Speak No Evil

Resistance

by George Wolf

In the opening minutes of Resistance, a young Jewish girl asks her parents, “Why do they hate us?”

Then, just before the end credits, stark onscreen text reminds us of the magnitude of Nazi atrocities, and just how much of that was inflicted on children.

And during the nearly two hours in between, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz tells an incredible story you probably don’t know about an iconic figure you most likely do.

Legendary mime Marcel Marceau was born Marcel Mangel. And while taking a stage name is hardly unusual, Mangel’s motivation was: joining the French Resistance and helping save thousands of children orphaned by the Nazis in WWII.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Marceau, and it’s a perfect vehicle for his offbeat strengths as an actor. Though Eisenberg’s French accent is shaky (he’s not alone), he nails the layers most important to making Marceau’s astonishing arc an authentic one.

Early on, Marceau is afraid of his father’s reaction to his ambitions on the stage, and seems most interested in entertaining children as a way to impress the lovely Emma (Clemence Poesy).

Eisenberg may never be an action hero, but his delicate, appeasing nature is a valuable tool for Jakubowicz to subtly reinforce how the Nazi threat was (and still is?) underestimated. Marceau’s hardening edges are never overplayed by Eisenberg, just as Jakubowicz wisely steers clear of any overt, Life is Beautiful sentimentality between Marceau and the children he is trying to shield from the horrors of war.

Indeed, the film is at its most gripping when juxtaposing the touching and the profane. Gentle moments appear and are quickly countered, never betraying the ever-present threat often personified by the sadistic Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer). Marceau and Barbie’s face to face meeting – historically accurate or not – is played with fine cinematic tension, demonstrating a passion and assured vision often lacking in Jakubowicz’s 2016 feature debut, Hands of Stone.

Marceau ultimately gave his first major performance in front of thousands of WWII troops. And although framing his story around a speech from General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) seems a bit misplaced, it also feels born of the sincere desire to convey the depth of Marceau’s heroism.

Resistance is a film built with passion and sincerity, employing a story that will be new for most of us to deliver a timely reminder meant for all of us.

Be a Man

The Art of Self-Defense

by Brandon Thomas

“Name?”

“Casey Davies.”

“That’s a very feminine sounding name.”

This humiliating exchange happens between Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) as Casey excitedly signs up for karate lessons. Casey suffers from a severe lack of confidence. He leads a drab, boring life. His house? Boring. His job? Boring. Even his dog is boring. No one respects Casey. His coworkers barely register his existence. The final demeaning moment is the night he’s viciously attacked while walking home from the store. Karate seems like the perfect antidote for this life of mediocrity.

Eh – not really.

Watching The Art of Self-Defense made me think of Fight Club. A lot. Fight Club overflows with masculinity. Brawny men beating each other to a pulp while waxing philosophical is the film’s bread and butter. Fincher’s movie definitely comments on the toxicity of masculinity, but it also spends a heck of a lot of time glorifying it, too.

The Art of Self Defense is interested in what it means to be a “real man.” Outside of Casey, the men in this dojo operate through sheer brute force. Violence, intimidation and blackmail are how they make their world work. Casey’s gravitational pull to these figures is a tale as old as time. Writer/director Riley Stearns isn’t interested in reveling in this world Sensei has created, he’s more interested in pushing the audience to share in Casey’s horror as he experiences it.

It’s easy to look at many of Eisenberg’s roles and lump them into the same narrow category. Yes, he plays a lot of isolated losers that stammar and shuffle around, but he also plays those roles with varying degrees of nuance. There’s a level of fear and anxiety he brings to Casey that feels different from his other loveable nerds. Casey is a rubber band about to snap at any moment, and Eisenberg does a fantastic job of keeping the audience guessing as to when that will happen.

Nivola’s Sensei has an air of false machismo to him at all times. He speaks in a low, gruff voice, and his words feel precisely selected, but fake. Nivola gets that this movie is a stark black comedy, and he completely goes for broke. He is able to walk this fine line of playing a scene straight, yet has it come off as a comedic masterstroke.

Armed with biting satire, excellent performances, and more on its mind than cheap laughs, The Art of Self Defense delivers a bold, original dark comedy. Minimal flexing involved. 


Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

The Hummingbird Project

by Christie Robb

Director Kim Nguyen’s contributes a meditation into the nature of success in the modern world.

Wall Street traders and cousins Vincent and Anton Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard) resign from their jobs as high-frequency traders and embark on a quest to build a ramrod-straight fiber-optic cable joining the servers of the Kansas and New York stock exchanges. The objective: to make stock trades a millisecond faster than their competitors and make millions in the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings.

Obstacles block their path—mountains, swamps, health issues, reluctant property owners, and a vengeful ex-boss played by Salma Hayek.

The technobabble in the film feels like it is based-on-a-true story. But, it isn’t. Eisenberg plays Vincent as a monomaniac. He’s almost as focused on his line as Ahab is consumed by destroying Moby-Dick. Skarsgard disappears into the role of Anton, contorting his height into an excruciating stoop and delivering a genius-on-the-spectrum performance that is nuanced, funny, sad, and kind of inspiring.

The Hummingbird Project is often beautifully shot, with frequent use of slow motion footage. However, it struggles in focus. It could easily have been tweaked into several different movies. One can imagine editing it into a comedy like Office Space. It could have been Hitchcockian corporate thriller by expanding Hayek’s role. Or it could have shone more of a spotlight on the relationship between characters to flesh out what seems to be the movie’s purpose: questioning whether racing for wealth is really a better use of time than downshifting to spend time with the people around you.

As it is, the movie tries to be too many things and ends up being an ok entry rather than a good one.

 





Halloween Countdown, Day 28: Zombieland

Zombieland (2009)

Zombieland is quite possibly the perfect movie. Just when Shaun of the Dead convinced me that those Limey Brits had create the best-ever zombie romantic comedy, it turns out they’d only created the most British zombie romantic comedy. The Yank counterpart is even better, and with this amount of artillery, it’s certainly a more American vision.

Let’s start with the effervescently clever writing. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take the tried-and-true zombiepocalypse premise and sprint with it in totally new and awesome directions.

And the cameo. I cannot imagine a better one. I mean that. I’m not sure a walk on by Jesus himself could have brought me more joy.

That’s not true. Plus, in zombie movie?! How awesome would that have been?!

The performances kick ass, also. Thank you Rubin Fleischer for respecting each character enough to allow them a good balance of stupid mistakes, solid decisions and laughs.

Jesse Eisenberg anchors the film with an inspired narration and an endearing dork characterization. Yes, we’ve seen him dork before. One dork nearly won him an Oscar. Still, this is one of his finer dorks.

But Woody Harrelson owns this film. His gun toting, Twinkie loving, Willie Nelson singing, Dale Earnhart number wearing redneck ranks among the greatest horror heroes ever.

I give you, a trip to a loud and well-lit amusement park is not a recommendation Max Brooks would make during the zombiepocalypse. Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!





The Darkest Knight

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

by George Wolf

Just how dark do you like your superheroes?

With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder battles his own penchant for excess while combining the Marvel formula of assembly with the damaged psyche of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. And while Snyder is dealing with a few less avengers, his film makes Nolan look downright drunk on human kindness.

Utilizing an ambitious script from Chris Terri (Argo) and David S. Goyer (all three of Nolan’s Batman films), Snyder is not shy with metaphor or message.  As spectacular events unfold in Metropolis and Gotham, we’re given an unflinching rumination on how 9/11 has changed us.

Terrorism, paranoia, torture, and toothless media are woven into more standard superhero tenets. This is a battle between God and man, and the film also has plenty of moments worthy of a classic Greek tragedy.

So there’s a lot going on here? Sometimes too much. Ideas are plentiful and often repeated, as are dream sequences and Snyder’s patented wide angle slow-motion set pieces. And really, do we need another ‘young Bruce Wayne watches his parents get shot’ sequence?

Speaking of Master Wayne…after all the uproar, Ben Affleck makes a fine caped crusader, as the hero’s square-jawed intensity fits perfectly into Affleck’s low-emotion comfort zone. The great Jeremy Irons brings some welcome badassed-ness to the role of Alfred, effortlessly stealing scenes and laying claim to the film’s most surprisingly interesting character.

In the other corner, Henry Cavill continues to impress as Clark Kent/Superman, finding a subtle nuance in the role that makes his ache for humanity ring true. Amy Adams gives us a Lois Lane that is smarter and sexier than ever, and her chemistry with Cavill brings a new depth to the iconic super couple.

To the delight of arch villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, over the top), the Dark Knight and Man of Steel finally come to blows, and it is glorious. In fact, their battle makes the film’s final act feel a bit superfluous, save for the cheer-inducing entrance of the new Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).

The ironic twist to her slightly-more-appropriate-for-crime-fighting outfit is the instant reminder of just how masculine the entire superhero universe remains. Still, there is enough mystery here to hold out hope that Wonder Woman’s upcoming stand alone film will be one of overdue substance.

After the rubble finally settles, Dawn of Justice is just that, as we get glimpses of the other “meta-humans” that will take their places in the upcoming Justice League franchise. Batman v Superman wanders, but it’s enough of an epic to make following it worthwhile.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Bourne and Chong

American Ultra

by George Wolf

Here’s the pitch: what if Brad Pitt’s Flintstones-watching stoner from True Romance was actually a highly trained government operative who can kill you with nothing but a spoon and a cup of soup?

Intrigued? Me, too.

So why can’t American Ultra fully capitalize on that promise?

Okay, its not really Floyd from True Romance – he’s baking comfortably in the stoner Hall of Fame – it’s Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) from the Cash and Carry mini-mart in Liman, West Virginia. Mike plans to propose to his live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) during a romantic trip to Hawaii, but they never make it on the plane.

Mike suffers strange panic attacks anytime he’s about to leave town, but that seems like a minor problem once CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) visits Mike at work and keeps repeating a strange phrase. Turns out Mike is really a sleeper agent who’s been suddenly branded a liability, and Victoria needs Mike to wake up before he’s taken out.

Writer Max Landis, much as he did with Chronicle, pieces together a winning premise from parts of differing genres. We think we know what to expect from weed-soaked characters, but breaking out the MacGyver shit to bust open some heads is not on the list. Throw in plenty of spy game skullduggery, and there’s ample opportunity for black comedy that the film only partially explores.

Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) seems equally caught in a pattern of two steps up and one back. He unleashes stylish, well-paced bursts of action, followed by slow-moving exposition and then back again, sometimes punctuated by isolated bits of sharp comedy just looking for a home.

On paper, Eisenberg seems miscast, but he’s able to make both extremes of Mike’s character blend surprisingly well. Stewart continues her recent winning streak in the film’s early going, excelling as Mike’s sweetly sympathetic love. Once Phoebe’s true motives come to light, though, it’s back to the well worn K-Stew pained expression once too often.

A little too slow to be action packed, a bit too nasty to be fun-filled, American Ultra seems held back in a familiar haze. It’s got plenty of good ideas, but just when they really start to gel, it decides to just watch some cartoons instead.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

 





Nothing to See Here

Now You See Me

By Hope Madden

In the fall of 2006 we saw back to back films about magicians – The Illusionist and The Prestige. I remember thinking, really? Why?

Well, with just two months separating the release of The Incredible Bomb about Burt Wonderstone from this weekend’s Now You See Me, it’s hard not to scratch your head again at Hollywood’s insistence on our interest in magic.

At least Prestige and Illusionist were half decent films.

Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson lead a group of magicians who seem to pull off a bank heist during their show, and promise more of the same. Mark Ruffalo turns into the Hulk and smashes up their hall of mirrors.

If only!

No, instead he teams with Inglorious Basterds’s Melanie Laurent – an INTERPOL agent – to prove there’s no such thing as magic and that these guys are plain old crooks.

Unless it’s all an illusion…

Cons, comeuppance, love and daddy issues crisscross with lackluster acting to keep you from wondering whether Michael Caine (who was also in The Prestige. Of course he was!) or Morgan Freeman have milkier eyes. They’re both getting quite old. Maybe they should turn down one or two of the films released in any given year. Perhaps see an ophthalmologist.

They both certainly deserve better than this undercooked mess, directed by style-over-substance maestro Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Clash of the Titans). With his characters talking incessantly about sleight of hand, you’d think Leterrier might employ that particular tactic on his own. Maybe razzle dazzle us while the con happens right under our noses.

Instead, perfectly ludicrous tricks and schemes are re-enacted without regard to plausibility. Rather than lifting the curtain to unveil anything tricky, the approach only uncovers some very lazy filmmaking.

Wasting a cast that has accumulated a combined 3 Oscars and another 4 nominations is a trick in itself, but aside from Harrelson’s natural charm, nothing about the performers impresses. Workhorses Freeman and Caine come closest to delivering something akin to acting. When push comes to shove, the usually impressive Ruffalo is badly miscast, Isla Fisher flails against hideous dialogue, and Eisenberg phones in just another turn as a hyper-intelligent dick.

And on top of it all, they play magicians.

Seriously, who gives a shit about magicians?

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNfiXZzmhjw