UNC student gains attention as film critic: ‘This kid knows what he’s talking about’

By Marine Elia

The audience watches the screen, their eyes fixated on the action and their ears picking up every flesh-tearing and blood-splattering noise. They jolt in their seats during the jump scares and collectively gasp as the character’s true identity is revealed. Sitting in the back row, quietly chuckling to himself, is Josh Martin. He’s already seen Jordan Peele’s “Us” — twice.

Martin runs his own film blog where he provides his insight on films, publishing reviews and sharing them on social media. A regular customer at the Varsity Theatre on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Martin takes advantage of the theater’s proximity to the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill to fully grasp the content before he starts writing.

Martin consecrates his life to movies. As a student film critic, he views about five to six movies a week in addition to those required for his film classes at UNC-CH and subscribes to several streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Hulu, Showtime, Canopy and Shutter, a horror-specific streaming site.

Martin’s induction into the world of cinephiles began with “Toy Story.”

“As a kid, back when movies were on tape, I watched “Toy Story” so much that the tape broke down,” Martin said. “By the time I was done with it, I had watched it well over a hundred times, and now the entire movie is etched into my subconscious.”

Over the years, Martin’s passion for film grew exponentially. Encouraged by his family and friends to start a platform to express his ideas and interpretations of film, Martin created his blog when he was 13 years old. Entitled “The Movie Guru,” his blog was his first attempt at publicizing his opinions to an online audience.

During summer 2011, Martin was able, for the first time, to see PG-13 movies without an accompanying adult. During these formative months, he watched “Super 8” and “Inception.”

“The films I saw during that summer, I quickly developed an obsession with,” Martin said. “After seeing the trailer for “Inception,” I was immediately intrigued and bought the $13 DVD once it came out. It was the first time I was ever blown away by a movie.”

When he entered high school, Martin rebranded his blog to “Martin on Movies,” distinguishing himself from the hundreds of online “Movie Gurus.”

Driven by his love for film, Martin sought out more outlets to share his thoughts. While a student at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, he delivered brief reviews of newly released movies during the morning announcements. Through this experience, Martin exposed himself to his critical peers.

“People thought the school picked someone at random to deliver the movie reviews, and they thought of it as a kind of a joke because they weren’t aware of how invested I was in it,” Martin said. “They thought I was doing it for the attention, even a few teachers.”

Martin remembers one day when his friends told him of a student in one of their classes who was extremely upset over his unfavorable review of “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” after he called it “garbage.”

“I was quite terrified of Josh,” UNC-CH sophomore Ishan Thaker said, recalling his view of Martin in high school. “He had a certain status among us because he was so good at what he did.”

Martin has since moved on from his oral, one-minute movie reviews. He is a contributor for Film Inquiry, an online source for film reviews, and Rotten Tomatoes, a fact that garners the most attention from his peers. Additionally, Martin boasts his status as the youngest member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association.

As a member of the NC Film Critics Association, Martin enjoys the perks of being involved with a larger network of film critics. Through the association, he obtained a press pass to Film Fest 919, a growing film festival held annually in Chapel Hill. During the festival, he had the opportunity to interview the lead actresses of “Roma,” the Academy Award winner for best foreign-language film.

Involving himself in multiple film communities, Martin has established connections with writers from various backgrounds.

Hunter Heilman contributes to the online film review outlet Elements of Madness. Heilman first met Martin through a serendipitous encounter on Twitter, where Martin maintains a steady stream of movie-related tweets. After exchanging a few messages over the social media platform, Heilman came across Martin’s review of “Nocturnal Animals,” a film Martin had exclusive access to when he attended the Toronto International Film Festival.

“When I read that review, I was like, ‘OK, this kid knows what he’s talking about,’” Heilman said. “His review made me interested in seeing the movie. I hadn’t even seen a trailer or movie poster at that point because it hadn’t been released yet to the public — I don’t feel that often with reviews in general.”

Heilman describes Martin’s work as authentic with a critical, objective eye that seeks to review all movies with equal treatment and equal amounts of passion.

“He’s so articulate for someone of his age. I was honestly kind of jealous,” Heilman said. “I wish I had it together at my age like he did.”

Movies are the vessel Martin uses to connect and relate to others. He says movies themselves are a reflection of present themes and societal issues.

Johnny Sobczak is a close friend of Martin and is enrolled in a horror film course with Martin this semester. The two met on Twitter, both active participants within the social media’s film community.

For the class’ midterm paper, the students were instructed to write about a horror movie of their choice. Sobczak was deeply impressed when Martin studied “Alien” and dissected it to form an analysis of capitalism.

“When most people think of “Alien,” they just think it’s a monster movie. They don’t relate it to capitalism and corporate greed,” Sobczak said.

Martin, like many college students, uses stickers on his laptop to reveal his interests. Covered in a sticker mosaic of cinematographic references, his laptop serves as a conversation starter with other film lovers. From classics like “Casablanca” to “Inception” and “Wolf of Wall Street,” in addition to an obligatory Quinten Tarantino sticker, his laptop has it all.

Much like each of his favorite films, Martin’s individuality shines through his movie reviews.

Douglas Davidson is an online film writer and a professor of public speaking at Central Piedmont Community College. Davidson knows Martin through Twitter, and despite never having met Martin in person, he said he understands how his personality interacts with his writing.

“His reviews sound like Josh,” Davidson said. “Even his tweets are authentic. He never looks to provoke a reaction out of someone with an outlandish hot take.”

Martin plans on attending graduate school and sees himself possibly pursuing a career in academia if he decides to not write full time.

“The industry is tough right now,” Martin said. “What keeps me motivated is that there’s always something new to see, and I have that to look forward to.”

Edited by Joseph Held.

Being Rameses: A student’s experience as the UNC mascot

By Molly Horak

Gripping the black trash bag with his life, Alex started the trek down to his dormitory’s laundry room.

He peered around the corner, making sure no one was watching, then darted inside. Walking up to an open washing machine, he scrutinized the interior, making sure nothing looked awry.

No color residue. No visible signs of damage. Hopefully, it would get the job done.

Carefully, he opened the bag, making sure no one saw the tangle of fur, yellow horns and stitched-on black eyebrows, placed along a furrowed brow, producing an angry stare. Setting the machine on delicate, he sat down to wait.

No one could know he was washing the Rameses suit. No one could find out about his secret identity as a school mascot.

Alex isn’t his real name. He asked to remain anonymous to honor the contract he signed to become a mascot at UNC-Chapel Hill, one that requires confidentiality about his position until his graduation. When Alex receives his degree in biology next spring, he’ll tell everyone the truth.

But for now, he lives a double life. His friends know him as a fun-loving flag football player working part time in a sea turtle lab. Fans across the country knows him as Rameses, the ferocious school mascot.

“Every time I’m in the suit, I get to do what I love and have had so many experiences I never imagined,” he said. “You get to see things, quite literally, from a different perspective.”

‘It’s fun in the purest form’

Alex was halfway through dinner at Chase Dining Hall when he felt his phone buzz. His tryout results were in.

“I remember seeing the subject line of the email and being so excited and so nervous and full of all these emotions, but I had to sit there and pretend like nothing was happening. I couldn’t tell my friends anything.”

Alex had first seen Rameses only months before. Like any sports-loving first-year, he remembers standing with a group of friends at the front of the student section at a football game watching Rameses play his air guitar solo. As an athlete his entire life, he wanted some way to get more involved in UNC sports. He said Rameses looked like so much fun.

Nothing came of his desire until the following spring semester. One day during his outdoor sports fitness class, he overheard some classmates talking about mascot tryouts. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to be the ram.

The tryouts were rigorous. Each year, only two students are selected to join the mascot team, one Rameses and one Rameses Junior, better known as RJ.

Passion is often what sets the successful mascots apart, said Emily, a senior who plays RJ. (Emily is not her real name either. She signed the same contract preventing her from revealing her identity.)

“Our team is always cracking jokes, and they’re all super passionate about what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s cool to see all those passions come together for one thing, being the best mascots we can.”

At first, Alex said it didn’t feel natural to wear the suit. The shoes were clunky and felt too big, and it was hard to see out of the mesh-covered eyes. As he was walking to his in-suit audition, Alex tripped and fell down a flight of stairs.

But game after game, life in the suit became second nature. The nerves subsided. Alex grew comfortable mingling with crowds. Drawing back on his high school acting days, he embodied the persona of a “big, buff macho ram with all this swagger.”

“You’re dancing, you’re jumping, you’re getting the crowd pumped up. And no one knows it’s you, so you can be your ultimate self without being embarrassed,” Alex said. “I can be goofy, I can joke around, I can do anything. It’s fun in the purest form.”

‘It’s a huge commitment’

It’s game day. And Alex, Emily and the rest of the mascot crew have been mingling with fans for hours before kickoff.

People tend to disregard the unpaid time commitment, Alex said. Everything takes longer. For every two hours that a student attends an event, Rameses is there for four.

Even getting dressed is a surprisingly long process, involving lots of sweatbands, clipping things in place and making sure everything is tucked in correctly. Once inside the suit, Alex describes it as hot and smelly.

“My clothes are always drenched with sweat after a game even if I’ve barely moved,” he said. “When we’re up and dancing, it’s even worse, but you get used to it.”

The mascots attend every home football and basketball game, all Carolina Fever events, most big matches against major rivals and ACC and NCAA tournament games said Brown Walters, director of UNC spirit programs. Rameses and RJ also regularly attend fundraisers, campus events and weddings, totaling anywhere from 30 to 40 events a month, Alex said.

“Rameses is easily the most recognizable figure of UNC sports and symbolizes the athletics department as a whole,” said Cole Barnhill, who works in the UNC athletic communications office.

In the world of Rameses, everything revolves around seniority. The oldest members of the “Ram Fam,” as they call themselves, are the ones that get to travel to tournaments, film commercials and perform at the Duke basketball games.

It’s an incredible feeling to stand in the end zone as a football game goes into overtime, Emily said. But visits to places like a hurricane relief shelter or the UNC Children’s Hospital makes her realize the mascot’s larger meaning.

“Rameses is an incredible ambassador, not just to the fans but to the community,” Walters said. “The mascots give so much of their time to charity. It’s a huge commitment, and so much goes unseen.”

‘It’s a one-of-a-kind experience’

“Alex, I think Rameses sort of walks like you,” one of his friends commented.

“He walks like me? What does that even mean?”

“You have a similar walk.”

“No, you’re crazy. Must be some other guy.”

It’s been nearly two years since Alex first donned the Rameses suit. And yet, only his family, his roommates and his closest friends know the truth about how he spends his time.

The closer he gets to graduating, the more people have started putting the pieces together, he said. Questions usually arise when friends want to go to games together and he has to make excuses for why they can’t go together. He’s cited everything from taking photos to shadowing an athletic trainer to purchasing courtside tickets, he said with a laugh.

“I think the best way to describe the reaction when people find out is dumbfounded. Like, there is no way they can believe that I’m telling the truth,” Alex said. “When I told my roommate, who is one of my best friends, he was baffled. He was like, ‘How did you hide this for so long? You really do this?’”

His roommate, Evan, was more shocked that Alex managed to keep his secret hidden for three months living in a tiny room than he was to learn that Alex was a mascot. His personality suits the job, Evan said.

The lies and secrecy are a small price to pay for the endless happiness the mascot has brought to fans, Alex said. It’s the little things — like seeing the joy in a child’s eyes after getting a high-five or watching the students screaming as loud as they can in a close game — that make the mascot experience special, he said.

It has become his identity — even if no one knows it.

Alex said, “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.”

Edited by Joseph Held.

Finding Faith: One student’s experience with weight-loss surgery

By Karen Stahl

Faith Newsome’s heartbeat increased as she gazed at her family crammed around her. The bare, gray walls stared back at her.

“Tell him to get the IV out,” she told her mom. “I’m scared. I don’t want to do this.”

Her mom, Shannon Newsome, looked at Faith’s thin gown hanging on her body and the cap containing her thick, brown curls. She knew her 16-year-old daughter faced death if she did not undergo the surgery.

“Think about how hard you’ve worked to get to this moment,” Shannon said. “If you give up now, what was it for?”

Three hours later, the doctor made it to Faith’s room. Her mother, wracked with nerves, gave her a kiss. Within minutes, Faith was asleep.

She had always been larger than her peers. On her first birthday, she hit 30 pounds. When kindergarten came, she walked into school at 110 pounds with a smile on her face and her brown curls tied in a bow.

By the time she turned 15, Faith had reached 273 pounds.

Just a few months before her surgery, she sat in the Campbell University gymnasium, supporting her brother at the North Carolina Science Olympiad competition. The gymnasium was built in the 1950s, and the seats seemed smaller than average.

She shifted her weight as the side handles on the seat pressed uncomfortably into her thighs. Her mom had brought up weight-loss surgery a couple weeks before, but she resisted.

Now, unable to fit in the gymnasium seat, she knew what she had to do. She turned to her mom.

“Call Duke,” she said. “I’m going next week.”

Promising herself

Faith’s eyes fluttered open. Her family sat in the room, this one larger than the bare, gray one where she had fallen asleep.

“Did you text my friends that I’m okay?” she asked Shannon, who was hovering over her.

“That’s what you’re worried about right now?” she responded.

At the suggestion of the doctor, Faith decided to get up and walk around to avoid blood clots. She slowly lowered herself to the ground. Her abdomen felt heavier than before the surgery, despite the fact that the surgeon had reduced the size of her stomach.

A commercial for a Ruby Tuesday hamburger came on the TV while she walked around the room.

“I’m going to throw up,” she thought.

She knew her appetite would come back eventually, but minutes after the operation, waves of nausea washed over her. All she could think about was not rupturing her stomach.

It was June, which meant two months of recovery before returning for her junior year of high school. With newfound confidence in her body, she decided this was the year to try an organized sport.

Tennis tryouts were approaching, and she would make a full recovery before the season started.

For the first time, Faith promised herself she would be there.

Tumbling down

She hit the ground without warning.

Faith was goal-oriented, and the instructions were easy enough – run to the cone at the end of the relay track, put on the oversized adult clothes as quickly as possible, run back down the track and tag the next teammate.

She took a deep breath at the starting line, trying to release the pressure that came with being the slowest child in her class. Her weight made field days increasingly anxiety-inducing, and the other kindergartners had already made it clear that Faith was not their most valuable player.

And they were off. Sweat poured down her temples as she lunged forward with every step.

“Why does she have to be on our team?” one of the children shouted from the sideline.

Breathing heavily, Faith kept running. She made it to the cone. She quickly grabbed the oversized T-shirt and slid it over her damp curls then pulled the pants over her shorts and bolted for the end of the track.

Her determined panting underscored a sudden snag of her pants on her shoe. Before she knew it, she was tumbling into the grass in the middle of the track.

She got back up with determination and hiked the pants up. She felt the scrape on her knee as she crossed the finish line back with her teammates, putting them in last place.

Faith sat behind the line and placed her flushed face in her hands. Her mom quietly ran up.

“You just tripped,” she said. “If you wouldn’t have tripped, you would’ve done great.”

Faith fiddled with a piece of grass on her shoe.

“I know, Mom,” she responded. “If I wouldn’t have fallen, I’d made it. I really feel like I would’ve made it.”

Lunging forward

Sweat poured down her temples as she lunged forward with every step. She was determined to be faster than her 5K time from the day before.

“Show yourself what you can do now,” she thought.

It was nearly five years post-surgery, and her 190-pound frame propelled itself on the pavement. Her familiar panting filled the warm September air. This time, Faith’s brown curls were damp with sweat, but she was not in last place.

“She always tries to get me to run with her,” her friend, Olivia Manning, said. “I’m not a runner. So I let Faith handle that.”

Faith’s head was clear. The crippling anxiety that plagued her as child melted away. She was no longer faking sprained ankles in elementary school gym class to get out of physical activity.

Now, she listens to her body and its needs. She pushes herself beyond her boundaries.

“She is going to stick with it until she gets it,” said Jonathan Newsome, her dad. “No matter what it is.”

Faith is no longer the girl begging to rip the IV out of her arm in fear. Faith is no longer retreating.

Faith is lunging forward with every new task that comes her way.

“Surgery is what gave me my voice,” she said. “Make the most of your time here. Show yourself what you can do.”

Edited by Joseph Held