STORY WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
The contemporary YA flick, “American Ultra” puts a comedic spin on a trope, which is ordinarily ominous in tone.
“The Manchurian Candidate,” by novelist Richard Condon, popularized the premise of a sleeper agent. In his psychological thriller, a platoon of American infantrymen was captured during the Korean War. They were taken to Manchuria, where they are subjected to intense brainwashing by Chinese Communist agents.
One of the imprisoned soldiers, Major Bennett Marco, is the scion of a prominent American political family. As a result of the brainwashing, Marco and his cohorts become convinced of the specious notion that he heroically saved them from certain death on the battlefield.
Upon his return to the United States, Marco receives a Medal of Honor. He then becomes an intelligence agent for the United States government.
Marco is haunted by a recurrent nightmare. In it, during a brainwashing session, at the behest of Communist agents, his sergeant, Raymond Shaw, had killed two members of the platoon. Did it really happen or is it some false memory, a twisted artifact of wartime trauma?
It turns out that Sergeant Shaw has indeed killed two of his underlings. Moreover, he had been programmed by the Communists to unwittingly become a sleeper agent. When playing solitaire, the appearance of the Queen of Diamonds activates him. He accepts orders, which he subsequently forgets, to assassinate various targets. It is all part of an elaborate scheme by the Communists to supplant the democratically elected government of the United States with a puppet dictator.
The novel was adapted into a classic 1962 film, directed by John Frankenheimer with Laurence Harvey as the protagonist. It was remade in 2004, with Jonathan Demme in the helm and Denzel Washington in the lead.
Now comes, “American Ultra,” a jocular reinterpretation of the sleeper premise. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a hapless stoner, who works the overnight shift at a convenience store. He has a broken down jalopy and a girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).
Unbeknownst to Mike, he has been programmed by the United States government to be a secret agent. When activated, he displays an armamentarium of startling skills. Who knew?
The film marks the reunion of Eisenberg and Stewart, who appeared together in “Adventureland,” a coming of age film, set in an amusement park. Coincidentally, in that film, Eisenberg also played a character, who was a chronic marijuana smoker.
Late August is typically a dumping ground for studios to disgorge films in which they have little or no confidence. However, the trailers for “American Ultra” suggest that it might be a genuinely funny film. Will it become a sleeper hit?
Opens wide on Friday, Aug. 21. R (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content) 96 minutes. Lionsgate Films
“Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Based on a memoir of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” is set in San Francisco during the ‘70s.
The 15-year old protagonist, Minnie (Bel Prowley), and her younger sister, Gretel (Abigail Wait) grow up in a household in which conventional values are eschewed. Their mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), is wantonly promiscuous in accordance with the ethos prevailing in her social microcosm. She provides little in the way of parenting. Boundaries for her daughters are conspicuously absent.
Who are the respective biological fathers of the two girls? Since their mother has slept around, it isn’t clear. Pascal (Christopher Meloni from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) attempts to provide some surrogate fathering from afar. However, he lives out of town and his quasi-parental efforts take the form of long distant telephone calls.
However horribly inappropriate it might be, is it really surprising that Minnie embarks on a sexual relationship with a man, who is decades older? How about if the guy in question is Monroe Rutherford (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s principal paramour?
Will the clandestine lovers be able to keep the taboo relationship shrouded in secrecy? If discovered, what impact will it have?
Screenwriter/director, Marielle Heller, makes her feature film debut here. She has a long antecedent relationship with the source text. Previously, Heller had adapted it into a play, in which she played the lead role. Favorably impressed with Heller’s theatrical adaptation, Gloeckner granted her the right to mount the cinematic treatment of the largely autobiographical work.
“Diary of a Teenage Girl” made its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where Brandon Trost won the cinematography award for his lenswork. Subsequently, at the Berlin Film Festival, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” won the Grand Prix of Generation 14 Plus section for best feature length entry. The category is reserved for films that contain themes about adolescents and those on the cusp of adulthood.
Thus far, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” has generated a nearly universal critical response for its sensitive treatment of daunting subject matter.
Opens in limited release on Friday, Aug. 21. R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking — all involving teens). 102 minutes. Sony Pictures Classic
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.