fuckwit or not: the majority of cinemagoers these days do not seem very adventurous, do not seem to value originality, do not care that a film receives positive reviews, preferring safe-bet spectacles that deliver a predictable series of thrills to fresh ideas and risk-taking. This may not entirely be the audiences' fault, though. It may have something to do with the fact that the entire film production/ distribution mechanism, apart from film festivals and the odd independent, rep, or arthouse cinema, seems ALSO to prefer safe-bet spectacles, and  - especially in terms of the realm of promotion and distribution - also doesn't seem to know what to do with original filmmaking these days...
Case in point: Bold Films, despite having scored bigtime last year with Nightcrawler and Whiplash, two of the best, freshest, most exciting films to come out,  recently made the terrible decision to retitle John Erick Dowdle's new film The Coup. As a horror fan who has figured out that Dowdle, who brought us the utterly great As Above, So Below a couple years ago, is someone to watch, I'd been reading about this project with excitement and anticipation for several months.  I felt some dismay to discover that Bold Films had allowed/ required the film to be renamed.

It's true, mind you, The Coup is not a totally great title. It is a fresh title, never having been used for another feature film that I'm aware of, and it is very relevant to the story, which has Owen Wilson as a hapless father who brings his family to an unnamed Southeast Asian country (obviously and, in terms of locations, actually Thailand) to find, one day into their stay, that the place has been overrun by pissed-off anti-American revolutionaries bent on executing every white person they can find, since they know too well that America and England are conspiring to exploit them with a new "charitable" water project that Wilson is, it happens, involved in. And there he is with his two daughters and homesick wife as all hell breaks loose. He's culpable, and naive, but not a bad man in spite of his limitations; he mostly just wants to protect his family, and you can't but root for him (Wilson, by the way, is perfect for the role). Intense drama ensues, in which he must suffer sufficiently to purge his sins, after which, as it goes in these "transformative/ punitive ordeal" films, he is permitted to FIGHT BACK and reassert his right to life.

So yes, given the centrality of the coup to the action of the film, it's at least a good title. All the same, it has several disadvantages: it's actually a French word, will be subject to embarrassing mis-pronuncations on the part of garden variety pig-ignorant North American cinemagoers, and will possibly even lead a good majority of people to expect a film about a car (as in, "the coupe"), or to reject the film because they just don't know what the title refers to, and therefore figure the film will go over their heads. These are problematic factors, I'll admit, and I don't blame anyone for deciding "The Coup" had to go. 

But good god, Bold - why change the title to something so generic that not even people who have been reading about the film for months with excitement and anticipation will realize that it's opened? No Escape is one of the lamest, most uninspired titles imaginable, suggesting a direct-to-video (or direct-to-Netflix or wherever films go direct to these days when they don't get a theatrical run) Steven Seagal or Jean Claude van Damme retirement vehicle. It's been used for a half-dozen other feature films already, most recently in 1994. It's so boring that even though I'd been waiting for the film for half a year, the first time I saw it on a marquee - though I KNEW about the retitling - I did not register that it was the new Dowdle project. If it's called No Escape, it must be lame, I reasoned, and picked something else (American Ultra, actually) without even looking to see what it was. And while, yes, No Escape does also accurately convey the drama of the film, it does so in such a way as to suggest that what audiences are getting is a predictable, routine actioner, not a thought-provoking use of genre to raise questions of geopolitics. The Coup may not be a great title, but it's a damn sight better than No Escape.

So Bold Films, who, based on their hits last year, really should have known better, has kind of dropped the ball on marketing this one. Worse, they appear to have released the film without any attempt to generate media buzz - or at least of any sort that's reached me. I haven't seen a poster or a trailer anywhere, and I do keep an eye out. Even most of the JPEG posters online kind of suck; the best one I've found, above, is French. In North America, they seem to be relying entirely on word of mouth, which they're not going to get if people just look at the totally unimaginative title and pick something else.

So to reiterate: go see The Coup. Or No Escape, if you prefer. If you like genre films, if you've read your Carol J. Clover, or if you just like the idea of the globalization of backwoods horror, also seen in movies like Turistas or Wolf Creek or the Hostel films or... (I could go on) - where it's not backwoods banjo-strumming hillbillies who call our flawed heroes (and thus ourselves) to task for class inequities, but impoverished and exploited third worlders - you will LOVE this film. I did. (Tho' admittedly it offers a very unsympathetic portrait of its Southeast Asian revolutionaries, so if you're the sort of person who is concerned about how The Green Inferno is representing indigenous people this may not be the movie for you. That's supposedly opening September 25th, at last, by the by).

Oh, and special note for Stephen Lyons: there's a significant Kenny Rogers reference in No Escape. Pierce Brosnan is pretty good, too, as a sort of debauched walk-on from a Graham Greene novel (Did I ever tell you about the time Mr. Brosnan passed by a group of us on Thurlow street or thereabouts, as we staggered towards Robson Street, late to join the Zombiewalk? We were in full zombie regalia, he was talking on his cellphone, and he didn't so much as GLANCE at us. I guess when  you've been around Hollywood for awhile you get inured to such things...).

Meantime, onwards to American Ultra. Like I say, Max might be right: it could be the audiences' fault that no one went to see the film. But as a friend pointed out when I was chewing it over with him, it's ALSO kind of a silly title, erring on the other side of the spectrum, compared to No Escape: because you see, "getting" the title really requires pre-knowledge of MKULTRA and the CIA experiments with mind control, which aren't even mentioned at any length in the film (you'd be perfectly justified in assuming that "Ultra" projects are entirely the filmmakers' invention, based on what they let slip). Non-initiates might presume it's some sort of sports movie, or perhaps some pro-American exercise in flag waving, maybe involving superheroes.

Landis' rant may not be exactly on the mark, then. Between a title that will confuse people and a co-star (Kristen Stewart) who might not exactly be appealing to the average MKULTRA aficionado, the filmmakers might bear SOME of the blame for why the movie is tanking. But the main reason I'm writing this at all is to say that in fact, whether or not you like Kristen Stewart, and whether or not you know what the title is riffing on, the film is really quite fun, smart, silly, and exciting, and while it may not be as spectacular as the new Mission Impossible film (which I still haven't seen), it's surely a whole lot wittier.

And why all the hate for Kristen Stewart? I mean, sure, I prefer Jena Malone, and I have my doubts that Stewart will have much longevity as an actress, but she's perfectly serviceable in this; there's no sense that there was a whole lot more written into the character than she conveys, and no real reason that I can see to conclude that she's any less talented than any other pretty twentysomething out there. Hell, she even takes a beating in American Ultra to rival Patricia Arquette's in True Romance.  Maybe her haters can take some satisfaction in that? She looks pretty hot with her teeth all bloody. (Maybe she's already been there in the Twilight films, but this time it's her own blood...).

Anyhow, I enjoyed both of these films and recommend them. No Escape is the better, but also very, very intense: be warned. Now if I can only find the time to see Backcountry before it ends its theatrical run... I need a good bear attack movie before the summer's out...
Post-script: thanks to Robin "Cinema Sewer" Bougie for his Facebook thread about American Ultra, which probably prompted me to get off my ass and see the film (though it was more a matter of circumstance - my girl was at a workplace reunion that I was not going to enjoy, and lovingly set me free to go see a movie across the street while she socialized, whereupon I was given a choice of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, MI5, Trainwreck, Straight Out of (Outa?) Compton, No Escape, and American Ultra. And some romantic comedy. I might have picked American Ultra anyway, but Mr. Bougie may have informed the choice... Thanks!).

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