Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Martian

***1/2 out of ****

Through four decades of filmmaking, Ridley Scott has never lost his sense of visual richness, but more often than not, his films suffer due to collaborating with screenwriters who lack imagination or the sense that they're writing for a guy who tends to put atmosphere first and human psychology as an afterthought. His biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings was creative, but at times laughable and the disappointment felt from the gorgeously produced, yet pitifully written return to epic science-fiction (a genre he seriously escalated at the beginning of his career), through Prometheus, still feels fresh. 

It is very fortunate that Scott chose this time to work from a respected novel, The Martian, by Andy Weir adapted into a screenplay by Drew Goddard, who made the inventive comic twist on the horror genre that was Cabin in the Woods - and recently launched the very strong Netflix series, Daredevil.

The story follows an astronaut (Matt Damon) left behind by his crew on Mars when it is assumed that he perished in a deadly storm during evacuation. It is set in the future, but not far enough to make use of unspoken futuristic breakthroughs for plot convenience. Just about every technological aspect of the film deals within the limitations of what we know we can do.

The astronaut (a botanist), has to find solutions to his limited food and life support, while looking for a way to make his survival known to NASA on Earth. When NASA, which is just in the infancy stage of Mars exploration, learns he is alive, they have to make tough decisions. His crew still has months before their ship can complete its return to Earth, and no one on Earth has interplanetary launch shuttles just sitting around.

Jeff Daniels plays the director of NASA, while other members of the missions ground control are played by Kristen Wiig (not a comic role), Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a fresh-faced young actress named Mackenzie Davis. Donald Glover also pops in as an unwelcome eccentric consultant (comic role) who may have a brilliant plan. 

The shuttle crew is led by Jessica Chastain, with Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Michael Peña -because you always need some comic relief actor to tell his fellow scientists to "speak English" when they exercise the natural vocabulary of scientists.

What's refreshing about Scott's choice to give peril-in-space another go, is the light-hearted approach this time. A film that contains the morbid idea of a man marooned on a lifeless planet would normally be accompanied by Scott's signature serious tone. 

For anyone who saw Christopher Nolan's Interstellar last year, it was generally agreed between those who liked it and those who didn't, that Damon's role was a counterproductive distraction to the film's story. How strange it is that shortly after that film, he's accepted the role of an astronaut in similar survival circumstances. Jessica Chastain's participation seems to have a similar effect. The Martian feels like an energetic and optimistic apology from artists and a major Hollywood studio for draining all the fun and optimism out of big movies in recent years.

The special effects and cinematography are just as beautiful as what Prometheus managed to accomplish, but this time, we have a rational problem-solving character to root for, as opposed to the immature unprofessional idiots who caused problems in Prometh- You know, I'll stop talking about that movie and maybe Scott will stop talking about its sequel.

This is a beautiful and smart film that doesn't feel it's two-hour and twenty-minute length thanks to good choices. Damon providing exposition with a lively video diary reminded me of what made Danny Boyle's 127 Hours work. A science fiction film that works with limitations instead of magic solutions also keeps us invested with the relatable high stakes that make us think of real-world problems that need to be solved by strong thinkers. 

There are only a few less-desirable parts that condescend the audience and I was a little distracted that a film so hellbent on being scientifically accurate used sound in outer space during one of its later sequences, even though films like Gravity, and even Serenity seemed to be part of a movement to work without it (keep it in Star Wars, though!).

Along with Harry Gregson Williams' nice score, the movie makes an endearingly cheesy choice to have a seventies disco soundtrack. Not kidding. Not as inventive as Starlord's Awesome Mix cassette, but I dug it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice

** out of ****

In Pawn Sacrifice, Tobey Maguire plays the manic Bobby Fischer in a performance that shows a lot of effort, but doesn't make the movie worth watching. Director Edward Zwick’s one-note take on the famous chess player doesn't have a relatable foundation. A lot of the film is from Fischer's perspective, which feels like a mistake, considering all the characters in the film who have more potential to be liked by the audience.

The movie focuses on Fischer’s Cold War era competition with the Soviet opponent Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), while dealing with undiagnosed mental illness that would plague him for the rest of his life. If the movie is playing with any idea, it's that the US government encouraged Fischer into this international tournament, as another trivial symbol of fighting communism -which was terrible for Fischer who was already delusional, paranoid, and indulged in rants against Russians, Communists, and Jews (Fischer was Jewish). 

Like most other films by Zwick, there’s something tediously hollow despite how beautifully he captures everything on an aesthetic level. Like Black Mass, Pawn Sacrifice is going down a checklist of everything that will make the movie feel like other movies of its kind. The period songs, stock footage, and 16mm clips of Fischer talking to the press feel like forced stylization. The actors, such as Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Peter Sarsgaard are all talented but the content they must work with doesn’t feel truly inspired. 

My disappointment with the film is mostly in reaction to the fact that Steven Knight wrote the screenplay. His previous screenplays, which include Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises and Locke (which I thought was one of 2014's best) felt more clever and insightful takes on people with trades that demand a lot of research. The chess knowledge this film displays seems legit, but I'm uncertain as to whether this movie's emotions fall short due to less effort on Knight's part or less influence over Zwick's tendency to be so conventional. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Black Mass

** out of ****

By all accounts, Whitey Bulger was a ruthless murderous gangster - and according to the F.B.I., he was an informant in a partnership that proved to be a disastrous decision on their part. In the new film, Black Mass, Bulger is portrayed as a sinister looking man, played by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp under some very heavy makeup.

In reality, Bulger was a pretty normal looking man, capable of charming some and terrifying others. Johnny Depp may disappear into an interesting performance here, but not a truly effective one. Scott Cooper’s movie doesn’t give Depp or many other characters in the film much room to grow. Too much of it is wasted on sensationalizing Bulger’s violent crimes fulfilling the standard tropes found in gangster pictures.

Bulger has been the inspiration for fictional characters in the past. Jack Nicholson, despite a lame New England accent, played a memorably satanic Boston crime lord in The Departed and Jason Isaacs played the manipulative criminal brother to a Rhode Island politician in Showtime’s Brotherhood. Both characters were more emotionally believable incarnations of this man when they weren’t officially playing him.

I've always felt that the reason why biopics have so much trouble, is because they are indebted to facts, which can restrict the creative process from allowing the characters and atmosphere to come to life. The careful undertaking of conjecture often leaves things lifeless, even though gross embellishments are inevitable. Great historical movies are usually full of crap, but if they find a sense of direction, they work.

At the very beginning of Black Mass, we're mislead into thinking that Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) will be the audience surrogate by introducing us to Bulger through his eyes and then cutting to years later as he provides testimony. The movie loses track of him shortly after. Later we're shown other partners of Bulger's, doing the same through Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi and W. Earl Brown as John Martorano. It's a formula that feels borrowed from other movies but has very little purpose here.

Another false start involves Bulger's relationship with his Senator brother Billy, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and their Mother, played by Mary Klug. The lack of focus through all of these characters, seems like an example of the bad influence that good television has on otherwise good movies. If it were a multi-episode show, we'd have time for these people, but this is a movie. So make some choices. I had the same problem with Straight Outta' Compton

Thankfully, the movie eventually finds its focus through Bulger's partnership with childhood acquaintance John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who has risen through the ranks of the F.B.I. and wants to fight the Italian mob by working with small-time Irish American thugs. The choice to fight fire with fire, seems very questionable, but what makes Connolly choose this route is never fully explained. Did he really think it was the best approach, was he abusing his power to sway the crackdown away from his old stomping ground, or was he fulfilling a buried desire to be a gangster?

It simply gets annoying when he persuades his skeptical superior (Kevin Bacon) with rationalizations, which are so stupidly transparent, that I feel we are owed a better explanation for this historical blunder on the F.B.I.'s part.

Black Mass is watchable, but far from remarkable. It demonizes someone who demands no demonization while making its way down a checklist of crime movie standards, like constantly overcast skies, celluloid grittiness, a Rota-inspired score, and people swearing at one another in northeastern accents ('cuz it's fun). Maybe that's your kind of thing. If that's the case, knock yourself out.


***1/2 out of ****

Everest is a traditional big-budget disaster movie that has something special: It does just about everything right. It has the guts to invest its audience in the vulnerability of its characters and share their love of the stunning environment that will eventually turn on them. It may be about people, but more of it is about one of the world’s most amazing places. This movie was way better than I was expecting. Through its great cast enduring a high-altitude location shoot in Nepal, it manages to create believable characters without needlessly indulging their backstories.

Jason Clarke plays a mountaineer who leads commercial expeditions to the world’s highest peak. Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Naoko Mori, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly and Elizabeth Debiki are among the large supporting cast representing people who were on the mountain during a day in May 1996 when a devastating snowstorm came through, taking many lives –only shortly after the climbers had reached the mountain’s peak.

This is a film based on a true story that finds purpose. It tells a horrifying story without ever losing sight of the awe and majesty of such a gorgeous place, justifying why it lures people to their doom. It is an emotional film through many factors, but the strongest of them all may be the gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli.

I am sure that Everest is full of conjecture and misrepresentations, but it's redeeming to see a film that has a sense of geography amidst all the chaos that ensues, through steady cinematography, reasonable CGI, and well-paced editing. This is like the description of a big budget movie from the mid-nineties, but I reflect on those years as being some of the best when it comes to the refinement of big spectacle filmmaking aided by the new digital tools of that time.

I must say that my expectations for this film were low considering that its director, Balthasar Kormakur didn't have a resume that interested me but I will certainly remember his name for future films.

The film's only real mistake is its unnecessarily clunky epilogue, which missed an opportunity to end gracefully. Sadly, the harmless choice to shoehorn in the standard issue photographs of the real people that inspired the film's characters feels like an interruption to all pains the filmmakers undertook to establish its internal sense of reality. But the mood is really ruined when it cuts to the end credits and instantly brings a suit of the more upbeat music from earlier in the film, interrupting the slow mournful -yet hypnotic music that preceded it. Nothing's perfect, I guess.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Visit

** out of ****

Through some critics and audiences, M. Night Shyamalan is seeing what I would call an unearned comeback through The Visit, which is his latest film after a long string of idiotic thrillers that had lost him a lot of respect. I’ve never seen a director’s career like his. His early films (mainly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) were so absolutely strong that I would have never anticipated such aimless fantasy (Lady in the Water) or such inept direction of human behavior (The Happening) from the same director in later films.

For a director whose career has been a needless letdown, the choice to delve into found-footage filmmaking is an obviously terrible idea since that entire subgenre has been almost as disappointing as Shyamalan. This trendy and inexpensive approach to making a movie seems rather desperate on his part, but it also seems to be paying off for him at the moment.

The Visit is about a couple of kids (Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge) sent to meet their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) is eager to go on a cruise with her new boyfriend and after reconnecting with her parents via social media, she has decided to send her children on a train to stay with them in rural Pennsylvania.

The “found footage” perspective is provided by the older sister, who is an aspiring filmmaker bringing along cameras to document their visit. After meeting the old couple (The amazing Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) at the train station, they’re taken out to a remote home where despite a welcoming impression, are provided a questionable curfew as well as boundary rules. When these rules are defied, the kids witness their grandparents displaying some very odd behavior, which is rationalized as senility.

This movie has three obvious problems: 1. The setup of a loving mother sending her own children to stay with their grandparents, from whom she ran away a decade ago, isn’t the typical first step for making amends with one’s kin. 2. The behavior exhibited by the old couple very early in the film would be enough to send any child running to the next closest farm house, even if it could be legitimized as dementia. 3. The documentarian ambition of the older sister to continue filming every terror she encounters defies any relatable sense of self-preservation.

With the suspension of disbelief ready to implode during most parts of the movie, there’s almost no involvement to be felt, but I will not deny the movie has a few big scares. A lot of situations, no matter how ridiculous are well staged and the actors all do great work.

There’s a major argument among some critics that this movie is a very dark comedy. The movie rests on an arc of sincerity that makes it impossible for me to see it as such. I see the humor in the insanity of its campy scares tapping into buried repulsion some audience members may feel about the elderly, but I found it to be in bad taste.

I take no issues with horror movies that aim for smutty politically incorrect concepts, as long as they commit to an R-rating so the movie may wink at its adult audience. This movie, however, is PG-13, which essentially invites the whole family to join in on the “old people are nasty” scares and I find that somewhat morally repugnant. Having the younger brother be a wannabe rapper as comic relief, so that he can do bad raps about the creepy old folks, is maybe as cringe-worthy as the R-rated gross-out moments that infiltrate the conclusion to the movie.

Shyamalan may have our temporary attention with this film’s weirdness, but this is not a return to form; it’s a product of weak storytelling with no concern for plausibility and continues to his abandonment of rich aesthetics and deep passion for well-constructed suspense - which he practically mastered once upon a time. My only hope is that a little positive encouragement from this movie’s success may inspire him to make good movies again.