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American Ultra
The Martian

Movie Reviews

America Ultra
At the age of 15, Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Not a random school bombing or scattered gunfire in the dirt streets of her native Swat Valley. A man boarded her school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head. Why? She voiced the controversial opinion that girls should go to school.

Director Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala (opening in wide release on 10/9) – part teenage biopic, part humanitarian advertisement – documents Malala’s feminist struggle and the girl behind the movement. For the uninitiated, the film gives a cursory overview of the Taliban’s control over the state of education in Malala’s particular region of Pakistan in beautifully animated, yet undramatic, sequences. These sequences, attempting to canonize a teenager we see scrolling through images of her athletic crushes (hello, Roger Federer), fail to transcend Malala’s real-life appeal. There’s no need for a cartoon fable when the real thing is more compelling.

In many ways, the globalization of Malala’s cause, what makes her a voice for education rights everywhere, makes her an impersonal documentary subject. When Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, her speech focused on her status as a symbol. A spokeswoman for every girl deprived of education. It’s immediately apparent that the mission and the activism are important, but the snippets we get of Malala’s home life transcend the campaign. She arm-wrestles her brother, reads the autograph that she wrote inside the cover of her copy of her memoir (“Dear Malala, keep up the good work! Love, Malala”), and self-consciously shows off her sub-par test grades.

These segments personalize a struggle that can feel self-evident to the privileged. Of course girls need rights; of course they should learn to read more than the Quran. Inundated with tales of the extraordinary, the consequences behind speaking out can feel muted. This is where He Named Me Malala shines. We see Malala admit to slapping around her little brother with a lopsided grin, play cards with her always-smiling father and still-adjusting conservative mother. We wonder about her relationships with her parents, the optimistic activism of her father and the unexplored culture-shock of her mother’s burgeoning literacy. This provides as normal a life as you could hope for an international activist.

Then we see the physical therapy. The recovery. The blood-spattered bus. The smile that was not yet lopsided, fated to slope when a damaged facial nerve failed to respond to a brain pierced with shards of shattered skull.

Here are the consequences of speaking out. It grounds you in your privilege, something the rest of the film loses when it globalizes its campaign to the point of anonymity. When women are shot trying to learn and threatened trying to receive healthcare from Planned Parenthood, those of us who don’t have to worry, and have never had to worry, about these concerns, should be shell shocked. The Taliban bombed over a hundred girls’ schools before shooting Malala. Destroying the institution is always the first response.

The film assumes if you’re watching that yes, you believe that girls deserve education. I bet most people believe that women should receive reproductive health services. Where He Named Me Malala succeeds isn’t in the fluffy faux-deification of its subject, but the normalizing and personalizing of the feminist struggle. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s a fight. And it’s not just against the Taliban.

American Ultra: New Cult Classic
American Ultra, a goofy deconstruction of action movies, romantic comedies, and the menace of the U.S. government, didn’t have a great debut. Or, for that matter, a fantastic following few weeks. Garnering about half its budget from the box office, it’ll be remembered by many as a flop. But for those the movie was for, it’ll be a cult classic.

When you have Jesse Eisenberg as a stoner sleeper agent fighting off the CIA with his girlfriend Kristen Stewart, it’s inevitable.

Stoner comedies rarely have the wherewithal to commit to serious emotions, and lean heavily on their lightness to be consumed by an impaired audience. American Ultra takes the opposite approach. Digging deep into the stereotypical paranoia of the reefer-smoking hippy, the film pits true love (or as close as it can get) against the evils of a mind-controlling military industrial complex.

The result is a movie that buzzes in your head long after the initial shock laughs have worn off. Couples in dorm rooms and snuggled in crappy apartments will appreciate the intimacy of the realistic young adult relationship far more than any Nicholas Sparks fairy tale nonsense. Their love isn’t one forged in unhealthy dreams of one-sided devotion. We get mutual support – pet names and pet peeves. We get our relationships, and eventually, we get what we hope we’d do to preserve our relationships.

Our protagonists are scared, timid, anxious people thrust into a Jason Bourne situation. They hate every second of it and it’s endearing from the start. No fish out of water ever adapts as well as they do in action movies. Eisenberg and Stewart flop and gasp for air exactly as they should.

Mixing a demonization of brainwashing with an almost hopeful naivety about unlocking one’s full potential, American Ultra even manages to jam some wish-fulfillment into its already packed runtime. Maybe we all secretly have the ability to succeed if we have the proper incentive. Its villains are the poor souls that can’t break free. They are those fallen, taken advantage of and turned into commodities. They turn from inhuman killing machines to abused, pitiable creatures in seconds thanks to a few perfect lines and an amazing performance from the unhinged Walton Goggins.

Did I mention it’s funny? That’s just icing. The laughter may fade, but American Ultra will continue to speak directly into every paranoid discontent’s heart for years to come.

The Martian
Rated: PG-13 / Runtime: 2h 21m
Outpacing the subpar, feel-good space-disaster films of the late ’90s, The Martian’s scruffy, lovable, and intelligent survival story does everything correct.

​Astronaut/Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon, who’s been stranded before in Interstellar) has been accidentally abandoned on Mars by his crew, which means we’re stuck watching him for most of the film.
This is the make-or-break moment for most single-subject survivals, and luckily Damon as Watney proves completely capable. A surprisingly physical performance, Damon transforms and suffers before our eyes. But this isn’t a downer movie. That’s not what it’s going for.

So we get Watney, whether he’s pulling off the most intense self-surgery this side of director Ridley Scott’s underrated Prometheus or simply enduring his commander’s penchant for bad disco, always ready with a quip and a smirk. Damon shoulders the disheveled exhaustion with a cockiness found only in the truly hopeful.

The rest of the star-studded cast shines, especially Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Mackenzie Davis. Peña’s ball-busting sweetheart pilot taps into a close male friendship with very few lines, Ejiofor’s Mars Mission Director roams from desperation to despair to jubilation engagingly, and Davis’s youthful satellite imager emits a quiet charm.

Ridley Scott, as a reminder, directed sci-fi design landmarks Alien and Blade Runner in addition to visual effect Oscar nominee Prometheus. This guy can craft a world. The film looks stunning, with Mars’ desolate plateaus and rock structures looming over the tiny incursions of humanity.

Chunky, blistering sandstorms and wispy, beautiful dust devils whip the screen with such diverse and complex textures, it’s astonishing that they’re not even the focus of their scenes. I could go on about the space suits, the zero-gravity movement and the spaceship design forever, but just know that Scott and his visual team make it look GOOD.

Further, Scott controls the tone perfectly. Drew Goddard’s script (adapted from Andy Weir’s novel) makes a few necessary and frugal deviations from the source material, but maintains the competent, sarcastically defiant attitude of its main character and the earnest humanity of those trying to save him. The film pulses with emotion. Tear-jerking triumph was supposed to have died off in the campy action of the ’90s, but here it is, working better than ever.

If Interstellar is sci-fi focused on the fiction, this is sci-fi focused on the science. There’s a palpable weight to every decision of the plot because every decision is debated in front of us. Counterpoints and Plan Bs, deadlines and bureaucratic string-pulling, make it all feel very real. Not just because the science is sound and the numbers have been run, but because it all seems like a huge corporate pain in the ass. Which makes sense, space is tough. As Watney says, “It doesn’t cooperate.”

And the best parts of The Martian involve the – at the risk of sounding like a job interview – collaborative problem-solving by the characters. The obstacles they overcome feel insurmountable.

When the first big, choking-back-tears, emotional moment of a movie involves what basically amounts to a guy receiving an e-mail from his boss, and it hits like a truck, you know you’re in for a ride.

​And when, post-accident, the first word out of your survivor’s mouth is an f-bomb, you know it’s a special ride.

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