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Sun09272020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

First-time homebuyers get hung up in a prospective house in Vivarium, a weird thriller from director Lorcan Finnegan.

Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) have a pleasant relationship and happy jobs—she’s a schoolteacher, and he’s a gardener. They decide to look for a house, and stop in at a small office manned by an extremely earnest salesman named Martin (Jonathan Aris). Martin invites the couple to immediately visit a model home in a nearby development; although they are slightly creeped out by his mannerisms, Gemma and Tom agree to accompany him.

Big mistake.

The model home turns out to be one house in a sea of identical, unoccupied houses—inside some sort of phantom, inescapable zone. After Martin unexpectedly leaves, the couple can’t find their way out; their path always leads back to the model home. With no choice, they eventually relent and inhabit the home. Regular food supplies show up as the couple makes futile attempts to escape.

One other thing: A baby boy is also delivered in a box. They are told they must raise the boy if they ever want to be free. They comply … and the kid is a little freak. Parenthood proves to be a tough task for the two.

The film is a decent piece of dark satire that winds up being a goof on the housing market, suburban life and general salesmanship, with Eisenberg and Poots delivering great work.

Vivarium is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Since the release of the first Zombieland back in 2009, much has happened in entertainment regarding the land of the undead. A little show called The Walking Dead premiered a year later, and in 2017, the zombie maestro himself, George Romero, passed away.

Much has happened with the stars of Zombieland in the decade since, too. Emma Stone has an Oscar for La La Land; Woody Harrelson got his third nomination in that stretch; and Jesse Eisenberg was nominated for The Social Network. Abigail Breslin received an Oscar nom before the first film for Little Miss Sunshine. With all of this Oscar business, might this crew of performers opt for more snobby fare rather than blowing up ghoul skulls for laughs?

Nope. Director Ruben Fleischer returns with the whole crew shockingly intact for Zombieland: Double Tap, a film that does little to add to the genre, but still delivers plenty of laughs and zombie gore. It’s basically the same as the first movie, with a little less originality, but a few more laughs thanks to a new co-star.

The zombie killers have taken up residence in the White House, with Wichita (Stone) and Columbus (Eisenberg) in a relationship that requires them to cover the eyes on the Lincoln portrait when they bed down at night. Columbus has his sights set on marriage, while Wichita still has some commitment issues. Tallahassee (Harrelson) is still searching for Twinkies—with a new goal to visit Graceland while leaving shredded zombies in his wake. Little Rock (Breslin) wouldn’t mind having her first boyfriend, at the age of 22.

Situations arise where it all becomes a road trip again—one that eventually leads to Graceland (sort of) and a commune called Babylon that looks like one of the towers on the cover of Wilco’s classic album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Columbus and Tallahassee ride Segways at a ravaged mall (an ode to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) and run into Madison (Zoey Deutch), a Valley Girl who has survived all these years living inside a freezer at the food court’s frozen-yogurt shop. Deutch is a total crack-up, mining laughs in every scene she occupies. When the film threatens to get a bit stale, Madison swoops in, donning a pink leisure suit with fake fur (she’s also a vegan) and livening things up.

Another joke that works is the late-in-the-movie entrance of Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch), two zombie hunters who look and sound an awful lot like Columbus and Tallahassee. While thinking about this movie, I realized that Albuquerque’s monster truck and the worn-down White House remind of Wilson’s turn in Idiocracy. Don’t you love how Idiocracy has become a classic after the studio dumped it because they thought it sucked?

Sorry … I’ve gone off track.

Of the returning big stars, Harrelson appears to be having the most fun, even going so far as to provide a decent cover of “Burning Love” over the closing credits. (Stay all the way through the credits, people.) Eisenberg is doing his usual shtick, but it’s a shtick that works, while Stone being here at all is shocking to me. I mean, she’s fine in it, but it’s weird that she returned for this, right? She was in The Favourite last year!

As far as bringing new ideas to the zombie genre, I do like how Columbus designates dumb zombies as “Homers” and smart ones as “Hawkings.” There are also the “T-800” zombies, who don’t go down after the double tap and keep on coming. Otherwise, the film is pretty standard issue when it comes to zombie carnage.

Will there be another Zombieland 10 years from now? This one strikes me as a last hurrah, and an OK/fun one at that.

Zombieland: Double Tap is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Machismo and sanctioned violence get a sinister, satiric kick to the face in The Art of Self-Defense, the new dark comedy from writer-director Riley Stearns.

Meek accountant Casey (a totally on-point Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy wimp on all fronts. His co-workers can’t stand him, and French tourists mock him while he sits in a café—completely obliterating him in a foreign language. The exclamation point: He has just learned French via books on tape, so he understands all of the jabs being thrown his way … and he says nothing. Nerdy wimp personified.

Casey runs out of dog food for his adorable dachshund and must take a long, lonely walk to the local grocer in the dark of night. A motorcyclist with a second rider stops, asks if he has a gun, then rides away. On his way back from the store, that same motorcycle duo kicks the unholy shit out of him.

Seeking help, Casey visits a dojo where he encounters Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola, in a star turn that might get him the sort of attention he’s always deserved. Sensei is at times helpful in Casey’s quest to become more self-assured—but Sensei also has an evil side. Be wary of the night classes, during which he has no problem breaking a man’s arm in two to demonstrate one of his twisted rules for the martial arts. He’s so self-assured in his toxic masculinity that he knows such an act will produce no lawsuits.

Speaking of that toxic masculinity: It starts to spread in Casey’s system like venom after a manly snake bite during a manly man hike. He’s changing—almost like a robot programmed to preach the Sensei’s doctrine of manly man behavior in all aspects of life. He even denounces the weak breed of dog sitting on his couch. Casey becomes so obsessed with karate that he has a yellow leather belt custom-made so that he can wear his yellow belt all the time, even when he’s not kicking people in the face.

Imogen Poots contributes to the nastiness as Anna, a should-be black belt being subjugated by the misogynistic Sensei. Her showdown with fellow student Thomas (Steve Terada) shows that a destructive streak runs through her as well. Poots is her usual strong self—as scary as anybody else in the movie. David Zellner will break your heart as the friendly Henry, perhaps the only nice person in the whole film. And nice people in this movie are really out of place.

The humor in Stearns’ script is drier than burnt toast left out in the middle of the desert with a magnifying glass perched over it. The actors don’t get laughs by telling jokes; they get laughs by being so hilariously awful that you can’t believe it, especially Nivola. Teeth getting knocked out of somebody’s face have never been this funny.

While Eisenberg can be a one-note performer, he plays that note well, and this is his most memorable character in a long time. Like his Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Casey is a total ass—a weaselly jerk that you love to hate. His progression—from a meek guy trying to make conversations at work into a strangely masculine guy doing push-ups in the breakroom—is a lot of fun to watch.

The movie has some mystery that isn’t all that surprising, but you won’t care. The payoff is satisfying, not to mention insane. The Art of Self-Defense is the funniest film of the summer so far, and Nivola’s work within it counts as his career best.

The Art of Self-Defense is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

In the vast catalogue of Woody Allen films, Café Society falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. While it’s definitely one of his better-looking movies, a slight casting mistake leads to the movie being a little underwhelming at times.

Kristen Stewart is often great (see her in this year’s Certain Women for an example of just how damned great she can be), but if you put her in the wrong role, you can really see her working and straining.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Woody Allen Jr.—uh, I mean Bobby, a young kid looking to find work in old-timey Hollywood under the tutelage of his studio big-shot uncle, Phil (Steve Carell, kicking mortal ass). Phil asks one of his assistants, Vonnie (Stewart), to show Bobby around—and, of course, they fall in love.

Café Society has all of the Allen tropes: a bumbling protagonist, a smart-but-not-that-smart love interest, old-timey jazz music and silly romantic situations. Stewart’s character is luminous at times, but seems bored in others, as if the actress is not sure how to play Vonnie’s wild personality shifts. She just plays it sort of dull.

Eisenberg does his best Woody Allen impersonation, while the costuming, set design and cinematography are all first-rate. Even when the movie gets a little stupid, it’s always fun to watch.

Café Society gets a mild recommendation. Just don’t look to it for a great Stewart performance, because she seems a little clueless. I’m not sure that’s even really her fault: When Allen writes lazily, some characters go by the wayside.

Café Society is available via online sources, and on DVD and Blu-ray.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The end credits of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice give a thank-you shout-out to Frank Miller, author of The Dark Knight Returns. That’s the groundbreaking graphic novel that inspired the late-20th-century rebirth of Batman, influencing everything related since Tim Burton’s Batman.

Considering what transpires in the 2 1/2 hours before Miller’s name appears onscreen, Warner Bros. should be offering him an impassioned apology.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is definitive proof that director Zack Snyder should be banned from the DC universe. The man who gave us Sucker Punch has effectively knocked the wind out of two great comic-book heroes. This film is a crime against every geek who has ever picked up a graphic novel.

Hell, it’s also a crime against hard-core Ben Affleck fans. Affleck could be a fine Batman. Actually, he could be a great Batman. But, like George Clooney before him, he winds up looking quite ridiculous, running around in a messy movie in which his character simply doesn’t fit. A nice effort by Affleck to portray a nuanced, older, somewhat weary Bruce Wayne (in a badass suit!) is utterly wasted.

As for Henry Cavill’s Superman, I’m longing for those short-lived days of Brandon Routh as Kal-El. While it isn’t entirely his fault, Cavill’s Supes is officially a dud.

A sequel of sorts to the dreary Man of Steel (also directed by Snyder), Batman v Superman is a soulless step in the wrong direction. Snyder, who made a great graphic-novel movie with Watchmen, seems to have completely lost the ability to put a cohesive, exciting movie together.

The film meanders aimlessly, accompanied by an alternately sluggish and bombastic score by Hans Zimmer. Like Michael Bay before him, Snyder has become too reliant upon useless, unnecessary slo-mo. He follows these slo-mo scenes up with noisy CGI action that is often incoherent.

The movie commits many of the same sins as last year’s party-pooping Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s nothing but a setup—a setup for a big battle that everybody knows will have a lame ending (and, boy howdy, is the fight resolution lame). It’s also a setup for future superhero and Justice League movies. It’s just a big marketing ploy.

The first true Justice League movie is set to begin production soon. Yes, Batman v Superman is making big money, but it would behoove Warner Bros. to step back, take a breather and consider giving this franchise over to a more-capable director, like George Miller. Christ, even Bay would be an improvement.

Snyder wants to get a bunch of characters (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash) up to speed so we can get a Justice League movie that’s the equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers movies. He wants to get it done in one fell swoop, and it all feels forced and manipulative.

His film has no life, no pulse. It drags, drags, drags. By the time Batman and Superman are slugging it out, it’s just one element in a film that has way too many plot threads that aren’t getting proper attention.

It dawned on me while Batman and Superman were fighting that I didn’t really want to see these two incarnations of the characters fighting at all. It’s just kind of dumb. For a good, surreal Batman v Superman battle, read The Dark Knight Returns, or watch the animated movie adaptation that WB put out three years ago. The cartoon handles the battle in a much more convincing and logical way.

Subplots involving Lois Lane (Amy Adams, looking bored) and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, embarrassing himself) are howlers. Luthor’s nefarious plot to make the superheroes fight and ultimately face off against Doomsday is preposterous and pointless. 

My geek heart has taken a kryptonite spear to the chest with Batman v Superman. Yes, Affleck is good, so it is not a total loss, but, please, get Zack Snyder away from the DC playground. He represents the complete absence of fun.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Jesse Eisenberg is having himself a great summer with this and his career-best performance in The End of the Tour. Eisenberg spreads his wings a bit as a stoner with a secret in American Ultra, this sporadically fun film from director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle).

While enjoying a fine cup of soup, convenience-store clerk Mike Howell (Eisenberg) notices some dudes monkeying with his car. Seconds later, he’s killing people with a spoon. Mike’s girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, kicking mortal ass), is concerned about her beau, who has suddenly attained the ability to wipe out people with robot precision. I will not tell you why. You have to see the movie to find out why.

The film has a great premise, and it could’ve been a classic dark comedy. Unfortunately, it leans a little too heavy toward the dark side in its second half, and goes light on the laughs.

Eisenberg and Stewart rise above any of the tonal problems and lags in the story to make the movie something worth seeing. Stewart is getting better with every movie in which she shows up. I think her Bella-lag is wearing off, for sure. Eisenberg plays his part like an ignorant, coiled rattlesnake, and he’s appropriately scary at times.

This is a fun film for most of its running time—but it could’ve been something really special. 

American Ultra is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

In 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky spent almost a week living and traveling with author David Foster Wallace. Wallace was winding up a book tour in support of his highly acclaimed, wonderfully crazy novel Infinite Jest, and Lipsky thought there was no better time to spotlight this author in one of America’s most-popular magazines.

The interview never got published in the magazine. Twelve years later, Wallace committed suicide, at the age of 46.

Lipsky, who kept his interview tapes, used them for his book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, published after Wallace’s death. That book has been adapted into the beautiful and heartbreaking The End of the Tour, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, and Jason Segel in a surprising, noncomedic turn as Wallace.

The movie is so eloquent in the way it shows two young writers simply talking to one another about their craft, and it deftly illustrates how Wallace thought and spoke, thanks to an incredible performance from Segel. It’s heartbreaking that we know what fate awaits Wallace 12 years after this meeting.

Segel’s Wallace is a likable, slightly strange, shy man who knows he’s supposed to open up to Lipsky for promotion’s sake, but fears sounding like he’s stupid and/or selling out. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is the consummate journalist, married to his cassette recorder, examining medicine cabinets and looking for the perfect moment to pounce with a question about heroin. (Lipsky’s editor, as played by Ron Livingston, insists that Wallace’s suspected heroin usage be at the heart of Lipsky’s story.)

When Lipsky shows up at Wallace’s snowy Illinois home to start the interview, he doesn’t encounter some conceited intellectual guy drinking up newfound fame. Instead, he encounters a humble man alone in his house, living a quiet life with two crazy dogs and having Pop Tarts for breakfast. Lipsky and Wallace immediately try to establish a level of trust; Segel and Eisenberg always make the back-and-forth convincing.

Tour then becomes a road movie, of sorts, as the two travel to Minneapolis on the final leg of the Infinite Jest book tour. It’s on this trip that Wallace reveals an addiction to television—an addiction so bad that he refuses to have a TV in his house.

The film touches upon the sadness and problems that plagued Wallace, made most evident when the two writers square off while discussing Wallace’s college sweetheart (Mickey Sumner). Segel and Eisenberg make this particular moment uncomfortable and even scary. Segel, without outright declaring what Wallace’s afflictions were, gives us real insight into the insecurities and conflicts that beat Wallace down in the end. It’s easily the best-acted moment of his film career.

Directed by James Ponsoldt, who is on a hot streak with this and his most recent works, The Spectacular Now and Smashed, the film offers nice insight into the sudden fame that Wallace achieved, and the journalist who was fascinated by it. The settings of snowy Bloomington, Ill., and Minneapolis (with also-snowy Michigan substituting for the cities) provide the perfect tone for the film. Danny Elfman contributes an evocative, soothing soundtrack that is miles away from his more-burlesque work with the likes of Tim Burton.

The film shows off a remarkable give and take between two actors. There’s often sweetness and warmth, but there’s also an ever-present undercurrent of melancholy. Segel personifies Wallace perfectly. He was a confusing, brilliant, sorrowful, funny, complicated, gifted man, and there’s no doubt Segel knew that.

The film plays with the notion that no matter how well a journalist and a subject hit it off, friendship can’t come before the story. There’s a real sadness in the idea that these two could’ve been real pals had there not been the need to do an interview.

The End of the Tour is now playing at the UltraStar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickford St, Cathedral City; 760-328-7100).

Published in Reviews

Director Richard Ayoade pays nice visual homage to the likes of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam with The Double, an adaptation of the 1846 novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, an employee at a bleak office (that reminds of Gilliam’s Brazil) where he is unnoticed by co-workers, and hapless in his pursuit of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the copy room. When his exact double—a new employee named James—shows up, he’s everything Simon wants to be: brash, confident and great with the ladies. James mentors Simon for a while, but things go bad quickly.

Eisenberg is given the task of creating two genuinely different personalities that look exactly alike, even down to their bland choice of tan clothing. He isn’t even given the benefit of a pencil mustache or a top hat for the evil twin. However, he accomplishes the feat, mainly in the cadence of his voice: James rolls off sentences with no hesitations, while Simon is prone to stammering.

Wasikowska, who can be rather drab, is good here, as she was in some of her better efforts like Stoker and The Kids Are All Right.

The Double stands as proof that Ayoade (perhaps best known to American audiences as the horny British fellow in The Watch) is a formidable director; he develops a distinct vision even when he’s taking bits and pieces from other directors. He doesn’t have a follow-up to this on his slate as of yet; I hope that changes soon. It also stands as proof that Eisenberg being cast as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman might wind up being a very cool move.

This is available via online sources including Amazon.com and iTunes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

For those of you hankering for another magician movie after The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, here it is!

A Las Vegas magician act called the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) concludes a show by seemingly robbing a bank in France through teleportation. An FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol detective (Mélanie Laurent) investigate—and we snore.

Morgan Freeman is on hand as a man who makes a living debunking magic, as is Michael Caine as a millionaire bankrolling the Horsemen. It all amounts to nonsense, with the a lot of swirling cameras and stupid fights involving playing cards and paper cuts.

The big reveals are silly, and much of what happens on the magic side is never explained. Meanwhile, Eisenberg delivers one of the year’s more annoying performances.

Now You See Me is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews