PICTURE OF THE DAY: ZOMBIELAND (2009) & ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019)

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Zombieland cast

Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and Woody Harrelson in ZOMBIELAND (2009).

It’s not every day that the same cast returns ten years later to star in a sequel, but that’s exactly what happened here with ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019).

Pictured above, the cast as they appeared in the original ZOMBIELAND (2009): Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and Woody Harrelson.

And below, the same four as they appear ten years later in the ZOMBIELAND sequel, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP:

zombieland_double_tap- cast

Back for more zombie hunting action, it’s Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, and Jesse Eisenberg in ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019).

None of these folks are looking worse for wear. In fact, you could make the argument that the ten years have been kind to them, as they all look better! Either way, you’re not seeing double. Well, actually you are. Double tap, that is!

Enjoy the photos!

And thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) – Fun Sequel Provides Another Gory Good Time

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zombieland double tap

It’s been ten years since ZOMBIELAND (2009), the high-octane zombie horror/comedy which starred Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin, which makes its sequel, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) a long time coming.

I really liked ZOMBIELAND when I first saw it at the theaters. The humor was snarky, the screenplay creative, and the laughs frequent. But upon subsequent viewings over the last decade I’ve enjoyed it less as the humor hasn’t held up all that well. So, I can’t say I was chomping at the bit to see the sequel.

That being said, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is actually pretty entertaining, and after a slow opening, it picks up speed and continues to get better all the way up to its strong conclusion. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll definitely enjoy this one, and even if you haven’t seen the first ZOMBIELAND, you still might like this movie, as its comedy and story aren’t really contingent on having seen the first film.

It’s been ten years since we last saw Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahasse (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and they’re still navigating their way through the zombie apocalypse. When the movie opens, they arrive at a place where they feel safe, the White House.

I’m just going to interject here for a moment. One of the reasons this sequel gets off to a slow start is that like lots of other movies, it gets done in by its trailers. There are a lot of gags thrown our way early on, but nearly all of them were already revealed in the film’s trailers. And while this is no fault of the movie, it’s still a thing. There were a lot of gags throughout this movie that would have been funnier had I not seen them already. The good news is there were still plenty of other gags that I hadn’t seen.

Now, back to our story.

Columbus and Wichita have been involved in a relationship over the last ten years, and it’s gotten serious, so much so that Columbus proposes to her, which catches her off guard and freaks her out, and so she declines. Meanwhile, Little Rock is pining for someone her own age. When she meets that someone, a former student from Berkeley, (Avan Jogia), she up and runs off with him.

Worried for her sister, Wichita sets out to find Little Rock, and of course Columbus and Tallahassee join her, and the rest of the film, which all works very well and gets better and better as it goes along, is the story of their search for Little Rock, and their interactions with the people they meet along the way.

One of the reasons ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP works as well as it does is the same team who worked on the first movie is back for this one. The four main actors all returned, as well as director Ruben Fleischer, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, along with newcomer Dave Callaham.

Fleischer, who also directed VENOM (2018), gives this one the same visual flair as the first movie, including the creative and often humorous zombie kills. Reese amd Wernick also wrote the DEADPOOL movies, and like those movies and the first ZOMBIELAND, the humor is often— biting. Actually, less so in ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP, as more often than not the jokes are just plain zany.

As I said, the film gets off to a slow start, and that’s largely because even though I like the four main characters, seeing them interact again in pretty much the same way as the original movie wasn’t anything new, but as soon as Little Rock hits the road, and the story becomes a new one, things get better. And the film is definitely helped by the addition of some new characters.

Zoey Deutch nearly steals the show as Madison, a ditzy blonde who Columbus saves in a mall, and who for a while becomes his new girlfriend. She’s hilarious in all her scenes, and one of the reasons is she transcends the dumb blonde cliché, and really comes off as a genuine person. Plus she’s very funny.

And Rosario Dawson, as she always is, is excellent as Nevada, and she shares some fun scenes with Tallahassee.

The four principals are all back. Jesse Eisenberg as the snarky Columbus, and his “rules” and ongoing commentary and narration while not as refreshing as they were the first time around, are still generally entertaining.

Speaking of which, Woody Harrelson remains fun to watch as Tallahassee, and of the four, he has some of the best moments in the movie, although I wondered what happened to his love of Twinkies, a running gag from the first movie that is absent here.

I wanted more Emma Stone. As Wichita, she’s on-screen as much as her co-stars, but Stone has simply done so much in the last decade, I wanted this story to revolve more around her character. Sadly, it does not.

And while the story does revolve around Little Rock, Abigail Breslin probably has the least impact here of the original four stars.

One of the “surprises” in the first ZOMBIELAND was the secret cameo by Bill Murray, in a sequence where Columbus actually kills the comedian, mistaking him for a zombie. That gag does come up here in the sequel, and this time the “surprise” happens during the end credits, so don’t leave once the credits roll. Stick around for the extra scene.

I had a lot of fun watching ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP. Its gags are lively and frequent, and its story is one that gets better as it goes along, building to a conclusion that actually gets a bit suspenseful.

In the mood for a bloody good time at the movies? If you don’t mind nonstop messy zombie kills, you’ll enjoy ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP.

It may not have been the most necessary sequel, but it takes what worked best in the first movie and lays it all out there again, telling a new story, that while not as refreshing as the first film, is still a gory good time.

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016), Woody Allen’s Latest, Low Key Affair

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cafe society poster

CAFE SOCIETY (2016), the latest film by Woody Allen, is a bittersweet love story set in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his family in the Bronx and sets out to make a name for himself, or at the very least, get a job, in Hollywood.  His mother  Rose (Jeannie Berlin) arranges for him to meet with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who’s a successful Hollywood agent.  Phil hires Bobby as his personal errand boy, and he also introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).  Phil asks Vonnie to show Bobby around town, which she happily does.

It doesn’t take long before Bobby falls for Vonnie, but she’s up front with him and tells him that although she likes him, she has a boyfriend.  As Bobby’s confidence grows, and as he receives a promotion at work where he’s now reading scripts, he vows not to give up on Vonnie, and it’s clear that Vonnie has feelings for him, too.  Things get more complicated when it’s revealed just who it is who Vonnie is seeing, and suddenly a rather uncomfortable triangle is formed.

CAFE SOCIETY presents us with three rather real and sympathetic characters, Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil, who are all likable enough so that you want all three of them to get what they want, yet they can’t. This part of the story works, and works well.

I’m not the biggest Jesse Eisenberg fan, but I enjoyed his performances in ZOMBIELAND (2009), NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015).  On the other hand, he did little for me as Lex Luthor in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).  He’s OK here as Bobby, but in a role that Woody Allen himself may have played had this been written back in the 1960s, he’s much too subdued to make Bobby all that exciting.  Bobby clearly comes off as a nice guy, but not much else.  He’s nowhere near as manic or depressed as he needs to be, and for most of the film it’s a one note performance.

Kristen Stewart continues to grow on me as an actor.  Forgetting the TWILIGHT movies which I try as hard as I can to forget each and every day, Stewart has made good impressions in STILL ALICE (2014) which is my personal favorite Stewart performance, where she played the daughter of Julianne Moore’s alzheimer’s stricken Alice, and in AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) in which she also co-starred with Jesse Eisenberg.

She’s very good here in CAFE SOCIETY as Vonnie, and it’s easy to see why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly. In a Hollywood society filled with egos and pretensions, Vonnie is down to earth and practical, and she’s a breath of fresh air for Bobby in this strange land so far away from his New York home.  And so when she makes choices that don’t go in Bobby’s favor, he not only feels disappointed but betrayed, because her decisions stray so far from what she had led him to believe she was all about.

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Bobby (Jesse Eisennberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) share a tender moment in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

And yet it’s not hard to understand her decision.  She makes a choice which few women in her position in this time and place would be able to resist- to be with someone who had made it to the top in Hollywood and who would be able to give her a life she always dreamed of.

Stewart is also incredibly beautiful here, and the way Woody Allen photographed her throughout this movie, she has never looked more attractive.

cafe society kristen stewart

Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

 

Steve Carell also plays it low key, delivering a much more subdued peformance than he did in last year’s THE BIG SHORT (2015).  But like Eisenberg and Stewart, he makes his character Phil Stern a genuine person.  Better yet, as Phil he rises above the standard Hollywood agent cliche.

Most of the laughs come from Bobby’s family back in the Bronx.  His very Jewish parents Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) have some of the liveliest conversations in the movie, like when Marty tells his wife that she’s wrong, that he’s not clueless about death, that he won’t go quietly but that he’ll protest death, to which she says, “Protest to who?”  She also has a great line when their other son, a gangster, is facing the death penalty and as a result converts to Catholicism because it has an afterlife.  She laments “My son is going to the electric chair and he’s become a Christian.  I don’t know which is worse!”

Corey Stoll, nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair, plays their gangster son Ben, and he too enjoys some of the movie’s more lively moments.  Then there’s Bobby’s caring Aunt Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her philosophizing husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) who sums up the theme of the movie when he paraphrases Socrates saying an unexamined life is not worth living but an examined life offers no assurances.

The characters in CAFE SOCIETY make decisions, some good and some questionable, but they go forward and deal with the ramifications of these decisions, even when these choices make their lives more difficult.  As expected, it’s a smart script by Woody Allen.

Blake Lively is also in the cast, and she’s quite enjoyable as the “other” Veronica who Bobby meets when he returns to New York.

CAFE SOCIETY looks great.  As a period piece, the film is perfect.  Woody Allen captures the look and feel of 1930s Hollywood to a T.

As such, the script works best as a period piece love story rather than a comedy.  There are certainly funny moments in the movie, but they mostly serve as comic relief to the love triangle drama.  The funniest bits, as you would expect in a Woody Allen movie, come in the convesations about death.

I liked CAFE SOCIETY, as I like most of Woody Allen’s movies.  That being said, it doesn’t rank with his best films, as it is a low key affair, but it still makes for a relaxing and diverting 90 minutes at the movies.

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AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) Is A One-Joke Movie, But It’s a Good Joke

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Here’s my review of AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) published at cinemaknifefight.com this past weekend.

—Michael

 

MOVIE REVIEW:  AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)

By Michael ArrudaAmerican Ultra poster

 What do you get when you cross THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) with ZOMBIELAND (2009) or any other Jesse Eisenberg movie for that matter?

You get AMERICAN ULTRA (2015), an action comedy that puts Eisenberg and his now recognizable shtick- the super smart socially awkward yet likable guy who can charm women and flip off men in the same sentence and be eloquent about it— into a Jason Bourne plot.  Now, I like Eisenberg and his style of humor, and so for the most part I liked this movie.  It’s held back only by a story that isn’t good enough for its two main characters.

AMERICAN ULTRA stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as a young couple in love, seemingly held back from getting anywhere in life because Eisenberg’s character is a stoner who spends most of his life getting high, but Stewart’s character loves him all the same.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a small grocery store and that’s about as good as it gets for him.  He does have a beautiful girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) who loves him to a fault, and she seems content and happy to love him just the way he is.  Mike wants to propose to Phoebe, but he never seems to find the right time or place.  He also spends his free time doodling, sketching and writing a comic about a superhero monkey.

And that’s his life, until one day two men show up at his store and try to kill him, but before they do, he jumps into assassin mode and quickly makes short work of them.  Confused and frightened, he calls Phoebe, and she rushes to his aid, only to be arrested with him once the police arrive at the scene. But their time in a jail cell is short-lived as more hitmen show up and storm the police station, wiping out everyone except for Mike and Phoebe who manage to escape once again.

While Mike has no idea what is going on or why he can suddenly morph into a deadly assassin— he fears he’s a robot— we the audience do know because we’ve already met the hot shot CIA department head Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) who’s decided that Mike is a liability to the agency and must be eliminated, a decision which doesn’t sit well with Mike’s handler Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton).  Feeling responsible for Mike, since she’s the woman behind the program which created him, Victoria decides to cross her boss and help Mike elude the CIA assassins assigned to eliminate him.

The rest of the movie follows Mike and Phoebe’s efforts to evade their killers while Mike tries to learn who he is and why he is a killing machine.

The best part of AMERICAN ULTRA is the performances by the two leads, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.  They work really well together, and they are very believable as young lovers caught in a deadly situation.

If you don’t like Eisenberg and his brand of humor, you might not enjoy him as much as I did, but I found him funny throughout.  Of course, we’ve seen him do this same shtick in films like ZOMBIELAND and NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), but I like it.  He’s also believable when he breaks into assassin mode.  As Mike Howell, he’s basically Jason Bourne with a conscience and a sense of humor.

Kristen Stewart is also excellent as Phoebe.  This is the second film in a row in which she impressed me, as I saw her in the Julianne Moore Oscar winning movie STILL ALICE (2014) on Blu-ray recently, where she played Moore’s daughter.  I’m just very happy she’s finally done with the TWILIGHT movies.  She’s so much better when she’s not in those films.

I really enjoyed her here, as she really nails the role of a woman so in love with a guy that she could give a care about his shortcomings.  It was a nice performance to watch, and an easy character to like.  I think of all us would like to have someone like that in our lives, someone who stands by us no matter what.  Stewart also enjoys some memorable comic moments, like when she chastises Mike for some bone-headed moves like pointing out to the man chasing them that he dropped his gun, and also for stopping when one of the assassins pursuing them called his name.

But the high praise for AMERICAN ULTRA stops here, because other than Eisenberg and Stewart, the rest of the film just isn’t as good.  Mind you, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely several notches below where it should be.

For starters, the single biggest thing holding AMERICAN ULTRA back is its story, which unlike the character of Mike Howell, isn’t creative or imaginative.  Mike Howell realizes he’s secretly an assassin, but doesn’t know how or why, and there are dangerous people trying to kill him while he tries to find answers to his situation.  This is basically the same plot as THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

But at least the plot in THE BOURNE IDENTITY was solid.  Here, the answers to Mike’s questions make little sense.  The reason that Mike is being hunted is because CIA agent Adrian Yates played by Topher Grace has decided on his own that Mike is a liability, based only on the fact that Mike is supposed to remain in town yet he constantly tries to leave.  But trying and doing are two separate things, and Mike never leaves, so I don’t see the problem. Anyway Yates basically sends in an entire military unit when his first assassins fail, in effect blowing up whole sections of the town.  He eventually has to quarantine the entire place and come up with a cover story about a pandemic to satisfy the media and the public.  So much for a quiet covert operation.  The whole thing just isn’t credible, and Yates comes off as a complete moron.

It’s as if writer Max Landis, who wrote the screenplay, decided to put Jesse Eisenberg into a Bourne-style plot without coming up with a credible storyline.  Landis also wrote the screenplay for the science fiction film CHRONICLE (2012), a film that was more of a complete package than AMERICAN ULTRA.

One of the reasons AMERICAN ULTRA isn’t a complete package is the story never moves beyond Mike trying to learn his true identity.  The film plays like an origin story, as it simply tells the story of how Mike came to be an assassin.  Forget the origin story already!  How about just throwing these two interesting lead characters into an original creative plot?  It would have been much more exciting watching Eisenberg and Stewart using their talents to do something other than just run away from hit men.

Director Nima Nourizadeh, who also directed the comedy PROJECT X (2012), a film I didn’t like at all, fares better here with AMERICAN ULTRA, although that’s not saying much.  The film is slick and nicely paced, and the action scenes all decent, but things never go as far as they should.  For example, ZOMBIELAND had a crazy frenetic visual style that matched Eisenberg’s humor, with words on the screen and other over-the-top touches.  None of that kind of thing is present here in AMERICAN ULTRA.  For a film like this it’s all rather subdued.

It tries to get violent and earn its R rating, and so there is plenty of blood spilled when bad guys are shot and stabbed, but it’s the type of blood that is CGI-created and exceedingly fake-looking.  It’s reaching the point where the bloodless violence in PG-13 films is starting to be more effective because the blood shown in these R rated movies looks like it belongs in a cartoon.  Go figure.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well as Eisenberg and Stewart either.  Topher Grace plays CIA agent turned villain Adrian Yates so over-the-top he’s laughable, and not in a good way. He’s about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel movies.  Like Loki, he’s just not on the same level as the heroes which he’s trying to defeat.

While Connie Britton does a nice job as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter who’s sympathetic to Mike’s situation and risks her life and career to help him, she’s still stuck in a ridiculous storyline that is not very believable.  I just never bought what the CIA was doing in this movie.  Sending in a lone sniper or assassin, yeah, I could buy that, but the military?  Of course, Lasseter says pretty much the same thing, which goes back to my point that Yates is a buffoon and an inferior villain not worthy of our main characters’ time.

Bill Pullman shows up near the end as the gruff CIA head honcho who arrives to clean up the entire mess, but like the rest of the CIA plot in this one, he’s over-the-top and pretty much a caricature, and his presence in this movie does little to help it other than to reinforce its poor choice of storytelling.

Walton Goggins is on hand as one of the assassins, a killer named Laugher, because he laughs all the time, and he’s not bad, but we’ve seen him do this sort of thing before, and he’s been better at it, in films like DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and MACHETE KILLS (2013).  For the record, Goggins was also in THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

John Leguizamo plays Mike’s drug supplier Rose, and he’s good for a few laughs, although the role never rises above cliché.  And I thought Stuart Greer was quite good as Sheriff Watts, a character grounded in reality— unlike the CIA folks in this one— who seems to genuinely care for Mike even as he tries to keep him off the streets and in a jail cell.

AMERICAN ULTRA is a one joke move. Let’s put Jesse Eisenberg into a BOURNE style plot and see what happens. Fortunately, it’s a good joke, and Eisenberg is up to the task. He also receives outstanding support from co-star Kristen Stewart who’s every bit his equal in this movie.  Unfortunately, they’re about it, as the rest of the film never quite matches what they bring to the table.

Eisenberg and Stewart play two compelling, enjoyable, and oftentimes humorous characters who deserve to be in a better movie, and if this one does well, perhaps they’ll have their chance in a sequel.  I’d be happy to see them again.  It’s just too bad that the “better movie” didn’t happen the first time.

How much you like this one probably depends on how much you like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.  I find myself liking them quite a bit these days, and they are the main reason I liked AMERICAN ULTRA.

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