REVIEW: “The Martian”

The Martian poster

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: “Z for Zachariah”

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The post-apocalypse has become one of the favorite settings for modern day filmmakers. Think about it. We’ve witnessed the aftermath of an earth ravaged by everything from nuclear war to energy depletion to zombie outbreaks. And while some may argue it has been done ad nauseam, I have to say I love it. It’s a setting that offers filmmakers opportunities to put human beings through a plethora of powerful emotional and relational situations.

So right off the bat “Z for Zachariah” places itself in this familiar setting. But the film, directed by Craig Zobel and based on a novel originally published in 1974, shows us several new things and quickly differentiates itself from the post-apocalyptic norm. Flickers of science fiction can occasionally be seen but for the most part it lingers in the background. Instead the film focuses on the most compelling and absorbing dynamic – human drama.

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The movie begins after what appears to be a nuclear holocaust. There is no widespread destruction or vast wastelands. Only emptiness and radiation – vacant mountain cities filled with remnants of a once vibrant past. It is here that we meet Ann (Margot Robbie) rummaging through a radiation-soaked town before heading back to her home – a farmhouse in a miraculously radiation-free pocket of territory high in the mountains. Ann is alone, surviving by working the same farmland as her father during her childhood. She also shares her father’s deep faith believing God has sheltered their land for His own purposes.

One day while out hunting Ann is stunned by what she sees – another human being. Roaming a winding mountain road in a radiation suit and pulling a cart full of his belongings is John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). After a complicated first meeting, Ann brings John to the farm where he begins sharing in the work. John was a scientist and an engineer and is respectful of Ann’s beliefs and gracious for her hospitality. We watch as a unique human relationship is formed, each approaching it from very different walks of life. But things get complicated when a mysterious stranger named Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives; a veritable ‘third wheel’ who brings an entirely new set of emotional complexities to the relationships.

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This is the story Zobel seeks to tell. There are no mutated monsters, hordes of zombies, or packs of marauders. Simply three people dealing with their internal and external situations. They could just as well be the last people on Earth which adds a unique perspective to the story. Even in their incredible instances of survival, the basest and most primal human instincts still must be dealt with. And despite their miraculous situations, people will always birth conflict.

But Zobel and writer Nissar Modi look at these things through different lenses. For example there is a deep spiritual element that we see in Robbie’s character and through the rich symbolism sprinkled in the story. It allows for the pondering of several compelling points. But Loomis and Caleb bring interesting twists of perspective that ask a number of thoughtful questions. This was one of the many things that impressed me. Even in its simplicity, the story is an intelligent and nuanced exercise in human examination and internal exploration.

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And what a telling performance from Margot Robbie, an actress I had given little attention. She is sublime, turning in a beautifully delicate and stripped-down performance. She is the heart of the film and in many ways its frail moral compass. But right behind her is Ejiofor. In a sagacious performance he gives us the most layered and complex character of the film. Even Chris Pine, and actor who hasn’t always impressed me, is very good in giving us an interesting and cryptic third character. These three make up the entire cast and each deliver on a high level.

“Z for Zachariah” is a breath of fresh air, a post-apocalyptic morality yarn that may play out too slowly for some. It unwinds at a deliberate pace, patiently touching on its subjects while never spelling itself out. Yet there is such a satisfying effectiveness to the slowness. Zobel engages his audience not through the normal and expected genre machinations, but by peeling back revealing layers of humanity. Layers that, when examined by an honest eye, can sometimes be quite ugly. Personally, I found it fascinating.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

Top 5 Performances of 2013 – Lead Actor

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This is it – the final ‘Best of’ list for the 2013 movie year. For me, narrowing down this particular category to just five was the most difficult of any of these best performance lists. It pained me to leave off so many great performances from 2013, but someone decided that Top 5 lists can only feature five picks so I’m sticking to it. No need to drag this out any further. Here are my five favorite performances from a lead actor:

#5 – Robert Redford – “All is Lost

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All is Lost” may be a film that feels too familiar for some but I felt it had more to it than you may first perceive. But regardless of that, no one can doubt the incredible work from 77-year old Robert Redford. It’s such a physically demanding role and we immediately notice Redford’s 100% commitment. But being he is the only cast member, he is tasked with having the audience invest in him and he definitely succeeds. Considering there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire film, it is amazing how much he tells us through expressions and gestures. It’s just brilliant work.

#4 – Bruce Dern – “Nebraska

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What a joy is was to watch the great Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska“. Dern’s career started in 1960 and since then he has shown a wide range of mostly supporting roles. But here he gives one of the saddest yet most endearing performances of the year. His character isn’t the warmest or the nicest. Yet over time you begin to sense he’s more than we may think. Payne’s script brilliantly hides little details about the character and the audience gets to put the pieces together as we go. But it’s Dern that keeps us fixated and invested. With so many big and showy performances this year Dern probably won’t take home an award. But he’s certainly worthy of one.

#3 – Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis

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I’ve always been a fan of Oscar Isaac and I was thrilled to see him get the lead role in the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis“. He certainly didn’t disappoint. There are so many things I loved about Isaac’s work. First, he’s the perfect fit for the Coen’s signature unique and slightly offbeat lead character. But Llewyn Davis is much more than that and Isaac masterfully peels back all of these layers. Another beautiful element to this performance can be found in the music. Isaac performed all of his own songs and the musical scenes in the film were all recorded live, never dubbed. It’s just another reason this performance was so good.

#2 – Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years a Slave

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Perhaps the most daring and courageous performance of the year came from British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. What tremendous work he does in Steve McQueen’s gripping and bold “12 Years a Slave“. There is nothing disingenuous or halfhearted about Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon Northup. With amazing commitment and a ton of emotion he brings this reflective and unsettling story to life. There are so many scenes that will cut deep and stay with you well after the credits role. You immediately connect with him. You root for him. You hurt with him. If done poorly this role could have sunk the whole film. Ejiofor never allows that to happen.

#1 – Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt

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Regardless of the criminal omissions by the Award types, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in “The Hunt” was my favorite of the year. The story itself is tough and unsettling and it needed a good actor to give the film the gut-punch it was looking for. Mikkelsen is the perfect guy. It is painful to watch what his character endures both physically and emotionally. Mikkelsen’s performance invests us in this man’s story, his plight, and his emotional state as things unfold. We watch and shutter as this man’s life is changed forever. This is an immensely crowded field full of great actors and performances. It says a lot that Mads Mikkelsen is at the top of that field. Brilliant work. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners“), Christian Bale (“American Hustle“), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station“), Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“), Jude Law (“Side Effects“) So what do you think? Who did I miss or who did I rate too high? Please take time to share your thoughts in the comments section below.