Tag Archives: Jesse Eisenberg

American Ultra (2015)

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American Ultra has surely got to be the worst — or the least — promoted film with “name stars” to be released this year. Despite a cast featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, among others, I didn’t even see one trailer or poster for the film until just a couple of days before I watched it.

That’s very strange, because apart from the stars, American Ultra can also be considered a fringe superhero film, and we all know how popular that genre is these days.

And so I thought American Ultra must suck pretty bad to receive this kind of silent treatment from the studio and fans alike. In reality, it’s nowhere near bad. It’s not even bad. It’s just not as good as it should have been.

The premise goes like this: Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike, a stoner who works at a convenience store, and Kristen Stewart is Phoebe, his girlfriend. His life is blissfully banal until one night, Mike discovers that he’s basically Jason Bourne, and so begins a night of crazy mayhem as the young couple is hunted down by lethal assassins.

I know what you’re thinking — American Ultra is based on a comic book, right? I thought so too, but it’s not. It’s just a movie that feels like it is. I have a feeling the film was aiming for that Kick-Ass vibe — stylish, unexpectedly and brutally violent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and way over the top.

However, American Ultra is just a class or two below Kick-Ass in just about every category. It doesn’t have that same exuberance, sense of fun or confidence. The action is also nowhere near as stylised. And most of all, despite being called an action-comedy, the film is surprisingly light on the comedy, with nary a laugh to be found throughout the 96-minute running time.

You might disagree, though for me it makes sense after discovering that the director of the film is Nima Nourizadeh, the Iranian-British dude who made Project X, one of my most loathed films in recent years. I just found that film stupid, obnoxious and unfunny. American Ultra is a lot better, of course, but I still feel like it was a waste of a huge opportunity because of the intriguing potential of the premise.

The performances are not the problem. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are fairly good in their roles, and John Leguizamo always brings some extra pizzazz to every movie. Topher Grace, however, seems like he’s trying a little too hard to be the archetypal cardboard villain. Maybe it’s way of protesting such a one-dimensional role.

On the whole, my opinion of American Ultra is lukewarm. It doesn’t quite deserve the box office failure it has experienced (barely scraping back half of its US$28 million budget), though it probably deserves its fate of becoming one of those movies that barely rings a bell in a few years.

2.75 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part I

My furious rally continues. Here are a bunch of 2013 movies I have yet to review, four at a time. Here is the first wave.

The Call (2013)

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Ever since Catwoman I have been wary of anything Halle Berry does. The Call, about a woman at an emergency call center, did not sound very appealing to me, but positive word of mouth got me to change my mind.

I’m glad I watched it in the end because The Call is a thrill ride that manages to keep up the suspense for the majority of its 94-minute running time. Berry, the call center worker, is haunted by a previous call which resulted in the death of a young girl. Months later, she takes another call, this time from another teenager played by Abrigail Breslin (she’s growing up real fast), who has been abducted by possibly the same guy.

Much of the film follows Berry on the phone as she tries to figure out how to keep the girl alive and how to track down her kidnapper. I was impressed with how director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) kept coming up with different ways to keep the ball rolling without making it seem repetitive or too ridiculous.

That said, I was really irritated by the stupidity of Breslin’s character and her incessant screaming and whining (all to her detriment) — and a part of me really wanted her to get killed — though to be fair if she wasn’t so stupid she probably would have been rescued in about 20 minutes and there would be nothing left to film.

On the whole I really enjoyed The Call, which was on its way to being a huge surprise hit for me until the moronic ending that made absolutely no sense whatsoever and downgraded my rating by at least half a star.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

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I was one of those kids who loved magic growing up and bought magic kits and had dreams of becoming a magician some day (like David Copperfield). So while The Incredible Wonderstone looked pretty awful from the posters and trailer I was willing to give it a go. Besides, it has Steve Buscemi, the greatest actor of all time.

Well, it wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t disastrous either. Steve Carrell and Buscemi are best buds and old school magicians performing in Vegas, but their act is getting old and their thunder is being stolen by new “street” magicians such as Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) — an obvious caricature of douches like Criss Angel and David Blaine.

There are a few decent jokes in Burt Wonderstone, but most of them come courtesy of the crazy antics of Carrey, who is the best he has been in a very long time (considering his last few live action films were Mr Poppers Penguins, I Love You Philip Morris, Yes Man and The Number 23 — yikes). The late great James Gandolfini and Alan Arkin are also excellent in supporting roles, but Carrell is just not very likable and Buscemi’s talents are completely wasted. And Olivia Wilde is painfully miscast as the love interest who is just too young for Carrell.

In the endBurt Wonderstone just isn’t consistently funny enough to make it a good film and completely fizzles as it enters the final act, which is a shame because it started off quite strongly.

2.75 stars out of 5

Now You See Me (2013)

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Another magic movie, but Now You See Me, unlike Burt Wonderstone, actually received good word of mouth despite lukewarm reviews from critics.

As for me, I have mixed feelings about it too. I think it is a fantastic concept — four magicians of diverse skills (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious leader who gets them to perform otherworldly but legally questionable acts, while a detective (Mark Ruffalo) is hot on their feels trying to figure out how the stunts were carried out so he can arrest them. It’s an alluring premise for a caper movie and the magic tricks, some of which are explained, are fun to watch and debunk.

On the other hand, the film is kinda rough around the edges and suffers from a lack of precision. There is almost no character development and the dialogue is atrocious, giving the film a B-grade feel and a sense that the talents of the all-star cast are being wasted. All the effort was put into the the style but not enough attention was paid to the substance.

The film relies on its twists and turns to keep audiences intrigued, but for me the big reveal was rather predictable (maybe I’ve seen too many movies). Still, I had a good time with it, though it was so unmemorable that I had totally forgotten to review it until now.

3.25 stars out of 5

Warm Bodies (2013)

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A zombie movie from the perspective of a zombie sounded like it had potential for some great laughs. And the first few moments of Warm Bodies were indeed promising as we watched zombies wander around aimlessly and trying to communicate through a series of hilarious grunts.

But Warm Bodies is really a romantic comedy masquerading as a zombie movie, which is a good thing because the zombie gimmick gets old pretty quickly. It has obvious allusions to Romeo & Juliet, as our protagonist zombie (arguably the best looking zombie in movie history), Nicholas Hoult, is named “R”, while his love interest, Aussie Teresa Palmer, is “Julie”.

To make the film work as a romantic comedy, many fundamental rules we know about zombies are bent, if not broken. I didn’t have a problem with that per se because it was important to look at the zombies as the “good guys”, but I didn’t think it was necessary to create another breed of zombies, known as “Bonies”, so we are clear who the real “bad guys” are.

So Warm Bodies was just OK for me. It had a great premise and a few early laughs, but as a romantic comedy it wasn’t particularly romantic or funny once the zombie gimmick ran its course. It’s not a bad date movie because it is sweet and has charm, but I think it falls way short of the cult classic status it was perhaps aiming for.

3 stars out of 5

PS: That’s four very average movies.

Movie Review: 30 Minutes or Less (2011)

The good thing about being stuck a home with a baby is that I can finally start to catch up on my backlog of posts without having an opportunity to increase that backlog.

So today I am going to start with a movie review, the surprisingly decent 30 Minutes or Less.

Danny McBride is a somewhat polarising figure.  We know he can be funny (Pineapple Express) but we also know he can be annoyingly unfunny (Your Highness).  Now we know he can play nasty, stupid villain quite well too.

In the Ruben Fleischer-directed 30 Minutes or Less, he plays a scheming slacker who is after his father’s “fortune”, and together with his bumbling but  knowledgeable sidekick (Nick Swardson) come up with an unnecessary convoluted plan to get his hands on the money.  Without giving away too much more, that plan somehow involves putting under duress Jesse Eisenberg’s character Nick, an abused pizza delivery boy who works for a pizza joint that offers the titular “30 minutes or less” delivery policy (or you get your pizza free and the money comes out of the delivery boy’s wages).

Like many other McBride films, 30 Minutes or Less is highly sporadic, relies on sex jokes (though not as extreme or frequently as some of his other films) and is frankly a little hit and miss — that said, I did find it quite funny.  There was more plot than I had expected (which, for a McBride movie, doesn’t necessarily mean much), but what I think helped the film was the wonderfully talented comedic cast.

Jesse Eisenberg, coming off his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, isn’t overtly funny but does a great job as the straight man in this farce.  It’s similar to what he did in Zombieland, also a film directed by Ruben Fleischer.

Eisenberg allows the comedic talents of the other actors to shine through, in particular his best friend, Indian-American comedian  Aziz Ansari, who has some ripper lines and, for lack of a better expression, a funny face.  Another, who almost steals the show, is Michael Pena, who is utterly hilarious as an assassin.  Fred Ward, who plays McBride’s domineering father, is pretty good as well.

I guess it depends on your tolerance level for jokes based on stupidity and crudeness.  For me, 30 Minutes or Less pressed my buttons but didn’t cross my threshold, which is why I thought it was one of the better comedies of the year.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)

Admit it.  When you first heard that they were going to make a movie about Facebook, you thought it was going to suck too.  I certainly did.

But throw in Fight Club director David Fincher, producer Kevin Spacey and The West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin, base it around a nonfiction book by Ben Mezrich (who shot to fame with Bringing Down the House, which was made into the movie 21), and cast a bunch of young rising stars, and The Social Network suddenly becomes one of the best films of the year.

It is probably important to note upfront that accuracy of specific events may not have been a priority for screenwriter Sorkin when he wrote The Social Network, so don’t watch the film believing it to be entirely true.  However, we do know for a fact that certain things did happen.  We know that Mark Zuckerberg, a former Harvard student, created ‘Thefacebook’, a phenomenal social networking site that now has more than 500 million active members around the world.  We also know that he was sued by a few people — the identical Winklevoss twins for allegedly ripping off their idea, and his former best friend Eduardo Saverin, who Zuckerberg completely screwed over.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, but believe me when I say it is a cracker.  The tone is set in the very first scene.  The characters are fascinating.  The relationships are compelling.  The dialogue is razor sharp.  And it’s surprisingly funny too.

Jesse Eisenberg is brilliant as Zuckerberg.  He is mesmerizing to watch, and really makes you believe Zuckerberg is a genuine prick.  While Justin Timberlake has received mixed reviews as Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, some believe he is being tipped for a Best Suppporting Actor Oscar nomination.  Personally, I don’t think it weas an Oscar-worthy performance, but it was very good, and definitely better than what anyone was expecting.

The rest of the ensemble cast was terrific too.  The standout for me was the new Spiderman Andrew Garfield (Saverin), who grows on you as the film progresses.  But I really can’t poke a hole in any of the performances.  I think in years to come, The Social Network will be remembered as a classic that featured actors who went on to become superstars.  It’s already got Eisenberg and Garfield and Timberlake (all of whom should go on to bigger roles), not to mention Rooney Mara, Hollywood’s new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Armie Hammer, who plays both the Winklevoss twins, was hilarious, a great contrast to their more serious business partner Divya Narendra, played by Max Mingella (son of the late and great Anthony).  Even Brenda Song, who has a small role as Saverin’s girlfriend, was dynamite in a couple of scenes.

The Social Network is captivating drama at its best, and I’ve already seen it twice.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Zombieland (2009)

If I had to sum up the zombie comedy Zombieland in five words, it would be “Pretty good but not great”.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer (no previous work worthy of noting), it has a premise we’ve seen a few times before – the country (America) being overtaken by zombies and an unlikely hero trying to survive against all odds.  That’s about as much as I want to give away.  As with most films, try and avoid the previews if you can.  Plenty of great scenes, lines and jokes were unnecessarily ruined by the previews I had the misfortune of coming across.  If I hadn’t seen them in advance I probably would have liked the film more.

What sets Zombieland apart from other zombie movies of late is that it is more comedy than horror, and what sets it apart from other zombie comedies is that it is actually pretty funny.  It’s definitely more Shaun of the Dead than 28 Days Later, but the laughs aren’t as silly or outrageous – not quite, anyway.  Much of the humour stems from the quirky character traits of, and the witty banter between, the two leads, played by Jesse Eisenberg (from Adventureland, who seems forever destined to battle Michael Cera for all the goofy, awkward boy roles) and Woody Harrelson (last seen by me in 2012, the movie not the year).  Rounding out the main quartet are Emma Stone (Jules from Superbad) and Abigail Breslin (My Sister’s Keeper, Little Miss Sunshine), who both put in solid performances without stealing the show.

Zombieland knows exactly what kind of movie it is trying to be.  Extremely gory (no shortage of over-the-top blood and guts), tongue-in-cheek, and nonchalant about the fact that the whole country (and probably world) has been overrun by zombies who just want to eat human flesh.  And yet, Zombieland does have charm and it does have heart, though it never steps over the line into melodrama as that would mean caring too much – and that would just be too uncool for a movie like this.

That said, Zombieland is far from perfect.  There are a number of slower bits strewn throughout the film, far more than there should be.  And while it is funny, not all the jokes hit the mark, and sometimes it even risks trying too hard to be amusing.  And of course, though it is technically a comedy/horror, the film is not particularly frightening.  The zombies are there more for the laughs than the chills, and you never get the sense that there is any real danger.

Weighing up all the pros and cons, I’d probably say Zombieland is a 3-star movie that is worth watching, but to be honest I wanted it to be much more than just a sweet, mildly enjoyable film.  However, there is a special surprise in Zombieland that is worth a whole half-star by itself – hands down the most unexpected, insane, hilarious cameo I’ve seen in…possibly ever!  Accordingly…

3.5 stars out of 5!