The Martian Review

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Ridley Scott’s theatrical adaptation of Andy Weir’s intricate sci-fi novel may be his most accessible film. He doesn’t attempt to stage a deeper meaning towards the survival of one man on Mars or crowd it with cryptic symbolism. The strength of Scott’s The Martian is that he plays it straight and accurately – rarely slowing down for a moment without wonder, drama or humor.

It’s a simple story of survival in which Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind during a storm on Mars. His crew have left the planet believing that Mark has most likely bit the red dust. All alone on a deserted planet, Mark is forced to rely on the left-behind resources of his crew to keep himself alive. He grows potatoes in his make-shift greenhouse to maintain a longer supply of food. He seeks out communication parts to see if he can contact NASA. And he does his best to maintain his sanity when his limited means of entertainment is music from the 1970’s.

It’s clear there was a lot of research that went into both Weir’s writing and Scott’s direction – both applying suggestions and insight from scientists. Weir slowly formed his novel through online critiques by those in the field while Scott worked with NASA to deliver a believable movie that mostly takes place on Mars and in space. If I had read the novel or chosen a more fruitful degree in science, I could probably spend this entire review picking out what the movie nailed or missed in either the screen translation or scientific logic. Ultimately, not much of that would matter if the film wasn’t entertaining.

The amazing news is that Ridley Scott delivers on a sci-fi picture that is equal parts hard science and emotionally engaging. You may not be able to pick up on Mark’s quick thinking and reasoning as it happens on Mars, but you can relate to his frustration and cocky nature over his predicament. Though Mark is capable enough to survive on Mars, he is not above boasting about his success to the camera about how he’s better than Neil Armstrong. In that sense, The Martian is most easily pitched as a sci-fi version of Cast Away with the addition of hard science thrills and subtraction of any volleyball for Matt Damon to converse with.

The cast is all-around brilliant. While Matt Damon pulls an impressive performance with his one-man-show on Mars, the characters on the space station and back on Earth are all fantastic. Jeff Daniels commands an insightful presence as the director of NASA, calculated among the public and impatient around his staff. The staff placed in charge of saving Mark include the likes of Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sean Bean. This is quite the ensemble and yet there seems to be just enough for everyone to do as they all form an essential role in bringing home the lost astronaut.

Special effects have never been a problem when it comes to Ridley Scott movies and he applies a great deal of realism to the details of this story. Matt Damon’s trek through Mars feels like we’re on the red planet. The space station of the away astronauts has a believable quality on the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But unlike Kubrick’s space adventure which chugs along at a snail’s pace to take in the wonders of the universe, Scott’s picture is fast and focussed. It does become maybe a little too intricate in how various degrees of scientists and directors are pulled into the operation, but never too dense in that it avoids becoming a confusing mess of politics and technicalities.

Still from The Martian 2The Martian may not be Ridley Scott’s greatest or most perplexing of films, but it certainly is his most entertaining picture that is easily recommendable to all audiences. It’s simple enough to enjoy on a character level and intricate enough to please the most scrutinizing of sci-fi fans. Everything about this film is a knockout from the performances to the special effects to the writing – all operating at peak efficiency. Who would have thought that a capable space adventure could be conceived without the need for aliens, space battleships or forced in elements of emotion. If Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was a modest attempt at blending sensational entertainment with space exploration, The Martian is the real deal.

Rated 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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Back in Time Review

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As a celebration of both the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future and the exact date of the future in Back to the Future Part II, a documentary debuted just in time to take advantage of the current resurgence in the franchise. Born from a Kickstarter campaign, Back in Time aims to cover a broad range of topics on the 1980’s staple that redefined time travel movies. But I’m afraid that this is yet another reason why Kickstarter doesn’t exactly make for the greatest of documentary productions. As expected, this fan documentary is a more celebratory and unfocused project that just smashes together interviews and footage. It’s neat for a featurette to be included on the Back to the Future Blu-ray sets, but not exactly something to value on its own as a strong documentary. Has anyone ever petitioned to make a DVD featurette on Kickstarter instead of a full-fledged documentary?

Such a documentary feels almost unneeded with so much celebration that went on in the month of October. There were plenty of merchandise promotions, tributes displayed online and even a one-day screening of the Back to the Future trilogy which actually brought in over $1,000,000 for such a short time in the theater. Rather than act as a centerpiece to it all, Back in Time appears more as a montage of Back to the Future’s cultural impact. If you missed out on all the magic, satire and homages to the three movies, here is the movie that will bring you up to speed on its influence.

There are a staggering amount of interviews assembled with all those involved with the movie series. Writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale spin some great yarns about the road to the production of their 1985 classic. It’s amazing to think that they approached Disney at some point to produce the picture, only to have the script thrown back in their faces given the executives being turned off by a picture with incest. Cast members Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd among others weigh in with tales from the set and their lives after the movies. Fox, in particular, has some great stories to tell about how he sat next to Princess Diana at the premiere and couldn’t bring himself to get up for the bathroom in front of her. Even the original designers of the iconic time-traveling Delorean are given plenty of screen time to chat about the process.

And speaking of Deloreans, wow, does this documentary favor that car more than any other subject. The history of the car, the production for the movies, the reproduction after the movies, the collectors of the rare vehicles and even a convention specifically for the car is showcased for a large chunk of the movie. There’s so much attention paid towards the Delorean I question why the filmmakers didn’t make it a documentary about the car. They certainly have more than enough material to pull off such a movie – far too much for a documentary that wants to cover several areas of Back to the Future.

Outside of the Delorean talk, there are some more cool aspects to the fandom. A group of dedicated movie lovers dressed up an entire town to represent 1950’s Hill Valley where visitors get to take part in all its recreated splendor. Dan Harmon talks about his inspiration from Back to the Future to create the satirical cartoon Rick & Morty. And there are plenty of success stories about how Back to the Future’s fandom benefited several charities – including Michael J. Fox’s own organization for Parkinson’s disease. If only there was more time given to these subjects rather than hearing another round of stories about the Delorean.

Still from Back in Time 2Back in Time serves its purpose as a decent companion piece to the Back to the Future legacy, but doesn’t serve as much more than that. It also becomes rather repetitive in how it continuously features interview after interview of talking heads stating how Back to the Future is the perfect movie. The only detractors seem to be Dan Harmon remarking how Parts II and III were terrible and director Robert Zemeckis who admitted the film wasn’t perfect. There was probably a shot out of focus here and there, he states.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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A Sinner in Mecca Review

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Filmmaker Parvez Sharma has an interesting angle for his documentary A Sinner in Mecca. He’s a gay Muslim who married in New York and now sets out on his Mecca pilgrimage known as the Hajj. Parvez secretly documents his journey and describes the cultural importance of it all. It sounds unique given his sexuality that clashes with the current mindset of Islam. Unfortunately, Parvez’s homosexuality as a factor in his journey remains more hidden than his cameras.

Obviously, Parvez isn’t just going to parade around Saudi Arabia introducing himself as a gay Muslim to see what others think. The opening intro features Parvez discussing with a friend via email about being gay in the Muslim world is like hell, relating to a public execution of one such individual. Even for this film addressing the subject of homosexuality has made the Iranian Jahan news denounce it as an attack on Islam. He keeps most of his examinations at home – starting the movie slow with his comfy lifestyle in America. Free to be both Muslim and homosexual, he still feels the need to continue the tradition of the Hajj for spiritual fulfillment.

While Parvez does observe some aspects of his sexuality in contrast, he mostly keeps the perspective low as his film focusses more on the pilgrimage itself more than anything. I was hoping for more of an examination, but this approach does help bring a more personal and spiritual aspect. Parvez lets us experience everything that he witnesses while completing his Hajj. From the political propaganda of the region to the long trek straight into the symbolic mouth of Satan, every aspect of this experience is covered. Parvez even provides some interesting commentary on how much of the Hajj has become domesticated with air conditioned halls for hiking and a Starbucks attached to religious landmarks. It’s a sight that asks plenty of questions about what place the religion holds in the modern world.

But these are bigger questions that are merely touched on during the Hajj, seen through the documentary as more of a personal account than an in-depth commentary. The question is asked if a homosexual can continue to be Muslim in this new world of religious unrest and violence. He digs deep within Islam trying to make sense of its history and teachings to find his place. By the original rules and beliefs, he may have fit in just right with the religion. But by the current standards of what he believes is a bastardized version, he is an infidel. How can this change? Can it change? These are questions that are never answered as there is too much reflection and concentration going into the Hajj.

Still from A Sinner in Mecca 2A Sinner in Mecca asks an awful lot of big questions, but doesn’t answer much of them. I’m guessing that Parvez was hoping to find something a little deeper and more telling on his Hajj, but he may have turned up with less than he thought he could capture. The Hajj itself proceeds normally without interruption. He stops a few patrons to ask what they think about all the garbage that results from the pilgrimage. Most of them remark that it’s just the way things are. Will Islam continue to exist just the way as it is or will it ever evolve past kicking and screaming into the new world? Another question left for a bigger documentary. Don’t get me wrong – Parvez’s journey is certainly a unique one worth capturing. It just doesn’t match the scope that I’m sure he was aiming for.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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The Walk Review

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How do you make a film about a man who walked across a wire between the World Trade Center towers? It’s interesting enough to warrant a stirring documentary (Man on Wire), but a feature-length picture needs a drive and a presentation. To let us into the world of the walker, Philippe Petit, the movie let’s the character do what he does best: perform. Played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, Petit narrates his story with an exuberance and passion. He’s overjoyed to have walked across one of the highest ropes in the world and can’t wait to tell us all about it.

Philippe is an eccentric French artist of the 1970’s who possessed many performing talents, but was most obsessed with tightrope walking. Constantly buzzing around the streets of Paris, he just can’t seem to find the perfect spot to place his rope. When he spots the construction of the World Trade Center towers in a magazine, he knew exactly what he wanted do as a grand artistic feat. While he waits for the towers to be completed, he spends all his time training at a circus. He gathers together a band of inspiration that includes sagely circus owner Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the passionate artist Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) and the anarchistic photographer Jean-Louis. His skills improve to the point where he takes his walking for a test drive by balancing across the Notre Dam Cathedral. It’s a sight that predictably draws applause from bystanders and anger from the police.

Once the New York twin towers are completed, the tone becomes more solidified as Petit’s stunt turns into a heist. Given that his act will be illegal, he calls in all his friends and makes new ones to pull off what he describes as an artistic coup. Every aspect of pulling off this walk is meticulously outlined and detailed by Petit – from actually getting up to the tower roof to drawing the rope across the two towers. And when things start to go wrong, Philippe and his crew will have to improvise as best as they can when faced with pressures of security and gravity.

Reportedly, the walk itself was so convincing in its height and depth that audiences were apparently vomiting from the sense of vertigo brought about. It’s probably one of the most blown up tactics of movie marketing, but one that’s usually reserved for horror pictures. I recall one strange Target employee recommending me Paranormal Activity upon its release in that people he knew barfed in the theater. While I didn’t notice any puking at the IMAX 3D screening I attended, I can attest those with a strong sense of vertigo will find themselves looking away from the screen.

Thanks to director Robert Zemeckis and his ImageMovers studio, the walk is a beautifully realistic sight that drinks in nearly every angle of the World Trade Center towers. Philippe informs the audience that the one thing a tightrope walker should never do is look down. But how could you not with such a large view to witness. Even Phillipe himself – caught up in the transcendent nature of his coup – takes a moment to gaze down on New York as well.

Aside from Zemeckis’ sensational special effects, which he flawlessly delivers on with all his films, he also keeps the picture moving with energy and passion. Despite the long build up to the real draw of the picture, Philippe’s ascension towards being the most famous of all tightrope walkers is neatly and tightly strung along. The enthusiasm of Philippe emits off the screen with every scene as he attempts to persuade his cohorts to be just as jazzed about this event. He also has a quirky bunch of people to work with including a classic stoner, a paranoid revolutionary and a French math teacher who is deftly afraid of heights. They’re all so ragtag that you really do hope they pull off this stunt.

Still from The Walk 2The Walk is a real crowd-pleaser for both its amazing special effects and likable characters. Throughout the picture is the familiar Zemeckis charm – the sense that you are watching something magical take place on the screen. For this real event that shaped the city of New York, he lets us take in the splendor from all possible angles and enjoy the same sense of satisfaction that Philipe feels above the metropolis. It’s a thrilling, wondrous and even comical journey that is just a joy to watch from beginning to end.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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American Heist Review

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Adrien Brody’s career has become a roller coaster ride of massive highs and the lowest of lows. For every Oscar-worthy presence in pictures such as The Pianist, there’s a role in low-rent productions such as InAPPropriate Comedy. How he could look at a role such as Flirty Harry and figure it would be a lark to play an overly gay cop is beyond me. Here we find him trying to play a gangster with a Brooklyn accent, donned in tank-tops, tattoos and gold chains. I admire Brody for taking chances, but after so many movies it may time to start playing to his more obvious strengths. And an ex-con is certainly not Brody at his best.

It also doesn’t help that he’s working with D-grade actor Hayden Christensen in a rather standard heist plot. They are shooting way too high in this remake of the 1959 picture The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery. Suffice to say, the duo are not exactly up to the level of Steve McQueen. The two actors play brothers with Brody having just gotten out of prison and Christensen leading a straight life as a mechanic. The two find themselves falling on hard times and a bank heist is in order. They round up a crew, gather some guns, dons some bandannas and set off on a crime that surely won’t end in a tragically bloody shootout.

For a small movie with such a simple premise, it could be a decent bit of crime drama. But, oh, how this picture wants to shoot so high and turn up so low. The heist moves along fairly quickly, but soon becomes too big for its own britches. I believe the one point where it went off the rails is when one of the robbers starts firing at a helicopter. The pilot is hit by the bullet and the helicopter smashes into a building where a meeting is taking place. The blades are damaged and the chopper descends to the city streets. The robber has just enough time to turn around and walk away slowly as the helicopter falls to the ground and explodes behind him. It’s one of the oldest action movie cliches and is all the more lackluster by the budgeted computer graphics. Why is the scene in the movie? I guess there weren’t enough explosions.

Despite being out of their league, Brody and Christensen don’t bore. Christensen isn’t exactly a standout actor, but he fits decently into role of a simple and quiet mechanic. I bought him as such a character even if I didn’t feel much for his plight. Brody is a more interesting case in that he’s striving to do well in such a bland role. He doesn’t mesh as well in that it’s hard to believe him playing such a character, but he doesn’t phone in any of it. I kept waiting for that scene where his performance became laughable, but it never came thanks to Brody’s devotion to the character. He posses that grace of words required for an ex-con with a dark history in prison.

Still from American Heist 2Outside of the decent dialogue between our two leads, it’s your standard bank robbery movie. It proceeds through all the necessary beats of the working class wanting more, the doubt in the heist, the acceptance of the heist, the planning of the heist, the execution of the heist and the downfall of the heist. At 94 minutes, first-time director Sarik Andreasyan has done his homework at getting such a story in and out quickly. And while he doesn’t exactly lag in the plot at any point, he doesn’t make it entertaining either. Perhaps he should have taken his time to develop the characters a little more so we can feel just a little more when the bloody shootout begins. Or maybe just enough to not be distracted by the exploding helicopter.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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Hotel Transylvania 2 Review

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As much as I’d love to declare Adam Sandler a complete dud of an actor with his recent pictures The Cobbler and Pixels, I have to admit that Hotel Transylvania surprised me with how much fun it ended up being. Sandler starred in that picture with his usual troupe of actors, but they were kept contained under the calculated slapstick of director Genndy Tartakovsky. With this sequel, Sandler becomes more involved as he co-wrote the script, but did so with animation veteran writer Robert Smigel. Once again, it’s a genuine surprise from an actor who almost always disappoints. If he sticks with the right people in animation, he’ll go far. Or about as far as he can go at his current age.

Touching on Sandler’s trademark focus of family, Dracula (Adam Sandler) is ecstatic to find that his recently married daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is going to have a baby with human hiker Jonathan (Andy Samberg). The two have a little baby boy named Dennis, a cute kid with red curly hair. Mom and dad love him whether he turns out to be a vampire or a human, but grandpa Drac is getting antsy about his grandson taking after his lineage. If Dennis doesn’t get his fangs by the time he is 5, they’ll know he is fully human. Mere days before the kid’s fifth birthday, Dracula offers to babysit Dennis while Jonathan distracts Mavis with a visit to his hometown in California. The legendary vampire hopes he’ll be able to scare the fangs out of Dennis with some old-fashioned monstering of his old pals. But it may be a little tricky now that monsters are more open and accepted into human society.

The charm of Hotel Transylvania has not diminished with age. The title hotel is still just as fast, fun and creative with plenty of different monsters roaming the halls. But now the world has opened up with all sorts of new monster accommodations including monster/human weddings and night camps for little vampires. Most of the monsters seem cool with the transition, but old Drac is a little miffed that his monster memories cannot be relived. Desperate to break his grandson in as the new monster on the block, he finds that his dark woods of prowling have been transformed into well-lit parks. Monsters would much rather pose for selfies than frighten the human populace. It’s a fun dynamic and a great parallel for the changing times that any old timer can relate to.

It’s amazing how this animated movie touches on Sandler’s fondness of family, but does away with the junk of his other movies that dealt with the same subject matter. The mean-spirited nature and bland brand of low-brow is sidelined for the snappy animation that may be mindless fun, but still sweet. Compare this picture to the likes of Grown Ups 2 – both films about families – and you’ll find this is night and day for Sandler. There’s a higher level of comedy delivered through the physical antics of Gendy’s noteworthy animation style and a distinct lack of gags involving deer urine.

The movie isn’t perfect, however, in that it shoots for higher allegories that never quite culminate. The mingling of monsters and humans contains plenty of relation to interracial relationships facing prejudice, but it’s only touched on for a few scenes. That goes double for the disconnect of older generations, the changing of the times and the warmness of being a grandfather. All great subjects that are merely given as much time to evolve as the sight gags allow.

Still from Hotel Transylvania 2 2Hotel Transylvania 2 doesn’t redefine or improve greatly on its predecessor, but it’s still a charming outing for one more round of gags with these great monster characters. There’s some creative animation and some great humor to be had, but not much of a story to keep it cohesive. Wasted potential? Perhaps, but not the worst bit of mindless entertainment as far as simple animated movies go.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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Shaun the Sheep Movie Review

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Shaun the Sheep is one of Aardman Animation’s most unique feature films in that it’s based on a television series of the same name and doesn’t feature a single line of identifiable dialogue. Such traits might hinder a film – especially an animated one aimed at the younger audiences. And yet they find a way to make it all both innocently fun and devilishly clever. It’s that certain charm that only Aardman can deliver with their trademark claymation. Whereas studios such as Laika have moved on to more intricate levels of stop-motion animation with 3D printed faces and additional CGI, Aardman remains true to their traditional methods. They tried venturing into CGI with Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, but it’s clear where their strength lies.

The story is simple enough to be told without dialogue, but open enough to be playful. Shaun is the most intelligent of the sheep heard on the farm. He’s the only one that seems to have a desire to break free of the habitual formula dictated by the farmer. The plucky young sheep devises a plan with a fluffy brethren to trick the farmer into falling asleep so the sheep can take a day off from being herded and shaved. They also need to distract the dog Bitzer that herds them – a task easily accomplished with a duck that works for bread. But the plan goes awry with keeping the farmer snoozing in a camper as the mobile bedroom is sent accelerating down the hill and into the city. Shaun takes it upon himself to lead the sheep and loyal dog into the urban jungle to bring back their beloved master.

With no dialogue and naturally no big-name voice actors either, Shaun may be a tough sell and might even pass over the radar of a few parents. But watching this film with my 3-year-old daughter proved that animation is more about cleverness and craft than marquee value. She was entranced to see what the sheep would do next as they discreetly make their way through the city streets. She laughed when the sheep began to mimic the mistakes of humans in a restaurant by spilling water glasses and belching loudly. She cowered when the evil city exterminator cornered the herd at the edge of a cliff. I was surprised at how much she got into it for having no dialogue and one minor musical sequence. At no point did she ever ask me “when do they talk?”

But will the parents enjoy such a simplistic feature? I think they will considering the film features a solid amount of clever references that will go over the heads of kids. While the little ones will enjoy the slapstick nature of this farce, adults can have a giggle from a Hannibal Lecter cat, Bansky style graffiti and Cape Fear esque terror. It has all the wit of the snappiest animated features, but is subtle enough not to blast the screen with too much humor. There’s enough frenetic energy and unique visual gags going on that a blaring voice cast would be too much.

Without all the additional noise, I could really enjoy the style of the claymation. It may drive some crazy the way the sheep only open their mouths on the side with lips that disappear while silent, but it’s those stylistic choices which really make the animation come alive. These little wrinkles in the cloth are pleasant reminders that there is somebody putting physical effort into making something with both an artistic flair and cartoon sensibilities.

Still from Shaun the Sheep Movie 2For what is essentially an animated silent movie, Shaun the Sheep manages to be an impressive joy for any age. Its universal humor is a testament at how well directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzack can find their way into the heart of even the most jaded moviegoer. There is some crass and danger, but still just as much heart and affection. There are jokes about butts and farts, but never to an absurd degree to rely on such low-brow tactics throughout. It’s even a breeze to watch at a modest 85 minutes. This is another brilliant example of how Aardman has pinned themselves as the masters of claymation in the way that Pixar has corner the market on computer animation.

Rated 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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Misery Loves Comedy Review

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Robin Williams once said that the saddest people in the world must be those who make others happy because they so desperately want others to not feel what they themselves felt. Those sad words seem to ring true for comedians everywhere who find themselves broken between the stage. It’s an aspect you rarely see from comedians because their presence as entertainers that make us smile. Such a subject seems entertaining and important enough to warrant focus – especially in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide. I’m just wondering where that documentary exists because it doesn’t feel present with Misery Loves Comedy.

It’s an admirable effort gathering together so many big names to talk about such a topic. Every comedian seems to have shown up from the modern talents (Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon) to the veterans of comedy (Tom Hanks, Larry David). All of them give their own perspectives of growing up and making their way up to the microphone or penning their first big jokes. They all have a story to tell from the most tragic of childhoods to the hardest of part-time jobs. One comedian slaved away at tables in a comedy club for three years before getting his big shot on stage. Another finds the perfect outlet for their saddest of memories.

The problem with this documentary is that nobody really appears all that miserable inside. When the camera is on, so are they. Comedians just can’t help it. They’ve probably been through interview after interview where they always put up that wall of entertainment to hide their true selves – even when the subject happens to be them specifically. We never get a chance to see these comedians as anything more than talking heads where they don’t exactly bare all of their soul. There’s no extra footage of the comedians getting up out of their chairs or even dramatized sequences for the stories being told. No clever editing of themes. No wildly revealing answers. The movie itself is an endless stream of talking head after talking head.

To its credit, director Kevin Pollak does assemble quite an assortment of comedic talkers. Comedy director Judd Apatow relays some interesting conversations he had with Jim Henson on the warmth of his soul. Larry David regales the audience with his adventures in New York to eventually helming the greatest sitcom of all-time. Kevin Smith adds his usual two cents for knowing the business and Penn Jillette brings his insightful philosophies of being an entertainer. Marc Maron and Jimmy Fallon both bring up their childhoods with how they learned the intricate art of telling a joke. And the list of the interviewed stretches on and on with comedians young and old, stand-up and writers, directors and actors.

The whole experience becomes draining after a while – taking in far too many views and stories that are boiled down to 94 minutes. Pollack’s interviews end with the titular question of if misery truly does love comedy. By the time they arrive at the final question, the comedians don’t seem that into the honest nature to deliver an engaging response. It seems as though they have spoken for so long that they can’t quite muster a grand cap of a final thought. Did any of them want to talk about Robin Williams or was it still too soon during filming?

Still from Misery Loves Comedy 2The ultimate answer is that misery does love comedy, but there isn’t much of it present in this documentary. Sure, the comedians address the subject, but hardly dig deep into what is a fascinating subject on entertainers. The movie ends with a dedication to Robin Williams after his suicide – making me all the more hungry for a real documentary on this topic rather than just a hangout session with some celebrities.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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Self/less Review

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Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley share a common bond as both actors and characters in Self/Less. They’re both good actors, but have rarely been given a solid movie to showcase these traits. They’re both unique characters, but reduced to simple puppets in a script more focused on its plot than its characters. I pitied the movie because I want to admire its casting and its premise which could have been rather engaging. But director Tarsem Singh manages to hit every wrong note on this misguided science fiction/action picture.

Everything starts off interesting enough with Kingsley playing dying millionaire Damian. Facing cancer, Damian becomes intrigued by Professor Albright (Matthew Goode) and his scientific experiment of “shedding.” The process involves transferring the consciousness out of your body and into another. The secret catch is that the other body happens to belong to someone else. That’s disturbing enough, but if you don’t take special drugs you’ll start inheriting the memories of the previous body owner. Sure enough, Damian becomes interested in the past life of his new body (Ryan Reynolds) and the wife and child that was left behind in his death. I could make some joke about Reynolds inheriting Kingsley’s bad luck with roles, but I won’t.

There’s some decent build-up of the plot as the mystery of Albright’s research is slowly revealed. But by the second act, the pacing begins to jump all over the place as the writing becomes more ridiculous. When Damian finally catches up with the wife of the deceased man, an action scene breaks out as Albright’s goons attack the house. At this point, the movie becomes more action oriented as Damian quickly becomes an action hero. For some strange reason, Damian channels the skill of Liam Neeson by breaking bones and firing guns. I know that his Ryan Reynolds body is more physically fit, but it sure seems like a stretch for him to have acquired such skills off-screen. Perhaps he can see into the future as well when some goon with a giant flamethrower is waiting outside for him.

The rest of the movie struggles at finding a way to twist and turn the story for the purposes of entertainment. More ridiculous fight scenes are inserted. The relationship Damian forms with the daughters is played up way too hard with quick sentimentality. Even Damian’s methods for getting Albright to come clean becomes rather odd with him threatening his mother. It’s all staged and edited quite poorly as the movie zips through the moments of character development and dwells too long on the exposition. The movie doesn’t have time to explore an old man trying to get used to a young man’s body – it’s far too busy pulling out twists from its flawed thriller aspect.

I suppose what’s most frustrating about Self/Less is that it just can’t pick a tone. You think you’re watching a science fiction thriller, but then it just decides to be a darker action picture out of nowhere. Then it decides to insert some family drama. Then back to a mad science experiment. Then a car chase. Around and around it goes – always fast, but never arriving at a consistent genre. It’s a jack of all cliches and master of none. The results are more laughable for how some of these elements seemingly come out of nowhere – desperate to garner some level of entertainment that is never reached.

Still from Self/less 2Self/Less could use a little more focus and sense to uproot a decent concept from such a bland production. I really want to root for Ryan Reynolds the way he tries so hard to find better, more challenging projects. I also want to root for Ben Kingsley in that his last movie before he bites the dust is not a forgettable one. They may have both read a great script of clever ideas by the Pastor brothers, but it’s merely a confusing smear of those ideas by the incoherent direction of Tarsem Singh. Here’s hoping they can shed this movie off their resumes and come back strong with a more worthy film.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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Men, Women and Children Review

Still from Men, Women and Children 1

In my day we didn’t have smart phones. Our mobile phones were big and bulky contraptions that had a low battery life and limited range. But technology has changed since then in big ways and our culture changes right along with it. Jason Reitman’s drama about the internet age attempts to find some deeper meaning in a society that buries itself within the online world. Perhaps too deep. I’m not saying he’s trying to create the techno-savvy equal of Tree of Life, but the movie does begin with a probe in space and then cuts to Adam Sandler masturbating with his son’s computer.

Let me say this before I lay into Men, Women and Children – Reitman has chosen a fascinating subject and approaches it somewhat maturely. He doesn’t fold into buzzwords of timely tech by constantly throwing hashtags and memes at the screen. The focus is maintained on how the suburban lifestyle and relationships have altered in the digital age. The parents approach the internet with fear and curiosity. The teenagers approach it as a secret hideaway to vent their frustrations and connect with their peers. There is a disconnect, but one that is more psychological than technological. When an overprotective mother fears the dangers online, she monitors her daughter’s logs of communication on every device. The daughter is smart enough to switch out the SIM card in her phone to keep her relationship with a boy a secret. Trust is lacking, but intelligence is there as these people know how to use technology – even if they use it the wrong way.

Removing most (but not all) of the technological boogieman element, the story can focus itself just a little more on the family drama and not so much on the laughable understanding of technology (which there is still plenty of in this movie). That is if the movie could focus long enough on any of its various plotlines. Husband/father Don (Adam Sandler) arranges for a prostitute online while his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) has an affair through the Ashley Madison website. Through their secret romances, they try to find some happiness outside of their marriage that the online world has granted them. It’s an interesting topic, but never delved into much deeper than just a cursory examination.

Frustrated dad Kent (Dean Norris) attempts to connect with his son Tim (Ansel Elgort) after his mother leaves them. Kent hopes his son will snap out of it by getting back into football, but Tim finds himself buried in the online world of raiding dungeons. High school student Hannah aspires to be a famous modeler, but is oblivious to the perverted nature of her portfolio website. Her mother encourages the behavior the way she sells the photos and seems just as unaware of how damaging this all is. Another high school student, Brandy, finds herself suffocating under her mother’s constant supervision of her online activities. Once the mother/warden discovers she’s having a secret relationship, she becomes needlessly involved where it damages their relationship even more.

Perhaps I really am getting too old as I approach my 30’s, but these problems of the modern digital age just seem so silly to me. My high school years were the early days of online personas, but I still had online video games and chat rooms. There are some strange tales to be told from that era, but none so melodramatic as this movie implies for the youth of today. I must exist in that weird space between the young turks who hopelessly obsess over social media and the old codgers who cannot comprehend any of it.

The disconnect of parents and children from that angle could be unique, but the movie doesn’t have time for such a study. It doesn’t have time for much of anything the way it sets such large goalposts that are never reached. Throughout the picture is a sense of trying to comprehend our space and purpose in the universe. Constant references are made to stars and their relationship to our lonely nature of human beings in our current technological climate. But director Jason Reitman doesn’t allow us to connect the dots by either spoon-feeding the information through Emma Thompson’s narration or just skipping ahead to the next beat before we can dig deeper into the characters.

Still from Men, Women and Children 2While there is something to be said of technology’s influence on dragging us apart as human beings, it’s mostly whispered and murmured in this picture. It’s clear that Reitman gathered up a lot of ideas for this project, but he does little more than cut up these small stories to create a sloppy collage of a snapshot for the 21st century digital age. How depressing to see such an accomplished director reduced to cliches and smatterings of half-thought drama. The cyber age just appears so laughable from this approach and perhaps it is. But what hope is there for a relatable drama when a frightened mother hands out pamphlets on the dangers of selfies?

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson,

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