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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Black Mass

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Black Mass is a film about impressions, though none but Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger are particularly good. I’m not just talking about the overall poor quality of the Boston accents in this film, particularly Cumberbatch, who despite his best effort, is unable to conceal his identity as a Brit for more than a few words at a time. Black Mass as a whole is a sleepy, overly self-serious impression of a Scorsese-style gangster flick, with neither the style nor substance it needs to tell the bizarre and fantastic story of Bulger’s dealings with the FBI. Instead, the film is a insipid slog through the events of Bulger’s life, and seems completely disinterested in making anything other than a regurgitation of the same material covered in other, better gangster films.

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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

Afterschool: Never Forget

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In all of our lives, we must constantly deal with the omnipresent question of what is real and what is fake. Never has this clash of realities been more relevant than with the dawning of the internet. It’s a tool that presents us with unlimited power and knowledge, but also in that comes the herculean task of deciphering it all. In the hands of a young person, this can be both crushing and mind altering at times.

Antonio Campos in his 2008 film, Afterschool, presents us with this struggle in the form of his protagonist Robert, a young boy sent off by his family to a wealthy New England boarding school. During his time there he preoccupies himself with what he calls “little clips of things that seem real”. In his mundane life, he sees these videos of violence and sex as a portal through which he can glimpse something authentic. In many ways, they alter his young mind’s understanding of what is real in the first place.

While filming some stock footage in one of his school’s hallways for his video class he discovers something far realer than he could have ever expected when he discovers the two most popular girls in school as they suffer a horrible reaction to rat poison laced cocaine and die right in front of his eyes, one bleeding out in his very arms.

This tragedy obviously causes quite a few ripples throughout the school. As much as everyone is torn up about their deaths, what truly seems to bother everyone is how lost they are in actually understanding and dealing with these girl’s untimely demise. Most of all the reaction of the school and, in particular, its principle, Mr. Burke, deftly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, seems most perplexing and cold.

Mr. Burke recognizing Robert’s position in the school’s video class gives him the responsibility of making the memorial video for the girls, in the hopes that it would help him deal with their graphic deaths. Along with this the school pushes everyone to go see the school counselor and talk about how they feel, then in most cases get handed a prescription for whatever pill will handle the symptoms of their internal traumas without actually addressing it. Robert as the one to first find the girls is sent to speak to Mr. Virgil. He is obviously quite out of sorts with the whole ordeal. He talks about the videos and the violent porn he watches and how he finds a reality in them that’s fascinating. An authenticity that’s missing from his own life where, as Mr. Virgil tells him, the school had been told about the dead girl’s drug problem and did nothing to help them, in the interest of keeping their rich parent’s money and support going.

Once Robert finished putting the video together for the memorial, he shows it to Mr. Burke who asks, “Was that serious Robert? That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen”. The video wasn’t quite what the school had hoped for. With no music, shaky camera work, and the raw sense of reality that Robert has been searching for through countless Youtube searches. It didn’t try to provide the false sugar coated narrative the school hoped everyone would guzzle down. Instead of idolizing these girls with cheap condolences and ignoring the elephant in the room that they are responsible for allowing things to escalate so far into tragedy, Robert’s video portrayed the reality of that elephant and all its unsightly blemishes. The school and those around him wouldn’t stand for this, though. They aren’t interested in the truth they’re just interested in the most convenient reality where they print “Never Forget” all over the memorial stage and paint it as just another forgettable tragedy. Nothing to learn here, just move on, take another pill. Robert does and so does everyone else, just like Mr. Burke and Virgil reminds Robert, “It’s everyone’s fault” “It’s no one’s fault”, forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Steven Soderbergh: The Informant!

Though this will be Steven Soderbergh’s first appearance as the featured director in this series, I can all but guarantee this won’t be his last. Throughout his career he has worn so many different hats directorally, ranging from thrillers to pulpy action flicks to intimate dramas, though Soderbergh does seem to have a penchant for making great docudramas, among them the oft overlooked 2009 gem, The Informant!. While this film is recent enough that it still exists in public memory, and was financially successful, this film is often overlooked when discussing Soderbergh’s extensive and diverse filmography. In addition, it is a movie that I feel is sorely under-seen, despite it being a terrific piece of cinema.

The Informant

Right off the bat, Matt Damon fits perfectly in the role of Mark Whitacre, a biochemist turned businessman working for ADM, a food processing mega corporation located in small town Illinois. Mark is almost instantly one of the most likable character I have ever seen in a movie. He is worldly, intelligent, motivated, and idealistic without seeming naive.  Mark has a childlike sense of wonder and seems to be equal parts imaginative and thoughtful. However, Mark is also just a touch paranoid, and when the FBI is called in to investigate the potential contamination of a compound Mark frequently works on called lysine, he immediately starts blabbing company secrets, concerned that this investigation might turn up some unsavory actions that Mark was forced into by his superiors.

As it turns out, ADM, along with most other lysine distributors international, have been engaging in price fixing. Since this could potentially be a billion dollar lawsuit for the government, and Mark has made the mistake of being the only person to leak this information, he is somewhat willing pushed into becoming an FBI informant to gather intel for this theoretical lawsuit. However, things start to take a bit of a turn later in the investigation, as Mark starts to worry about his job security after he likely sends all his friends and co-workers to jail. Coupled with his now ever growing ego, based on all the attention and acclaim he is receiving from the FBI for being a whistleblower, Mark starts to make a streak of increasingly questionable decisions as the investigation draws to a close, shedding double on the once unquestionable scrupulousness of his character.

Though this film often times feels like a “small” movie, it is among my favorite Soderbergh films. The screenplay is fantastic, all the dialogue is snappy and tight, and Matt Damon delivers some one liners that I still remember to this day from my initial viewing of the film on its release. The supporting cast is stellar, and full of comedians who rarely seem to make it to the silver screen like Tom Papa and Joel McHale. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see this film, try to work it into a viewing one weekend. Though I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a must see for everyone, I find it hard to picture anyone disliking this charming film.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Glancing at a “news” article recently, I read that Avengers: Age of Ultron is the highest-grossing U.S. film release of the year. In other news: water is wet. For God’s sake, this is a non-story considering the drivel it was competing with during Q1. According to Wikipedia, Age of Ultron is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time but, as we know, just because something is successful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

After the heart-stopping success of the first Avengers film, Joss Whedon reprises his position as both writer and director. If you’ve seen The Avengers, you’re essentially in for more of the same; that is, a heavy emphasis on frenetic, computer generated action sequences. Indeed, they deserve an in-depth focus because that’s basically all that’s on offer. Like The Avengers, we’re treated to a slew of highly choreographed, fast-paced, but ultimately superficial fight scenes, all of which fail to disguise the fact that the plot is an insipid, go-nowhere sightseeing tour of exotic locations.

The problem with a lot of the fight scenes in Age of Ultron is that there’s no weight or impact to what we’re seeing. The heroes dispatch the enemies with such expediency that it hardly makes a difference whether the bad guys are there or not, meaning that any dramatic tension dissolves right before our eyes.

Before the advent of CG, there was a school of thought that dictated that superhero movies were an unwise proposition because even with the most intricate practical sets, it was still a tall order to capture the larger-than-life spectacle of comic books. Now, however, I can’t help be feel that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction as we find ourselves living in a time when the average superhero movie can be made of ninety-five percent green screen.

Chunks of rubble and smashed scenery fly around like they’re made out of cotton, and the over-reliance on computer generation means that everything has a weirdly clean, unreal-looking quality to it in a way that reminds me unsettlingly of the Star Wars prequels. I noticed a significant visual downgrade as soon as the action sequences started up, although I did have the misfortune of seeing the film in gimmicky RealD 3D bullshit vision—which inevitably makes everything look atrocious—so I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt there.

So, the action is more of the same, but what about the characters? Well, that’s where Whedon really decided to knuckle-down and ruin everything. A critic I like once made the observation that Whedon has no conception of character voice, meaning that the dialogue of each character is virtually interchangeable with the others. And more to the point, enough with the fucking quips, Whedon! Not every character has to make some pedantic retort or vapid observation every time they open their mouths!

I felt like I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where every line of dialogue is some smarmy insipidity that makes you want to kick the offending character’s teeth in. It’s almost like Age of Ultron was written by the same amateurish, ham-fisted—oh, wait. Come on, Whedon. Give us a little substance, for God’s sake—not the adventures of the Bland Brigade.

A big problem with the film is the introduction of the new character, Vision. He’s some kind of android, I guess, infused with the power of one of the infinity stones, but despite establishing that the Avenger’s couldn’t possibly defeat Ultron without Vision’s help, he contributes nothing during the final showdown. Excuse me, that’s not entirely true. He punches him. Once. Ultimately his presence would have meant precisely as much whether he was there or not, apart from Disney having a new toy to sell, obviously.

There’s also been an attempt to characterize Black Widow and Hawkeye, and while I can appreciate the intention, Natasha Romanov’s character seems to have done a complete 180 in between films. From uttering the line, “love is for children,” in The Avengers to “I adore you,” in Age of Ultron, she didn’t seem to undergo an arc so much as Whedon decided to arbitrarily fuck around with his own canon for the sake of poignancy.

I mentioned the plot a moment ago, so let’s refocus our sights. Weirdly, the events of Age of Ultron are decidedly scaled-down compared to those of the first, mainly due to a reliance on telling rather than showing. The alien invasion of New York is swapped for a rouge AI trying to do…what, exactly? Kill everyone, presumably—but his motivation for doing so seem incredibly poorly justified, despite multiple villainous monologues filled-to-bursting with meaningless pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

We’re told on multiple occasions that if the villain succeeds, billions of people will die. The most we see in the film, however, is one little town being terrorized via some kind of anti-gravity device. My point is that it would have helped if we had seen or heard a demonstration of the destructive capability of this plan (like the destruction of Alderan in A New Hope, for example) instead of just having to take Captain America’s word for it. There’s also an early setup about a growing anti-Avengers sentiment among the populace, complete with anti-iron man graffiti on some walls, but that aspect of the plot is quietly dropped and never referenced again.

The larger story, furthermore, is rife with plot holes, mostly concerning Ultron’s evil plan. For example, consider the impossibility of destroying a true, adaptive AI that’s been established to already be inside the Internet, replicating itself. Tony Stark brings it up at one point, but seems to forget about it just as quickly. And again, was Ultron not forward-thinking enough to station one, or five, or ten robots outside of the town that his consciousness could inhabit as a contingency? The devil is in the details, Whedon. Perhaps with a little more polish, the script wouldn’t seem like it was rushed out in a week in an attempt to capitalize on a pre-existing franchise.

I think the reason that the first Avengers film worked was because we were all collectively taken in by the massive lead up, and were mostly happy to see the characters that we had come to love play around in a big, explosive blowout of a film. As cathartic as The Avengers was, it was totally inept when it came to actually telling a story—a problem which is compounded to a rather worrying degree in Age of Ultron.

Some might respond to the points I’ve raised by saying “it’s a superhero blockbuster. What did you expect?” But to them I would respond by saying that excuse doesn’t brook with me when Avengers: Age of Ultron exists in the same world as The Dark Knight.

Disney has the luxury of having no real competitors in the superhero genre at present, but if they keep pumping out more toothless work like this, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the public eventually recognizes it for the schlock that it is.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Unbroken

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Among the end-of-year cinematic powerhouses competing for Oscar nods this year, Unbroken is unquestionably the runt of the litter. As you might be aware, the film is based on the World War II exploits of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, subsequently purchased by Universal for a tidy sum, to be sure. From the word ‘go,’ Unbroken is in the unfortunate position of having to be compared to other war-dramas like Fury, and intimate biopics like Selma, and dramatically intimate biopics centering around war like The Imitation Game, all three of which are vastly superior.

The film marks Angeline Jolie’s sophomore directorial effort, after her 2011 debut In the Land of Blood and Honey. Now, I could take or leave Jolie as an actress, and I generally find her performances to be serviceable, but as a director I find her work incredibly bland. Far more interesting than the direction, however, is the screenplay and those who contributed to it. There are a few guys responsible, including Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra, The Fisher King), William Nicholson (Les Miserables, Gladiator), and—get this—the fuckmothering Coen Brothers; Joel and Ethan themselves. Now, it remains up for debate how much input the Coens actually had, but I’m willing to bet that they were included mainly for the publicity and to make the production as high profile as possible. There are some really basic problems with plotting and characterization that the Coens could have, and indeed would have, spotted in their sleep. The whole business just makes me weary, mainly. It’s one of those insidious little Hollywood tricks, but I guess it something that we all have to suffer through, especially as we get closer to awards season.

The acting? Yeah, it’s okay, I guess. And I know that sounds like a noncommittal answer, but despite the fact that the actors did the best they could with the material they had, the plot was so insubstantial and one-notey that it all faded into white noise by the end. They’re still letting Jai Courtney be in movies, I see—his diligent efforts at ruining pretty much every film he’s been in notwithstanding.

The main issue I’ve got with Unbroken is that there’s no character arc to speak of—meaning, subsequently, that there’s no reason for the audience to remain invested in the struggles of the protagonist. Neither the main character nor his comrades grow or evolve or learn anything over the course of the film, bringing into relief the main misconception that the writers where under; specifically, that “strength of character” is synonymous with “getting the shit kicked out of you.” Indeed, the characters are beaten up pretty badly throughout the film and subjected to some pretty inhumane treatment, but brutality alone does not a compelling story make. I consider it a symptom of lazy writing when a plot hinges mostly on happenstance as opposed to the choices and decisions of the characters, which, in my opinion is one of the film’s major shortcomings. I think I counted two actual choices over the course of the film, both of which were entirely predictable and only served to drag out a story already suffering from a meandering, go-nowhere structure.

Unbroken is the hardest kind of movie to write about because it’s so mediocre from almost every perspective. It’s neither particularly good nor particularly bad. It just sits there like a grey, flavorless blob of tofu amid a spectacularly extravagant buffet. It’ll likely be swiftly forgotten amid the shuffle of more impressive films this year. All in all, it’s boring, predictable, monotone, lukewarm, boilerplate, run-of-the-mill, average, humdrum, unexciting, routine, dull, tedious, uninteresting, insipid, standard, common, lackluster, dreary, mind-numbing, arid, tame, plain, mundane, toothless, and frankly, I’m tired of writing about it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5