REVIEW: “The Martian”

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Ridley Scott’s filmography has been pretty amazing. A quick scan shows it to be littered with cult classics, blockbuster favorites, and Oscar winners. But over the last several years many have hit Scott’s films pretty hard. Personally I have disagreed with the many. I loved the slower, character-driven approach to “Robin Hood”. I don’t think “Prometheus” was nearly as bad as many do. And despite its noticeable flaws, I thought “Exodus” was a pretty grand spectacle.

But now the 77 year-old Scott has once again caught the attention of his critics with “The Martian”, a brainy and somewhat observational  science fiction flick based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. Scott has long enjoyed delving into the science fiction realm, yet with “The Martian” he has managed to create something unique. This entertaining mixture of striking visuals and patient, methodical narrative has little in common with Scott’s past sci-fi experiences. “The Martian” is a much different movie but it still spotlights Scott’s talents as a filmmaker even though it may not sit among his best.

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“The Martian” plays out like some type of love letter to science and space exploration. There are A TON of science-heavy back-and-forths between the film’s large cast of characters and science is the centerpiece for nearly every scene. In many ways it was captivating to watch and listen to these people speak 10 light years over my head – bouncing around theories, equations, and analyzing data. At the same time it left two-thirds of the film feeling too emotionally dry. Drew Goddard’s script nails down the science but sometimes misses the human element.

The story hops into gear quickly when the Aries III Mars mission is hit by a brutal storm. They are forced to prematurely leave the surface and in the process astronaut and team botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed killed and left behind. Actually though, Mark miraculously survived and wakes up to find himself alone and stranded on the red planet. Armed with more scientific knowledge than a stack of college textbooks, Mark determines to use his science knowhow to survive. That starts by figuring out a way to communicate back to Earth.

For me Matt Damon is the epitome of the ‘reliable actor’. He is always solid and you know what you’re going to get. Here he handles his alone scenes well often talking to only himself of a computer screen. Many scenes require him to carry them ala Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”. He doesn’t exhibit the charisma or charm of Hanks but he more than gets the job done and you never doubt him or his predicaments.

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The film’s second setting is on Earth. Upon discovering that Mark is alive, NASA sets out to find a feasible rescue plan. To accomplish this the movie introduces us to a host of characters many of which function solely to toss around their own scientific solutions. An interesting ensemble is put together for the NASA scenes. On the better side of the group is the rock-solid Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor. In much more curious casting, Kristen Wiig feels terribly out of place as NASA’s chief spokesperson. And while Jeff Daniels certainly wasn’t “bad”, he was a bit hard to believe as the “Head of NASA”.

But there is a third setting and I would argue that it contains the more compelling and entertaining characters. It takes place aboard the Hermes where Mark’s crew is making the long trip back to Earth after losing one of their own. Or so they think. It’s here that the film gives us a better mix of science and human emotion. The casting is also stronger featuring Jessica Chastain, a reserved Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie. I loved spending time with this group.

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“The Martian” has wonderful visuals but not strictly in the way you might expect. There aren’t a lot of eye-popping visual spectacles. It’s more subtle and calculated, concentrating on gorgeous, slow-moving panoramic shots and unique, strategic camera angles that highlight the spectacular space settings. The storytelling is somewhat similar, at least until the last act. Most of the movie has the feel of a smaller more intimate picture despite its grand size and scale. I really appreciated that. It lasts right up until the finale. The ending felt much more studio polished and traditional.

Many people are heralding “The Martian” as a return to form for Ridley Scott. I would argue that he never lost his form but that is another discussion. Instead I’ll just say “The Martian” is another fine movie on a truly great filmmaker’s filmography. It’s not without its flaws. There is some questionable casting and some characters are woefully underdeveloped. Some of the humor doesn’t quite land (including a 70’s disco gag which never ends), and the ending was a bit too by-the-books. But none of these things keep “The Martian” from being a standout motion picture experience. It does several things we aren’t used to seeing from blockbustery type movies and it does them really well. And for me it is another reason why Ridley Scott remains a top-tier filmmaker.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Hercules”

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If you would have told me ten years ago that WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would become the highest paid actor and busiest man in Hollywood I would call you insane. But that’s exactly what has happened. It seems like his face pops up everywhere. Case in point – last year alone he appeared in five different films. But as any halfway discerning movie fan knows, not all of Rock’s films have been gems and I can’t say I was expecting much from his latest flick “Hercules”.

But there is something surprisingly effective about “Hercules” that makes it easily watchable despite its glaring flaws. Brett Ratner directs which threw up all kinds of warning signs for me. I’ve disliked my share of his past films, but this one is actually fun in large part thanks to its charismatic and likable lead and the fun assortment of supporting talent. But I give Ratner credit, he doesn’t derail the film’s momentum and he keeps it within a nice, tidy 98 minutes.

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This isn’t the normal Hercules story you’ve read about or even seen in the rather misleading movie trailer. This is based off a graphic novel titled “Hercules: The Thracian Wars”. At first we hear the legend of Hercules – the demigod son of the mighty Zeus. In reality he’s just a mortal who has a ton of muscles, great battlefield skills, and a pearly white smile. He leads a colorful band of mercenaries that includes prophet (Ian McShane) who is always wrongly predicting his own death, an Amazonian archer (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) with endless supply of arrows, his knife-slinging childhood friend (Rufus Sewell), a hatchet-wielding warrior from Thebes (Aksel Hennie), and his nephew (Reece Ritchie) whose main job is to build the legend of Hercules through his exaggerated stories.

Hercules and his crew are approached by Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) and offered a ton a gold to help defeat a murderous warlord who is burning villages and killing innocents. Herc agrees to meet with Lord Cotys (John Hurt) and the two strike a deal. Hercules will train the makeshift army of farmers and lead them into battle defeating the evil warlord and bringing peace across the lands. Oh please, you know things aren’t that simple.

Actually things really aren’t that simple and I’m thankful for that. The story does start out cliched and incredibly formulaic. So much of the dialogue, narrative structure, and plot maneuvers are things we’ve seen in so many other fantasy films. But the story does have a couple of twists that shake things up and keep it interesting. There is also an enormous amount of action, much of which pushes the PG-13 violence boundaries. People are skewed, impaled, burned, and sliced in rapid succession and it’s quite amazing the film avoided an R rating. The action sequences, much like portions if the plot, do sometimes feel lifted from other films. But they’re also a lot of fun mainly because Ratner keeps them energetic and embraces the absurdity of it all.

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Now I have to admit, at times I found it hard to buy into The Rock as Hercules. It has nothing to do with his performance (he is surprisingly good here and continues to get better as an actor) and he certainly has the look. But the above mentioned charisma that he naturally possesses kept bringing visions of The Rock and not Hercules. But he has a lot of fun with the role and which made it fun for me. It also helps to have really good actors like Hurt and McShane having a blast with their characters.

It’s impossible to call “Hercules” a great movie mainly because it lacks originality and borrows too much from too many other films. From its plot and dialogue all the way to its use of its score, “Hercules” feels way too familiar. But it is easy to call the film fun and it is definitely a pleasant surprise. It’s a ‘kick your feet up’ action movie and never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. It may be a ‘one and done’ popcorn flick, but I have to admit it is an enjoyable escape.

VERDICT – 3 STARS