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: :-)

American Hustle

January 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

David O. Russell has been one of of the best filmmakers of the 21st century and his last film, “Silver Linings Playbook”, was my favorite film of the year. In “American Hustle” he reuses many of the same actors he’s been using for his past few films, and brings another great story to the screen. There’s a caption at the beginning of the film letting us know that “some of this actually happened”. The true part of the story centers around a con set up by the FBI to nab politicians, including the mayor of Camden, NJ as part of what they called “Abscam”.

In the film, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small time crook posing as a legit businessman who embezzles money from his clients. He meets Sydney (Amy Adams) and for the first time in his life he falls in love. He is already married, and has a child, whom he tries to take care of. But his double life as a con artist keeps him from being anything close to an All American Dad. He hires Sydney to play the part of his assistant, going by the name of Edith Greensley and is busted by a potential client named Richie (Bradley Cooper) who happens to be an undercover FBI agent. Once they’re busted, Rosenfeld has one shot to stay out of prison by helping the FBI go after bigger fish in a program they call ABSCAM. Rosenfeld goes along with it, but finds himself becoming genuinely friendly with the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The mayor is not corrupt at all, and Rosenfeld shares a similar childhood background. Meanwhile, the FBI sets up a staged meeting with the Arab Sheikh (Michael Pena) as a potential investor to work with the mayor. But things get complicated when it’s discovered that the mayor, while being free of actual criminality, is involved with big time criminals that gives Irving some doubts as to the plan working. He also doesn’t want to sell out his now friend, something he’s never really had to confront. For the first time in his life, he has an actual moral dilemma. His wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) also becomes friends with Carmine and his wife Dolly, which complicates things as well. Rosalyn is a dangerous girl–smart, but also absent minded sometimes. But Irving really doesn’t have a choice but to go along with everything, even though he starts to see Sydney seemingly having feelings for Richie as they start to work together.

This is all pretty familiar territory as far as plot and theme goes. But with a strong cast and David O. Russell’s unique touch, it brings the film out of anything formula and turns it into a rather special film to experience. Bale’s Irving is a very conflicted person, and at times you’re not really sure what’s going on in his head. Even when he’s narrating the film. He has a heart condition, and at times stresses himself out almost to the point of having a heart attack. His demeanor never really shifts, even when his comb-over is messed up by Richie at one point.

The whole film has a comedic tone but also an underlying seriousness that keeps it credible. It doesn’t ever cross the line into obvious comedy, except a few moments including an altercation between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (well played by Louis C.K.). “American Hustle” has laughs, but also moments of poignancy that gives the film depth. It may not be as great as “Silver Linings Playbook” but it’s certainly another great addition into David O. Russell’s filmography.

My rating: :-)

Tower Heist

November 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Oh those heist movies. Cute little capers. I don’t think you can go too wrong when you involve Eddie Murphy in them; and even though this one is fairly standard with its typical implausabilities and somewhat thin characters, it is rather entertaining. I call movies like these “getaway movies”. Normally these come out in the summer or around the holidays. This one’s a little early. This would be a great movie to leave the Holiday family woes behind and just enjoy 2 hours of peace and a few laughs. But if you’d still like to get away for 2 hours of your real life (do you still have leaves to rake? that annoying cousin’s birthday party to attend?), then I’d still recommend seeing it.

Just to be clear, it’s not all that great. The concept is similar to “Oceans 11” (which is a better film): a group of charismatic people get together to pull of a robbery. In this case, it’s not elites, it’s average joes. Ben Stiller plays Josh, the building manager of The Tower, a luxurious hotel in New York City. He’s rather mild mannered and well liked by his employees that include Charlie (Casey Affleck), Dev’reaux (Michael Pena), and Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe). He’s also well liked by an extremely wealthy client, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who winds up being caught in a Ponzi scheme that winds up including all of them in his losses. The fraudulent money he threw around was used by Josh to put into their pensions, leaving them all with nothing. Lester (well played by Stephen Henderson), the doorman, attemps suicide, and it strikes a chord with Josh who wants to do the right thing and get their money back. The problem is, he takes out his angst on Shaw’s prized possession: a Ferrari 250. So now Shaw, who believes he will be found innocent, wants to charge Josh and that little incident also costs him his job. It also costs Charlie’s and Dev’reaux’s. Charlie’s upset because his wife is pregnant and he needs to work.

But Josh believes Shaw is guilty, and teams up with some oddfellows to rob Shaw of some misplaced money after a drunken evening with an FBI agent, Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), leads to her leaking information about a safe being in Shaw’s penthouse suite somewhere.

Josh enlists Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) who was recently evicted from the building because he’s broke and was fired from Merrill Lynch, and a guy he knows from crossing paths every morning (and his childhood, apparently), named Slide (played by Eddie Murphy).

So you have the ingredients for a fun little caper. Enough of it works to be enjoyable. I wish it wouldn’t have relied so much on the standard issue heist plot; but I suppose in the hands of someone like Brett Ratner, what can you really expect? The performances are all well done, but of course the stand out is Eddie Murphy. In recent years, I thought he should scale it back a bit and maybe take a supporting role in something to get back on his feet. Seeing him here, where he’s most comfortable being a fast-talking criminal who still can light up the screen, made me want to see more of him. He’s just underused for some reason.

This script was originally intended for an all black cast that included Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle in which a group of employees attempt to rob the Trump Plaza. In a way, I wish that would’ve been made instead of this. With some of the edgy comedians in it, perhaps Eddie Murphy would’ve still been lost in the shuffle; but you’ve got great supporting actors there. Not to say that Broderick and Stiller can’t hold their own–but their characters just don’t allow them to do much, either. And both actors play their characters completely straight; something I don’t think we’d see out of guys like Rock or Chappelle, or Tracy Morgan (another rumored star attached).

Some of the rewrites included screenwriter Ted Griffin, whose work I’ve always been impressed with (including “Ravenous”, “Best Laid Plans”, and of course, “Oceans 11”), and you can see some of his sharp wit and dialog fused in the script. With some of the characters, good dialog is necessary. Obviously, with Murphy, the guy could write his own and improv.

A lot of the climax is hard to believe, and I still think they missed an opportunity to make a Ferris/Ferrari joke somewhere seeing as how they cast Matthew Broderick who isn’t exactly Mr. Movie Star anymore (and that film is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year).

But again, this is not a very creative director at the helm. And so we’re left with a fairly garden variety film that is amusing enough to pass; but I think we could’ve been in for a lot more treats.

My rating: :-)