The Martian

October 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

If we ever had an astronaut on Mars, I’d want it to be Mark Watney. Actually, nevermind that. I’d want it to be Matt Damon. Like in many “lone survivor” films, an appealing lead is vital. And here, Matt Damon absolutely owns the film and makes a somewhat agreeable film into a piece of outstanding entertainment. Fleshing out the attractive cast is the always faithful Jeff Daniels, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, and…Kristen Wiig.

The story, based on a 2011 novel by Andy Weir, is about a group of astronauts on a planned mission to Mars that gets thwarted by a major martian storm, sending them back to their ship to leave the planet. During the storm, Watney (Damon) gets whacked with a piece of equipment that partly saves his life, and his crew has left him behind. Being a botanist, he finds that he can grow his own food with the crew’s excrement, and ration food long enough for a rescue mission–he hopes. Meanwhile, the news has leaked back to planet Earth that there was a problem with the mission and someone was left behind. That story doesn’t sound enticing, and the head of NASA (Daniels) begrudgingly concocts a plan to help Watney out. The crew on board their ship Hermes initially does not find out about Watney’s fate, as Daniels’ character Teddy Sanders believes that they will want to go back and rescue him–putting all of their lives in potential danger.

So you have three subplots going on: Watney’s survival on Mars, NASA’s attempts at rescue and sending him supplies, and the Hermes crew once they do inevitably find out about Watney still being alive. Commander Lewis (Chastain) feels the most guilt about leaving him behind, being former military, but also knows the risks involved in rescuing him. The rest of the crew, including fellow astronaut Rick Martinez (played well by the always reliable Michael Pena), want to go after him and get him back.

NASA’s Mars mission director, Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), also wants him to be rescued. Ditto for the flight director played by Sean Bean. The outside influences try to force Sanders’ hand, but he stays on course with the plan to send a probe full of supplies to last Watney another few years before another manned space mission can be executed.

Meanwhile, Watney plods along. At first he cannot communicate with NASA, but then finds a way through an old device that was part of a 1996 mission. He has a few missteps, and he has a few catastrophes. It feels at times like “Cast Away” or “Moon”, “Gravity”, or “Silent Running” (which bears some similarities). But one thing that those films share that is missing in this script, by Drew Goddard, is a little more depth in Watney’s character. While Damon is outstanding, he is…who he is. I’d have liked to see some scenes of him feeling his loss, his isolation, like Hanks in “Cast Away”. He does have a will to live, which is a big theme in the film. It could be the most inspirational movie to be released that wasn’t based on a true story–that feels like one. Up until maybe the last 15 minutes, the film feels like it’s depicting something that really happened. There’s a lot of cheeky dialog, modern mannerisms and throwaway lines (that’s Goddard’s style, after all). But my favorite thing are the 2 references to old Infocom games: “Zork 2”, and “Leather Goddesses of Phobos”, which provide Watney with his only source of entertainment. That is, of course, besides Commander Lewis’ extensive disco collection, much to the chagrin of Watney.

The film is breathtaking, directed by the always reliable Ridley Scott–who is a visual master. It has a lot of tension, even though most of it is predictable. Again, the mark of a great filmmaker. Nothing ever feels out of place, and you do get caught up in the story, pulling for Watney and enjoying his wit as well as his perseverance. Some of it gets a little cutesy, but it’s forgivable. “The Martian” delivers what it promises. Its tagline is “Bring him home”. And this film certainly does.

My rating: :-)

The Cabin in the Woods

April 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

As a fan of the horror genre, I’m always intrigued by any filmmaker who sets out to tear down the genre and build it back up. Wes Craven achieved this with “Scream” back in the late 90’s, a film that was released during a desperate era for the genre, when it had been bled completely dry (pun intended) by the saturation of slasher franchises such as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. We were starved for something new, and “Scream” provided a fresh but somewhat all-too-hip alternative to the routine slasher genre. It turned it on its head by being more self aware, while still telling a decent story and having a fun twist at the end.

Now that we’ve been inundated with remakes and “found footage” movies left and right, perhaps it’s time for another shot in the arm. That’s at least what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon set out to do with “The Cabin in the Woods”.

But this movie may be one of the biggest miscalculations of a genre critique I’ve ever seen. Any fan of these types of movies should see right through the criticisms of Goddard and Whedon fairly quickly. And then we are left with a very arrogant, cynical, and extremely self-serving horror comedy that neither chills nor amuses.

First misstep: the characters are too bland and irritatingly stock to be made into funny caricatures mocking what we usually find in these kinds of films. We have the dumb blond, the jock, the quiet smart guy, the homely (but insanely beautiful) down to earth girl, and of course…the stoner who turns out to be right about everything. I guess Whedon wanted him to be the “audience”, catching onto every little inconsistency in a horror story. He’s played quite nauseatingly by Fran Kranz. I hope I never have to see this actor in another film in my life.

The second misstep can only be described while describing the plot: take a couple of kids and have them go to a cabin in the woods (because it’s the jock’s cousin’s), and then as the story progresses, illustrate that these kids are part of a scheme by oddly button down suits who are part of some cult that sacrifices people for ancient gods that will destroy the earth if the sacrifices are not executed (ahem). Did I just ruin the surprise for you? I don’t think I did, but even if I did, I did you a favor.

The idea is that these suits are going to control what happens to the kids at the cabin. They display all kinds of creepy things you find in these types of places. Creepy dolls, creepy paintings (which came the closest to actually scaring me), and of course…Pandora’s Box. So the kids actually raise the dead and the suits then try to make sure the kids die one by one until the sacrifice is complete.

I actually liked the premise of this film because it would give you a chance to make fun of the standard horror “cabin in the woods” story while still telling a bigger story with the real horror being that if these stereotypical things don’t happen, we all die. Unfortunately, Whedon and Goddard are far too interested in being cute and clever that once we’re let in on the joke, they’re already telling you how funny it is.

I think in a horror comedy, you have a very thin line to walk. You don’t want to be too jokey, because it becomes self aware and then you take the fun out of it. But you do still want to scare people. I think one of the best examples of when it works is the original “Fright Night”. Another would be “Evil Dead 2”. I can even point to Whedon’s introduction into the genre with his own “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. But here, this is beyond self-aware. This is purely self-congratulatory. Whedon and Goddard want you to know how cool they are by throwing in a ton of horror film references (everything from “Hellraiser” to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Night of the Living Dead” to “Aliens”) and how great it is that they are being critical of bad horror films that are full of cliches and bad dialog.

However, in their attempt to mock the genre, they simply just come off as snobs as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be honest–I love bad horror films. I love the stereotypes, the cliches. Why? Because these films aren’t meant to be film classics. They’re meant to be drive-in fodder. An excuse to put your hand around your date’s shoulder and make a move. In many cases, these films mock themselves already enough and become parodies of themselves to the point where “The Cabin in the Woods” is the equivalent of the NYU film school grad sitting in a showing of “Friday the 13th” and telling you how adolescent it is.

We get it, guys. How about instead of wasting time telling me what I already know, make your own film fun and entertaining? “Cabin in the Woods” has its own problems, too. Logically some of the steps these guys take to sacrifice people don’t make sense, and sometimes they’re too convoluted if the end result is supposed to be death for the ancient gods. Why would you give anyone a chance of surviving if it means the end of the world for all of us? Which by the way, leads to a very anticlimactic ending. All the while I kept thinking…what is really at stake for any of these characters? Can we really believe the world will end if these kids aren’t killed? What’s at stake for the kids is far more relevant and credible, and yet we already know what has to happen with them so there is no tension going into the third act of the film.

I wanted to like this movie and appreciate the level of detail that Whedon and Goddard took with the horror genre. If they didn’t try so hard to manipulate me so much, maybe I would’ve actually enjoyed it.

My rating: :(