Movie Review ~ House of Gucci

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel their legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately…murder.

Stars: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, Camille Cottin, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 158 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If you had asked me (or many Hollywood odds-makers) a few months ago about Ridley Scott’s chances in 2021 for finally snagging that elusive Best Director Oscar he’s been chasing for years, I would have likely told you that with two high profile films releasing within the last quarter of the year he was sure to get in for at least one.  Well, despite October’s The Last Duel being quite impressive and receiving fairly good reviews from critics, the studio made a critical blunder by opening it the same weekend the repulsive Halloween Kills came out and it tanked…big time.  Now Scott is back with House of Gucci, his second time at bat this year and it’s an even bigger project (the Knights of the Middle Ages never stood a chance against Scheming Italian Fashion Designers) so the stakes are higher. 

What we have here is a limited series for TV/streaming that happens to be a nearly three-hour movie.  So, somewhere along the line a serious error was made and the script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna based off of the book by Sara Gay Forden was sent to MGM’s film division instead of its television extension.  That’s the only reason I can think of for why Scott’s film has such a sprawling enormity that it eventually creates a black hole where the final act should be.  I have nothing against a movie with a butt numbing running time and have been known to turn up my nose at those who want every movie to be 90 minutes.  The thing is this, some movies have to carry a longer running length for a variety of reasons.  What they also need to have is, well, an ending and that’s what House of Gucci sorely lacks.  An ending.

Let’s back up almost three hours to the beginning of the film, when the future looked a little brighter for Scott and company.  Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver, Annette) is out for his morning routine when he encounters a man that will change the destiny of his family and the Gucci clothing line forever.  We’ll have to wait decades (in movie time) to find out precisely what that is because we flashback to an earlier period when Maurizio wasn’t involved with his family business but instead preferred to go through life without having his legacy define him.  The moniker definitely was attractive to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga, A Star is Born), a 22-year-old who met him at a party and cleverly positioned herself in his life so in the end he couldn’t say no to a relationship, and eventual marriage, to her.  Despite the protestations of his father (Jeremy Irons, Assassin’s Creed) who believed his son’s fiancé to be a gold-digger, Maurizio was so taken with the woman that he willingly gave up his father’s favor for her.

It was years later, and on Patrizia’s behest, that Maurizio’s uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino, The Irishman) convinced his nephew to come back into the fold and take his rightful place in the line of Gucci royalty.  Once Maurizio was in, so was Patrizia…and that’s when the couple began cleaning house.  Targeting relatives they had once used as pawns, like black sheep Paolo (Jared Leto, The Little Things), Patrizia and Maurizio began to recreate Gucci as the luxury brand it would eventually become…but not under their regime.  Overzealous with their power and spending, the couple would go through rocky times, eventually leading Patrizia down a deadly path. 

The question most will be interested in will be how Lady Gaga’s sophomore effort in a feature film fares compared to her Oscar-nominated turn in A Star is Born.  There was a stretch of time where many thought the singer would win the award for her truly star-making performance but it’s this follow-up which is the real test.  The result? A solid B.  She attacks the role full on and you can tell she takes her job seriously, but the intensity of the acting is all over the map from scene to scene.  Part of the blame could fall on Scott for not reeling her in a bit more and helping her understand emotional arc, but by the end she’s almost deliriously wild-eyed to the point of hilarity.  It doesn’t help the scene in question (it’s with Salma Hayek where both are trying to be incognito) is laughably bad in general but her acting here only makes it stand out that much more.

Others in the cast sort of exist in her wake, with only Leto and Pacino surfacing occasionally to tell us they are also in the movie.  For as much churn as Leto seems to stir up any time he’s in a movie, he’s an immersive actor like few are.  Unrecognizable in heavy prosthetics and a fat suit, he doesn’t let the make-up do the acting for him…this is all Leto and it’s without question the best thing in the movie.  Pacino exists in an area between Leto and Gaga, sometimes he’s on the money, other times he’s overblown.  Either version of him worked for me.  Driver is surprisingly beige in the role, failing to bring much life to the part.  Maybe he was just adrift in the sea of Gaga and didn’t have much of a life raft?  Bless her heart but Hayek (Eternals) is playing such a terrible role, terribly written and terribly filmed, and the actress does her best to make something of it.  Alas, blood from a stone.  Blood from a stone.

Scott’s film painstakingly recreates the period in which all of these infamous events take place, down to the décor and couture that were de rigueur.  The fierce attention to detail is a dream to watch and from a production standpoint House of Gucci is a huge success on a scale of moviemaking with a capital “M”.  You would expect nothing less of Scott who is a master at this type of product.  Unfortunately, all the intricate features in the world can’t save some silly side characters and acting that grows increasingly campier (including the accents) as the film progresses.  Then there’s the jittery ending which barely exists, made more disappointing because it’s handled so poorly, and you have a movie that begins by making quite the impression but leaves a bad taste in your mouth by the end. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Alien (1979)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a space merchant vessel receives an unknown transmission as a distress call, one of the crew is attacked by a mysterious life form and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  It’s Memorial Day weekend 1979 and you are an audience member in one of the 90 theaters showing a movie called Alien.  You’ve only seen the poster with the tagline, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’  Maybe you saw the teaser trailer (one of the all time best) in front of another movie earlier in the year or perhaps you’ve seen nothing of the film at all.  This is a time before the internet and the type of massive publicity surge studios use to show nearly everything but the closing credits before a movie opens.  No one else has told you what to expect, no dialogue later to become iconic has been quoted endlessly, there have been no copycats that tried to ride its genre coattails to similar success.  Everything about this is new to you.  I am so jealous of you!!

Seriously, think back to a time before you saw one of your favorite movies and then think about yourself now and how things changed after that experience.  You wish you could go back and relive that first thrill again.  While you can watch your go-to dozens of times over and only grow to love it more, nothing will beat that sweet first glimpse of greatness that made it so memorable in the first place.  Jaws, Jurassic Park, Moulin Rouge!, Grease 2 (yes, Grease 2), Rear Window, The Sound of Music, The Godfather – just a handful of titles that come to mind I’d love to go back and experience again like I’d never seen them before.  Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien sits high on that list as well…and pretty high up.

A supreme genre hybrid and crown jewel in both science fiction and horror, Alien is the be-all, end-all of creature feature films set in the stars while also impressing as an incredibly scary haunted house flick with a few nods to the Westerns made famous in the ’50s.  Go into Alien without knowing what’s in store and you are sure to have shock after shock, finding a scream around every corner of the large commercial space vessel Nostromo which gets cleverly boarded by our titular character. 

The original idea of screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, both sci-fi fans with ties to the industry, the existence of the film can be tied back to the Star Wars craze.  Fans were clamoring for more space odysseys and with The Empire Strikes Back still in development/production and not due until 1980, 20th Century Fox took the first space script that came to them, then called Star Beast.  Renamed Alien, the studio hired relatively new director Scott (recently represented with The Last Duel) to lead the way of the modestly budgeted picture and Scott cast the film using the freedom the script gave him by making the characters unisex.  That means we could have gotten a male Ripley if Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) had decided to skip her audition that day.  While Weaver is just one of a fantastic ensemble of actors and would only later truly step into a spotlight leading role in 1986’s Aliens, almost from the start you can see the then 29 year-old actress taking control of the screen anytime she’s present. 

Weaver hangs to the side for much of the first hour of the film, as her crew answers a distress call on a small moon they were redirected to as they made their way home.  Landing on the barren terra, the three crew volunteers tasked with finding the source of the signal instead find what looks to be a spaceship in ruins and eventually encounter an…unpleasantness which leaves one crew member incapacitated.  Bringing him back on board to give him medical care, they restart the journey home as fast as possible but it’s already too late.  They’ve brought something on board that will emerge, grow, and kill them one by one until only one is left to face the towering creature head on.

Even watching the movie for as long as I have, I’ll never get over at how ahead of its time it was.  On so many levels.  First off, the presence of such a strong female character that winds up the lead is so rare in this genre and this certain type of take-charge female is particularly impressive.  Other films feature women that become strong or fall into a position of being forced to adapt or else, but Weaver plays Ripley as a woman that’s always been proving herself and this experience is not all that different.  She would return to the role again in three subsequent sequels and was Oscar-nominated for the next film but here is where it all began, and the groundwork is laid strong for what develops over the years. 

Another way the film seems ahead of its time is that it literally looks like it was made a decade or more in the future and then shipped back for the audience to view.  The special effects are outstanding and deservedly won an Oscar and the production design was also nominated and could have likely won as well because the magnitude of the sets is jaw-dropping.  Budgeted at 11 million dollars, the producers made their money go a long way and it shows in each blinking light on the control panels, grandeur of the planetary design, and scale of the ship’s shadowy corridors.  The alien itself is just a man (Bolaji Badejo) in a rubber suit but the costume is so detailed and the editing from Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley so skilled that you never notice the seams. 

Anyone with a pulse should feel it racing at some point during Alien.  Using not just the creature itself but light, practical design/effects, and our own imaginations to create scenarios in our head, Alien creates a high sense of dread that rarely lets the audience have time to catch their breath. The cast, the production, and Scott’s assured hand in direction combine to give what could have been a B-movie in the wrong hands a classy sheen that’s stood the test of time.  Even today it remains an extremely frightening film that works because of its simplicity in scaring us. Countless movies have tried without the same type of (or any) success in recreating what Alien brings forth…just stick with the biggest baddest mother of them all.

Movie Review ~ The Last Duel

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris. Her husband, knight Jean de Carrouges, challenges him to trial by combat, the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.

Stars: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the big summer effects bonanzas being on hold for an entire year and the prestigious costume dramas pushed out for better positioning at award chances to later in 2021 or even 2022, audiences have been lacking in the area of the grand epic for going on two years.  Sure, we’ve had the occasional Marvel film here and there to satiate some sense of wonder but I’m talking about those films that make you feel like you’re back in Hollywood’s heyday when everything was made on a studio lot and extras numbered in the thousands.  As recently as a decade ago we were still getting these movies, but they’ve taken a backseat to films that are easier to produce with limited involvement from humans that are added in post-production.  The sets aren’t real, and the overall ambiance feels phony…making the stakes not feel quite as high for historical epics involving swords, sandals, arrows, chainmail, etc.

One director out there hasn’t shied away from continuing on the legacy of the epic and that’s Ridley Scott, a filmmaker often taken a bit for granted in the business for his tendency to lean into fare of the sheer entertainment variety.  Though primarily an action director, he was also behind Thelma & Louise, Matchstick Men, and A Good Year so he is known to stretch when the mood suits him.  That lighter touch helps a bit in Scott’s newest film, The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction novel “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” which details the final legally recognized duel that was fought in France.  One man is accused by another of the most heinous act of violation against his wife, a charge that leads them to the highest court in the country where they leave it in God’s hands to decide who is telling the truth.  If the defendant dies during the duel, it will prove the woman was telling the truth.  If the accused comes out of the duel alive and kills his accuser, well then, he is telling the truth and the man’s wife will be burned alive for her lie.  Not the soundest execution of justice and back in 2019 when the film was first announced, not the most promising of a plot description for a town just settling into the first wave of post #MeToo productions.

Adapted by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (yes, they did win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting), the two were wise to ask Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to join them in their journey in bringing Jager’s novel to the screen.  This not only brought some needed balance to the screenplay and gave a stronger voice overall to the script but allowed for the central female character to not be written from just one point of view.  The result is a surprisingly swift feature broken into three chapters that tell the same story, just from the perspectives of different characters.  Employing a Rashomon-style technique in storytelling isn’t anything revelatory but in the hands of pros like Scott and his cast, the small similarities and even smaller subtle differences unique to each version of events keeps this one in a gripping space where the edge of your seat moments extend far beyond what happens during the titular duel.

Audiences are wise to buckle up and pay attention for the first thirty minutes which sets the stage for the friendship and eventual rivalry between knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon, The Martian) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Annette).  Though Carrouges has the more noble name and throws himself into harm’s way for the honor of his king, he’s unliked by most that know and fight alongside him because of his selfishness and constant need for recognition.  That’s the opposite of Le Gris who, at least at first, is content to just be welcomed in by people in a higher status and be a trusted confidant.  Over time, this skill with ingratiating himself to nobility pushes Le Gris ahead of Carrouges, a sleight that causes a rift in the friendship that cannot be mended.

While the men are sorting out their business, widower Carrouges meets and marries his second wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) and moves her in with his cruel mother (wickedly nasty Harriet Walter, Herself) who picks away at her while he is away in battle.  Unable to conceive a child during their years together, the two are at odds when he takes a trip to the city the same day his mother decides to leave Marguerite alone for the day.  Of course this is the same day Le Gris, who has been obsessed with Marguerite ever since meeting her when Carrouges decided to bury the hatchet, pays a visit. 

Some version of these events plays out three times until this point and it mostly is the same story with tiny tweaks to attitudes depending on who is telling the tale.  In Carrouges version, Marguerite is much more docile, to hear Le Gris tell it, Marguerite was flirting with him and encouraged his visit, but in Marguerite’s retelling, or ‘The Truth’ as the words linger longer on the screen insinuate, neither man read the signs correctly. Watching different iterations also means audiences have to witness a brutal rape twice so here’s your warning this unpleasant encounter is on display and though absent of nudity or gore, is more gruesome than anything that plays out later in the vicious battle royale between Carrouges and Le Gris.  Can a scene like this be shot with any kind of sensitivity?  I doubt it, but Comer bravely gives it her all and Scott allows her room to breathe.

Speaking of Comer, with the amount of male energy flying around and the dueling taking up such a major piece of the action, it’s saying something the actress is far and away the winner of the evening when the credits roll.  Making a splash on television even before her award-winning run in the acclaimed spy series Killing Eve, Comer graduates to the A-list with a star making (and surely Oscar nominated) turn as a woman unwilling to back down or be intimidated from anyone or anything, even a horrific threat of death.  Already victimized once, she refuses to go through it again via her husband or even the highest court in the land…and believe me, the court sure tries. 

Backing Comer up in the acting department are Damon and Driver who dial back their oft-tendency to grandstand with Driver in particular making a strong case for himself as capable of even more than his most loyal fans have thought.  True, he’s playing a pretty despicable guy but for a while he’s almost endearing and definitely more tolerable than Damon’s character.  I mean, the hair alone on Carrouges is enough to drive you crazy.  In past films, Damon tends to gnaw at the scenery when he gets worked up but anytime Affleck (Live by Night) is onscreen in The Last Duel there’s nothing left to consume because he’s swallowed up the entire caravan of costumes by Janty Yates (Prometheus) and the sumptuous set decorations courtesy of Judy Farr (Rocketman).  Of all the people that were bound to overact, I wasn’t expecting it to be Affleck but with his blond hair and a blond goatee that looks like a tennis ball was just cut in half and stuck on his pointy chin, it’s a performance that treks into high camp.  And he doesn’t even go all the way with it.  There are several scenes where his lothario character is meant to be scampering around chasing after women and they’re all naked and he’s fully clothed – we all know this character would be naked as a jaybird without a care in the world.  It’s a small detail but became a major one in my mind considering what the movie puts the Comer character through.

I initially thought I’d find long jags of the film slow but with Scott at the helm it moves like a locomotive, peppered here and there with his trademark flair for a well-staged battle scene.  With the R-rating firmly in place he’s able to make these incredibly violent and in your face, leading up to and including the final duel between the two men.  It all makes for an experience that has a solid impact with parallels to victim-blaming that resonate even today.  The Last Duel might be about the final official battle over honor in France, but it leaves audiences with the recognition that the war was just beginning.

Movie Review ~ All the Money in the World

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III and the desperate attempt by his devoted mother to convince his billionaire grandfather Jean Paul Getty to pay the ransom.

Stars: Michelle Williams, Kevin Spacey, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: The first thing we should do with All the Money in the World is applaud director Ridley Scott for having it ready to release in the first place.  Originally the film featured now disgraced Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey (Working Girl) under heavy make-up to play J. Paul Getty but after his headline-making nosedive in the midst of scandal Scott made the almost unheard-of decision in late November to replace Spacey with another Oscar-winner (Christopher Plummer) and still have the movie ready to go by its Christmas Day release date.  Well, applause is definitely warranted for the 80-year-old director because the movie is finished and it looks great…but is it any good?

The answer to that question lies in your willingness to see the story of the prolonged kidnapping and ransom of Getty’s grandson for the stylish period thriller Scott wants it to be and not the par-baked soapy drama it winds up resembling.  Sure, Scott knows his way around these throwback tales with their washed-out colors and extraordinary eye for detail, but there’s so little heart and soul to the proceedings that it’s hard to find anyone to sympathize with or, in my case, stay awake for.

Yes, it’s true. I feel asleep for a good ten or fifteen minutes in the first half of the movie and while I’d like to attribute my heavy lids to seeing it the day after Christmas, the honest truth was that the glacial pacing in that first hour is enough to lull even the most Red Bull-ized audience member into dreamland.  I just wasn’t interested in the initial investigation into the disappearance of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to the other present Plummer) or the strange bonding that happens between the victim and his kidnapper (Romain Duris).  Informed by my movie mate that I didn’t miss much, even taking a few winks it wasn’t hard to pick up where I left off.

The film starts to be something to worth remembering when all hope seems to be lost and Getty’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Willaims, The Greatest Showman) begins to be a more active player in getting her son back.  Working with a hired gun (Mark Wahlberg, Ted) originally employed by her former father-in-law, Gail gets in on the action by negotiating not only with the kidnappers that have her son but with her imposing in-law that quid pro quos her every step of the way.  Williams is in a strange mode here, doing her darndest to maintain an Eastern accent and playing deep despair without ever looking like she really is invested in what’s happening around her.  Wahlberg is coasting too, his entire role is so low-impact I’m wondering why they needed him at all.

It’s hard to look at the film now and even consider Spacey playing J. Paul Getty.  Sure, early trailers invoked some curiosity into how the 50-something actor would play the octogenarian, but Plummer is such an impressive force in the role I’d bet top dollar studio executives didn’t bat an eye when Scott proposed his reshoot plan.  Plummer’s aces in every one of his scenes and Williams and Wahlberg (both wearing wigs that don’t quite match scenes directly before and after) graciously give him the floor and recreate their emotions as if this was the plan all along.

Scott (The Martian, Prometheus) has never been dormant for long but he’s enjoying a nice little renaissance at this late stage in his career.  Earlier in 2017 his misguided Alien: Covenant was a big bummer for me but this one feels more in his wheelhouse and he’s breezily operating within his comfort zone.  The script from David Scarpa adapted from John Pearson’s book doesn’t have anything remarkable to say so the movie is left to create interest based on the characters and the impeccable production design.  On those merits, it’s a success, but performances and set-dressings can’t be the main source of recommendation for a movie so All the Money on the World winds up with a buyer beware notice.

The Silver Bullet ~ Alien: Covenant

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Synopsis: The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Anticipation was high back in 2012 when director Ridley Scott’s mysterious Prometheus arrived veiled in secrecy.  Was it a prequel to Alien or wasn’t it?  Early previews gave few clues and neither Scott nor 20th Century Fox did much to fill in the blanks.  Prometheus sharply divided audiences and critics, some appreciating that Scott reached further back than mere prequel territory while others loathed it with a vitriol usually reserved for a Transformers sequel.  Personally, I loved it and saw it several times on the big screen; it’s cliffhanger ending only made me more curious about what would happen next.  The answer comes next May with Alien: Covenant and this first look is a neat (if overly gory/spoiler-y) intro to a film that looks very different than its predecessor.  Perhaps Scott (The Martian) and screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre, Hugo) are trying to please the fans and detractors of Prometheus at the same time.  Riding that fine line would be good, I just hope they don’t overcompensate and make a faded copy of the original entry.  Aside from Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Noomi Rapace (Dead Man Down) returning in their roles, star Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) certainly is going full-on Ellen Ripley and I’m interested (and a little nervous) to see how actors like Danny McBride (This Is the End) and the recently added James Franco (Sausage Party) figure into the mix. It’s worth noting that Alien: Covenant was originally intended for a release in October 2017.  It was then moved up to August before settling into a prime summer release date in May.  That’s a very good sign of a studio confident they have something big…let’s hope so.

The Silver Bullet ~ Morgan

morgan

Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant has to decide and determine whether or not to terminate an artificial being’s life that was made in a laboratory environment.

Release Date: September 2, 2016

Thoughts: Though I feel like I’ve seen this overall plot before (as recently as 2015’s Ex Machina), Morgan has a lot of positives going for it. It wasn’t made for much but it looks nice and expensive, it has a cast blooming with both interesting actresses on the rise (Kate Mara, Iron Man 2, and Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch, and Rose Leslie, Honeymoon) as well as veteran character actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight; Paul Giamatti, San Andreas).  It’s also produced by Ridley Scott (The Martian)…but then again his son did direct it so I’m sure he’s wearing his producer hat while drinking out of his Best Dad Ever mug.  The last Scott offspring that directed a movie was Jordan and she gave us the underrated gem Cracks so here’s hoping an eye for unsettling films runs in the family.

The Silver Bullet ~ Equals

equals

Synopsis: A futuristic love story set in a world where emotions have been eradicated.

Release Date: TBD 2016

Thoughts: Director Drake Doremus gave us a wonderfully realized love story in 2011 with Like Crazy so I’m hoping that Equals is, well, equal to the class and sophistication of that earlier film.  I’m getting a real Gattaca and The Giver vibe from this first look at Equals and that’s not a bad thing at all.  It’s hard to tell from this true teaser what exactly will happen with the relationship between Nicholas Hoult (Jack the Giant Slayer, Mad Max: Fury Road) and Kristen Stewart (Still Alice) but it looks like their romance will be an uphill battle set against a monochromatic production design.  Though she’s always been a strong actress, Stewart continues to take roles that aim to rebrand herself after being so closely associated with the Twilight series of films. Let’s keep an eye on this one, shall we?

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Martian

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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.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: There’s a Mars curse in Hollywood and everyone knows it. Numerous films about the red planet have been released over the years and, save for the 1990 version of Total Recall, they’ve all been belly-up flops. True, it’s not as if these were great films to begin with…like the 2000 double-header of Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars and Anthony Hoffman’s Red Planet. John Carter was savaged by critics but it was better than it was given credit for.

Now here comes director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Blade Runner) with his bid to break the Mars curse and it looks like he may have cracked the code. Though the first trailer clocks in at an astounding 3+ minutes, it’s a brilliantly edited preview of the November release…giving us some idea on what to expect but not foreshadowing what’s to become of an American astronaut stranded on Mars.

Based on Andy Weir’s 2014 novel and adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), Scott has gone big with the visuals and cast. After sharing no scenes in Interstellar, I’m wondering if Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jessica Chastain (Mama) will meet up again in this space tale. There’s also Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment), Kate Mara (Iron Man 2), Sebastian Stan (The Apparition), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Sean Bean (Mirror Mirror), and Kristen Wiig (Girl Most Likely…).

The Silver Bullet ~ Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Synopsis: An account of Moses’ hand in leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.

Release Date:  December 12, 2014

Thoughts:  After March’s Noah and the modest success of films like God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real I’m thinking we’ll look back on 2014 as the year that studios got Biblical.  Coming in right under the wire this December will be Ridley Scott’s (Prometheus) take on the story of Moses as told in the book of Exodus.  With Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) as the Red Sea parter himself and Joel Edgerton (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Pharaoh Ramses (his brother from another mother) joining Scott’s favorite alien hunter Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl), Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), and Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) for some Egyptian action this looks more in line with the epics from the 50s and 60s.  Scott is certainly a competent filmmaker so hopes are high Exodus: Gods and Kings won’t make as quick a box office exit as Noah did earlier this year.