How to Podcast: “The Martian,” “The Walk”

matt damon

It was a good week for opening movies, particularly with the excellent space search and rescue mission The Martian. Matt Damon stars as botanist Mark Watney, who is on Mars with a crew to study the planet but is left for dead when he is swept away by a freak storm that forces the others to flee for their lives. When Watney wakes up and realizes he’s alone, his survival journey is about as compelling as it gets, as the folks on Earth try to find a way to rescue him before its too late.

I discuss the Ridley Scott film (a real return for the director clearly in his element) with my ScreenPicks pals, along with the harrowing visual treat The Walk.

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How to Watch: ‘Everest’


Step 1: Catch your breath. Everest is a true story about a climbing expedition in 1996 that goes horribly wrong, and while the film does all the right things to deliver a thrilling experience, it also tries to answer the question: Why go in the first place?

Step 2: Give Everest the hashtag #RichWhitePeopleProblems. The film follows a group of mostly white, generally affluent thrill-seekers who see the formidable Mt. Everest as something that has to be conquered. Never mind the fact that it’s the tallest, most treacherous peak in the world – a place where a human can barely survive. It’s freaking sub-freezing; there’s avalanches and breaking ice shelves; and most importantly, you literally cannot breathe because at Everest’s summit – as expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) tells us – it’s like being outside a 747 at its cruising altitude. For me, it’s a head-scratcher, but for those eager to do it, those odds are just like posting a big “Climb Me” sign. They trek to Nepal to face the great mountain time and time again… and many of them die trying to reach the top.

Step 3: Emphasize your point: In 1996, Hall, a New Zealander with a struggling mountain climbing business, took an expedition to Everest. Some of the clients were there for a second time, like Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a kindly school teacher who raised funds so he could return since he failed to reach the summit the first time around, and millionaire Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), an adrenaline junkie just there for the ride. Also joining the group was journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who was there to write a feature story about Hall’s Adventure Consultants. Hall succeeded in getting his high-paying customers to the top, but things took a turn for the very worse when a freak and deadly rogue storm swept over them as they started their descent and many lives were lost (we won’t say who here, but if you know the real story, you know who dies).

Step 4: Explain the why. Survivor Krakauer, who wrote the best-selling book Into Thin Air about the ordeal, asks in the film the all-important question of why. Why be there, facing these tremendous odds? Why risk your life when it’s not necessary to do so? Most of them just say, “’Cause it’s there‘” but only Hansen has a legit answer: Because he wants to show his kids that if you really want to achieve a goal, you should stop at nothing to do it. Okay, being a hero to your kids is admirable, but don’t you think he could have done it a less dangerous way? Just sayin’…

Step 5: Recognize the frustration. Everest also shows how the mountain’s popularity and Nepal’s need for tourism sends hundreds of thrill-seekers to the area each year. The crowding erodes the already unstable terrain, and the trails crafted by experts with proper ropes and equipment become worn. It also creates competition between rival adventure companies. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Scott Fischer, the owner of another expedition business, who is, for all intents and purposes, in a race with Rob Hall to see who can reach the top first. This kind of reckless environment, coupled with the fact that they have to give their clients what they want or they’ll go under, leads both Hall and Fischer into making some pretty bad decisions in critical moments. It’s frustrating to watch, especially since you know what’s about to happen.

Step 6: Try to find someone to root for. The performances are all adequate. Clarke and Brolin actually scaled other mountains in preparation, so they could really understand the mentality, and it works to their advantage. As for character development, however, there isn’t much, and it’s a definite flaw in the film. There is really no one you feel connected to – except maybe Clarke’s Hall, who was expecting his first child with his wife (played by Keira Knightley, nailing a New Zealand accent). But when Hall makes those choices that go against everything he knows as an expert climber, you don’t feel sorry for him when it goes awry. One standout is Emma Watson as Helen Wilton, Hall’s main person at the base. As it looks dire for her boss, the accomplished actress shows it all on her face.

Step 7: At least marvel at the mountain. The real hero of Everest is action director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, Contraband). Much of the film was shot in Nepal, including the real Everest’s base camp, but the most dangerous moments were actually filmed in the Italian Alps. Guess it would be really difficult to make a movie on the actual Mt. Everest, but Kormákur makes you feel like you are right there, gasping for breath and cursing your stupid guide for not making you turn back when you had the chance. Everest stuns with its spectacular visuals and snowy vistas, and has you holding onto your seat when the harrowing action gets intense. Watching Everest is about the only way you’d ever get me to scale a big-ass mountain.

How to Interview: Talking “Cooties” and Chicken Nuggets


In the new horror comedy Cooties, one seriously contaminated chicken nugget makes it way to an elementary school cafeteria in middle-town USA, and after an unfortunate little girl eats said disgusting nugget, she suddenly isn’t quite herself. No, instead she turns into a flesh-eating little monster, infecting her fellow classmates with “cooties,” and turning them all into rampaging zombies.

Now, it’s left to the poor hapless teachers (Alison Pill, Elijah Wood, Jack McBrayer, Rainn Wilson, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad), to figure out what’s happening and escape the school grounds before they become the next lunch meat.

ScreenPicks had fun talking with Pill, Wood and McBrayer about those days when chicken nuggets and McDonald’s Playlands ruled and how they dealt with cooties on the playground.

Make sure to check out the hilarious Cooties, now playing in select theaters and on VOD!

Fall Movies 2015: 10 Films to Look Forward To


As the summer season comes to a close, we can now look forward to the fall movie season, which typically combines big flicks (Star Wars: The Force Awakens anyone?) with those films getting their Oscar buzz on.

Here’s a list of 10 films you shouldn’t miss (in order of release date):

The Martian (Oct. 2)

Who: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels; directed by Ridley Scott

What: Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars after being left for dead and as he finds ways to survive and let Earth know he’s still alive, the peeps at NASA rush to rescue him before its too late.

Why: Ridley Scott in space always works, plus Matt Damon’s quippy delivery of lines like, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” just makes it more entertaining.

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How to Podcast: “American Ultra” Kicks Ass


American Ultra is just good old violent fun, showcasing Jesse Eisenberg as a stoner living in a nowhere town who doesn’t know he is actually a super spy, aka Jason Bourne. When “activated,” it turns out he is an efficient soldier, who can kill people with spoons and the like. Eisenberg is paired again with his Adventureland  co-star Kristen Stewart, who plays his GF, and the two just have a blast ripping through the movie.

I discuss American Ultra with my ScreenPicks gang, along with other openers including She’s Funny That Way and Learning to Drive.

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How to Analyze: Why Can’t ‘Fantastic Four’ Be Fantastic?


To be perfectly honest, this Fantastic Four  reboot does not measure up, and frankly, I’m not sure why they can’t get this story right. Like Spider-Man, 20th Cent. Fox had to quickly do a reboot of FF,  so soon after the original 2005 film and its sequel, because they were in danger of losing the rights to the Marvel comic. Fox might still lose them to Marvel if this FF tanks… and unfortunately, I think it’s going to.

The 2005 version — which starred Ioan Gruffudd (as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic), Jessica Alba (as Sue Storm/Invisible Girl), Chris Evans (as Johnny Storm/Human Torch) and Michael Chiklis (as Ben Grimm/Thing) — was moderately enjoyable, mostly due to Evans’ hilarious performance as Torch and Chiklis’ wry sense of humor as Thing. But it had a lot of problems, too, and certainly couldn’t compare to The Avengers brilliant ensemble or other successful comic-book adaptations. 

This current Fantastic Four is even worse. They tried to capture a younger audience by casting leads Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Micheal B. Jordan and Jamie Bell, but the cast is wasted. It starts off intriguingly enough, with a kids-in-space-camp mentality, masterminding this machine that takes them to an alternate universe. But once things go awry, Bell literally just grunts most of the time as Thing, while Mara mostly sits at the computer, without any emotions or expressions at all. If they had let Teller play Reed a little more cocksure, more to the type Teller plays best, then it would have worked. Jordan is simply not the right Torch, and poor Toby Kebbell. His Victor Doom has a lot of potential at the beginning of the film, a misunderstood genius with a chip on his shoulder who also has an unrequited crush on Sue. But when he becomes the villain Dr. Doom, all of that is gone and we’re left with a run-of-the-mill megalomaniac who seeks world dominance. Yawn.

On top of all that, ALL the humor is lost. This FF wants to be dark and brooding but why? The tongue-in-cheek is what makes the comic so great — the back and forth squabbling between Torch and Thing, the brother-sister camaraderie between Sue and Johnny, the lighthearted love story between Reed and Sue, and so forth. And don’t get me started on the CGI in this version. The alternate universe looks like one of those bad alien planets from Star Trek, and the climactic battle at the end completely fails. Come on, folks, the bar keeps rising on this stuff; you can’t go backwards.

So, if Marvel does take the rights back and brings the Fantastic Four into the Disney fold, would they be able to successfully translate the story to the big screen? I think the first order of business is to find the right cast. A group of actors that gel together and who fit the roles more succinctly. Also, just stop with the origin premise. If you do another one, start with the Fantastic Four already in full swing, ribbing each other as they try to save the world from another Dr. Doom attempt to take over.

Anyway, I discuss Fantastic Four in the ScreenPicks podcast, along with other openers this weekend, including Ricki and the Flash and Dark Places.

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How to Watch: “Pixels”


Step 1: Get in the mood. If you want lighthearted, mindless Adam Sandler entertainment and have a nostalgia for ’80s video games, then Pixels is for you.

Step 2: Set the scene. The film centers on Brenner, who as a kid in the ’80s was an arcade gaming champ, able to see patterns in games like Galaga, Pac-Man and Centipede in his head and master them. Brenner’s best friend Cooper always told him he’d amount to something, but now as adults, Brenner (Sandler) is nothing more than a tech repair guy working for a Geek Squad-type company, while Cooper (Kevin James) has become president of the United States. Yeah, quite a jump there. They are still best friends, and when it looks like Earth is being invaded by aliens who are attacking in the form of the same ’80s games they grew up playing (the why and how aren’t really important), Cooper turns to Brenner for help. In order to battle the aliens, Brenner and Cooper also need to find a few other former players. One is Ludlow (Josh Gad), a former arcade whiz kid and conspiracy theorist who thinks the CIA is infiltrating his mind, and the arrogant Eddie (Peter Dinklage), the only guy to beat Brenner in an epic Donkey Kong showdown back in the day but who is now a convict. These four are joined by single mom Violet (Michelle Monaghan), who works in military intelligence and someone Brenner takes a shine to. Together, they have to play the games of their lives to defeat the invaders. You know, the Space Invaders. Get it?

Step 3: Agree… or not. Pixels is being called THE worst movie of the year, but when was the last time a Sandler movie received glowing reviews? Pixels has many, many problems. It’s trite, so very silly and completely devoid of any genuineness, to name a few. Sandler’s usual schlub with a heart of gold drags it down every time he and the wasted Monaghan do the romantic comedy thing, but Sandler has always had a keen sense of the supporting players around him, and lets them shine. Adding Gad and Dinklage to the mix is a mini stroke of genius as they both deliver hilarious performances. It is also more family-friendly than some of Sandler’s past endeavors, so gone is the 12-year-old bathroom humor. Plus, the ’80s throwbacks are perfect, between the arcade games coming to life and the soundtrack. Sandler really loves that era with movies like this and The Wedding Singer. He likes to remember being a teenager, hitting the arcade and jamming to Lover Boy. Good times.

Step 4: Love the special effects. Directed by Chris Columbus, who knows how to give movies broad strokes, Pixels also has a whole bunch of fun with the visuals. Pac-Man devouring NYC is just plain fun, but the Centipede attack sequence in London’s Hyde Park stands out, as the sky fills with mushrooms and the centipede inches down. Being one of my favorite games of yesteryear, I felt myself punching my finger on my leg in unison as Brenner and Ludlow shoot down the bugs.

Step 5: Remember Sandler doesn’t care what you think. He makes these movies to have fun with his friends, and his fans flock to see them in droves. They know full and well what to expect and welcome it. Pixels shouldn’t disappoint them.

How to Watch: ‘Trainwreck’


Step 1: Applaud the hotter-than-hot Amy Schumer. Trainwreck puts our new favorite person squarely on the movie map, showcasing her exquisite sense of humor in a poignant and sweet romantic comedy.

Step 2: Ask “Is Amy really a trainwreck?” The title of Schumer’s big-screen debut is a little misleading, however, because Schumer’s character, also named Amy, isn’t your traditional idea of a trainwreck. You know, the kind of person who self destructs every chance they get. Sure, Amy drinks and smokes pot a lot and makes a fair amount of bad choices, but she is also really good at her job writing for a raunchy men’s magazine and never gets totally out of control. In fact, Amy’s life is exactly how she wants it to be, and she is not going off the rails.

Step 3: Get to the real point. You see, the only issue Amy has is with monogamy; she doesn’t care for it much. Her dad (Colin Quinn) put the concept “We aren’t meant to be with just one person the rest of our lives” into Amy’s head when she was a young girl, and Amy has pretty much stuck to that way of thinking for most of her adult life. One-night stands are her forte and she fully embraces the idea of kicking the guy out of bed almost immediately after sex. Her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larsen), didn’t buy into their dad’s philosophy and is now married and a mom, something that boggles Amy’s mind. Yet, everything changes when Amy is assigned to do a story on a sports medicine doctor named Aaron (Bill Hader), who is probably one of the nicest guys on the planet and who Amy has a fairly immediate connection to. She resists and tries to brush him off, but Aaron is persistent and before she knows it, Amy finds herself falling in love with him. This, too, boggles her mind.

Step 4: Embrace the formula. The rom-com mantra of “will they?” or “won’t they?” or “will Amy bolt because that’s what she always does” is ever present, but because Schumer and Hader are so good together, in many different quirky ways, they sell the staid idea. Hader, in particular, proves himself a very charming leading man, which surprises since we’re so used to him being goofy side players in movies, like the guy who manages the pool or the cop who isn’t very good at his job. Or he’s the wacky voice-over guy. But here, he complements Schumer in so many wonderful ways that we’re hoping they become the next on-screen duo, doing more movies together.

Step 5: Marvel at the non-actors. Most of the supporting players in Trainwreck are also fantastic, including Vanessa Bayer and Randall Park as Amy’s work co-horts and an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Amy’s self-absorbed boss. Swinton actually gets to be glam – no wigs or fake teeth but blown-out hair, makeup and a spray tan – and of course, totally nails it. And in the “who knew they could act?” category, WWE star John Cena cracks you up as one of Amy’s more steady booty calls, while basketball legend LeBron James hilariously shines, playing himself and Aaron’s best friend. James just wants Aaron to find the love he deserves, and he makes sure Amy knows it. We’re pretty sure James won’t give up his day job, but he’s gonna make more movies. Guaranteed.

Step 6: Expect more heart in a raunchy comedy. Schumer penned the script and has said it’s very personal to her, as the story also shows how Amy and her sister deal with their father, who is living in an assisted facility. Quinn does a nice job playing this offensive dad, who has never said the right thing, ever, to his girls, but still tries to love them the best way he can. There are genuine tender moments in Trainwreck, with Schumer showing some surprising acting chops. Maybe the only small issue with the film is Judd Apatow’s direction. Not that he doesn’t understand comedy or know exactly how to bring it out of his actors, but more how he never wants to cut the film up. An Apatow production runs long, as in the case with Trainwreck, but because Schumer and the gang are so fffing hysterical, it’s okay. Honestly, tears will be flowing from both laughter and poignancy. Trainwreck just works, from start to finish.

How to Podcast: ‘Minions’ Mania


This week on the Joel and Kit Save the Movies podcast, Joel Amos and I discuss Minions, the stand-alone animated film centering on those little yellow dudes from the Despicable Me series. The movie is good fun for the kiddies, who will no doubt want to rush out and buy Minions sheets and birthday cakes, but are these side characters worthy of a whole film?

Plus, we talk about the sci-fi thriller Self/Less, in which Ben Kingsley brain is put into Ryan Reynolds body (not a bad deal). In all seriousness, it’s one of Reynolds’ better performances and a decent thrill-fest. We still could have used more Kingsley.

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How to Podcast: “Ted 2” and More


In the first episode of my new podcast — Joel & Kit Save the Movies (and we do) — Joel Amos, Editor-in-Chief of, and I talk about Ted 2, comedy sequels, Jurassic World smashing the box office and much more!