(On Cable TV, June 2017) Movies often get a bad reputation as a sub-literate art form, especially when compared to prose fiction. But that narrow-minded view of cinema usually ignores a small but strong subgenre that portrays writers as authentic characters on-screen. Even ignoring films based on Stephen King fiction, there’s enough material out there from Wonder Boys to Stuck in Love to Genius (and others) to hold a writers’ film festival, and one of the newest additions to the corpus is The End of the Tour, which details five days in which Rolling Stone journalist (and envious novelist) David Lipsky interviewed novelist David Foster Wallace at the end of his promotional book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky is played by Jesse Eisenberg in a likable and very Eisenbergian performance, but it’s Jason Segel who earns most of the attention by playing Wallace: Segel is better known as a goofy comedian, but seeing him in a strongly dramatic performance as Wallace is enough to demolish his usual screen persona. Shot in a very naturalistic fashion (i.e.; grimy, unglamorous, etc.) by director James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour focuses on the lengthy, literate, eventually contentious conversation between Lipsky and Wallace as they meet, share Wallace’s house, fly to promotional events, spend a day goofing off, compete for two women’s attention and come back home with loathing for each other. It’s not a very dramatic film, but it does have drama, and most importantly it allows the conversation to unspool at an unhurried pace. The portrait of a profile-writer journalist is revelatory as well, giving us uncommon insight into something rarely explored elsewhere. This, in short, is a movie about two writers, two intellects that can’t help but measure themselves to the other. It’s surprisingly compelling, occasionally profound and decently far from the usual formula fed by Hollywood. And it does so while having some Broken Arrow footage thrown in—if it gets better than this, please tell me how. I have a hunch that The End of the Tour will soon earn a place on the film curriculum of novelists and journalists, alongside other celebrated depiction of writers on the big screen.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2017) My allergy to muddy family dramas remain just as pronounced, as a viewing of The Squid and the Whale confirms. Writer/director Noah Baumbach takes a small budget, some quirky ideas, well-known actors and a heartbreaking subject as the basic elements of an eighties-set drama in which two boys react badly to their parents’ ongoing divorce. It’s more of a darkly amusing drama than a somber comedy: While the humour is there, much of the film is intensely depressing. At least there are great performances along the way. Jesse Eisenberg turns in a nuanced performance, while Jeff Daniels is fantastic as a deeply flawed, yet oddly captivating father. Laura Linney doesn’t get as good of a role as the mother (given that the film is largely written from the elder son’s unsympathetic perspective, she doesn’t get the best role in the ongoing mess) while Anna Paquin merely … shows up as a student with a deeply inappropriate relationship. Much of the film is mumbled through domestic scenes of heartbreak and aimless fury, set in intellectual-class New York intelligentsia. It’s not fun, but it ends up being more absorbing than you’d expect considering the flawed characters, super-16mm cinematography and life-goes-on ending. The Squid and the Whale was less painful than expected, which actually stands as outstanding praise in this case.
(Video on-Demand, September 2016) I liked the first Now You See Me almost despite myself; acknowledging that the zippy pace, good cast and promising set pieces were often sabotaged by an unnecessary final twist, self-defeating CGI special effects and more energy than sense. Much of the same remains true about its sequel, except that Now You See Me 2 feels even less clever, less necessary and less energetic than the original. Oh, it’s certainly still fun to watch the exploits of magicians turned Robin-Hood outlaws, the various factions vying to control them and the clever set pieces that the likable protagonists have to navigate. Jesse Eisenberg is still remarkably fun as the alpha nerd, with able supporting turns by the dependable Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Caine. Lizzy Caplan is new to the series, but makes enough of a good impression to shut down excessive complaints about Isla Fisher’s absence. The scope of the film is multi-continental, and director John M. Chu’s pacing is zippy enough. But if you want the film’s strengths and failures in a nutshell, contemplate the extended sequence in which members of the team flick and manipulate a crucial card so that guards don’t find it as they’re searched: On one level, it’s a dazzling one-shot filled with slick sleight-of-hand, audacious physical performances, great CGI and drummed-up tension. On another, though, it’s overblown, showy, overlong and almost completely superfluous once they get to their ultimate trick … which negates what they’ve just spent three minutes doing. So it goes with the rest of the script, which seems more interested in repeating by-now-predictable thrills in favour of anything approaching coherence. The final act is substantially duller than it should have been, and that’s largely because by this time in the series, we’ve figured out much of the way it works. As with the first film, Now You See Me 2’s conclusion comes with a big shrug. Surely there’s a way to use this series’ energy to more substantial use?
(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) I’ll leave the scholarly analysis to others, but it’s possible that the gradual liberalization of drug laws in the US has something to do with the growing number of movies in which stoner aesthetics are blended with other unlikely subgenres. Or maybe it’s just Seth Rogen’s fault. No matter why, here’s now American Ultra, which takes a small-town chronic user and drops him in a Bourne-style action thriller. It’s not an accidental event, considering the protagonist’s repressed memories and other small revelations, but the result is along the lines of “what if a stoner discovered he was an unstoppable killing machine?” Imagine the movie it could have been, then temper your expectations, because American Ultra is a generic treatment of a promising idea, limited by its budget and (more crucially) a lack of willingness to do more than the usual paranoid “government’s coming to kill you” thriller with small-city drug humour … and not that much humour either. Jesse Eisenberg isn’t too bad as the protagonist finding out that his existence is a hazy lie, but Kirsten Stewart doesn’t impress much as his girlfriend. The script has a few issues (many of them having to do with Stewart’s character) but doesn’t try very hard to break out of formulas. Nima Nourizadeh’s direction does have a few flourishes, even though some of them are overplayed such as the flashforward framing device, or the epilogue-as-cheap-animation credit sequence. As with a surprising number of stoner movies that try to blend themselves in more serious genre, American Ultra’s level of violence seems grotesquely excessive, as if it hadn’t earned the right to showing that much gore in what should be a far more amiable context. It wouldn’t be so bothersome if it wasn’t for the cheap use of anti-government clichés such as assassin squads—not to spend too much time on my soapbox, but it’s trashy thrillers like American Ultra that normalize the idea of a government willing to kill its citizen, and I’m finding less and less to like about that. It’s also in the service of so little: no inspiring message about taking back government, more effective checks and balances or new roles in a digital surveillance age—just dumb drug jokes, a modern “forgotten prince” fantasy trope and bloodshed for all. Alas, American Ultra only amounts to something you’d watch late at night and forget about by the next morning.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I don’t have a lot of patience for ambiguity these days, so when I have to confront a film like The Double, which deals in fantasies and metaphors and unanswered questions, my first tendency is to retreat to the surface level and stop digging. Jesse Eisenberg stars as a corporate office drone who comes to confront a doppelganger who’s far more charismatic than he is. Slowly, the double takes over his life, steals his girlfriend, makes inroad at the office and dominates his thoughts. Shot as it if was set somewhere behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-seventies, The Double is thankfully replete with humor and ironies –if nothing else, that aspect of the film works without too much trouble. Seeing Eisenberg play both the beta and the alpha is a good use of his developing screen persona – his first few roles were nebbishly undistinguishable from Michael Cera, but his post The Social Network career so far has fully embraced alpha-nerddom. Writer/director Richard Ayoade manages a few entertaining moments before the film sinks into a closing act of mounting ambiguity and oh-so-profound symbolism. It’s those moments that save The Double from terminal self-absorption. See the film in a double-feature with Enemy for more doppelgänger madness.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I really wished I liked this film more than I actually do. After all, I’m a near-addict to the kind of fast-paced, slick commercial filmmaking that Now You See Me represents at its best, and I’m fond of thematic parallels between stage magic and thriller moviemaking. The story of four skilled magicians involved in a revenge caper that they don’t entirely understand, Now You See Me is fun to watch and filled with interesting actors: Jesse Eisenberg is perfecting his alpha-nerd persona, Mark Ruffalo is fast settling as a dependable protagonist, while Woody Harrelson has some of the best lines in the movie as an arrogant hypnotist. Having both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as supporting actors really doesn’t hurt. (Too bad about Isla Fisher’s bland character, though.) When it clicks, Now You See Me blends beat-perfect editing with skillful visuals and great audio material. Director Louis Leterrier loves to move his camera around in order to make even the most ordinary moments seem exciting, and his action scenes are impressively choreographed. So what’s the problem? Well, essentially, a lack of restraint: The film often uses blatant CGI trickery in order to fake what are supposed to be real-time stage magic tricks, and in doing so basically blows away its own suspension of incredulity: When the smallest details are so obviously fake, it’s tough to be impressed by the film’s bigger magical set-pieces. Now You See Me’s plot dynamics are also as overblown as to minimize the impact of its last narrative revelations: by the time the final sequence is supposed to blow our minds with an unexpected reversal, an excess of previous twists is bound to leave viewers’ reaction divided between “That makes no sense” and “Oh, whatever”. The caper plot is also very unlikely, but that’s part of the charm of the sub-genre. Despite its flaws, Now You See Me is an enjoyable piece of commercial filmmaking, and I even look forward to the announced sequel.
(On-demand video, April 2012) There really isn’t anything startlingly original about the dramatic arc of Holy Rollers: You can probably recall a bunch of other “good kid gets involved in drug-dealing, realizes how terrible it is and gets out” movies out there and this one doesn’t structure itself any differently. What is new here, however, is the context: We seldom see films about the Hassidic Jewish community, and melding the usual kid-becoming-criminal plot template in this environment (it’s based on a true story) is interesting in itself even despite the lack of surprises in where it’s going. (Actually, the biggest surprise here is that Holy Roller isn’t really interested in criticizing the Hassidic lifestyle. This may end up being a problem for some viewers as the film tries to show the protagonist both getting away and yet returning to the faith-based lifestyle.) Much of the cinematography aims for drab realism: This is the kind of low-budget film that looks as if it was shot on a low budget, murky colors, shaky handheld camera and accidental shot composition are all on-screen. Acting-wise, Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t stretch far in a very familiar role for him, but he’s as fine as the rest of the cast in giving life to the rest of the story. Otherwise, Holy Roller is a straight-up dramatic film: it’s good enough at what it does, doesn’t reach out of its comfort zone and doesn’t leave any strong feelings one way or another. It exists and it’s relatively successful at what it does.
(In theaters, August 2011) As a criminal comedy, there are a lot of similarities between this and Pineapple Express. Not only does Danny McBride has a prominent role in the two movies, but both are criminal comedies starring underperforming slackers in the lead roles. Here, a pizza delivery guy in his twenties is kidnapped by two other slackers, put in an explosive vest and told he’s got no other choice by go rob a bank. What follows is a quick 80-minutes tale of criminal stupidity and plucky heroes. Forget about social commentary, wholesome family entertainment or mind-expanding revelations: It’s pure comic character work set within a thriller template. Despite the film’s similarities to the Brian Douglas Wells criminal case, 30 Minutes or Less doesn’t claim to be based on a true story, and fortunately doesn’t try to remind aware audiences of the real-life drama. Jesse Eisenberg is a bit more tolerable than you’d expect as the lead, but it’s really Aziz Ansari and Michael Peña who steal the show in enjoyable supporting performance. The script is peppered by high-energy moments –including a car chase that plays with the conventions of the genre and a quick ending that’s over almost before we know it. The humour to too crude to be fully enjoyable, the violence is too gory to be forgettable and the rhythm is inconsistent, but 30 Minutes or Less still manages to score a few hits, and the tone is just controlled enough to avoid the exasperating immaturity of, say, Pineapple Express. While it’s a step down for Zombieland director Ruben Fleisher, it’s nonetheless an acceptable summertime crime comedy.
(In theatres, April 2011) The possibilities of computer animation are in full bloom in this high-spirited, fizzy, highly enjoyable adventure starring talking songbirds. The story has chases and romantic comedy plot points that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but they’re executed in such light-hearted fashion that it’s hard to be overly critical. (Although there are two spitting gags that don’t really fit.) From the spectacular opening musical number to the closing credits, Rio does honour to its namesake by being as vibrant and colourful as Brazil often feels. And yet, for a film aimed at kids, it still manages to slip in a few socially-relevant mentions of animal smuggling and poverty in the favelas. Still, the emphasis is on the animals, and that’s where the vocal performances matter. Jesse Eisenberg is good as the socially-mystified hero, but his voice is, by now, so closely identified to an nebbish archetype that it can be distracting. Meanwhile, wil.i.am and Jamie Foxx have the chance to sing a bit, while Anne Hathaway is generally unobjectionable as the other main character. While Rio gains to points for audacity, it does the now-familiar animated-feature characteristics well: A few fast-paced action sequences, cute anthropomorphic characters, a humorous tone, some singing and dancing and a finale that wraps everything up. It may not push the envelope like many of Pixar’s films, but it’s good enough to be pleasant and satisfying both to kids and adults.
(On DVD, January 2011) As far as nostalgic coming-of-age comedies go, Adventureland is a bit better than the average. Featuring post-teenage characters trying to figure out life from the vantage point of awful summer jobs, this is a film that exceeds expectations while paying homage to familiar material. Set in 1987, the story centers around an intellectual college-age character forced to take a job at a local amusement park, where he meets radically different people and learns a few things about life outside school. To its credit, the film understands that characters and actors are the bedrock on which this kind of small-scale drama fails or succeeds, and the script does well in establishing people with whom we’d want to spend 90 minutes. The film is billed as a comedy, but it’s more affectionately romantic than overly funny –and it features a few plot points played differently than in other similar films. Seeing Adventureland in early 2011 is already a different experience than upon its release in 2009, if only because its leads actors have been in many high-profile projects since then. Jesse Eisenberg’s usual nebbish air works well here, whereas Kristen Stewart keeps playing “wounded” effectively and Ryan Reynolds is willing to let go of his winning persona to expose a deeply flawed character. Writer/director Greg Mottola manages to deliver a retro reminiscence that doesn’t feel of interest solely to people of that time: The result may not be a barrel of laughs, but it will leave you smiling. The DVD features a few extras, the best of which is a chatty commentary by director Mottola and star Eisenberg that starts out feeling meaningless, but eventually reveals a lot about the film’s autobiographical content, low-budget film-making and on-set shooting details.
(In theaters, October 2010) I will admit my scepticism regarding the idea of this film. A drama about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s early days? Why would David Fincher waste his time doing that? Granted, I find Facebook more interesting as a socio-technological phenomenon than as the hub of my online life, but still: Isn’t it a bit early to start making films about such a trivial subject? What I should have figured out is that five years ago is forever in Internet time, that Fincher knew what he was doing and that there was an interesting story at the heart of it all. Very loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s docu-fictive The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network does manage to tell a compelling drama in an entertaining way and even comment on a few contemporary issues along the way. The heart of the piece is in the story of how intellectual arrogance and runaway success can ruin friendships, but the real delight of The Social Network is in the ever-compelling script penned by Aaron Sorkin, from a fast-paced first dialogue that sets the tone, to a structure that jumps back in forth in time (the latter chronology being nowhere in the book), to the clever weaving of themes between old-school social clubs and new-style social media. As an acknowledged nerd, I was stuck at the picture’s fairly accurate portrait of how some very smart people behave, as well as the accuracy of some technical details early in the film. Fincher’s direction may be less visually polished here than in his other film, but it’s effective and coherent: this is a solid drama, and it deserves a flat and grainy picture. (The film’s most striking bit of visual polish, at a regatta, echoes the miniature-faking tilt-shift focus meme that briefly fascinated internet photographers a while back.) The Social Network also benefits from a number of striking performances, from Jesse Eisenberg’s deliberately stunted portrait of Zuckerberg to Justin Timberlake’s magnetic Sean Parker to Armie Hammer’s Winklevii. Part of the appeal is seeing high-powered people interacting (the script uses a “that’s the famous person” joke at least twice to good effect.) in ways that are at least plausibly based on reality. It all amounts to a film that’s quite a bit better than the sum of its parts would suggest –true moviemaking alchemy that leaves viewers wondering how and why it all worked so well.
(In theatres, October 2009) By this point in the zombie-movie craze, some stories are redundant. The basic zombies-take-over-the-world narrative has been to death and back, and anyone seriously considering making a zombie film should find an original angle on the concept –we don’t actually need another dour and nihilistic 28 Months Later. Fortunately, Zombieland takes a not-so-blackly comedic approach to the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. From the opening sequence onward, there’s a playful tone, what with explicit survival rules, kills-of-the-week and on-screen title gags. The picture is anchored by great performances by Jesse Eisenberg as a paranoid nerd and Woody Harrelson as a redneck with a natural talent for killing zombies. It’s a shame that the female characters don’t come across as fully realized, but the pacing of the picture is often too quick to allow for reflection. It’s not quite as brilliant or subversive as Shaun of the Dead, but Zombieland does manage a pleasant, well-executed B-movie vibe. Director Ruben Fleischer uses special effects wisely, has a keen aesthetic sense of slow-motion, keeps things hopping and only occasionally lets the energy of the picture flag in too-long conversation sequences. (Even at a snappy 81 minutes, the film occasionally feels a bit long.) The ending misses full marks by a few inches (the tension is diffused too quickly), but that it gets there at all without letting down the rest of the picture is remarkable. Far funnier than it is gruesome or suspenseful, Zombieland has a good future ahead of itself as a late-evening fan-favourite. The less you know about the celebrity cameo, the better.