The Martian

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Drew Goddard 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

The Martian is made of the same cosmic stuff that turned Ridley Scott into a household name. His latest is an instant classic sci fi epic about mankind’s place in the bigger galactic picture. If Interstellar was a humbling experience insofar as it confirmed that yes, the universe is . . . big, The Martian makes it far more personal, stressing just how fragile we are in a place we don’t really belong.

While the scale of this journey doesn’t encompass quite as vast a distance — Mars is a mere 34 million miles away as opposed to the untold thousands of light years Matthew McConaughey et al covered in search of another Earth-like planet — The Martian mounts a fascinating and thoroughly convincing case arguing what could happen if we ever choose to visit our nearest planetary neighbor. Credit where credit is due, of course: Scott adapted his film from the 2011 Andy Weir novel of the same name, relying on strong, contemporary source material to tell a profoundly human story rather than resorting to centuries-old documents that threaten plagues and the end of civilization, or stories that are better left on paper.

I don’t know if it’s just the thrill of seeing a once-great director returning to form after a few unsuccessful (to say the least) outings, or whether The Martian is just this good, but October has all of a sudden become exciting. I’d like to think it’s a bit of both, the buzz intensifying in the looming shadow of this season’s scheduled releases. I know it’s fall, but love (for cinema) is in the air.

The Martian tells the inspiring story — one so polished it actually takes more effort to dismiss as entirely fictional — of American astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, third in line behind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Russell Crowe’s Maximus in terms of greatest characters Scott’s had to work with) who becomes marooned on the Red Planet after a severe storm forces the crew of the Ares III to abandon their mission. Not realizing he is still alive after being struck violently with some debris and tossed from the launch site, the remaining crew — comprised of Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and cadets Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) — escape the planet’s wind-swept surface and prepare for the four-year journey back to Earth.

It’s Cast Away in space, only this island is capable of producing greater anxiety than any spit of land on Earth ever could. To make matters worse there’s no Wilson, but Damon’s Watney, despite an affinity for talking to himself via web cam, doesn’t strike you as the sort who always needs someone around to talk to, even in the face of protracted isolation. Instead of striking up a relationship with an inanimate object Watney sets about working his problem logically and with a sense of humor that’s almost unfathomable considering the circumstances. As a result, we get one of the year’s most uplifting movies, with Scott opting to take the detour around dourness by stranding his not-so-helpless protagonist in an endless sea of despair and self-pity, though no one would blame Scott if he had.

I’m sure conspiracy theorists have been having a field day with this film, suggesting the fact that there was some sort of clause in Scott’s contract stipulating the distinct tonal change; a precautionary measure taken to distinguish the plight of Mark Watney from that of Ellen Ripley and to ensure that no wormhole-traveling between films would result. In all likelihood, Scott’s adaptation is nothing more than a faithful adaptation of the source material, and if that’s the case then The Martian has jumped high up on my list of books I must soon read (a list that is embarrassingly short, I have to say). Even if this film will never actually tie into the Alien universe, it suggests that perhaps Scott feels most at home when he leaves ours behind.

The Martian focuses more heavily on the work of our fearless astronaut as he sets about trying to establish his food rations, quickly deducing that it will be impossible to make his supplies last for over 400 days. Putting his botanist background to good use, Watney begins growing a crop of potatoes in the confines of the protective HAB, MacGyvering a water filtration system out of literally thin air. Indeed, he’ll be getting more than his daily fiber intake over the next few years. (Hopefully he’ll have enough ketchup to last.) Periodically we cut back to Houston, where Jeff Daniels’ Teddy Sanders, the head honcho of NASA, Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), a NASA spokesperson, have little else to do besides look on and wonder firstly how the hell Watney has survived and secondly whether retrieving him is a viable option.

Sean Bean is also in as Mitch Henderson, whose supervision of the crew serves as a stark contrast to Sanders’ colder, more stern and conservative methods. And then of course there’s the brainiest of them all in astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), who lends valuable insight into how best to safely retrieve Watney. These earthbound characters don’t fair quite as well in terms of allotted screen time but given what they have to work with, all deliver impressive work and each help lend gravity to the developments, if you’ll pardon the pun. (If you don’t, then . . . well, fine . . . I guess it’s over between us.) Long faces and variations on looking exasperated constitute the bulk of these performances, but that doesn’t mean Scott’s misjudged their talents by saddling them with less showy roles.

Even so, this is the Matt Damon show. He may have been better as something else in the past (what role hasn’t this guy tried on for size?) but right now I’m coming up short. A botanist and self-proclaimed space pirate, Watney is a breath of fresh air, his morale-boosting video diaries marking a totally unexpected departure tonally from what we might have expected out of a story about being the first man stranded on Mars. These entries not only manifest as glimpses into the science behind space exploration, but they help advance the narrative as the weeks and months go by, revealing a timeline marked by their ‘sol’ number.

Of course it’s not a complete review until I mention how exquisite the cinematography is. I feel obligated to talk about it this time because, as overwhelming as it often is — the Martian landscape looks a little like Monument Valley (it was actually filmed in Jordan and Hungary) but there’s enough free play in the digital composition to make it look entirely authentic — the visuals (brought to you by Dariusz Wolski) aren’t at the heart of the film. Bless you, Ridley, for you only recently released a film that epitomized style over substance. On that basis alone (the basis of avoiding repeating history), The Martian deserves praise. Still, given the sleek spacecrafts, high tech gizmos and Martian sunsets that bleed dark purple, this movie is as stylish as anything that’s been released this year. It’s a beautiful, sometimes haunting spectacle that reveres the alien world and offers endlessly entertaining and optimistic commentary on the future of our cosmic endeavors.

Recommendation: This isn’t the only place you’ll read the words ‘a return to form for Ridley Scott.’ Before actually knowing what this movie was like I was kind of iffy about seeing this, and I wouldn’t have expected to declare this a must-see. But that is what this has become, a must-see for fans of the director, a must-see for the ensemble cast, and a must-see for space nerds like myself who enjoy good stories set in the most atmospheric space imaginable — outer space itself. The Martian is a downright fun movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins. 

Quoted: “F**k you, Mars.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Jupiter Ascending

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Release: Friday, February 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  The Wachowskis

Directed by: The Wachowskis

As Jupiter ascended, my patience and enthusiasm did precisely the opposite, and at warp speed, too.

After production delays stalled the Wachowski siblings’ follow-up to their impressive Cloud Atlas, I still held out hope that even with extensive CGI surgery the general experience would remain unaffected. I guess I was right. The story we’re presented — a girl, born under a starry night sky, doesn’t believe she’s worth much but as it turns out she is actually on a collision course with an unearthly huge responsibility: saving her/our planet from being harvested by a campy celestial tyrant — remains as a decent second-draft that needed more updates than the visual component of the film did. All of this is to suggest I overlooked the fact that maybe, just maybe, the Wachowskis had been sitting on their weakest story to date.

Sure, you can go ahead and snicker at a polished Channing Tatum whose Caine Wise humbles his Magic Mike on the virtue of insane hair-do’s alone. His goofy appearance makes the film ripe for parody, as do the talking reptilian villains, Eddie Redmayne’s awful performance and Mila Kunis’ lack of credibility as a planetary savior. Part of what makes a Wachowski creation entertaining as well as endearing is this tendency for their situations and characters to stay on just the right side of bizarre. Odd customs and cultures, strange dialects, occasionally clunky dialogue and over-the-top action sequences trickle their way into each one of their productions. It’s as much fun to go along with the ride as it is to nitpick over their ongoing infatuation with Asians and creative nomenclature. Jupiter Ascending, however, oversteps a line.

Jupiter Jones loses her parents much too soon, and so she’s raised in a strange and somewhat oppressive Russian household that has her waking up at quarter to five each morning to scrub toilets and bemoaning how much she “hates her life.” I think I would too with a name that may or may not imply I am a gigantic blob of gas. It’s a good thing she’ll soon be targeted by a powerful intergalactic family that has just lost its matriarch and needs a new heir. The surviving Abrasax siblings — Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) — are squabbling over who should seize control of their estate, a sector of the universe that includes Earth. Tatum’s genetically-modified human/wolf appears in Chicago to rescue Jupiter from a random attack by some of Balem’s minions (the Keepers) once the freckled maniac learns of her existence and her true identity. The girl of course has no idea what is going on.

Funny enough, neither do we.

Her naivety swells to the point where it becomes the driving force behind the narrative. This is a little misleading because at the heart of this space opera is the need for Jupiter to find her true calling in life, and to her that means finding the one person she really loves. That’s something that overrides her desire to own the Earth. If you’re not distracted by the incredibly cool renderings of space and its myriad civilizations — toss in an intergalactic police force referred to as the Aegis for further confusion — then you might have the unfortunate luck of coming to the realization that this is all the Wachowskis have to offer here. Jupiter Ascending is a standard love story mired in overly complex mythos, poor acting and silly storytelling.

Damn it if the ideology of these Abrasax weirdos doesn’t tease something greater though. There’s this almost poetic fascination with the largest celestial body in our solar system and how a superior form of intelligence may someday be the downfall of our civilization. Jupiter, the planet, is really a thing of beauty and the film can’t emphasize this enough. The visuals are jaw-dropping, even if they’re mostly dedicated to action sequences that go on a few minutes too long. But even on Earth, as Jupiter is shrouded in a cloud of bees that refuse to sting Her Majesty, the cinematography is beautifully refined.

I’d be okay with the story taking a backseat to impressive scenery had the Wachowskis not already established themselves as filmmakers who pride themselves on being able to present the complete package: stunning visuals accompanying intelligent, if not revolutionary storytelling. Everyone in awe of Jupiter and her ascent can only feel completely betrayed by this declension.

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1-5Recommendation: I’m not really sure that I do. I think I feel more comfortable recommending you save a few bucks and going to check out something else.

Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “I will harvest that planet tomorrow before I let her take it from me. . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Cleanskin

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Release: Friday, March 9, 2012

[Redbox]

I expected a little more out of Alec Trevelyan in this new Bond-like outing. Unfortunately, there were no clever quips about how they are about to destroy their targets in this one.

A British Secret Service agent finds himself on a questionable, albeit dangerous assignment: stopping the men (man?) responsible for the string of London bombings at all costs. He’s given little technology, even less support from his superiors, and only one partner, Mark (Tom Burke), to help out on the mission. This is, of course, during the height of the fear of terrorism following the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the sting of that attack is accurately refocused on the British landscape. It sickens me that there need not even be a dramatic film made to show just how devastating this time period was and continues to be, but regardless, here comes one. And you know what? It’s not half bad.

However, in Cleanskin ‘not half bad’ is a lot more telling of its confused direction than anything. The first half of this film is rather suspenseful, replete with compelling chase scenes, ultra-violence and Sean Bean being stiff as a board in his role as Ewan. (Actually, the latter is a trend that continues throughout, leaving me to question whether or not I truly appreciate what it is that he does.) The second half becomes something of a chore, sitting through a series of well-written terrorist propaganda campaigns whose intentions are to create the illusion that these people are really just acting out of good faith. What they are, in fact, are monsters. Straight-up killers. The second half of the film does absolutely nothing in the way of swaying our opinion of these religious zealots. If it isn’t intended to do such a thing — show us that even terrorist cells such as the London bombers are people simply acting on faith, not out of just anarchy and plain evil — there are far too many moments throughout that seem to indicate as much. Hence, the directorial mess that Cleanskin ultimately becomes.

For example, there are two main leads in this film that you need to pay close attention to. One is obviously that of Ewan, the Secret Service Operative and the second is a young student named Ash (Abhin Galeya), who is very intelligent, smartly dressed and intensely angry. We’ll ditch Bean’s character for now, since in the movie his story somewhat takes a backseat to that of Galeya’s. A few substantial flashbacks reveal Ash’s history; of how he went from quiet student to terrorist, his conscience being torn apart by wanting to lead a normal life with then-girlfriend Kate (Tuppence Middleton) and also wanting to fulfill his duties to God……read: his perceived duties. A good bulk of the middle section of this film — if not entirely the middle third — is dedicated to developing Ash, the mentality of a man living amongst whites, the likes of which he for the most part detests. Ash meets a man by the name of Nabil (Peter Polycarpou) who takes him under his wing to explain why exactly Ash feels the anger that he does. Nabil spoonfeeds Ash all the rhetoric one could ever need to psychologically snap. Call it propaganda, call it brainwashing. I just called it annoying, and a rather unnecessarily detailed detour from our main story.

So…we are now armed with all this character development on Ash’s part, and we must find a way to see how his emotional story and that of Ewan will intersect. Unfortunately, Ewan, a battle-hardened veteran now working for the BSS, is a rather flat and boring character in this film. Granted, he can kick some ass — male or female, he does not seem to care. Even if he isn’t operating beside (or maybe in the shadow of) a man like 007, I looked forward to another gruff but enjoyable performance from former Agent 006. In this film Bean is no fun. That’s not the biggest deal in the world, though, given that the movie is perpetually serious and doesn’t lend even a second to spare for a joke. He fits the scenery. But he’s not worth rooting for, at the same time.

What Hadi Hajaig’s second film boils down to is a rather brutal, yet realistic portrayal of how latent racism has become; a microcosm of this global problem exists in the relationship between Ash and Kate (Kate being a white Briton, and Ash being a Muslim). He is desperately wanting to lead a normal life with her, but Nabil insists he has other, more important obligations. Every time Ewan is on the hunt for further information or just trying to locate the next terror target, his will and determination to protect his country from this hatred is displayed with brute, often sickening force. One would assume these two ideals would mesh together well in a film: the passionate devotion of a British patriot versus the dedication of a freedom fighter to tear all of it down.

Unfortunately, Hajaig’s attempt doesn’t quite make it all fit on the screen neatly and we are left with a headache and a sick conscience for having witnessed so much hatred on display. After watching this it feels like we’ve just been flicking through endless news channels about the escalating global violence, and it doesn’t really leave us with the most optimistic outlook on existential crises such as the war on terror.

Perhaps such is not the film’s responsibility, though.

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3-0Recommendation: This is a decent action film loaded with plenty of gore, violence and racial tension. Stylistically its a strange mix between Jason Statham machismo and Kathryn Bigelow’s sharp political commentary, but there’s not much grace to it, and not much warmth in its storytelling. There’s little room for civilized conversation when so much is at stake, and the controversial subjects visited upon throughout make this difficult for me to definitively say ‘Yes, it’s worth seeing,’ or ‘No, you should absolutely avoid.’ If you happen to come across it, it’s worth an evening watch. Well, maybe not. It could leave some disturbing images in your head before you fall asleep…

Rated: 

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “I fought over there, to stop this from happening here. . . again. Didn’t stop, they’re not going to stop, and neither will I. I’m going to find everyone of them, and send them to the death they prey for.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com