The Martian 

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With The Martian, director Ridley Scott has finally found a story worthy of his filmmaking talent. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, Mars’s most optimistic botanist, who is abandoned on the planet by his fellow astronauts, believing him dead. Isolated, wounded, rapidly depleting his supplies, and unable to contact Earth, Watney is faced with an impossible task: he has to MacGyver together a plan for survival on a planet with no food or oxygen–all in a way that doesn’t feel hopelessly contrived. And boy, does he rise to the occasion! Damon’s superb performance and Scott’s expert handling of the subject material make The Martian not just one of the best films of 2015, but the most fun movie-going experience I’ve had all year.

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The Visit

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Oh dear, oh dear, oh dearie me. I wanted a horror film, and for my sins, they gave me one. Of course, in this case the word “horror” has to carry almost tangible sarcastic connotations. The horror genre doesn’t need defending, obviously—but to call this unmitigated piece of shit a horror film is nothing but a cruel charade. Still, you can’t say it’s off message though: it’s certainly psychologically and emotionally painful for the audience to sit through.

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Andrew’s Most Anticipated Film’s of 2015

Now that the summer blockbuster season has come to a close, it is only a matter of time before the Cannes winner and Oscar hopefully start cropping up in theaters. In anticipation for this, I have put together a list of some of my most anticipated films, and because I am writing for the internet, I have put my choices into a numbered list rather than write them out in no particular order. Links to all of these films can be found in the the comments section.

#6. The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos

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After receiving generally positive reviews, and even winning the Jury Prize during its stint at the Cannes Film Festival this year, The Lobster kicks off this list at number six. An absurdist comedy from the director of Dogtooth, The Lobster tells of a world where if you become single, you are rounded up and sent to a resort, where you have 45 days to fall in love with someone or you will be turned into an animal – though you do have the benefit of choosing which animal it is. The film stars Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly, in what promises to be one of the best dark comedies, or even comedies, of the year.

#5. The Danish Girl – Tom Hooper

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Though I will concede that in many ways, this film looks like more of an attempt to win Academy Awards than an actual film, I will watch literally anything Tom Hooper directs.  His films have such a grand theatricality to them, his style seems to run in stark opposition to the cinema-verite school of thought, and the result is tremendous. The Danish Girl stars last years Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne in this biopic of the first man ever to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

#4. Pawn Sacrifice – Edward Zwick

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At the height of the Cold War, Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber face off as Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, the two best chess players in the world. The film seems to focus heavily on Fischer and his psyche, promising to dive into the complex yet mentally fragile man who was once the greatest Grand Master in the world. Hopefully, this marks a star turn for Maguire, where he can finally step up to the plate and become a viable star for similar prestige films.

#3. The Walk – Robert Zemeckis

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Cheesy and simple as they sometimes may be, I love Zemeckis films, and from the look of the trailer The Walk will be no exception. A narrative film alternative to Man on Wire, The Walk stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who made global news by spending hours on a wire he set up between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The trailer frames this film like it would a slick heist thriller, and I am certainly sold.

#2. The Revenant – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

With Birdman sitting pretty at the top of my favorite films of 2014, how could I not include Inarritu’s next film on this list. The trailer keeps many of the plot details intentionally hidden, but instead advertises a feeling tense beauty as Leonardo DiCaprio fights for his life across gorgeous American landscapes. Though I am keeping expectations reasonable as it will be hard to follow such a tremendous previous film, The Revenant will likely be another hit for Inarritu.

#1. Sicario – Denis Villeneuve

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Honestly there is nothing to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said. It looks like an incredibly intense and emotional thriller about the war on drug cartels in Mexico from a director who has already proved himself to be a tremendous filmmaker. Prisoners was a great film, but if Sicario delivers the film that the trailers promise, it could well be the best film of the year.

American Ultra

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Despite its marketing campaign, American Ultra is not a stoner film. Instead, the characters and ideas within the film appear to be more half-baked than anything else. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, your average under-achieving stoner, who spends his days getting high, working at a convenience store, and talking about a comic series he would like to write but never does. He lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and while the two have decent on-screen chemistry, the fact that she is so interested in him is baffling to the audience until they are well into the film.

The premise is that Mike is a sleeper-agent for the US government but doesn’t know it, and when CIA officials decide to terminate the ‘ULTRA’ program he is part of, he must run around a small town with his girlfriend trying to survive with little more than instinct and whatever makeshift weapons he can cobble together. While this premise promises a slick, unlikely hero action-thriller, instead it just slogs along, regurgitating things that have been done better in previous films and adding new material to this Bourne-style premise, but still never seems to hit the mark. 

As the film starts, American Ultra establishes itself as part of a long tradition of lazy writing that often pervades bad movies. In rapid-fire succession, Ultra incorporates some of the worst impulses of bad screenwriters. The film is told in the form of a pointless frame narrative, immediately diving into an exposition dump in which Eisenberg explains his character’s backstory, motivations, and relationship with Stewart. He’s planning on proposing in Hawaii, but they miss the flight thanks to one of Mike’s anxiety attacks. On the drive home, he apologizes and explains that he thought he could overcome the anxiety attacks. This is the first of many times that characters feel the need to explain what’s happening on-screen directly to the audience, undercutting any effective moments in the film by assuming that we’re having trouble understanding the remarkably straight-forward story. This is all coupled with how insane all the characters act, but the movie takes itself too seriously for these actions to seem comedic.

While there is a lot to be critical of, there are a few small things to like here . The auxiliary cast is full of actors I enjoy–Tony Hale and Walton Goggins in particular–some of whom give decent performances or ham it up to the point of making this film almost entertaining. A few of the jokes in the film do hit, but this seems more due to Eisenberg’s acting chops than anything else. The one thing I did genuinely like about American Ultra is the cinematography. Though the action scenes are fairly boring, this movie is actually quite pretty in parts, and shows that at least a few people working on this film were determined to make it a good one.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Insidious: Chapter 3

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I’ve gone on the record as saying that Insidious is probably one of my favorite horror movies of the last decade. Sure, it doesn’t really have that much to compete with, but still. Sadly, Insidious 2 shat all over the success of the original in a misguided attempt to wring a few more dollars out of the property. So, here’s Insidious: Chapter 3 to complete the process and turn the franchise into another Final Destination or Friday the 13th or whatever.

Horror icon James Wan steps away from the director’s chair for this entry in the series to be replaced by his long-time writing partner Leigh Whannell. Wan and Whannell have been collaborating for years, and their combined efforts have yielded some modern-day horror paragons like the Saw and Insidious series. However, as I said way back in my Insidious 2 review, the story was well and truly over even after the first film and just continuing to tack on more installments was just blatantly unnecessary.

The first Insidious is a bit of an odd duck for me, because while it really doesn’t do anything new or advance the genre to any great degree, it executes its tight, self contained story so well and with such undeniable style that I didn’t really care. There was such a constant atmosphere of oppression and hopelessness, temped with a beautifully slow-boil kind of tension that built to an emotionally harrowing climax.

While Insidious 2 let itself down on pretty much every one of those points, Insidious 3 at least maintains that methodically building tension, but really missteps when it comes to paying it off. The highlight of the experience for me came around the midpoint when our protagonist, Quinn, lies in her bed with two broken legs, immobile and incapable of defending herself. The monster of the hour appears in a nerve-wracking sequence, and essentially begins toying with Quinn, throwing her out of bed and slowly, methodically moving around the room, closing the curtains, shutting her laptop, and really eliciting the kind of psychological torment that we don’t see enough of these days. I was kind of stunned; the Insidious 3 cash-grab was the last place I expected to find such a beautifully crafted and genuinely frightening sequence. That’s horror, my friends: being absolutely alone and defenseless against something that hates you and is determined to gradually wear away your resolve until you’re little more than a quietly weeping mess. It is not, however, a super-powered granny using a Dragon Ball Z super stomp attack during the film’s climax.

Yes, things really fall apart at the end as the film kicks any notion of a tense and emotionally satisfying climax in the head. You were doing so well, Insidious 3! It turns out that all that tense, atmospheric intrigue that had been building up is pretty much thrown out the window in the final act, in favor of Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainer running around a slightly dark maze and performing the super-stomp on the bad guy at the end. That ain’t my Insidious, I can tell you that.

The recurring “comedy” characters in the series, Tucker and Specks, played by Angus Sampson and Whannell, respectively, also make an appearance, but I find their necessary inclusion kind of misguided. Whenever these jokers show up, the tension automatically dissolves because it’s hard to maintain the proper tone with Laurel and Hardy bumbling around. As far as the plot is concerned, their presence is hardly necessary and it seems like they were just included because that’s what the first Insidious did.

Look, either be a horror film, or be a comedy. When you try to be both at the same time, you end up with a movie that so schizophrenic in tone that it ought to be in a straight jacket. I can appreciate the desire to include some moments of levity to juxtapose with the horror so that the really dark moments are more emotionally impactful, but horror and comedy are such opposites that a major tonal shift half way through the movie is going to undermine everything you’ve been working for up until that point.

Insidious: Chapter 3 is marred right off the bat by being an unnecessary sequel, but if you can manage to look past that, it’s competently paced and builds up to a frightening moment or two around the midpoint. After that though, it’s all down hill. The atmosphere and tension whither away into nothing when Jake and Elwood show up, leaving the film to potter around for another hour before winding up with the incredibly disappointing granny super moves. If you look closely, you can see glimpses of the original winning formula, but the original vision has been exploited for coin twice now, so it’s not entirely surprising that the idea well is running dry.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

 

San Andreas

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I’ve got to level with you guys, I really don’t want to do this one. Actually, my own mother was the only person I know who was excited to see it. She was all like “did you see the trailer for that? The cruise ship part looked delightful.” And I was like “Yeah, if you like the CG department jizzing in your eyes for two hours.” I mean, I didn’t say it to her face, obviously.

I’m really having a difficult time deciding how to start, because what we have here is a film without a single original thought in its head. When you’re trying to write about a uniform, grey gelatinous mass, which part are you supposed to cleave out and analyze first? I might as well start with the visuals, since they seem to be the only real selling point. As we’ve established in previous articles, this current-day RealD malarkey looks just as bad in San Andreas as it does in every other summer blockbuster, particularly near the end of the film. For whatever reason—perhaps because the budget ran out—the CG really seems to start lacking polish and begins looking really “video-gamey,” if you will. I’m hardly surprised at the slapdash approach to visual storytelling, but I do find it ironic that the only new, unique thing that the film purports to offer turns out to be of embarrassingly poor quality.

So what else can we rag on? I guess we can talk about the mostly non-existent story. It’s that same plot that every disaster movie has, of course; you know how it goes, right? A whole mess of people are gathered in one spot and have no idea that they’re all about to get shafted. The tragedy strikes—in this instance, a massive earthquake rents the ground asunder across the entire San Andreas fault line—and the emotional core of the film is centered on a single family in order to better pull at our heartstrings.

All this is fairly standard procedure and has worked to varying degrees of success in other films. San Andreas, too, has this ongoing plot about a family trying to reunite with each other in the midst of the chaos, but it’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why it doesn’t work. It could be because a lot of the characters’ interactions were just a little bit too pretty, a little too cutesy and too “Hollywood,” if you will, to be taken seriously. It might also have something to do with the visuals, as I mentioned before, looking unreal and fake-looking to the point where it really took me out of the story, thus dissolving a lot of the tension that the film’s success hinged on.

One way they might have addressed this issue is by incorporating some graphic deaths or people being wounded in some way—you know, the kind of thing that might happen in a real disaster? Maybe a bit of blood here, some people getting chopped in half by high-tension cables there, would have added a sense of weight to the wide-spread destruction at the heart of the story. Instead, we’ve got the same problem Age of Ultron had, where things just seem to be lacking any grit or humanity. Consequently, without anything to make the audience sit up and take notice, the action tends to blur together in a bland, incomprehensible mass.

Something like Juan Antonio Bayona’s 2012 disaster film The Impossible, which had both an engaging story and impressive visuals, proves that this kind of thing can be done well. Even with the easiest formula in the word, practically tailor-made to elicit maximum audience empathy, San Andreas sill somehow manages to blow it.

There are a lot of reasons why San Andreas didn’t work, and why is was ultimately a boring film, despite the whole “chaos on a grand scale” thing. Mostly though, I think it just came down to a lack of heart. Audiences can tell the difference between a movie that was made because its creators thought it would be fun to watch and one that was made to sell tickets, and San Andreas in almost certainly in the latter category. The film is the epitome of dumbed-down slurry to appeal to the broadest possible audience and, since that’s the case, we’re left with a pretty soulless experience that takes no risks and has no new ideas, and ultimately suffers for it.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Poltergeist

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Between this new Poltergeist remake and the upcoming Jurassic World, I guess 2015 is the year we collectively set aside to lavish Steven Spielberg with tongue baths. I mean, I’m glad we can all agree that Spielberg is a great director, but is there such a drought of new ideas that we have to go about recycling like this? Of course not! It’s just that if it doesn’t carry enough name recognition to make a guaranteed return on investment during opening weekend, then the cynical, ponderous Hollywood mechanism wants nothing to do with it. So then we get soulless, transparent cash-grabs like this.

From a critical standpoint, the film shot itself in the foot from the word “go” by having the temerity to call itself Poltergeist, necessarily inviting comparisons to Spielberg’s original film from 1982—a far superior movie, incidentally; but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you? For those of you out of the loop, the original Poltergeist was a surprisingly intelligent little supernatural horror flick with an undercurrent of satire aimed at the shallow, superficial suburban decadence that consumed the American middle class in the 1980s, and perhaps still does today. Vitally, that theme was an essential element of the plot, whereas in the new Poltergeist, the “blind consumerism” angle is replaced, in a rather conciliatory way, with an “over-reliance on technology” angle, and even this half-hearted nod to the original is quickly dropped when the writer can’t think of anywhere to go with it.

And speaking of writing, the one responsible for this floundering, go-nowhere knockoff is none other than David Lindsay-Abaire. “Who?” you might ask. Well, he’s the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 for his play Rabbit Hole, since you’re so curious. I’m told that it’s actually pretty famous as plays go, but that being said, it’s baffling how tepid and all-around bland this screenplay is, considering the acclaim of the author’s previous work. Not even Sam Rockwell, who really hasn’t had a bad performance to date, can save the script from being just generally drab and uninspired.

My main problem with the film is that it’s so overwhelmingly safe. It takes no risks and pushes no boundaries; you know, exactly what you shouldn’t do if you plan on remaking a beloved staple of the horror genre. That new Evil Dead that came out a few years ago—also produced by Sam Raimi, incidentally—was at least something that took a few chances, regardless of it’s overall quality. But what we have here is basically the same points as the first Poltergeist with vastly worse execution. No anthropomorphic trees, no dead-body swimming pool hijinks, no apparitions, no “gotcha” twist ending because the pacing was all wrong, no classic Speilbergian face-melting, and perhaps most importantly, no Tangina Barrons (or equivalent).

While we’re drawing parallels between the two films, allow me to draw another. Remember that little old lady in Poltergeist who came to “cleanse” the house? The lady with the high, squeaky voice and a face like an English bulldog’s? Well, what if I told you that the eccentric medium in question, Tangina Barrons, was basically Spielberg’s answer to Lucas’s Yoda; that is, a physically small and frail being possessed of immense spiritual power. Needless to say, that whole genre-subverting element is lost when you cast someone like Jared Harris in her place.

Likewise, the decision to show the interior of the iconic dead-world wasn’t one that should be taken lightly, as the decision to avoid showing it in the original film and simply portraying it a mysterious, cloying blackness afforded it a certain mystique. While the imagery they decided to go with in the remake is admittedly quite striking—a horde of bodies crawling over each other in a scrambling mass—but to immediately put pay to any good will the film may have built up, they decided to do it in fake-looking CG that comes across as more laughably low-budget that frightening.

Not helping matters at all is the fact that literally every single one of the film’s even remotely scares were given away in the trailer. See, I was always under the impression that a trailer was intended to set the tone of the film, maybe get the audience exited to meet the characters or intrigue them with a unique setting—not, as it’s apparently done nowadays, to serve as a substitute for the film itself.

Frankly, I don’t have much more to say about this disappointing mess of a film. On the bright side, it’s relatively short, so you won’t have to endure it for too long, and “endure” really is the right word. The film does nothing to set itself apart from the veritable stampede of similar “baby’s first horror movies” that get released periodically throughout the year. It’s disappointing because even with a metaphorical cheat sheet—the first Poltergeist movie—Abaire and director Gil Kenan seem to have decided to tackle a remake without a thorough understanding of what made it a good movie in the first place. Ah, but what’s artistic integrity when there’s the movie-going public to fleece, right?

Rating: 2 out of 5