Tag Archives: Jesse Eisenberg

Pineapple Grosse Pointe Kiss Bang — “American Ultra”

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in American Ultra

American Ultra is the rare case of two stellar actors elevating material that could get lost without them. Those two actors would be Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. I know, it’s popular to despise them both or think they’ve gotten where they are due to luck and limited skill sets. That thinking is wrong.

American Ultra follows Mike and Phoebe, an impoverished pair of lovers doing what they can to get by. She is patient with him; he has panic attacks at the mere thought of leaving town. Just as we’re getting to know them, viewers are whisked away to C.I.A. Headquarters, where Yates (Topher Grace) is shutting down a program of brainwashed operatives once run by Lasseter (Connie Britton). Mike is on the hit list, and to save him, Lasseter has to trigger him into remembering his agency training.

Events spiral out of control, and Mike is soon using everyday objects to murder his would-be assassins. I counted a spoon, a dustpan, and I think even a package of tortillas as deadly weapons. After the violence, Mike returns to being panicky and unsure of himself. Phoebe handles and helps him through it, getting a few punches of her own in along the way.

Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination for his leading role in The Social Network, but being cast as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to have turned many back against him.

Think what you want, but there’s one scene in American Ultra where Eisenberg cuts through the blood and the tears with just a look. His performance becomes a creature all its own, something pulsing and angry and confused and viciously dangerous. The film can’t rely on this – it needs Eisenberg to pace back and forth nervously between action scenes and make us laugh. Yet Eisenberg knows when to step on the gas and when to let off.

Stewart is even more complicated. She’s treated as toxic by an industry in which she launched two major franchises (Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman) by the age of 22. We’ve covered why before, and it’s one of the most egregious double standards Hollywood’s offered in recent years.

Hate Stewart if you want, but you’re missing one of the most dynamic shifts into independent film in recent history. She is slaughtering dramatic and comedic roles left, right, and center, finding the chemistry, timing, and emotional nuance that was drained from her characters in mainstream roles. With Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, and now American Ultra, she’s in the middle of an impressive two-year stretch. She’s good. She might even be great one day.

Eisenberg and Stewart sell this off-kilter material beautifully together. They believe in the movie’s reality so intensely, they cover up for many of the film’s seams. They’re assisted by comedy veterans like John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer and Tony Hale as a C.I.A. agent torn in his loyalties.

If you watch American Ultra as a straight action movie or comedy, you’ll find it uneven. It’s a film you can’t take too seriously. If you watch it as a romance and a chance for two actors to power their way through a mash-up of a half-dozen genres, it may leave you touched and impressed.

American Ultra ends up doing many things that The Man from UNCLE couldn’t get right. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is palpable. While their styles are vastly different, this film is more consistent and coherent. It’s a violent, occasionally comedic metaphor for the struggles we go through in opening up and learning to trust during relationships. On that level, it works beautifully and it can hit the heart in strange ways. If anything, it’s a sly update on a film like Grosse Pointe Blank, using spy movie tropes as a way of talking about the growing up we have to do in life.

In many ways, this is what I wish films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wanted, Pineapple Express, and Shoot ‘Em Up could have achieved: a reason for being. While they were focused on slick explosions and fancy choreography and other things I’ll admit I love, none of them left me thinking positively about them later that day. They were wastes of time and, though it lacks their level of polish, American Ultra is a better film with more heart than all of them combined. It even achieves that brief, “Look at what they make you give” moment better than The Bourne Ultimatum did (though that’s a better film in almost every other regard).

It won’t be for everybody, but for those willing to jump on a violent indie action comedy that would fit at home in the late 90s or early 00s, this is your cup of tea.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does American Ultra have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Kristen Stewart plays Phoebe. Connie Britton plays Lasseter. Monique Ganderton plays Crane. Other unnamed speaking roles include Rachel Wulff as a CNN reporter.

Do they talk to each other?

No. (They do help beat someone up together once, so there’s that.)

About something other than a man?

The question doesn’t apply if women don’t talk to each other in the film, but when they talk to men, they’re usually discussing the plot or plans about what to do next.

American Ultra could’ve and should’ve done a lot better here. Stewart gets the chance to talk to many supporting characters who are men, but none who are women. The movie simply fails here, and it’s not very consistent about how tough Stewart’s and Lasseter’s characters are.

Very minor changes could have made this film more balanced and more communicative between women. The world of the film is also overwhelmingly populated by men.

Topher Grace’s Yates is incredibly misogynist, to boot. While it’s fun to hate Topher Grace and it makes us want to see him get his comeuppance that much more, the movie relies on this facet as a shortcut to building a fairly thin villain.

It’s a problematic movie when it comes to the representation of women. As always, one can still like a movie that has problems of any sort, but being aware of and discussing those problems and why they exist is an important part of being a viewer. American Ultra needed to do better here.

Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image is from a Gizmodo piece. The in-article image is from Collider here.

Silent All These Years — Why Scarlett Johansson Needs to Play Hannibal Lecter

Liver and fava beans

by Vanessa Tottle

Gabe asked me to write a second opinion on Under the Skin. Back in April. Here it is:

“One day, I’d like to see Scarlett Johansson play Hannibal Lecter.”

That’s as far as I got.

I couldn’t think of anything to say that Gabe hadn’t already, and then he rubbed it in by interviewing Michel Faber (the author) like some big show-off.

I recently came across my aborted article, and you know what? Days after the release of female celebrities’ naked photos across the internet, endearingly nicknamed “The Fappening” cause 4Chan and Reddit can go fuck themselves (I’m sure they already know how), I finally figured out why I want to see Scarlett Johansson play Hannibal Lecter.

Power.

Gabe’s been pushing for more women in protagonist roles, and he gets a little confused when something like Guardians of the Galaxy comes out. For all its awesomeness, it has a green-skinned Zoe Saldana kicking a few aliens before the guy from Parks and Rec has to save her twice. Congratulations, we got 20% of the protagonist share. That’s half what the movie gave to anthropomorphized wildlife found in your backyard at midnight.

There’s a common misconception when we talk about more movies with better parts for women. We’re not saying that this should be a requirement for EVERY SINGLE movie. Neither are we saying that there need be a quota or regulation placed on the entertainment industry. All we’re talking about is raised expectations and the changes a more aware audience can effect.

Lawrence of Arabia is implicitly about T.E. Lawrence’s homosexuality. It was made in 1962 for approximately a bazillion dollars, so it couldn’t really be about Lawrence’s sexuality in any explicit way. It had to be intimated to the audience. It achieves this in part through its all-male speaking cast.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is the best horror movie ever filmed and it doesn’t have any women in it. Since the horror in it is a fleshy Freudian conceit for men’s fear of possessing and being possessed through sex, full of snapping extendo-vagina monsters, phallic emasculations, and male pregnancy metaphors, it wouldn’t work as well if it wasn’t full of bearded, 80s uberdudes drinking, gambling, and watching porn. Besides, Mary Elizabeth Winstead came along in a prequel and proved a woman could blow shit up just as well as Kurt Russell.

MEW The Thing

The point is we aren’t saying that all movies lacking or minimizing women are terrible. We’re saying there are simply far too many of them. We are never saying that we want old ways of making movies to go away. We only want those old styles to be better balanced with new ways of writing, casting, and making movies that have thus far been resisted by a backwards entertainment industry.

I even like – hell, love – Guardians of the Galaxy. But there’s no denying they missed a big opportunity with Saldana’s character Gamora. While the men are away killing nameless henchmen by the thousands and getting a crack at the big bad, Gamora is cordoned into a one-on-one against the only other woman in a lead.

Others have written about needing more female leaders portrayed in movies, and I agree. But you know what else I want to see? I want to see women playing all those powerful character roles we reserve exclusively for men. Which brings me back to Scarlett Johansson and Hannibal Lecter. I want to be terrified by a woman in the same way movies tell me I should be terrified by a man. That’s the real power on-screen.

I want to see Cate Blanchett in Training Day telling Kerry Washington that King Kong ain’t got shit on her. I want the evil general in however many Avatar sequels they’re filming to be played by Sigourney Weaver (they’re bringing her back as a new character anyway, why not the bad guy). I’m not scared of a shouty, musclebound crew cut who looks like he soaked up too much California sun, but if Sigourney lowered her voice in anger, I wouldn’t be able to look elsewhere. I want the new Star Wars villain, the inheritor of Darth Vader himself, to be a woman. And you know who could put Daniel Craig’s James Bond in his place? A terrorist mastermind Helen Mirren.

The real staying power on screen belongs to the iconic villain. Do you see kids borrowing their parents’ bathrobes to dress up as Luke Skywalker every Halloween? No, you see them spending time and money buying and making costumes so they can be Darth Vader for a day. They understand the villain represents power, and icons of power last the test of time.

Marvel’s making a Black Widow movie with Johansson. That’s a great step, and I applaud them for having it scheduled to launch shortly after their 10th movie centered on a white guy named Chris. Way to get on that.

Now make a movie where a female villain is something other than a male villain’s henchman with daddy issues. You just got wallpaper performances out of Guy Pearce, Chris Eccleston, and Lee Pace, and they’re all great actors. Meanwhile, Karen Gillan killed it in Guardians despite limited screen time.

Change up the formula. Write more heroic women, but while you’re at it, write more powerful women who want to rule the galaxy, too. That’s why I want to see Scarlett Johansson as Hannibal Lecter one day.

“Can you hear them, Jesse Eisenberg? Can you hear the silence of the lambs?”

And Jennifer Lawrence can make you put the lotion in the basket while she dances in the skins of dead men.

How’s that for a Fappening?