Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Martian Review (2015)

For a movie about a guy who gets stranded on an alien planet for a year and a half, Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (based on the novel by Andy Weir) is extremely positive. If “Gravity” showed how unbelievably terrifying it is to be stranded in space, “The Martian” presents a similar quandary (being stuck on Mars) as a fun challenge. When astronaut/ botanist extraordinaire Mark Watney (Matt Damon) accidently gets left behind by his crew, he doesn’t sit and wallow in his predicament. He springs right into action,--removing part of an antenna that has pierced his side in the mayhem with a pair of pliers--and immediately sorts through the remaining rations, calculating exactly how much food he has and how long it will last him.  When he doesn’t have enough he figures out how to grow Martian potatoes in the crew’s leftover Martian habitat (or the “Hab”) by burning Hydrazine to make water. Eventually he’s able to find a rover buried in the Martian desert, which he uses to contact NASA.

“The Martian” is essentially two hours and twenty minutes of problem solving with the central problem being: how can Watney keep himself alive while the good folks at NASA figure out a way to bring him home? There’s no time to sit around and think pessimistic thoughts, not when there are taters to be grown. Always.Think.Positive. Math and science nerds will find much to love here; characters casually throw around scientific terms and complex mathematic formulas. The picture gets into the nitty gritty details of how someone might actually survive on an alien planet for an extended period of time and what the rescue effort would look like. Though, all those fancy words and equations aside, “The Martian” can be distilled down to one simple phrase that even science novices like myself can understand: Yay science! Weir wrote the book to be as scientifically accurate as possible and that deep appreciation of real science (there are no teleportation devices or tractor beams to be found) can be strongly felt throughout the movie.

The movie also benefits from a talented, lively cast and Drew Goddard’s energetic screenplay that’s as full of witty one-liners as it is with science speak. Damon is likable and charismatic as always, selling the action movie survivalist side of Watney as well as the scientist side. We don’t doubt his ability to pull an antenna from his side and stich up the wound and when he says enthusiastically “I’m going to science the F—out of this” it feels genuine. He’s that excited about science. Mark Watney is an action hero for science geeks—super intelligent, able to improvise on the go (he seals up his helmet visor with duct tape) and also handsome and sassy. The rest of the cast, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, and Sean Bean as various NASA employees working diligently on earth to bring Watney home, all look like they’re having a great time.

Though perhaps everyone is having too great a time. “The Martian” is upbeat and positive to the point where there’s a noticeable lack of tension throughout. In sending people to space there’s always going to be a huge sense of unpredictability; astronauts could spend ten years training and preparing for a mission but if even one thing goes seriously wrong their lives could be in immediate jeopardy. What’s consistently missing from the picture is that 
feeling of danger and unpredictability. No matter how smart Watney is and how much training he may have received beforehand, being trapped on an alien planet (where there is no oxygen, among other challenges) with limited resources would be extremely dangerous and unpredictable and yet he acts as if he’s lived on Mars his entire life. The stakes don’t seem high enough; the major setbacks (the seal to the Hab breaking, destroying an entire crop of potatoes, NASA’s failed attempt to send an unmanned shipment of food) are few and far between. Rarely did I feel stressed out during the movie and in fact, I found myself getting bored at times. “Yay science!” may be a great message but to hear it over and over again at the expense of tension or danger, it becomes repetitive and stale.

Another problem, contributing to the lack of tension and unpredictability, is all the talking. Between Watney describing every task he does into his personal camera and the countless discussions at NASA, there’s too much talking and explaining. Everything is laid out in the utmost detail and not just the science. Plot and character details are practically sounded out, while the major setbacks are very clearly telegraphed to the audience. The sequence of the seal to the Hab breaking is preceded by Daniels character saying, “let’s hope nothing goes wrong,” effectively eliminating any suspense. For all the complex math and science equations, “The Martian” is very straightforward—there’s not much room for ambiguity or interpretation, even at the end. The last scene basically reduces the essence of the movie down to one final heavy-handed university lecture.

I have other issues. As strong as the supporting cast is they’re not given a whole lot to do. Even with an over two hour running time most of the secondary characters register as thin and two-dimensional. Everybody at NASA is apparently witty, a genius and entirely selfless, they all sort of blend together. I enjoyed watching “The Martian;” I laughed plenty, the red-orange Martian landscapes are pretty to look at and I found the scientific stuff to be interesting from an outsider’s perspective. Ultimately, however, the movie didn’t stick with me as much as it should have and I have no real burning desire to watch it again.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sicario Review (2015)

Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” a film about the U.S./Mexican border drug war, doesn’t shy away from showing us graphic unsettling violence. Characters are shot, beaten and tortured. Mutilated bodies hang from an overpass in Juarez. A seemingly normal Arizona suburban home houses corpses hidden in the walls like a tomb. However, violence is probably the least surprising aspect of Villeneuve’s picture. Things have gotten so bad that cartel violence has become an everyday occurrence.

Yet the film isn’t focused on the violence but on how said violence is just the outer layer of a complex, utterly messy situation rife with corruption and shady doings on both sides of the border. In fact there is no finite “border,”—the characters in “Sicario” create their own boundaries, their own set of rules. Futility flows through “Sicario” like blood; it makes Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” look like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” “Traffic” (which chronicled the conflict from multiple perspectives: the cops, the criminals, the addicts, the politicians, etc.) has its fair share of dourness and futility but it ends on a note of optimism: this isn’t going to be an easy fight but we’re making progress. In Villeneuve’s picture there isn’t a single ray of hope. Its message: Yeah…everything is really complicated and screwed up and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.

Not exactly uplifting and “Sicario” definitely won’t be for everyone. Yet, for those who like gritty pessimistic crime cinema (like myself) the movie is hugely entertaining and well made.  Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan don’t try and tell a sprawling epic about the drug war using multiple perspectives like “Traffic.” Instead they fit all that chaos and messiness into a tightknit, character driven neo noir. Fresh-faced F.B.I. agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by a task force made up various U.S. and Mexican government operatives like Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) to take down a major cartel boss. The thrill and intrigue of “Sicario” comes from the moral complexity of the characters. The traditional notions of good and evil, just and unjust, don’t apply anymore. Everyone has their own agenda and self-manufactured definitions of right and wrong, definitions they can bend and reshape as they please. This moral ambiguity makes “Sicario” consistently exciting and unpredictable.

At first glance Kate doesn’t appear to serve that much of a purpose. For most of the movie she’s off to the side reacting while Alejandro, Matt and others do the major police work. She’s a smart and fully competent agent but is often patronized and excluded. My initial reaction to her was puzzlement; why insert this seemingly useless character? But I don’t think she’s useless. Her role is that of the na├»ve, straight-laced outsider who’s forced to witness the chaos and messiness of the drug war and is unable to do anything about it (further adding to the movie’s sense of futility). The character isn’t great and Villeneuve could have given Blunt more to do but Kate provides the film with some stability and moral outrage to balance out the grittiness. She’s also representative of the audience. We try to make sense of this violent, complicated onscreen world and its violent, complicated inhabitants. We often don’t approve of what we see or even fully understand but we’re unable to act. All we can do is sit and let it happen.

The acting is solid across the board; Blunt is understated and sincere, while Brolin is playful and scenery chewing. Amidst all the bleakness “Sicario” has a dark sense of humor. And then there’s Del Toro-- quietly menacing and dangerous while also managing to give off a calming non-threatening presence. You’re skeptical of Alejandro but at the same time he’s a valuable asset to have (he’s good with a gun, knowledgeable of the area and the drug war). Alejandro slyly emerges as the most fascinating, morally conflicted character in the movie.

And all of this guided by the graceful, nonmelodramatic directorial hand of Villeneuve. He moves the picture along at a steady unhurried pace, usually stretching sequences out to create maximum tension and paranoia. In this corrupted, lawless environment danger is everywhere. You never know who might be trying to kill you so it’s best to tread lightly. "Sicario"isn't groundbreaking in its style or structure, it's just a really well executed dark crime drama; handsomely shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, while Johan Johansson's subtle electronic score pulses in the background helping to amp up the tension.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Goodnight Mommy Review (2015)

“Goodnight Mommy” is a slow burn thriller. It will test your patience big time but it pays off in the end because it essentially tricks you. Co directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz do an effective job of framing the action from a very subjective viewpoint (two young twin boys) and then completely flip the script on us during the last thirty minutes or so. It’s similar to a novel using the unreliable narrator device.

Set in the Austrian countryside, “Goodnight Mommy” revolves around Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) as they move to a new house with their mother (played by Susanne West) in the wake of a serious accident. It’s a sleek luxury house in the midst of a gorgeous property, complete with a cornfield, a lush wooded area and a pond. Soon enough, Lukas and Elias begin to have doubts about their mother. She’s recently had facial reconstructive surgery, leaving her entire head covered in bandages. She looks different and seems to act different--cold and distant, demanding that all the window blinds be closed and the house is absolutely silent. Soon enough they begin to suspect that the person hidden under those bandages isn’t their mother.

The genius of “Goodnight Mommy” is in how little information we’re given. Fiala and Franz (who also wrote the script) resist the urge to talk down to the audience and lay everything out neatly. There’s been an accident but we don’t find out what exactly happened. Mother (we don’t find out her real name) is in bandages but we don’t know how her face was disfigured in the first place. Lukas and Elias’s father is absent but again, we don’t know why. The movie is highly observant—major story and character developments are communicated through subtle action and scant dialogue. It’s a movie that requires your complete attention.

This method of sharing limited information allows the film to be told from Lukas and Elias’s scared and uncertain perspective. Fiala and Franz devote a lot of time to establishing and strengthening their sibling bond. Chasing each other through the corn maze, playfully hitting each other while in the bathtub, or holing up in their room trying to hide from Mother. Meanwhile, Mother is always depicted as this mysterious, looming presence, creepily watching the boys from her bedroom window, or staying confined to her bed. We come to view her as a stranger just as they do. There aren’t any flashbacks. We don’t know what Mother or the twins were like before the accident. All we have to go on is the present situation and what Fiala and Franz choose to show us. “Goodnight Mommy” is a smart, well made film that forces the audience to fill in the gaps and try to construct the whole picture.

Additionally, the film’s central dilemma (brothers who don’t recognize their own mother) is always intriguing because it works in a surface level genre thriller way (if this isn’t their mother, then who is she and what does she want?) and penetrates to a deeper more psychological level pertaining to parenthood and maternity. How hard would it be if one day you didn’t recognize your own mother and were scared of her? And on the flip side: as a parent, what if your own kids, your own flesh and blood, viewed you as a stranger, as their enemy?

When the trailer for “Goodnight Mommy” hit the web four or five weeks ago, a number of websites dubbed it “the scariest movie trailer of all time.” Now whether or not that’s indeed true is irrelevant but I’m guessing the film itself will not be remembered as the “scariest movie of all time,” or even close. Except for a few eerie dream sequences, the picture is mostly calm and mundane instead of terrifying; Olga Neuwirth’s score is scarcely used and it moves at a leisurely pace. But this isn’t the picture’s fault (movie marketing in general is constantly deceiving) and if “Mommy” isn’t a horror film it’s an expertly crafted psychological thriller.

“Goodnight Mommy” will be too slow for some but for those who are patient, it delivers big time—the explosive last half hour is disturbing and uncomfortable (the closest the picture does come to horror) and delivers one last unexpected twist. 


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Everest Review (2015)

“Everest” is a frustrating example of spectacle overtaking substance. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, from a script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, “Everest” has outstanding visuals and sound design but is undone by a convoluted, emotionally stilted script that doesn't do its amazing (and tragic) source material justice.

 Kormakur’s film is based on the true story of the nineteen ninety-six Mount Everest expedition (consisting of three teams) that ended in disaster. Twelve people tragically lost their lives when a massive blizzard trapped the teams as they attempted to reach the mountain’s summit and return to camp. The event remains one of the most devastating mountain expeditions in history and spawned numerous nonfiction books (most notably Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”) and documentaries.

It’s a truly remarkable story. Unfortunately this dramatized version doesn’t quite live up to that same level of remarkability. The situation is still tragic but as a standalone narrative, “Everest” is unconvincing.

Like a lot of biographical movies “Everest” has too much going on without anything making a substantial impression; too many characters and not enough movie (even at two hours) to allow any of them to develop into three-dimensional human beings that we can care about. Simply put, the emotional core is missing and the picture’s attempts to juggle its twelve plus characters causes things to get convoluted and unfocused.

“Everest” gets especially convoluted when the blizzard hits. The film frantically jumps back and forth between the various basecamps and groups of stranded climbers dispersed around the mountain. The action in this section loses its sense of continuity and the film becomes messy and disorienting. We lose track of what’s going on as well as where the characters are in relation to one other and the mountain. Characters suddenly go missing for extended periods of time. The scene where Texas Pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) miraculously stands up and treks back to camp after spending all night in the snow should be poignant except that he’s been absent and unaccounted for in the previous ten minutes.

Worst of all, when climbers begin to freeze to death in the blinding white fury we don’t feel anything because they’re so thinly drawn to begin with. An image of a dead climber encrusted in a shell of snow is always going to be striking on some level but in a fictional film it’s an empty image if you don’t care who the climber is.

What the filmmakers needed to do was condense. Instead of sloppily cramming all three large expedition groups into one movie, perhaps it could have focused on one small group. This would make for a more intimate movie space, allowing for better character development and better filmic coherence. That way, when the blizzard strikes, the group’s fight for survival would pack more of an emotional punch and the film wouldn’t have to skip around so much. By trying to focus on everyone, the movie mostly squanders any chance for emotional resonance.

“Everest” is pretty to look at though; Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino make great use of the big screen format--the camera hovers up and over the titanic mountain, tracking the climbers like a curious bird. The sound design is also tremendous. Between the blaring, piercing ferocious wind and the panting and coughing from the climbers as their bodies attempt to acclimatize to the mountain air, it can overwhelming. When the blizzard first hits there’s a shot showing four or five climbers huddled together near a ledge. Suddenly, a gust of mighty wind blows up and over the edge, a gust of wind that practically shook the whole IMAX auditorium where I was seeing the movie. It also caused me to abruptly sit back in my chair, like I was trying to get out of the wind’s path.

However, visual and aural pleasure can only take a movie so far and that moment eventually wore off. Ultimately I left “Everest” feeling sad about the real life incident but unmoved by the film itself. It clearly wanted to move me, with its grand sweeping shots of the mountain and Dario Marianelli’s thundering instrumental score. But the thinness of the characters and the convolutedness of the plot left me feeling cold. I haven’t even talked about the cast, which is loaded with talented individuals (Jason Clarke, Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, among others) because there’s no need to. The script doesn’t allow any of them to stand out.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Black Mass Review (2015)

There’s an intense scene in Scott Cooper’s gangster film “Black Mass” that does a great job of encapsulating Irish mob boss James “Whitie” Bulger’s (Johnny Deep) outlook on life and depicting his general intimidating demeanor. Bulger, along with his right hand man Steve Flemmi, (Rory Cochrane) F.B.I. Agent John Connolly, (Joel Edgerton) and another F.B.I. Agent John Morris (David Harbour) are eating steak dinner, having a good time. Bulger casually asks Morris (who cooked the steaks) what the recipe is. Morris doesn’t answer at first, saying it’s a “family recipe” but then after Bulger asks a few more times Morris reveals it. Suddenly Bulger becomes dead serious, zeroing in on Morris with his buggy eyes and, in his soft voice, berates the agent about loyalty and how he easily gave up a family recipe. The color drains from Morris’ face and it seems like Bulger is going to smash his face in. A beat or two later and Bulger breaks into laughter, saying he was “joking.”

But beneath those cackles we know that he’s not joking. For Bulger, loyalty isn’t a laughing matter and up until now we’ve seen again and again how he deals with people who aren’t trustworthy…and it isn’t pretty.

Black Mass” is an elegantly made period crime film that’s all about loyalty-- how important it is to Bulger and how ruthless he can be towards people who aren’t. Organized crime is built on a combination of loyalty and fear; in forming and expanding your gang you need people you can count on and when someone gets out of line or backstabs you, you have to make an example of them, a gesture that instills some level of fear in the rest of your outfit and keeps them in line. This example-making extends to the community and non-gang members as well; if a civilian witnesses a cold blooded murder they’ll keep their mouth shut, either out of respect for the gang members or out of fear of getting killed. Scene after scene, Cooper’s film essentially comes down to: are you loyal to Bulger or not? Yes? Great, you get to keep on living. No? Well expect a bullet to the head or a rope around the neck. The film doesn’t shy away from showing us the graphic, disturbing details of Bulger’s wrath; basically every act of violence comes back to the question of loyalty.

Unlike, say, the lively, black comedic swaggering of a Martin Scorsese gangster film (“Goodfellas”) “Black Mass” is cold and unsettling; Masonobu Takayanigi’s cinematography is gloomy, almost  apocalyptic. There are some funny wisecracks every now and then but it doesn’t look like fun. Not that gangster films are supposed to look “fun” to us but the characters, for the most part, don’t look like they’re having much fun being gangsters, as if they’re permanently on edge. Will Bulger kill me for something I did? What did I do?

And frankly I don’t blame them. Bulger is a psychopath. With his slim stature, pale sickly skin and thinning hair, he looks like the cold remorseless monster he is. Bulger isn’t flamboyant or showy and he certainly isn't charming. Instead he’s calm and methodical, never becoming overly animated in times of anger and not above taking out his own trash. The opening scene where he gets mad at an associate for eating nuts and sticking his wet fingers back into the nut bowl shows how highly observant he is of other people’s behaviors. He often looks like he’s deep in thought. Thinking about his next move. Thinking about who might betray him next and how he might kill that person.  At the same time Bulger is extremely selfish—cherishing loyalty but only loyalty towards him. Depp’s Bulger is chilling and eccentric yet also measured and understated; the character never verges into hammy territory. After playing nothing but zany cartoon characters (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) for the last few years it’s nice to see him tackle real, compelling characters again (he’s good at it).

Edgerton is also strong as Connolly (who forms an alliance with Bulger in order to take down the rival Italian Mafia). Overall Connolly is a decent guy who’s morally conflicted—trapped between an obligation to perform his duties as a government agent and his admiration for Bulger. The two grew up in the same neighborhood together so he feels a connection to the malicious criminal, causing him to define his own notions of what’s right and wrong. It’s a great character that’s in some ways more compelling than Bulger; Bulger is a bad guy and knows it but Connolly wants to believe he’s doing good things.

 “Black Mass” falters when it wants to be a grand, ensemble gangster epic. Bulger and Connolly emerge as the only three-dimensional characters. Meanwhile the supporting characters (played by an array of immensly talented actors like Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s politician brother, Corey Stoll as a no nonsense DA, Jesse Plemons as a budding young enforcer in Bulger's gang or Peter Sarsgaard as a wirey drug addict) have great moments but overall their characters sort of  fade into the background. Like a lot historical biopics, “Black Mass” bites off a little more than it can chew--trying to cram a rich, nearly ten year story with lots of colorful characters into a feature lenghth film. More than once the movie loses focus.

Also, for all the years that are covered (nineteen seventy five to the mid eighties) we don't learn that much about Bulger and how his Winterhill gang actually came to power in the first place. The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth glosses over the “business” side of Bulger’s outfit (how they maintain control over South Boston) and his progression from smalltime crook to top dog is treated somewhat vaguely. "Black Mass" wants to be a traditional rise and and fall gangster epic but we don't see much of Bulger's rise or fall. It's really only about Bulger and Connolly and their years long alliance.

Even so, I can't say I had a totally unpleasant time during the film. As a crime epic, Cooper doesn't quite pull it off, but as a dark violent character study about a ruthless man who takes loyalty very seriously and his pact with a morally divided F.B.I agent, it's watchable. Also, as a vehicle for Depp and Edgerton’s heavy weight performances, “Black Mass” succeeds tremendously.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Grandma Review (2015)

Legendary actress Lily Tomlin wreaks havoc as feminist poet and crazy grandma Elle in Paul Weitz’s amusing and tender “Grandma.” Ever since premiering at this year’s Sundance film festival critics have been raving about Tomlin and she doesn’t disappoint. She’s lively and sincere-- crafting a rambunctious character that’s sympathetic but certainly not saintly.

Instead of spending fifteen or twenty minutes neatly setting up the characters and story, Weitz plops us right down in the midst of the action, allowing for character development on the go. Elle has just broken up with her younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) and still hasn’t quite gotten over the death of her long-term partner Violet from a little over a year ago. In an attempt to free herself further, she’s paid off all her debts and shredded her credit card. Bad timing. Her estranged granddaughter Sage (Julie Garner) comes knocking on her door; she’s pregnant and wants an abortion but needs $600.

That’s heavy stuff to dump on your relative at a moment’s notice. But there’s no time to sit and talk—Elle (who’s sufficiently broke) springs into action and within ten minutes of the movie’s brisk eighty minute run time they’re off in search of the money, which also gives Elle a chance to reconnect with various friends and family members. The daylong time period and unconventional use of the ticking clock device (Sage has scheduled the abortion for five forty five that day) keeps the film tight and organized; there’s a clear objective our protagonists are trying to achieve.

The first third or so of the movie, with its breathless and sharply amusing dialogue, falls primarily in the comedic realm; the scene where Elle and Sage go and shakedown the good for nothing baby daddy Cam, (Nat Wolfe) is delightfully nutty, bordering on screwball. The scene ends with Elle beating Cam with his hockey stick. Though Weitz keeps the picture moving at a snappy pace, never letting the comedic momentum die down.

However, at about the half way point Weitz slows things down a bit and tones back the comedy--as an already eventful day turns into any even more eventful one thick with serious introspection. Unresolved tensions between Elle’s estranged daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) and ex husband Karl (a terrific Sam Elliott, equal parts silly and vulnerable) come bubbling to the surface. Weitz weaves in weighty themes of loss, regret, abandonment, feminism and parenthood, while also keeping the comedic element intact, preventing the movie from becoming too depressing.

That being said, the humor never undercuts the emotions being felt in these sequences of reconnection and therapy. The confrontation with Karl is particularly strong; the sequence starts off loopy but quickly becomes tender and moving, as past demons and mistakes from Elle’s life are unearthed. Overall, “Grandma” attains a balanced blend of comedy and drama; Weitz knows when to cut in with a witty acidic one liner to lighten a scene up just as he knows when to sit back and let things play straight.

Though, none of this would be possible without Tomlin. She plays a grandma you’d both want to have and one you’d be embarrassed by. Elle is feisty, blunt and a little crazy-- not afraid to speak her mind and like a lot of old people, her sense of self-awareness has partly gone by the wayside. In a scene that takes place in a coffee shop near the beginning, one of the employees tells her she’s being too loud. Elle isn’t having this and throws a miniature fit, spilling coffee on the ground and loudly mentioning her granddaughter’s planned abortion. She can be downright cruel and unappealing.

At the same time if you were her grandchild you wouldn’t trade her for anyone; she may be crazy but it comes from a place of love and compassion. She selflessly helps her granddaughter (someone she hasn’t had much contact with) in her time of need and stands up for her at very turn. And only a crazy loving grandma would beat her granddaughter’s good for nothing boyfriend with a hockey stick. Tomlin’s screwball timing is impeccable and much like film she eventually tones back the comedy to make room for introspection and 
dissect her character’s psyche. Elle’s aggressive attitude is masking deep seeded feelings of regret and loneliness that become more apparent as the movie goes on.

“Grandma” doesn’t cut as deep as it could; the ending is perhaps too neat, resolving some fairly heavy conflicts a little too easily. Yet Tomlin’s performance (as well as the rest of the performances) and Weitz’s thoughtful direction provides the film with an appealing and energetic authenticity that’s hard to dislike.