Movie Review ~ The Martian

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: At 77, director Ridley Scott has directed films across seemingly all genres.  Starting with his first film, 1977’s war drama The Duellists to his breakout hit Alien two years later, it was clear that Scott had something going for him.  Not that there weren’t stumbles along the way (1985’s Legend, 1992’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise) but for the most part Scott has exceled in drama (1991’s Thelma & Louise), historical epic (2000’s Gladiator) and even the occasional bit of fluff (2006’s charming A Good Year).  Still, sci-fi is where Ridley Scott has felt most at home and be it the aforementioned Alien, 1982’s polarizing Blade Runner, or even his more polarizing sorta-Alien prequel Prometheus in 20012 he always (for me) delivers the goods.

So it’s with great pleasure that I report that not only is The Martian the best film I’ve seen yet in 2015 but it’s Scott’s most appealing work in years.  Based on the hit novel by Andy Weir that’s been well adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), The Martian is one of those big crowd pleasing epics that audiences won’t see coming.  I’d imagine most people will turn up to see an outer-space action film starring Matt Damon (Interstellar) but what they’ll get instead is a full bodied, full blooded, blockbuster in the making that continues to impress with each passing twist.

I was worried that Weir’s first person narrative would be tough to adapt but Goddard has fleshed out not only our titular character but a host of his comrades along the way.  Now, characters that were intriguing on the page leap to life fully formed and ready to play a part in a rescue mission taking place several light years away.

Through a series of unfortunate events, astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead during an emergency evacuation of his team from their Mars outpost.  His captain (Jessica Chastian, Mama) and fellow teammates (Michael Pena, End of Watch; Kate Mara, Fantastic Four; Sebastian Stan, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Aksel Hennie, Headhunters) have no choice but to save themselves after it appears that Watney has perished in a harsh Martian sandstorm.

But miraculously Watney has survived, though it can be argued that his current situation is little better than his presumed one.  While he has enough food to last a little over a year, the next spacecraft isn’t scheduled to return for another four so he has to put his botanist skills to the test to make his own food supply while staying alive in a small habitat that isn’t designed to last as long as he’ll need it to be.

Back on Earth, a NASA authority figure (Jeff Daniels, Looper) has to deliver the bad news of a man dying on his watch but when a tech (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) notices some satellite images that suggest someone is still alive on Mars, he teams with the mission leader (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave) to devise a way to get Watney home.  This choice is mostly to rescue the stranded astronaut but also a tiny way to save face in the eyes of media scrutiny.

At nearly two and a half hours, your bladder may shudder in fear but make sure to go before the movie starts because you won’t want to risk missing a single second of the adventure this movie takes you on.  The running time flies by due in no small part to Scott’s skill as a director and Matt Damon’s bravura performance.  If we didn’t care about Watney or like Damon the film would have sunk faster than the other movies about Mars released in the past two decades (though I liked John Carter better than, well, everyone).

The Martian is a nice opportunity for Damon to show some nuance that sometimes feels lacking in his roles lately.  His is a powerful, mesmerizing performance and it should easily put him on the short list for Oscar recognition.  From Damon on down the cast is excellent.  I was wondering why Chastain would take such a ho-hum role, until a late in the game Hail Mary that I won’t spoil tells me exactly what attracted her to the part. Daniels is appropriately gruff, Ejiofor is galvanizing, and what a treat to see Kristin Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) as serious-minded media correspondent for NASA.  As the characters are introduced it felt like an abundance of riches and their presence makes the film that much more polished.

With the advancement of special effects it seems like anyone can make you believe that you’re in outer space floating weightless but there’s something truly incredible about the production design and visual effects on display here.  Seamlessly integrating green screen technology, it’s the first film in a long while where I couldn’t tell where the effect ended and reality began.  Couple that with Harry Gregson Williams’s gorgeously haunting score and exemplary cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and you have a film that’s a real stunner.

I can’t remember the last time I left a film so fully satisfied and, better yet, energized.  Rocketing to the top of Best Picture frontrunners, the film has all of the elements that could help it nab the top prize.  We’re pretty far off from the final nominees and the dramatic films seem to rise to the top of the pile but I’m going to be pulling for The Martian to find its way into the mix.  Don’t miss it and feel free to spring for the 3D too, the effect works well to give Mars a unique depth while letting computer read-outs pop out at you.  Seriously…not to be missed.

Movie Review ~ Hercules (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Having endured his legendary twelve labors, Hercules, the Greek demigod, has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie

Director: Brett Ratner

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Bound to be best remembered as the second failed Hercules film of 2014 directed by a once hot director, it’s hard to know where to begin a review for something so devoid of meaning.  I can’t speak for Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules released in January because I managed to avoid that 3D affair but Brett Ratner’s Hercules, based on the version of the half god/half human brought to life by Radical Comics, is pretty bad stuff.

About halfway through the 98 minute film (which feels twice as long) my companion leaned in and whispered “What’s the point of all this?” and he wasn’t so far off the mark.  There’s unfortunately a lot of dialogue in the film and the script from Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos is so mawkishly hackneyed that it all winds up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher wha-wha-wha-ing into your ear.

There’s some semblance of a plot involving mercenary Hercules benefitting from his supposed legendary lineage as he clomps through a ravaged Greece where everyone either speaks with a British or, in the case of its can’t-be-bothered star, an American accent.

Skipping over the more intriguing tales of Hercules moving through an Indiana Jones-like treasure trove of scary beasties and nasty tasks, the screenwriters settle for the musty old plot device of double crosses by power hungry bad guys.  This swords and sandals snoozefest is an endurance test for the ages, compounded by a lead performance that even the inhabitants of Hades would turn their noses at.

How Dwayne “The Rock’ Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Pain and Gain) has managed to becomes a movie star is beyond me.  Though he does possess a certain amount of charm when he isn’t taking himself too seriously, as Hercules he’s dead on arrival and no amount of immortal heritage can save him. Wearing one of several wigs from the Johnny Depp collection and a beard that reads more like a piece of felt, Johnson looks like a huge bicep with eyes.  Actually, remember those cartoons where an uncooked turkey would get up from the platter and walk around?  That’s how he looks.

Though Ian McShane (Snow White and the Huntsman) is the one bright spot in the film as a wise old sage always quick with a one-liner, the rest of the cast is a shamefully mixed bag.  I don’t believe John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) looks a day under 200 but that’s nothing compared to the abject horror of seeing Joseph Fiennes sporting a hair system that reminded me of Buttercup from The Princess Bride.  Rebecca Ferguson shows some spunk as a busty damsel in distress and the Nicole Kidman lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal outdoes her male counterparts in a throwaway role as an Amazonian archer.

The lousy CGI work is only outdone by the lamest post 3D conversion of the summer.  You can only ooo and ahh at a spear being thrust in your face so much before it all gets terribly tiring.  Ratner used to be on Hollywood’s A-list until several cinematic stumbles and one off color homophobic remark that sent him packing as producer of the 2012 Oscar’s heralded the decline of his status.  He won’t be seeing much love either after this stinker, surely one of the worst efforts of 2014.

Movie Review ~ Headhunters (Hodejegerne)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An accomplished headhunter risks everything to obtain a valuable painting owned by a former mercenary.

Stars: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Director: Morten Tyldum

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Random Crew Highlight:  Focus Puller ~ Eirik Holst Aagård

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Now that Sweden’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy has been published and the movie versions are getting released, it’s time to look at the works of another Nordic author that’s been a hot commodity in Norway.  It’s safe to say that Tattoo’s late author, Stieg Larsson, paved the way a bit for Norwegian Jo Nesbø’s crime novels to get some visibility in the US.  Tapping into that same chilly vein, Nesbø has a knack for creating stories with flawed characters you reluctantly root for.  While some may think that Nesbø’s bestseller “The Snowman” may have been the film we’d see it’s actually the older Headhunters that’s seeing the light of the silver screen first.

At its core, Headhunters has a fairly routine set-up filled with the requisite double/triple crosses, femme fatales, and a decent amount of bloodletting.  What sets this Norwegian produced film apart from your direct to video fare is a healthy set of twists to what you expect that keeps you on edge and unprepared for what’s coming next.  Adding a layer of comedy to the mix is one of those unexpected delights that feels totally right even though a times its so wrong.  There’s an outhouse set-up that had the audience roaring at the same time they were ‘ew-ing’…it’s pretty brilliant.  Foreign films aren’t afraid to take their violence to the extreme and there are several stomach churning moments that led me to involuntarily avert my eyes. 

Now you may read that last sentence and it could be a deal breaker for you – please, don’t let it be.  Headhunters is one of the better movies I’ve seen in 2012 and boasts terrific performances under the watchful eye of a director that knows what he’s doing.  It’s a technically grand film with impressive cinematography and a dynamite score that is in perfect harmony with what is developing onscreen.  Even when you think that the film can’t possibly untangle itself from the web its weaving it manages to do so without apology or resorting to a cheap payoff. 

Right from the start the movie has to win us over because our lead hero (Hennie) is actually a not very nice guy.  A seemingly bland headhunter by trade but art-thief in practice he’s got a comfortable life with a stunner of a wife (glamazon newcomer Macody Lund).  With mounting bills and a lifestyle to support he’s out for one big score and he sees possibility when Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones) arrives on the scene.  But Greve has some, um, grave secrets that are unearthed and that’s all I’ll say because to give away more would expose some plot turns too interesting to spoil.

Even though a remake is (naturally) in the works be the cool person in your office and see the original now.  Subtitles in Norwegian will keep you busy reading as you watch the events develop on screen but try to keep up because this film waits for no man (or woman).  Once the film takes off about thirty minutes in it doesn’t give you a chance to breathe — cars crash, heads roll, secrets are reveled, and more than a little blood is spilled.  It’s a first rate thriller that proves you don’t need a dragon tattoo to create sparks.