Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

March 25, 2016 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by: Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel”)
Written by: Chris Terrio (“Argo”) & David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”)

After nearly three years of fanboy hand-wringing and prognostications of disaster, Warner Bros.’ and DC Comics’ attempt to reverse-engineer the formula Marvel and Disney have used to build a filmmaking empire, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” has finally arrived. Big, bold, grim, overstuffed, overcooked, smart, stupid, and loud, the first live-action on-screen pairing of the two biggest titans in comic-book history teeters on the brink of outright disaster for a good chunk of its runtime, yet somehow manages to shake a mostly-enjoyable adventure out of a screenplay that introduces three major new characters and packs in jumping off points for at least five superhero movies that are scheduled to follow, all while acting as a quasi-sequel to 2013’s overwrought “Man of Steel.”

A prologue unnecessarily re-familiarizes us with the death of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) parents that serves as the beginning of his journey to becoming Batman. Thirty years later, we find Wayne rushing around Metropolis during the climactic, destructo-porn showdown between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that capped off “Man of Steel” and left thousands in the city dead, including some of Wayne’s employees. Two years later, the U.S. Congress, led by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), is looking for ways to rein in Superman’s destructive potential and discussing his penchant for saving only the people he wants to save—namely Lois Lane (Amy Adams, wasted again). When Lois finds herself in a terrorist den in Africa, facing down a machine gun as her photographer Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy) is revealed as a CIA spy (!!!), Superman comes to her rescue after the terrorists are taken out by private security officers. An experimental bullet is found in Lois’ shot up journal, Superman is blamed for the terrorist deaths (for some reason), Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is asking for an import license for Kryptonite so he can build a weapon that could potentially stop Superman, Batman is tracking Luthor’s criminal dealings while also figuring out how to take down Superman, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is lurking around the fringes for most of the runtime–and then a whole bunch more stuff happens and even more characters are introduced over the course of two and a half hours.

When the digital dust settles, why does this all work? Wisely, the film plays more like a Batman movie than anything else, and Affleck’s take on the character is the Batmanliest yet, zipping around on grappling hooks, whipping out neat gadgets and awesome vehicles, and actually doing a little bit of detective work over the course of the film. His Batman is just driven and crazy enough to make his quest to take on this superhuman god seem like the most refreshing take on the character in years–apologies to Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” but the realism that grounded that series put a damper on the more fantastic elements of Batman’s mythology. Gadot’s Wonder Woman also shines in her debut, shedding the exposition she’s saddled with halfway through the film to come out swinging in the film’s final battle, sure to leave the audience hungering for the character’s upcoming solo film. Cavill, once again donning the red and blue tights as the Man of Steel, is still a dud, though. The filmmakers, led by “Man of Steel” director Zack Snyder and writers Davis S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) and Academy Award winner Chris Terrio (“Argo”), still haven’t cracked this dark, brooding Superman and what his motivation is. With the knowledge of a “Justice League” movie starting production next month, along with upcoming solo efforts from a whole slate of DC Comics characters (next up is “Suicide Squad” this August), the events of “Batman v. Superman” ultimately become inconsequential, echoing 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Warner Bros. and DC Comics needed to make a big bet to get into the shared universe superhero game, and their first giant splash is a push rather than a win or loss.

American Ultra

August 21, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”)
Written by: Max Landis (“Chronicle”)

As part of a marketing campaign for “American Ultra” at Comic-Con, convention-goers who happened to be holders of a prescription for medical marijuana were able to be hand delivered branded weed and paraphernalia from the film. Gaining headlines and controversy, this stunt-marketing ploy was a dream scenario for Lionsgate; they got the word out, distracted audiences and got them interested into a movie that has nothing else going for it.

One night while working in a convience store, a stoner, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), is visited by a woman who utters a secret code phrase to him. Unbeknownst to Mike, he is a trained CIA sleeper agent and when his life is threatened, ends up killing two guys with skills he was not aware he possessed. As he meets up with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), Mike must figure out why people are trying to kill him and why his own skills as an assassin are second to none.

Reuniting the principle cast from 2009’s “Adventureland,” Eisenberg and Stewart are once again paired together as a romantic couple. For Eisenberg, it’s a return to the type of frazzled, awkward, one-note performances he has displayed in the past. It isn’t entirely his fault, but his drug-induced paranoia that the humor relies upon isn’t sold well enough to get laughs. Stewart, who has been on a nice little run of solid performances with films like “Camp X-Ray” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” is fine, if not unspectacular. While the lead performances can at least be stomached, a few of the supporting ones are unforgivable. Most notable of those are Topher Grace, who should really stop attempting to play a bad guy, and Walton Goggins whose character of “The Laugher” feels like an interpretation of The Joker from a straight-to-video Asylum movie.

The script from Max Landis is perhaps the most troublesome element of a very troubled movie. Starting off with a thud, “American Ultra” has an almost instantaneous lack of energy. As it desperately searches for a tone, jokes miss left and right and anything character driven goes nowhere. When the actual plot of the film kicks in, it becomes painfully generic, feeling like an extended and rehashed version of a superhero film where a seemingly normal person realizes they have powers.

It’s the least of its problems compared to the muddy narrative. When it is revealed that Mike was part of a CIA project, everything that follows is unclear. The motives of characters make no sense and the plot twists are lame and more importantly, riddled with holes. With gunshots, stabbings, explosions and more, Landis and director Nima Nourizadah introduce a violent streak as the plot continues. It’s an odd turn, especially considering the violence is almost always meaningless (and made worse by really bad CGI blood spatter) and makes for a confusing, conflicting tone.

Flat-lined from the get-go, “American Ultra” is a poorly conceived disaster. It’s hard to tell where exactly Landis and Nourizadah went wrong, but the film sleepwalks for 90 minutes, throwing in obligatory plot contrivances just for the hell of it. There isn’t one single element of the film that works and its very existence, especially given the talent involved, is baffling.

The End of the Tour

August 15, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Joan Cusack
Directed by: James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”)
Written by: Donald Margulies (debut)

More than a simple heartfelt tribute to someone who is considered by many as one of this generation’s greatest writers, “The End of the Tour” really wants to understand what exactly was going on in the head of late novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during the pinnacle of his career when he wrote his epic novel Infinite Jest in the mid-90s. It’s an answer director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) and his former college professor and first-time screenwriter Donald Margulies are ultimately unable to offer audiences, but should still be commended for crafting a fascinating and personal character without doing what most films of this nature can sometimes do and turn its main subject into a sacred idol. We may not get any answers from “The End of the Tour,” but with a personality as complex as Wallace’s, it’s difficult to know where the talent and the tortured soul begin and end. Or if one can even exist without the other.

Featuring Segel as Wallace during a five-day-long interview session on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), “The End of the Tour” pits writer versus writer in an intimate retelling of what Lipsky wrote in his own book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which was published two years after Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. Wallace’s death bookends the film as we watch Eisenberg’s Lipsky receive news of Wallace’s suicide and immediately goes into his closet to retrieve the box of recordings of their five-day-long interview, an interview that never actually saw the light of day at Rolling Stone.

With Lipsky’s book, and now with Ponsoldt’s film, fans of Wallace’s writing can get a sense of who Wallace was depending on whether or not you believe Lipsky’s and Segel’s versions of the beloved author are something you consider authentic. While some may argue that Segel does not present a true representation of who Wallace was (read The Guardian‘s review by Wallace’s friend Glenn Kenny), he does create a character with enough depth and interesting perspective to care for him as a real person. What is even more thought-provoking, however, is the dynamic between Segel and Eisenberg as the two men push and pull each other into uncomfortable and emotional corners that neither probably though they would find themselves in when their interview first begins. Think of it as conversational theater.

To Rome with Love

July 6, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni
Directed by:
Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)
Written by:
Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)

Even at the age of 76, Woody Allen remains one of the most prolific filmmakers working today. So prolific, in fact, that he has produced at least one movie in which he has written and directed every year since 1982 and a dozens of other movies going back to the mid-60’s. Last year, Allen struck gold with “Midnight in Paris,” a whimsical time travel-centric romantic comedy which brought him, among other things, an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the biggest box office success of his lengthy career. Still, with so many films being churned out, there are bound to be some that are less successful than others. Using a beautiful European city as a backdrop once again, Allen returns with “To Rome With Love,” a messy romantic comedy that is desperate for a focus.

The film is told through four vignettes of different stories taking place throughout Rome. The most successful of these is the one involving Allen himself, in his first acting role since 2006’s “Scoop.” In a random meeting while visiting Rome, Hayley (Allison Pill) and Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) quickly fall and love in get married. Hayley’s parents Jerry, (Allen) a man retired from the recording business and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly into meet Michelangelo’s parents including his father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) who has a talent that Jerry wants to utilize. Allen gives himself the best material in the film, as this vignette contains the wittiest and most well written moments of the film. Allen’s return to acting is also welcome, with his neurotic babble and sharp one-liners firing on all cylinders. While the latter half of this story gets a little silly, it manages to maintain its cohesion and form the strongest portion of the movie.

In the next vignette, we see architect student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) living a comfortable life in Rome. This all changes when Sally’s good friend with a reputation of making men fall in love with her, Monica (Ellen Page) shows up after recently being dumped. As Jack tries to not fall for her, another fellow architect named John (Alec Baldwin) constantly shows up to Jack advice to give him advice. There are some good things to come out of this section of the film. The chemistry between Page and Eisenberg really works, with Page as a standout in particular. One might think that Eisenberg would be the perfect actor for an Allen movie, but his dialogue feels incredibly forced and scripted. There is also something bothersome about the omnipresence of Baldwin. While he is fine on screen, his constant appearances don’t add much and are hard to take seriously.

In another vignette, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are on their honeymoon in Rome. As they are about to meet Antonio’s very important family, Milly sets out and gets lost in Rome and a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) mistakenly shows up at Antonio’s door. While Milly is lost, she stumbles across a movie set and gets to spend time with her favorite actor while Antonio must pretend Anna is his wife. Indifference is the best way to react to this portion of the film. Most of the dialogue is subtitled, and the only recognizable actor on screen is Cruz. Unfortunately for this part, cheesy sexual jokes and gags are told at Cruz’s expense and they tend to fall pretty flat.

Finally, the fourth story involves everyday businessman Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day and is a massive celebrity for no apparent reason. This story is the most unsuccessful of the group. While it is clear what Allen was trying to get across with this story, there is literally no reason that Leopoldo should be famous. It’s a preposterous concept even given Allen’s penchant for whimsy. It provides for some amusing moments at first, but the story very quickly wears out its welcome.

If there’s one thing that “To Rome With Love” is begging for it is a common thread. There are hints of themes of adultery in three of the four vignettes, but other than the shared backdrop of Rome, the audience is truly left with four completely unrelated stories. While Allen does a fine job at balancing time and switching back and forth between the vignettes, only one of them truly stands out which makes for an uneven and unsatisfying overall product.

30 Minutes or Less

August 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”)
Written by: Michael Diliberti (debut)

For most pizza delivery guys, a bad day might involve getting lost in a shady neighborhood, showing up late with an order, or getting stiffed on a tip. For underachieving pizza guy Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a bad day is finding yourself with a bomb strapped to your chest as part of a half-cooked plot by two wannabe criminals. This premise sets the stage for “30 Minutes or Less,” a comedy that boasts more laughs than any other film this summer.

In order to hire a hitman to kill his overbearing Marine father and leave him with a huge inheritance, do-nothing slacker Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his friend Travis (Nick Swardson) devise a scheme to strap a bomb to a pizza delivery man and force him to rob a bank. After Nick grasps the situation he is in, he goes to the only person he can, his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) as they are forced to put aside their differences and try to get Nick out of the situation.

Eisenberg and Ansari display great chemistry as old high school buddies who constantly bounce jokes and insults off of each other. Eisenberg sheds the socially-awkward character we’ve come to know from many of his comedic performances and plays a confident regular guy, which is a welcome departure. However, a bigger revelation is the performance from Ansari, who is poised to become a comedic star on the big screen.  Best known for his work as a stand-up comedian and his role on TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” Ansari finally gets a major film role and takes full advantage of it.  He zips through a Rolodex of one-liners and ends up with one of the best joke-to-laugh ratios in a comedy this year. It is hard to even call his hilarious non-sequitors “throwaway lines” because even those elicit laughs. Watching these two forced to commit crimes with no clue of what they’re doing is a deep well and never wears out its welcome.

Although still funny in small doses, the weaker duo in the film is McBride and Swardson as faux criminals. McBride has proven to be an acquired taste with his usual routine of unleashing a barrage of improvised vulgarities with varying success. Swardson is a good, albeit small addition as the more tentative Travis, but it is clear that McBride is there for the comedy and Swardson is there to ground him.

This is the kind of comedy that isn’t exactly high concept or deeply meaningful. There’s drug and alcohol intake, crude and sometimes mean-spirited jokes, as well as plans that aren’t too well thought-out and bombs that are too cleverly rigged to be from a couple of know-nothing buffoons.

Despite its lack of depth, “30 Minutes or Less” succeeds where most of the summer comedies this year have failed: its gags are consistent from start to finish.  The one-liners from most of the characters are memorable and director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) gets a lot of mileage from the pithy dialogue at the expense of the situation. While “30 Minutes or Less” won’t set a new standard for the comedy genre, it’s a breezy 83-minute caper that’ll gives fans of R-rated material something to cheer about.

Zombieland

October 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer (debut)
Written by: Rhett Reese (“Cruel Intentions 3”) and Paul Wernick (debut)
 
It’s all about survival of the fittest in the riotous new zom-com (zombie comedy) “Zombieland,” a surprisingly fresh crack at the subgenre by first-time director Ruben Fleischer. It’s also a farther step away from the type of movies director George A. Romero popularized in the late 60s. To put it simply: “Zombieland” isn’t your grandma’s zombie movie.
 
Zombie flicks first started evolving in 2003 when British director Edgar Wright and comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost made destroying a zombie’s brain a hilarious delight instead of a chore in the insanely clever “Shaun of the Dead.” Now, in “Zombieland,” Fleischer stylizes his own outrageous war against the undead and does it in a most amusing way.
 
Reminiscent of the book “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead,” in which author Max Brooks gives tips about how to survive in a world flooded with flesh-eaters, “Zombieland” serves up its own thoughtful pointers. Here to guide the audience through the post-apocalyptic United States is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a delicate young loner who has managed to avoid becoming a zombie’s midday snack by following his own personal rules for survival.

On his way to Ohio to see if his parents are still alive, Columbus (no one uses their real names to avoid personal attachment) teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an eccentric, Twinkie-craving cowboy who packs some serious heat and loves showing off his zombie-killing skills whenever he gets the chance.

Tallahassee gets to do a lot of point-blank-range shooting since that’s basically what “Zombieland” is all about. Without much of a plot, Fleisher, who comes from the music video industry, pays specific attention to the crazy ways zombies meet their demise. Sisters Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) join the diverse group and set off on a road trip to a rumored zombie-free theme park. No one believes it’ll really be safe there, but what else are they going to do with their time?

As Tallahassee, Harrelson steals the show in the same manner as Robert Downey Jr. does in “Tropic Thunder.” Harrelson might not earn an Oscar nod like Downey did, but it’s definitely his funniest role since playing Roy Munson, a one-handed bowler in 1996’s Farrelly Brother comedy “Kingpin.” 

While it’s almost impossible to offer up anything new in zombie mythology (here the zombies emerge from a strain of mad cow disease), it’s the playful and mischievous dark humor that makes “Zombieland’ such a hoot.

Adventureland

March 17, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Bill Hader
Directed by: Greg Mottola (“Superbad”)
Written by: Greg Mottola (“The Daytrippers”)

Thematically speaking, “Adventureland,” the new comedy by “Superbad” director Greg Mottola, is fairly familiar. It’s a coming-of-age story that doesn’t necessarily break new ground but is so conscious of its own sensitive nature, each character the script introduces is like seeing a good friend after a long break.

If you’re looking for another hilariously raunchy night out with the boys like you got with “Superbad,” you’re not going to find it here. In “Adventureland,” there are shades of Mottola’s witty and bawdy sense of humor, but most of it (aside from some of the few repetitious jokes) fades nicely into the entire story.

Set in Pittsburgh in 1987, “Adventureland” follows recent college graduate and self-admitting virgin James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, AKA Michael Cera-lite, who was great in The Squid and the Whale) as he is forced to get a summer job when his father is demoted from his job. Instead of spending the summer traveling Europe with his friend and discovering himself, James must now save up as much money as possible if he still plans to move to New York and attend Colombia University to major in journalism.

With an undergraduate degree in comparative literature, which he says “doesn’t even qualify him for manual labor,” James settles for a lame position working game booths at the tacky local theme park. There he meets a cast of characters including love interest Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), a NYU student who hates her stepmother and seems to be just passing the time. Martin Starr (“Freaks and Geeks”) plays nerdy friend Joel, one of the only intelligent beings working at the park, and a miscast Ryan Reynolds is Mike Connell, the grown-up maintenance guy whose claim to fame was jamming out with Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed a few years prior.

Less about the actual theme park and more about relationships and love triangles between new acquaintances, “Adventureland” is different because it spotlights the awkwardness everyone still find themselves battling even when they’re away from the cliché high school backdrop. Director Mottola is working with young adults here, not teenagers, who have come to the realization that life may never get better than what they are currently experiencing. It’s a darkly funny combination of charming romantic comedy plot points, modest 80s references, and an underlying depressing motif that makes the film feel all the more satisfying.