Jesse Eisenberg

Café Society (2016, Woody Allen)

Woody Allen opens Café Society himself, with a voiceover. It’s a deeper voice mix than usual for Allen–who doesn’t appear in the film–and even though he’s doing expository narration, there’s an intentional distance in that deeper voice. Allen’s not the star of the film. In some ways, even lead Jesse Eisenberg isn’t the star. It’s the 1930s, he’s a young man from New York trying to break into Hollywood. He works for his successful uncle (Steve Carell in a genially morose performance), he romances Kristen Stewart. Things don’t go as planned, of course, which sets Eisenberg on an unexpected path.

The narrative toys with the idea of being an epical look at this young go-getter’s rise and fall, but Allen’s not interested in it. He likes the characters too much and the film loiters around them. Maybe there’s some dramatic narrative going on off-screen–if Allen and Corey Stoll, as Eisenberg’s gangster brother, ever wanted to do a picture about Jewish mobsters, Society shows the two of them would excel at that collaboration. The main story does follow Eisenberg, with these short interludes with the rest of his family and then Stewart, but the gangland ones with Stoll are just phenomenal.

Eventually, it’s Eisenberg who gets those interludes and not everyone else. There’s just too much good material for his family–Jeannie Berlin as the mom, Ken Stott as the dad, brother Stoll, sister Sari Lennick and her husband Stephen Kunken. It’s a movie set in Old Hollywood, gorgeously and glamorously photographed by Vittorio Storaro with beautiful attention to period detail (especially Stewart’s costumes) and all Allen wants to do is get back to New York. Hollywood, for Eisenberg, Allen and Café Society in general, is too false a dream.

Great performances from pretty much everyone and very good ones from everyone else. Eisenberg’s character doesn’t get an epic story arc, but his performance does get to mature throughout. Society is often very funny. Even when it’s sad, it’s still pretty funny. Allen’s clearly enjoying the production. Problematically, his narrative doesn’t emphasize the things he and editor Alisa Lepselter end up focusing on. Lepselter saves the third act. There’s lovely work from Stewart and Eisenberg as it winds down, but Lepselter is the one who puts it all together.

Stewart’s great, Eisenberg’s good–though his family steals his thunder (particularly Berlin and Stott)–Parker Posey is fantastic in a smaller but showy part. It’s an extremely solid motion picture, exquisitely visualized. It might have helped if it had gone on longer; it only runs ninety-six minutes, which isn’t enough for all the great performances Allen gets from his cast.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Vittorio Storaro; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby), Kristen Stewart (Vonnie), Steve Carell (Phil Stern), Blake Lively (Veronica), Parker Posey (Rad Taylor), Jeannie Berlin (Rose Dorfman), Ken Stott (Marty Dorfman), Sari Lennick (Evelyn), Stephen Kunken (Leonard) and Corey Stoll (Ben Dorfman).


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zach Snyder), the ultimate edition

The extended version of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t just the extended version of Batman/Superman, it’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Edition. There’s a second subtitle on the thing. It’s doubling down on the idea the extended cut in the post-DVD era. It’d be desperate if anything added in the “ultimate edition” actually made the film seem more “ultimate,” but it doesn’t. In fact, all the additional scenes and moments are good. And that quality is the problem, because they draw attention to the film’s failings.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Edition is a worse film for better scenes.

The first part of Dawn of Justice, in this cut, runs just around 107 minutes. Quite frankly, if the remaining seventy-three minutes–which have minimal additions, compared to the rather extended first part–just had Amy Adams narrating it and the first 107 minutes cut in as flashbacks, it might have all worked out. Because that first hour and fifty minutes are about Adams, Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck. It’s about Adams and Cavill trying to figure out how to date as Lois Lane and Superman while Affleck’s a bit of a crazy Batman. Thank goodness Jeremy Irons (who excels far more in the ultimate edition) is around to keep Affleck sort of in check. Sort of.

But having this strong opening, with a far better paced investigation from Adams than the theatrical cut–not just because she gets a semi-sidekick in an affable Jena Malone cameo–but also because Cavill gets to be a reporter too. Dawn of Justice, the theatrical version, was already a great example of a disastrously plotted script, but the ultimate edition just shows how bad David Brenner is at editing a motion picture. Or how bad director Snyder is in instructing Brenner how to chop out a half hour. Because the first part, the fleshed out ultimate edition version of it, it works as a movie. There are some problems, sure, because Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script (or Terrio’s rendition of Goyer’s treatment) is still a mess. Affleck is still a very strange edition to the film. He doesn’t feel at all natural in the narrative. Not in the events of Dawn of Justice, but in how Brenner, Snyder, Terrio and Goyer have the character in the film itself. Snyder takes two different styles for Affleck and Cavill’s plots. The one he takes for Affleck is bad.

Only in the extended cut, it gets a bit of a pass. There’s just a better pace all around to help it out. And Irons is delightful. Affleck’s still good, he’s just not delightful. Having something delightful in Dawn of Justice is nice, because it lacks in delight. Though the ultimate edition does have a little bit more fun. And it does help. Snyder’s extremely competent–the stuff he does just for general superhero antics, like Batman beating people up or sneaking around and Superman flying, he has a great approach. I’d watch Zack Snyder’s three hour version of the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence starring Cavill and Adams in a second. I’d watch it twice in a row. Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong make beautiful superhero moments.

But Snyder wants Dawn of Justice to be more than just a superhero movie. He wants it to be serious. And Terrio and Goyer’s script wants to be serious too. It even sees how it could be serious, it just never wants to take the time. But it gets a pass; the first hour and fifty get a pass. Cavill’s great, Adams is great, Affleck’s good. Larry Fishburne making fun of Cavill is magic; it’s awkward but somehow likable. Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Edition makes Morpheus a dick to Superman. What’s that about? It’s personality. Dawn of Justice needs personality.

It also needs a better reason to have Batman and Superman fight. At least in the theatrical version, the film ramps up to it. There’s no real narrative to concern oneself with. In the ultimate version, even Holly Hunter gets a better role. Not perfect, no, but better. Only there’s not room in a movie with such a narratively and somewhat stylistically inert finish to have better roles. The MacGuffin to Batman v Superman should be Batman and Superman fighting, but it isn’t because Snyder and Terrio and Goyer can’t come up with a reason to make them fight.

The fight scene between Cavill and Affleck resonates better in the ultimate edition. It doesn’t work–Snyder (and the script) can’t handle passing the film off from Cavill to Affleck in this moment. It needed to be when there was a real flashback to the Batman origin, not the opening credits. How Warner Bros. didn’t bring in someone to at least fix this thing up in post is beyond me. There’s so much material and it could be cut so much better.

And Gal Gadot suffers a little in the ultimate edition. She disappears for too long and when she comes back as Wonder Woman, she’s got very little to do. She and Affleck needed another scene together, not a creepy email from a forty-something man to a much younger woman. The ultimate edition amplifies the theatrical. Everything bad, it makes worse, everything good, it makes better.

Jesse Eisenberg is good. Scoot McNairy is good. Callan Mulvey isn’t. I don’t even remember Mulvey having enough to do in the theatrical version for him to not be good. Everything bad, worse. Everything good, better.

It would be nice if that first 107 minutes were enough better to make up for the worse, but they aren’t. The big problem with Dawn of Justice is the resolution and conclusion, the two big fight scenes. They’re narrative disasters, just like they were in the theatrical version. They just weren’t as noticeably weaker in the shorter version. The ultimate edition shows real quality, real potential. Dawn of Justice could’ve weathered its pretense. But Snyder and Brenner–not to mention Terrio and Goyer–messed it up. And it’s actually too bad, because it’s not about the franchise deserving better and it sure isn’t about the audience deserving better, it’s about the actors. Adams, Cavill, Affleck, Irons, Hunter, Eisenberg. They all do some really good work in this film. Their performances deserve a better film.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Zack Snyder; screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by David Brenner; music by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL; production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos; produced by Deborah Snyder and Charles Roven; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Henry Cavill (Clark Kent / Superman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor), Jeremy Irons (Alfred Pennyworth), Holly Hunter (Senator Finch), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Harry Lennix (Swanwick), Scoot McNairy (Wallace Keefe), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince), Callan Mulvey (Anatoli Knyazev) and Jena Malone (Jenet Klyburn).


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, as a film, just as unwieldy as that title. Director Snyder, through a strange, comforting overconfidence, gets the film through its two and a half hour run time. By the end, when Snyder teases a cliffhanger, teases various comic book references, it’s a deceleration process. The viewer has made it to the finish line, here’s promise of a future reward (the setup of further movies).

Snyder brings no style to Dawn of Justice. He has a feel for the material–his dark and dreary take on Ben Affleck’s Batman, a lonely drunk surrounded by faceless women and haunted by Jeremy Irons (who might as well be a ghost, he has zero interaction with anyone else), is a big success, but it’s more. Most of Dawn of Justice is divinely fluid. David Brenner’s editing, Larry Fong’s photography, even Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score–there’s a visual flow to the film. Snyder can get to all the various stories going on (at two and a half hours, the film’s about an hour too short and an hour too long), even if Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s screenplay cannot.

I can’t even list all the stories. Basically, every character has a story going on with every other character (except Jeremy Irons, of course, and Holly Hunter to some degree). All of the actors are pretty darn good at it, even if Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s screenplay is exceptionally lazy, but these stories don’t really go anywhere. They all get resolutions, usually lame ones, but the “big story” gets introduced halfway into the film. More than halfway into the film and it gets no more weight than numerous other plot points, so it taking over is a bit of a surprise.

Unfortunately, all of these stories tend to be to tie in to the characters’ other stories. The result is nothing for most of the actors to do. Terrio, Goyer and Snyder wuss out on Cavill, robbing him of various great possible scenes. They don’t even shortchange him for Affleck, they shortchange him as Superman. He gets more to do as Clark Kent, which is fine (and comparing how Affleck approaches his role with how Cavill’s approach is interesting), but it’s not called Batman v Clark Kent.

As a result of shortchanging Cavill’s Superman antics for most of the run time (the super antics get told in summary montages), he doesn’t feel like much of a character. He still is a character because of the Clark Kent stuff–and Cavill and Adams, failed by the screenplay, are wonderful together–but he’s also not. And neither is Affleck, because–again–there’s a lot of misdirection from the script.

So is Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor a large enough character? No. Eisenberg’s performance is great (for most of the film) but it all falls apart in the second half, when the film races to tie everything up and it becomes One Bad Night. In the end, Dawn of Justice’s action-packed finale has nothing to do with the film anyone had been building toward.

The script’s kind of bad, kind of mediocre. It gives Affleck and Gal Gadot (oh, yeah, she’s Wonder Woman–you’re supposed to get excited for her movie; you do) the opportunity to show off chemistry. They also get some boring moments playing on their computers to further the plot.

Snyder’s timing is good until the big finish. He hits a lot of good marks, but he’s in a rush. That overconfidence makes it seem like it’s okay to be rushed, but eventually it’s not okay anymore. Eventually, there’s a vacuum. Snyder can’t even find a tone for the film. It’s like he realized he was going to cop out of all the first act’s narrative expectations. He tries to distract the viewer from reaching the same conclusion with a lot of fanfare, a lot of nonsense. He’s got a strong cast, they get the movie through.

Dawn of Justice doesn’t succeed, it has enough trouble just surviving.

Wait, can’t forget–Holly Hunter is so good with nothing to work with. She’s real good.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Zack Snyder; screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by David Brenner; music by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL; production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos; produced by Deborah Snyder and Charles Roven; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Henry Cavill (Clark Kent / Superman), Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Jeremy Irons (Alfred Pennyworth), Tao Okamoto (Mercy Graves), Scoot McNairy (Wallace Keefe), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Callan Mulvey (Anatoli Knyazev) and Holly Hunter (Senator Finch).


To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)

To Rome with Love is sort of hostile to its viewer. Allen sets up three (or four, depending on how you want to count) plots and plays them all concurrently. However, these three (or four) plots don’t necessarily coexist in the same Rome, certainly not at the same time they linearly play out in the run time. He’s also a little dishonest in how he introduces them–Alec Baldwin’s plot gets a big introduction but it immediately shifts gears.

Wait, there are four plots. I keep losing count….

There’s Alison Pill as a young American tourist. Allen and Judy Davis play her parents. Allen and Davis are great together, in case I forget to mention later. Davis just sits and watches him, with real laughs at his deliveries.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin, who gets entangled in Jesse Eisenberg’s love triangle with Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page.

Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi are honeymooners. Penelope Cruz figures in at some point.

And then Roberto Benigni is the example of the middle class Roman.

Okay, there are four plots. There are sort of five.

Anyway… the best ones are the Tiberi and Mastronardi one and the Benigni one. Or, as one might say, the Roman ones.

Pill’s not in her story enough, though it’s fairly charming.

The one with Eisenberg misfires. He’s ineffectual, Page’s woefully miscast and Gerwig’s great but underutilized.

Allen experiments with narrative here… and doesn’t seem to like the results.

Rome… and gorgeous Darius Khondji photography help a lot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Anne Seibel; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Giampaolo Letta and Faruk Alatan; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Woody Allen (Jerry), Alec Baldwin (John), Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo), Penélope Cruz (Anna), Judy Davis (Phyllis), Jesse Eisenberg (Jack), Greta Gerwig (Sally), Ellen Page (Monica), Antonio Albanese (Luca Salta), Fabio Armiliato (Giancarlo), Alessandra Mastronardi (Milly), Ornella Muti (Pia Fusari), Flavio Parenti (Michelangelo), Alison Pill (Hayley), Riccardo Scamarcio (Rapinatore hotel) and Alessandro Tiberi (Antonio).


Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer)

I can’t believe Zombieland got made. I mean, I understand it’s a reasonable financial success and all, but who greenlighted this film? It’s from a couple no name writers and a no name director and the best known cast member is Woody Harrelson.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Woody Harrelson and have been an avid supporter for many a year, but really… it’s way too… smart to be a studio picture. Even when it does silly, obvious things, it’s leagues better than what I was expecting.

For instance, the Bill Murray cameo–it does work; it’s funny but it’d be funnier if it were someone who hadn’t been through a nasty public divorce and needed to do image clean-up. Plus, there’s a comment about Murray’s dramatic turns, but nothing about him running out of the Oscars in a huff when he doesn’t win.

I think Mel Gibson would have been a much better choice, especially since he isn’t a comic actor in the same way. But then, Mel Gibson isn’t a Sony slash Columbia slash Tri-Star actor and Zombieland is one of the biggest studio pictures I can think of–it’s the Gremlins 2 of the zombie genre.

Acting wise, it’s all solid, but unspectacular. Jesse Eisenberg is really good, but he’s playing the same character he played in Adventureland. Harrelson’s funny and good but it’s no surprise he’s either.

Fleisher’s direction is comic-oriented, so it’s hard to tell about him.

But it’s really good stuff.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ruben Fleischer; written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; director of photography, Michael Bonvillain; edited by Alan Baumgarten; music by David Sardy; production designer, Maher Ahmad; produced by Gavin Polone; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee), Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus), Emma Stone (Wichita), Abigail Breslin (Little Rock), Amber Heard (406), Bill Murray (Bill Murray) and Derek Graf (Clown Zombie).


Adventureland (2009, Greg Mottola)

I hate Adventureland. I mean, it’s a rather good film, but I’m going to have to say nice things about Ryan Reynolds now and so I hate it. Reynolds has a small but significant role in the film and he’s fantastic, bringing humanity to what should be a common character. I cringed at his name in the credits then proceeded to love his performance. So I hate Adventureland.

Greg Mottola’s film isn’t revolutionary. It’s a coming of age story. But there’s a lot of nice nuance to it. It’s a post-college coming of age story, set in 1987, but nothing like a movie from 1987. Then there’s the whole undercurrent of anti-semiticism, which gets a specific scene, but not a lot of notice–the film’s primary three characters are Jewish (I’m just guessing with Jesse Eisenberg’s character, as it wouldn’t make much sense if he wasn’t) and they have this awkward relationship with the Catholics they work with. Mottola doesn’t establish it, he just later refers to it–it’s part of the ground situation, something everyone knows about and the viewer has to get caught up on immediately. It’s beautiful. Or Eisenberg being the youngest guy drinking at the bar. It just goes on and on.

But what Adventureland is all about, what makes it singular, is Kristen Stewart. I’ve been a fan since Speak–though I’ve never gotten around to seeing any of her films–and Adventureland is something of a showcase for her talent. Mottola seems to realize Eisenberg’s problems can’t carry an entire film, so he juxtaposes it with Stewart and her situation. Her situation is slightly more singular than Eisenberg’s and, even if it weren’t, it’s clear Stewart would be amazing in more pat scenes. Fingers crossed Stewart doesn’t let the paychecks of Twilight-like malarky sway her from doing good films.

So what about Eisenberg, the film’s ostensible lead? He’s great too. He’s nothing compared to Stewart, but he’s great. He’s got a great way of delivering Mottola’s dialogue–there’s always this thoughtful pause. It’s impossible to imagine the film without this cast.

Martin Starr’s solid as Eisenberg’s sort-of friend, Matt Bush hilarious as the childhood friend Eisenberg has outgrown (another one of Adventureland and Mottola’s lovely moves). Bill Hader has what would be the most traditional comedy role and he’s funny. It works.

Mottola’s direction is excellent. His strengths as a filmmaker more than make up for the film running about five minutes too long, maybe seven.

But I still hate Adventureland for making me say nice things about Ryan Reynolds.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Yo La Tengo; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; produced by Ted Hope, Anne Carey and Sidney Kimmel; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg (James Brennan), Kristen Stewart (Em Lewin), Martin Starr (Joel Schiffman), Bill Hader (Bobby), Kristen Wiig (Paulette), Margarita Levieva (Lisa P.), Jack Gilpin (Mr. Brennan), Wendie Malick (Mrs. Brennan) and Ryan Reynolds (Mike Connell).


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