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: “Elysium”

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Neill Blomkamp surprised a lot of people with his 2009 science fiction thriller “District 9”. While I wasn’t drawn to it, the majority of critics gave it high marks. It would go on to earn four Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture. His eagerly anticipated follow up comes in the form of “Elysium”, another sci-fi foray soaked in social commentary. It’s a bleak, gritty, and violent film with high ambition and a much bigger budget.

Blomkamp once again writes and directs the movie which starts with a pretty heavy-handed setup. Blatantly obvious political statements on immigration, healthcare, and class warfare are thrown at the audience without an ounce of tact or subtlety. In fact it’s so painfully obvious that I started rolling my eyes and began to dread what was ahead. But to my surprise the film steers away from that and instead of shoving its positions in our face it allows them to simmer underneath the surface which definitely better serves the movie.

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The story basically goes like this – in the distant future Earth is an impoverished and overpopulated planet. People struggle against starvation, disease, and a brutish robot police force. But while the poor make up the Earth’s population, the rich upper-class live on a luxurious space station community known as Elysium. This orbital paradise features mansions, lush gardens, and machines able to cure any health problem instantly. But here’s the catch – only the wealthy and powerful are allowed on Elysium and there are strict government and military bodies that enforce that rule. As I said, not an ounce of subtlety.

Enter Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a struggling assembly line worker on Earth who has an accident which exposes him to lethal amounts of radiation. He learns he has only five days to live, but he’s not ready to kick the bucket just yet. He has to get to Elysium for treatment so he makes a deal with an underground smuggler. In exchange for a trip he must steal some important information from a corrupt military contractor. Seeing Max’s failing health, the smuggler has his doctors implant him with a super-strength robotic exoskeleton and cerebral implant to help with the mission. But Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) also wants that information for her own nefarious reasons and she will do anything to get it.

Oddly enough “Elysium” drastically changes course as the film goes along. It moves from an obvious heavy-handed social critique to a fairly conventional sci-fi action flick. It uses several all too familiar approaches and it’s fairly easy to gain a sense of how things are going to end. That said, Blomkamp’s pacing is spot on. He keeps things moving which keeps the audience attached. He also has wonderful visual senses. The movie looks great whether it’s the big sweeping location shots or the intense and sometimes brutal action (and there is quite a bit of it). I loved the contrasting aesthetics between the dirty, rundown vision of Los Angeles (which was actually filmed in the Mexico City area) and the spotless Eden-like Elysium. Blomkamp has an unquestionable knack for visual filmmaking.

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Matt Damon is a solid choice to portray a ‘regular guy’. There’s not a lot of flash or bravado to his performance. He’s not a bold or larger-than-life character. In fact I would call him a very atypical hero and that works well within the story. But then there is Jodie Foster. I have no idea what she’s doing in this movie. Her erratic performance is all over the map and her accent morphs from French to British to something I’ve never heard before. I also thought Sharlto Copley was pretty bad as a ruthless sleeper agent who works for Delacourt. He certainly looks the part but that’s it. I don’t know if it’s his voice or his line delivery but nearly all of his dialogue feels terribly off. But thankfully this is Damon’s movie and he carries most of the load.

There’s no doubt that Neill Blomkamp is a gifted visual storyteller. I loved the overall look of “Elysium” from the futuristic technologies to the locations. I also thought the action scenes popped with intensity and grit. Unfortunately his writing prompts the question mark. Early on he uses a mighty broad brush to paint his social/political landscape and later the movie turns into a fairly conventional action film – two issues that I think keeps “Elysium” from being the really good movie that we get glimpses of. Still it has its moments. and as conventional as it may be, the action and pure visual spectacle keep it from being a total loss.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Monuments Men”

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Inspired by an incredible true story and armed with a wonderful ensemble cast, “The Monuments Men” has all the ingredients to be a sure thing. The talent behind the film starts with George Clooney who co-writes, stars, and takes another turn at directing. Clooney has directed some fantastic movies but “Leatherheads” and “The Ides of March” showed us that he’s far from infallible. But I was excited once I saw “The Monuments Men” on the horizon and it quickly became one of my most eagerly anticipated films. Pretty high expectations, right?

I first heard the story of “The Monuments Men” from author Robert Edsel. He was doing an interview and talking about his new book which told the true story of Allied soldiers who sought out and saved important works of art from Hitler and the Nazis during World War 2. It’s incredible stuff and once I heard about a film adaptation I was hooked. Clooney’s picture is loosely based on the actual events which feeds the movie’s strengths but also its weaknesses. So far people have pounced on the film expecting more from it or wanting something entirely different. Personally I thought “The Monuments Men” was fantastic.

Monuments2While watching the film my very first feelings were nostalgic. “The Monuments Men” is a throwback to the old ensemble war pictures but with its own unique twist. I immediately began thinking of movies like “The Green Berets”, “The Guns of Navarone”, and “The Dirty Dozen”. Even the end credits hearken back to those older pictures. My father loved these films and growing up I was able to watch them and learn to appreciate them. I think Clooney gets that and he knows what he’s doing. I give him a ton of credit for recapturing the vibes and nuances of those past genre pieces.

But the big difference between this film and the older ones can be found in the characters. This team isn’t comprised of hardened frontline soldiers. These are common men who possess particular skills needed to complete this unique mission. They are museum curators, art historians, and architects. They are older men who are more comfortable with Picassos and Monets than machine guns and hand grenades. Their mission brings them in as the war in Europe is ending. But even though they slip around the battlefields and combat, eventually the elements of the war effects them. They are at times joking and playful – it’s what you could expect from these types of characters. But they are no longer curating museums, designing skyscrapers, or painting. They are in the war and they constantly come across sober reminders of that.

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I love this entire dynamic which diverts the movie from a common action-oriented path. There really isn’t much action at all which hurts the film in some people’s estimation. Personally I don’t think the story calls for much action. Instead it focuses on the mother of all treasure hunts through an assortment of beautiful European locales. But their mission isn’t easy. There are still wartime tensions, a greedy Russian army, and the Nazis who are under direct orders from Hitler to destroy everything. The seven who make up The Monuments Men split up and spread out across Europe hunting clues, fleeing danger, and tracking down as much stolen art as they can.

Clooney’s film has plenty of shifts in tone. The movie sometimes feels easygoing and lighthearted only to be dark and somber a few scenes later. Some have taken issue with this saying the humor feels out of place. I completely disagree because I found the humor to be measured and conscientious. The humor was there but it felt light. There were never any attempts at big laugh-out-loud moments which would have really been jarring.

And then there is the cast. I love watching good actors act and we certainly get to do that. Clooney plays the team leader and he’s joined by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville. Everyone of them gives fine performances and there is some unique chemistry that develops. Cate Blanchett is also excellent playing someone based on the fascinating real Rose Valland. All of these characters are given their moments to shine and we are given small bits of information about them along the way. Unfortunately it’s not enough to fully develop the characters – only to make us want to know more about them. That was a little disappointing although a movie like this could get bogged down with layers upon layers of backstory.

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Phedon Papamichael (who also did brilliant work in 2013’s “Nebraska”) offers up some fine cinematography and the war-torn set designs look amazing. Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the film’s old-school flavor that Clooney is obviously shooting for. The performances, the nostalgia, the clever balance of the script, the uniqueness of the story. Everything I’ve mentioned comes together in a film that I found satisfying but many others clearly didn’t. What has caused the strong backlash to this film? Was it the lack of action, the deliberate pacing, the scattered storytelling? These things are certainly present but for me they made it a better film and they help steer it away from the conventional movie we could have gotten.

As a lover of art and World War II history, the story of “The Monuments Men” connected with me from the start. As a lover of the fun ensemble war pictures that were all but gone by the end of the 1960s, Clooney’s vision and approach hits the target. To say I’m bewildered by the negative reception to this film is an understatement. I don’t quite know what to make of it. But movies are a funny thing and they certainly effect people differently. For me this was a real treat – a movie that doesn’t pander to conventionalism, moves at its own pace, and treats its subject with respect. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s certainly not a bad film either and I for one loved it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE BOURNE LEGACY” – 3.5 STARS

I was late catching up with the “Bourne” series which is highly unusual since they are the type of movie I gravitate towards. I’ve now seen the first three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, one of several physically and mentally enhanced government black ops projects. Damon steps aside but the series continues with “The Bourne Legacy”. Jeremy Renner is the new leading man playing a new leading character but writer and director Tony Gilroy maintains an import sense of connection and familiarity with the previous films. Gilroy wrote the first three movies and goes to great lengths to make this feel like a Bourne film while also possibly launching the series into a new direction. While Gilroy does occasionally struggle matching up with earlier films, the movie definitely has its moments that nicely falls in line with the series.

While Jason Bourne isn’t in the movie his presence is clearly felt. Gilroy (and his brother Dan who also helped with the screenplay) connect the actions of “The Bourne Ultimatum” to this story. As Jason Bourne continues to threaten the government’s black ops programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to clean the mess up. His solution – to wipe out all of the human projects and those connected to them. One of those projects turned target is Aaron Cross (Renner), an Operation Outcome agent who is considered a step up from those involved in the now exposed Treadstone. But when the attempt on his life fails, Cross is sent scrambling for answers. He’s also ran out of a special medication that keeps him both mentally and physically balanced. Cross tracks down Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor connected to Operation Outcome who he hopes can get him get the pills he needs. But she soon finds that her connection to the project has made her one of Byer’s targets and Cross is her only chance at survival.

For many, the big question revolves around Renner. Does his Aaron Cross match what Damon was able to bring to his Jason Bourne character? Well, yes and no. Renner is most certainly Damon’s equal when it comes to acting. Renner is completely convincing and he’s got the physical abilities to sell each and every action sequence. Cross is different from Bourne in that there is no amnesia.  He knows he’s part of a government project although the amount of knowledge he has is limited. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw with the character, it did take away one of the most intriguing elements of Bourne’s story. But a slightly bigger problem with the character isn’t as much about Renner as it is the writing and direction. Cross is a solid protagonist but I couldn’t help feeling that he lacked the intensity of Jason Bourne. There are a couple of scenes where he “loses it” for a lack of a better phrase, but overall he seldom comes across as intense or as threatening as Bourne.

Nonetheless, Renner’s performance is very good and he’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Weisz is always great and she’s no different here. Her character is the most sympathetic in the film and I loved how Weisz portrays her through the numerous emotionally charged situations she has to deal with. Norton is also good as the evil government clean-up guy. He easily sells the amoral “just doing my job” persona and we genuinely dislike this guy from the moment he first enters the picture. I also really liked Oscar Isaac as a fellow Outcome operative who Cross encounters early in the film. Bourne fans will also enjoy the small but interesting returns of David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. Each have cool little tie-in scenes that answer questions left over from the last film.

“The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t hurry out of the gate. Gilroy takes his time laying out the story and defining his characters. There were a couple of times when I did feel things were moving a little too slow, but overall it works well  and the movie’s third act is pretty action packed. Speaking of the action, it captures some of the same qualities of the past Bourne flicks – hard-hitting hand-to-hand fight scenes and of course a vehicle chase scene. I mean you can’t have a Bourne movie without a vehicle chase and this film gives us a great one. Renner thrills as he runs, jumps, punches, and kicks. Unfortunately his fight scenes are almost rendered incoherent due to moments of inconsistent editing. There were a couple of fight scenes where I literally had no idea what was going on other than punching.

I can see where some would consider “The Bourne Legacy” a cash grab. But even with its few flaws it’s still a fun movie that fits right in with the Bourne series. It stumbles in a few areas and I wouldn’t consider it the best of the series. But Gilroy knows the material well and he knows how to bring new characters into this universe. Renner gives a strong performance and Weisz is wonderful to watch. It also features a chase sequence at the end that is nothing short of awesome. But more importantly, it left me anxious and anticipating what’s coming next. So I would call it a success.

“WE BOUGHT A ZOO” – 2 STARS

“We Bought a Zoo” is a comedy/drama from director Cameron Crowe that’s based on the memoir of Benjamin Mee. It’s packaged as a family movie that tells the interesting true story of Mee and his purchase of a run-down zoo. “We Bought a Zoo” does sometimes tug at the proverbial heartstrings and there are occasional moments where the film is mildly amusing. But it’s also a movie that’s full of forced sentiment and familiar themes that play out exactly as they have in other films.

Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a recent widower still struggling with the recent death of his wife. He has two kids, both fitting the molds of so many others we’ve seen. There’s his adorable 7-year old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who is filled with cute smiles and cuter sayings. Then there is 14-year old Dylan (Colin Ford), the misunderstood older child with a bad attitude who is really just hurting inside due to his mom’s death. C’mon, you know you’ve seen versions of these same kids in several other movies. They both closely follow the blueprint here and everything from their actions to their relationships with their father seems really familiar.

After Dylan is expelled from school and after seeing too many reminders of his wife around town, Benjamin buys and moves to a dilapidated old zoo just outside of the city. His hopes are to start a new adventure that will help both him and his children overcome the grief that they’re all still battling in their own ways. The zoo comes with it’s own assortment of exotic animals as well as a small staff that we hardly get to know with the exception of the head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johannson). Young Rosie loves their new home while the rebellious Dylan wants to move back to the city. Against the advise of his older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin sets out to fix up the zoo in hopes of opening it up for the public. But as costs mount up and money runs out, he soon finds that his entire adventure may never get off the ground.

As I alluded to earlier, Cameron Crowe  milks emotion out of almost every plot point. There are occasions where it does work especially when the film deals with the more personal feelings of loss that each member of the family is dealing with. But Crowe drags these things out just a little to far. I’ll use the strained relationship between Benjamin and his son as an example. We know that a huge blow-up is coming before the relationship will ever be fixed but it feels like it’s never going to come. At over two hours long, Crowe could have trimmed a lot of fat off of the story and the movie would have been better for it. There are also underwritten relationships between Benjamin and Kelly as well as Dylan and a 13-year old home-schooled zoo restaurant employee that go nowhere. But there is a touching side story about a sick bengal tiger that Benjamin grows close to. In a sense it mirrors what he faced with his wife and it plays a big part in his personal healing process.

It sounds like I’m being really hard on the movie and with good reason. But there is also some things to like. As I mentioned there are moments where the emotion feels genuine and I was stirred by them. And even though the family dynamic is something we’ve seen numerous times before, there were instances where they were a believable family struggling with an intense loss. The performances are generally good even though the material sometimes lets the actors down. And I also found that the true story vibe made the movie more interesting. It’s really a neat story. I just wish it had been constructed a little better.

“We Bought a Zoo” isn’t a horrible movie but it’s one that could have been a lot better. It’s sloppy screenplay doesn’t help and the movie runs about 20 minutes too long. It advertises itself as a family picture but it deals with some fairly heavy subject matter and the inclusion of a few pointless vulgarities, especially from a young child, had me shaking my head. At it’s core, the movie has a really good story and we see glimpses of it in some of the scenes. Even with it’s faults, I stayed with the film to the end just to get the feel-good payoff it delivers. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t have maintained a more consistent story from start to finish.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) – 2 STARS

I think it would be fair to say that “The Adjustment Bureau” was a fairly big disappointment for me. The trailers and TV spots for the movie really sold it as something it’s not so I found myself expecting a little more than I actually got. I also felt the movie was going for an almost Hitchcockian feel. I mean look at the above movie poster that was released for it. Even it looks fresh out of Alfred Hitchcock’s creative mind. Unfortunately nothing in the film feels as creative as the poster and ultimately it’s a letdown.

In “The Adjustment Bureau” Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young hotshot Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, who loses his bid for office due to his questionable maturity and impulsive behavior. While rehearsing his concession speech he bumps into and immediately is attracted to the mysterious but beautiful Elise (Emily Blunt). The problem is they aren’t meant to be together, at least according to “the plan”. Enter The Adjustment Bureau, a group of stiff, ominous men in hats who intervene to make sure this sprouting relationship never takes place and that “The Chairman’s” plan stays on course.

“The Adjustment Bureau” could be called a romantic sci-fi thriller. Sadly the film’s romance has no believable foundation. While Damon and Blunt have good on-screen chemistry, it was hard for me to believe in their romance. Director George Nolfi never allows the relationship to grow, instead choosing to springboard their undying love out of a few short hours together. I also felt the sci-fi element was pretty underwhelming.  There’s nothing that stands out about it. Instead we get doors that transport you from one part of the city to another (which is cool the first 10 times they are used) and magical hats that serve as keys (yes, I just actually said magical hats that serve as keys). The film also lacks any real sense of urgency that’s found in better thrillers. I never felt any intensity nor did I ever feel that there was a steady or consistent buildup.

Most of these problems are the results of a slow, lumbering script. The film spends too much time in the first act examining David’s political ambitions instead of developing the romance which is the supposed centerpiece of the entire picture. Then we get numerous scenes of tedious dialogue between David and Bureau members, meant to inform the audience but instead ends up deflating any momentum the film may gain. As more is revealed the sillier things get and by the time we get to the rather flat and uneventful ending, I wasn’t that interested.

As I mentioned, Damon and Blunt have good chemistry and both give earnest performances and could have pulled this film off with better material. I enjoyed seeing Anthony Mackie in a bigger role but he seems out-of-place in this picture. “Mad Men’s” John Slattery and  the great Terence Stamp also appear but neither are given the chance to do much that’s memorable, again a result of the sub-par material.

If you watched the trailer for “The Adjustment Bureau” you would be expecting an action-packed, intellectual thriller. Instead you get nothing close to that. This is supposed to be a film that promotes thoughts of free will versus fate but honestly, I was never engaged enough to be moved intellectually. The film is well made, uses some great Brooklyn locations, and has some nice performances especially from it’s two leads. But the inconsistent script, lackluster ending, and flat-out silliness brings down what could have been a fun movie.