Shot from The Martian

The Martian

Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels

Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory.  That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things?  The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test.  When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars.  When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed.  With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind.  Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.

For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name.  Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.”  A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.”  Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities.  Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue.  As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal.  Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney.  That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted.  Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much.  This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.

With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance.  While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually.  I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid.  I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.

The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster.  It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.  Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting.  It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-

The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. 

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Ant-Man

Ant ManDirector: Payton Reed

Screenwriters: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd

Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly, and Bobby Cannavale

Na-na na-na na-na na-na… ANT-MAN?  You read that right.  Stan Lee’s 1962 comic book character, Ant-Man gets the Marvel cinematic treatment with Paul Rudd as the microscopic maverick.  This film concludes Marvel’s “Phase Two” that started with Iron Man 3 back in 2013.  Rumblings of an Ant-Man movie date back at least fifteen years when radio personality Howard Stern claimed that he tried to buy the rights to the character.  By 2003, British director Edgar Wright pitched an Ant-Man film to Marvel that was in perpetual development for eleven years before “creative differences” between Wright and Marvel’s parent company Disney eventually resulted in Wright’s departure.  Director Payton Reed would step in to finish the project, and while production was troubled and buzz was non-existent, Ant-Man, like its namesake, is stronger than it looks.

As I mentioned, Paul Rudd plays Ant-Man and his alter ego, Scott Lang.  Rudd also serves as a co-screenwriter on the film, making him the first star of a Marvel film to serve as both lead actor and screenwriter.  The film opens in 1989 where a furious Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) argues in front of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including Agent Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell) that his breakthrough on reducing the distance between atoms, nicknamed the Pym Particle, is too dangerous to hand over to them.  Fast forward 26 years and Pym has been effectively voted out of control of his own company by his own apprentice, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).  Cross has been working on recreating the Pym Particle and appears to be on the cusp of doing so, the consequences of which worry Pym.

Don't shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Don’t shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Cross is a bad dude, and if you weren’t sure…there’s a scene where he evaporates a cute, little lamb in his testing trials to shrink organic matter. But this film is not called Lamb Man, so I’ll move on.

It turns out Lang, an electrical engineer, caught the attention of Pym when he was arrested for “burgling” his employer, a cyber-security conglomerate, because they were overcharging their customers.  After serving three years in San Quentin, Lang was released and Pym, in a rather unorthodox[*] fashion, recruits Lang to wear a secret particle suit that would allow him to shrink to the size of an ant in a plot to overthrow Cross.

Lang’s place in the conflict between Pym and Cross does seem artificial at first.  Enter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Lang’s six-year-old daughter.  Lang’s main motivation is to be a man Cassie can be proud of, and Pym is offering him a chance to do just that.  It also doesn’t hurt that Pym’s beautiful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is assigned to work closely with Lang in his training.

And there is a lot of training.  Not only does the Ant-Man suit allow Lang to shrink in size, but he retains human strength in his miniature form.  Pym also provides Lang with a neurotransmitter that allows him to communicate with actual ants making him the weirdest movie superhero to date, in my opinion.

However, weirdness works in the case of Ant-Man, mostly because of Paul RuddRudd has been slowly “breaking out” over the past 20 years.  His everyman approach and his bravado sense of humor make him impossible not to root for, which is precisely why he is effective as a superhero.  Like all of the best Marvel films, this one is not just a superhero film, but it is a genre film as well.  Ant-Man plays out like a “caper,” complete with safe cracking, data stealing, and elaborate breaking and entering schemes.  There’s even a sort of Ocean’s 11 vibe when Lang recruits has band of misfits including Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I. to help with a big heist.

On a surprising note, I was underwhelmed by how mediocre the effects seemed in this film.  I saw Ant-Man in the traditional 2-D format, and some of the scenes where a shrunken Ant-Man navigates his miniature world echoed far too closely to Honey I Shrunk the Kids than should be the case in this post-Avatar day of computer effects.  Most of these effects were clearly staged and shot for 3-D, but they do seem clunky in the 2-D form.  Fortunately for Ant-Man, the script is fun with plenty of action and enjoyable dialogue.  The film is also woven nicely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to a fun scene between Ant-Man and a special Avenger cameo (On your left!). The crown for the goofiest Marvel movie that once sat on the head of Thor: The Dark World only to be claimed by Guardians of the Galaxy now firmly sits atop Ant-Man, but that continues to not be a bad thing!  B+

Ant-Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  Unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron, this film does have additional scenes after the film.  There is one about a minute into the credits and another after the credits.

[*] I sat and pondered how to write a plot summary for this film for over twenty minutes.  I considered adding the detail about how Lang can’t find a job because of his criminal record, so he and his friend Luis (Michael Peña) plan another robbery, which turns out to be Pym’s house, which is how Lang first comes in contact with the Ant Man suit, which wouldn’t be that strange except that Pym had orchestrated the robbery anyway from the start!  But I decided to just call Pym and Lang’s meeting “unorthodox.”

Fury

Fury“Let there be WAR!” said Brad Pitt after his wife Angelina Jolie was tapped to direct the upcoming World War II film Unbroken. Pitt stars in his own WWII film, Fury. We won’t know which is the better of the two until Unbroken premiers in December, but Pitt’s film does not disappoint. Your move, Jolie.

In Fury, Pitt plays sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier who commands the five-man tank crew of a commandeered German tank dubbed “Fury.” Wardaddy’s crew includes four other militarily nicknamed men: driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), artillery expert Grady “Coon-ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), canon operator Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), and newbie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), later christened “Machine.” The film makes much of these alternative identities as it delves deep into the effects of war. Lerman’s Norman is the “greenhorn” of the group, having been in the army only 8 weeks when he is assigned to Pitt’s crew. Norman’s previous experience as a typist has not prepared him one bit to assume the gunman post in Collier’s squad, and it certainly has not prepared him to clean up the remains of the previous man who occupied it. Now, as the US pushes its way into Germany and Hitler’s forces grow more desperate Wardaddy and company are sent on mission after dangerous mission to secure German cities.  This is the crux of the film’s plot and while it can be viewed as modest or simplistic, it works.

Fury is directed by David Ayer whose most recent film End of Watch was a sensational piece of guttural tragedy; Fury captures that same tone vividly. While thousands of war films exist, a majority of which are World War II films, Fury rejuvenates the genre with powerful scenes of tank warfare that drip with intensity and ring with authenticity. A scene of note involves the crew facing off against a German Tiger tank where every move must be calculated to the most frustratingly critical degree or it’s lights out. What Ayer accomplishes with both his direction and his screenplay is that he strikes an engaging balance between the rigors of war and the humanity of its soldiers.

The sets are truly remarkable and combined with some of the camera work they can be devastatingly heartbreaking in the style of Saving Private Ryan or even Gone with the Wind. Still at times the film can feel a bit uncoordinated and even cliché especially in some of the dialogue, but Fury thrives more on action and mood than it does conversation. This is also a far more bloody and violent film than I expected. Some of the horrific gruesomeness may have been avoidable, but when looking at the film’s overall ambition, much of it is warranted. At the end, Fury is a surprisingly refreshing look at warfare and camaraderie that is well-acted and feels unique. Angelina Jolie has her work cut out for her. B+

Fury is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Gangster Squad

ImageDirector: Ruben Fleisher

Screenwriter: Will Beall

Cast: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, and Michael Pena

(A genre review, to be read ‘gangster style’)

This is a picture that says, “Listen, you! You’ll sit there and watch if you know what’s good for ya!” Next thing you know, there’s a guy getting ripped in half, just so you get the message. Mickey Cohen is the guy who sends that telegram, and he’s played by Sean Penn who met ‘the top’ one day and decided to go over it, way over it. Just so we’re clear though, that’s just what’s needed to make Gangster Squad tick.

Cohen owns LA, but goody-two-shoes Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin) has other plans for the City of Angels. He’s had enough of this sucker’s drug running, cop buying, and lady trafficking and looks to put an end to it. Problem is, his bird needs a husband not a hero, and what’s more – she’s got company on the way (baby O’Mara). Off the books, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) says O’Mara’s got to round up a squad Ocean’s Eleven style complete with tough guy Rocky Washington (Anthony Mackie), tech-man Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), sharp shooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and sidekick Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). Not to mention Wildman Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who’s “poaching the king’s deer” in that he’s got an eye on Mickey’s girl Grace (Emma Stone).

What follows is a ride through the gritty, pulpy landscape of post-war LA, where knuckleheads get what’s coming to them if they step out of line. Jerry’s moves on Mickey’s dame put O’Mara’s operation in some hot water, and a cat and mouse chase commences. When it comes to Gangster Squad, you know the drill: operations go south on account that a runt up and turned rat on a guy, tensions swell when a thug drops the dime on his boss, and emotions flare every time a broad bends her arm for another gent. It ain’t Chinatown, but it’s got a scene that takes place there. Point is, this is entertaining and while critically it may be a bust, here’s a fun ride with an expert cast that delivers the goods…with a few bumps and bruises. B+