Do stories of survival, bleak as their subject material may be, always have to be so serious? Over the years, we’ve seen countless iterations of characters stranded or deserted in various circumstances (Gravity and All Is Lost being recent examples), struggling mightily against the formidable forces of nature. As a storyteller, it’s important to convey the sense of desperation felt by the protagonist but does the perspective need to be drab and dour in every case? Ridley Scott’s The Martian has answered that question with a resounding “no” and in doing so, it has single-handedly reinvigorated the survival film genre and also given the science fiction genre a welcome addition of sly humor as well.
We open with astronaut and botonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), as their mission on Mars is put into jeopardy by an intense storm that crops up unexpectedly. During an evacuation attempt, Watney is struck by a satellite antenna and presumed dead as the rest of the team reluctantly flees the planet. He wakes to find that he has been stranded with limited resources left to his disposal and with no way of communicating with NASA, he must wring every bit of scientific knowledge from his mind to endure the hostile living conditions of a foreign planet.
What’s so unique and captivating about this movie is the level of pragmatic optimism and self-aware humor that Watney is able to cull from his dire situation. Since the majority of his dialogue is presented via video journal, we not only have the practical benefits of hearing his scientific process firsthand but there also exists a kind of conversational aspect with the audience that allows for plenty of down-to-earth moments of levity that don’t feel contrived. It’s also effective in making him relatable as well; we’re not just rooting for him because he’s an anonymous man under terrible circumstances but because these things are happening to someone that we’ve grown to care about as a human being.
While there is a playfulness and wit to Watney’s narration of the proceedings, there is also a copious amount of good old-fashioned applied science that he details throughout the film. Challenges and obstacles pop up with increasing frequency during his time on the red planet but each one is met individually with a calculated and well-reasoned response. In some ways, this is the most pure form of problem solving that can be exhibited in a feature film but the tricky part is finding a way to present it in a consistently entertaining fashion while still showing respect for the scientific process.
This is where screenwriter Drew Goddard deserves so much credit in his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. The writing is not only superbly clever but also thoroughly engaging in following the ingenuity of its main character and the support system around him. Scott also deserves ample praise for balancing the brainy dialogue with a few well-crafted action sequences and also some moments of well-earned suspense. There’s something liberating about how purely The Martian strives for intelligent entertainment and I hope it serves as a model for more science-based movies to come.
The plot leading up to the titular Walk is relatively paint-by-numbers biopic fare, with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrating his life’s story over flashbacks while standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty. We follow his humble beginnings in France as an apprentice for eccentric ringmaster Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and as a street performer who wins the heart of a young musician named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). When he happens upon a magazine ad for a gargantuan set of towers that are under construction in the United States, his entire being is immediately dedicated to the sole purpose of claiming his place between the two buildings.
Gordon-Levitt lends a welcome sense of dimension in his portrayal of Petit, fusing aspects of the man’s charm, dedication and whimsy to craft a fleshed out character instead of simply playing him as a crazed buffoon on a tightrope. He also doesn’t shy away from the more unlikeable points of Petit’s personality either, often imbuing his actions with an air of arrogance and selfishness that don’t always make him the easiest guy to root for. It’s true that we may never really know why Petit did what he did that day but Gordon-Levitt seems closest than anyone has previously come to capturing his true essence and finding the method in his madness.
Like his protagonist, Zemeckis is performing a balancing act of his own: finding a happy medium between the heart and humanity of his characters while also providing a first-rate visual experience. The pacing involved in pulling off a story like this also requires a fair amount of tact as well, as the audience is already aware of the film’s big climax and everything leading up to it could come across as nothing more than tedious build-up. Thankfully, the director has just enough tricks up his sleeve to keep us interested in the story and invested in the characters prior to the high-wire sequence.
This feels like an appropriate time in this review to candidly reveal that I am petrified of heights (as was one of Petit’s accomplices, incidentally) and I had reservations even seeing this movie on that basis. I convinced myself that the rampant use of green screens and CG effects would generate just enough incredulity to keep my fear at bay. I was woefully mistaken. No matter how many times I told myself that this daring escapade was just an illusion, it did nothing to deter the effectiveness of this film’s great event. The audacity and the wonder of Petit’s walk is captured flawlessly in The Walk, even if there are some narrative mis-steps leading up to it.
In this way, this film can really be thought of as one large conversation and on those terms, it succeeds quite well. The screenplay, adapted from Lipsky’s novel Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, is able to draw directly from the most notable exchanges between the two without feeling like it’s ticking off boxes on a thematic checklist in the process. The dialogue between Lipsky and Wallace is appropriately brainy, as it’s meant to highlight their shared intellectual prowess, but it’s also grounded in the world of these characters and still comes off as sounding natural without being overly clever.
The two lead actors also do a fantastic job of adding layers of subtlety in their performances to keep the writing fresh and to keep viewers on their toes as well. Together, Eisenberg and Segel conjure up a competitive chemistry that is never quite made explicit but rather resides as a source of underlying tension between the two characters. There’s all sorts of insecurity and bitterness that frequently threatens to crop up mid-conversation but they’re both very deft at sublimating these impulses into something more meaningful or productive instead.
Lipsky and Wallace do participate in psychic and verbal sparring from time to time but ultimately, these two have quite a bit of respect and admiration built up between one another. They bond on superficial topics like fast food and popular music but they also relate on a more philosophical and spiritual level, discussing concepts of self-expression and modern entertainment with vigor and passion. Had they met under different circumstances, where the roles of interviewer and subject weren’t so clearly defined, it’s easy to imagine these two becoming close friends.
Nevertheless, the journalistic perspective is always in the forefront of this film. The tape recorder that Lipsky utilizes almost serves as the primary antagonist of the film, its red eye constantly surveilling their most intimate moments of conversation. It’s made clear that both men are doing their jobs: Lipsky is trying to find any new angle on Wallace that will give him an edge and Wallace is desperately attempting to conceal his bruised ego while assuming the role of a “normal guy” who just happens to be a brilliant writer. They never stop performing for one another, which makes their talks all the more riveting to encounter for the first time.
My analysis of the plot is entirely conjecture but I feel confident enough to relay a few basic plot points. We meet a young man named Sergey (whose name I caught in the end credits) during his first day of admittance into a run down boarding school for the deaf. He is swiftly initiated into what seems to be a pervasive crime ring made up of young men and women in the area, who spend their time assaulting strangers and looting from nearby homes. Eventually Sergey’s loyalty to the organization is called into question when he falls in love with a girl who sees him as a ticket out from their mutual life of corruption.
Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s central thesis here is that film itself is a universal language and that by depriving the audience of characters that can speak openly, we are forced to desperately pick up any other visual cues in order to follow the narrative. Not only is that an exhausting proposition but it also presumes that the characters on-screen are compelling enough in their actions alone to warrant our attention. With no introduction, backstory or even names being offered, how much empathy can we really be expected to have for these kids?
It doesn’t even seem like Slaboshpytskiy has much concern for the characters or their disability either. With both the criminals and their victims being characterized as deaf, it’s hard to even read this as a metaphor for a power struggle between disadvantaged vs. advantaged parties. Devoid of context, their increasingly hostile behavior fails to justify itself and pushes the film’s already dark subject matter to intolerable bleakness.
All the more saddening is the cinematic skill that went into making such a dreary piece of work. The long takes helmed by cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych are frequently stunning in their composition and orchestration, while the acting from the cast of rookie actors is credible enough to carry an entire story that relies solely on their body language. It’s just not enough to make this depressing cinematic experiment much more than a sadistic curiosity.
Australian actor Joel Edgerton makes his directorial debut with the slow-burn, psychological thriller The Gift, a film that builds up quite a case for itself until its clumsy climax manages to tarnish the memory of its well-devised setup. The script, also penned by Edgerton, does include an appealing level of ambiguity not often showcased in modern American movies but it also doesn’t do much to sidestep genre clichés that crop up periodically in the story. In some ways, it is a mature film with worthy themes but it also feels like it’s trying very hard to be a movie “for adults”, often delving into oppressive levels of self-seriousness just to keep a straight face.
We meet LA newcomers Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) as they move into their luxurious new home with the intention of starting a new life and with hope, a new family as well. While out running errands, a man named Gordo (Edgerton, again) introduces himself to Simon as an old classmate from his high school years ago and the two awkwardly exchange contact information. What started as an “accidental” run-in develops quickly into a one-sided relationship when Gordo continually drops by for unannounced visits and sneaks unexpected gifts onto their doorstep. Eventually put off by the “friendly” displays, Simon insists on Gordo vacating their personal lives but it becomes clear that the two have unresolved issues that Gordo intends to rectify by any means necessary.
The story and the film’s marketing hinge on this central mystery, the event(s) in the buried past of these two men that will ultimately lead to a climatic showdown. Edgerton does an admirable job in pacing the first half that leads to this moment and although the reveal is thankfully not done through blurry flashbacks or overwrought voiceover, its delivery is instead so underwhelming that I initially thought I missed out on all of the key information. It turns out that I didn’t; I was just expecting a revelation that matched the impact of its build up.
Despite struggles with the story, the performances by the three leads are excellently rendered and contribute to the near-success of this movie. Bateman turns in his finest dramatic work here, oddly enough by using similar notes from his type-A, straight man persona in comedic works to reveal depths of desperation and disrepair hidden right under the surface. Edgerton creates a character who is steeped in creeping menace but is still not beyond fleeting moments of pity, while the always reliable Hall lends a conflicted sense of emotional intelligence that raises the dramatic stakes early on.
It’s a shame that the second half and specifically the final 15-20 minutes are mishandled because there’s a strong foundation present here. If only Edgerton had stayed true to the characters instead of trying to contrive an ending intended to be shocking rather than haunting. I look forward to seeing what he does next but a few rookie mistakes kept me from graciously receiving The Gift.
For almost 20 years now, the Mission: Impossible series has distinguished itself by involving various high-profile directors for each entry, all of whom bring their own unique set of sensibilities to the table. From the non-stop cliffhanger approach of JJ Abrams to the cartoon-inspired setpieces of Brad Bird, each film feels like a director’s self-contained argument on how to create the perfect action movie. Christopher McQuarrie, of Usual Suspects fame, steps up for the fifth entry in the franchise and makes the strongest case yet by creating the most outrageously entertaining and consistently enjoyable M:I movie in the series.
We rejoin IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he finds himself at odds with the Syndicate, a shadow organization comprised of ex-operatives from intelligence divisions across the world. One of its members, Ilsa Faust (newcomer Rebecca Ferguson), is a perpetually elusive femme fatale type who forms a makeshift alliance with Hunt based on mutual interests. Along with returning IMF recruits Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), Hunt must stay one step ahead of the Syndicate’s head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) as he attempts to create a new world order, one violent act at a time.
As is typical, the plot is an elaborate excuse on which to hang extended action setpieces that move the story along at a reasonable pace. While there’s nothing in this movie that quite equals the masterful, series-best Burj Khalifa sequence of its predecessor, it does contain about 4 or 5 exquisitely well-crafted action scenes that come very close to besting it. Advertising of the film has focused on the opening sequence, which literally has its star Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane mid-flight, but the most pleasant surprise is that none of the other sequences feel like a letdown by comparison.
It should go without saying at this point that Tom Cruise gives everything that he has to these movies. At 53, he’s pulling off stunt work that actors half of his age would be proud to accomplish. His dedication and commitment to the increasingly ludicrous demands of the M:I movies is not only admirable but it also goes a long way in selling his performances each time out. When we know that it’s truly Cruise holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time or careening through highway traffic helmet-less at top speeds on a motorcycle, it creates a thrilling sense of peril that just can’t be matched.
I should note that I also saw this film in both digital IMAX and “true” 70 mm IMAX formats and I would highly encourage readers to seek it out in either form. Not only is the visual experience vastly expanded but the sonic quality is much more sophisticated and powerful than what the common movie theater offers. No matter which way you choose to see it, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is top-notch entertainment, proof that an action movie made at the highest level can be a true work of art.
In an early scene in the well-crafted music documentary Amy, we see home video footage of its subject Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” as a teenager among friends and family. Her raw talent is undeniable but more revealing than her sultry voice is the charm and vibrancy that she exudes during her singing. It serves as a stark contrast to the Amy Winehouse that we all saw when the cameras of the world were rolling, whose public persona would come to be one synonymous with drug addiction and alcoholism. Her early death at the young age of 27 was not wholly unexpected but it doesn’t make her tragic story any less worthy of thoughtful examination.
Director Asif Kapadia has crafted a fitting eulogy that neither absolves Amy of her personal vices nor points obvious fingers as to who is to blame for her untimely demise. There were a litany of bad influences, some larger than others, that could have contributed to her death but the film doesn’t take sides in trying to single one aspect out as the main cause. She’s portrayed not as a saint or a sinner but rather as a human being, a young vulnerable girl who was fully unequipped to deal with the rising demands associated with pop stardom.
Though she was most notable for her stylized jazz vocals, this movie does a fantastic job at highlighting other sides of her artistic and musical talents as well. Her handwritten lyrics, offered up as subtitles during scenes in which she’s performing, are given new layers of poignancy when accompanied with corresponding accounts from her personal life. She is also shown to be a very competent guitarist too, performing some of her earlier songs on either acoustic or electric guitar while also singing in her trademark tone.
Perhaps most saddening, we also get visceral glimpses as to what could have been had she continued to live on and keep making music. Accounts from rapper Mos Def and Roots drummer ?uestlove detail the artistic thrust and ambition that Amy had, as evidenced by proposed projects and unfinished song ideas that could have launched the singer into newfound artistic territory. We will never know what else Amy had in store but the fact that her spirit is still well represented in today’s pop music (Adele and Lady Gaga, among others, cite her as a major influence) is a reminder that some talents are truly timeless.
The second of three Marvel movies to be released this year, Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a tech savvy thief newly released from a prison stint, who gets pulled back into the crime business despite previously vowing to clean up his act for the sake of his young daughter. After confiscating what appears to be an old motorcycle suit during a late-night raid, he learns firsthand that it has the ability to shrink the wearer to the size of an insect. Impressed by his skills, the owner of the suit Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) recruit him to take down an evil businessman who’s intent on using the suit’s technology for nefarious purposes.
This may sound like typical superhero movie fare but Ant-Man does its best to distinguish itself from its predecessors by incorporating fleet-footed computer generated action and a playful brand of self-referential humor into the mix. The story cleverly compiles a cast of various species of ants, like bullet ants and electric ants, to aid Lang in his micro conquests, which gives the action scenes a more credible sense of scale than if it was just one man inching along the floor by himself. Most of the film’s biggest laughs come from the sheer silliness of seeing high-stakes setpieces taken place on such a physically small stage, as when Ant-Man does battle inside of a free falling briefcase while “Disintegration” by The Cure scores the scene brilliantly.
Despite these advancements, director Peyton Reed can’t seem to circumnavigate the same obstacles that have plagued the most recent Marvel movies. The most obvious is the absence of a worthy villain, with Darren Cross competing for the most perfunctory and shallow nemesis in the MCU so far. His lack of character development actually goes on to affect the thrust of the story and sets up a third act that feels unmotivated and tedious. On the hero side of things, I didn’t find much believable chemistry between the three leads and the forced flirtation between Rudd and Lilly seemed equally dubious. I give credit for Ant-Man being the “little Marvel movie that could” but I know I could have enjoyed it more if some of the bugs had been worked out.
Comedienne Amy Schumer looks to capitalize on the recent breakout success of her Comedy Central series with Trainwreck, a new Judd Apatow directed romantic comedy that features a screenplay written by Schumer. She also stars in the film as Amy, a promiscuous, hard-drinking party girl who keeps herself emotionally distanced from the multitude of men with whom she engages sexually. On assignment from the magazine company where she works, she meets successful sports doctor Aaron Connors (Bill Hader) and the two ease their way into a romantic relationship. This proves to be more challenging for Amy, who has been taught by her father (Colin Quinn) at a young age that monogamy is unrealistic, and the story follows the ups and downs of their courtship.
Although she doesn’t really try to avoid typical rom-com tropes and conventions, Schumer has done a fine job adapting her sketch comedy writing skills for the big screen. Naturally, it features plenty of laugh out loud moments and funny exchanges but also includes a poignant subplot involving her complicated relationship with her younger sister that helps give the movie a better sense of direction and groundedness. There’s a naked honesty to those family scenes that seems deeply personal to Schumer, which may make some audiences uncomfortable and eager to get back to the comedy but I appreciate her effort to add a more resonant dynamic to the story.
Elsewhere, Apatow sticks to his signature brand of implementing celebrity cameos (this time, sports figures are the main focus) and largely improvised one-liners into the existing script. We know Schumer and Hader are deft comedic performers but the real surprises come from the hilarious performances of WWE wrestler John Cena as one of Amy’s flings and LeBron James as Aaron’s protective and unexpectedly stingy best friend. Both do a commendable job of holding their own against their veteran counterparts and I’d love to see either of them do comedy again in the future.
The new animated children’s movie Minions, a spinoff of the Despicable Me series, is the cinematic equivalent of a large bowl of Trix cereal: a colorful and sugar-filled offering that may have kids bouncing off the walls with excitement but will likely leave parents hungry for something more substantial. The antics of the small, yellow pill-shaped creatures work well in the confines of the previous films but when amplified to feature level, their charm begins to diminish considerably during the 90 minute runtime. It’s cute but seldom clever; innocuous but also not worthwhile enough to justify its existence.
The film’s high note comes during the opening montage, in which chipper voiceover narration introduces us to the Minions as creatures who have roamed the planet since the dawn of time in an attempt to serve the most maniacal evildoer that they can find. After candidates like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Dracula meet their untimely ends, the Minion clan grows discouraged and exiles itself to Antarctica. After many years pass, one of the Minions named Kevin recruits other Minions Stuart and Bob to begin their search anew in 1960s New York.
For those unfamiliar, Minions do not speak English but rather Minionese, a made-up mishmash of a language that consists of silly sounding words from various languages (cucaracha, papaya, etc.) This is the crux of the movie’s humor, which can be good fun starting out (I still chuckle at their inflexions of “banana”) but following characters that essentially speak gibberish does present a very basic problem: none of their dialogue can advance the story. Instead, we have to rely on human characters to relay plot points very bluntly so that everyone can get on the same page.
This process creates an experience of being dragged through an already flimsy story that feels like bits and pieces left over from both of the Despicable Me movies. The directing comes off of purely arbitrary, as there’s never much of a good reason why anything is happening at any point in the movie. Jon Hamm and Sandra Bullock (both woefully miscast) try to bring some life to their villain characters but they clearly just don’t have enough material to work with here.
I get it: this is a kid’s movie and perhaps I shouldn’t have such high expectations. The fact is, any film genre can be done well and animated movies do not have to dumb themselves down this much to still appeal to their target audience. I understand that this movie has a slightly different demographic from something like Inside Out but it’s not terribly far off and that movie managed to be more poignant, memorable and much funnier than Minions. It may be impossible to deter kids from this franchise cash grab but it may not be too late to warn their parents.
Terminator Genisys plays out like a crash course on how not to reboot an ailing franchise, as if the writers compiled a checklist of losing ideas and then proceed to sullenly tick off each box during its two-hour runtime. It is stunning the degree to which this film chooses to alienate both allegiant fans of the series, who will no doubt feel betrayed by the pandering attempts to “upgrade” storylines from the original movies, and attentive newcomers, who will no doubt be baffled by the ludicrously convoluted plotting. The persistent thought in my head while watching was “who is this movie for?” and I’m still not sure I have a good answer.
We start in Los Angeles 2029, with Human Resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) and sergeant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) squaring off against the evil AI force Skynet. In events that mirror those of the first Terminator film, Skynet sends a Terminator back to 1984 to kill John’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) to effectively negate his existence. To combat this, the Resistance sends Reese back to protect her but when he arrives in the past, he finds the circumstances to be radically altered as Sarah is far from helpless and has instead acquired another Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as an ally and confidant.
Bare in mind, I’ve only covered about the first twenty minutes there and if you’ve seen onslaught of marketing over the past few weeks, you’ll know that there are at least two or three other big plot reveals that I’ve chosen not to spoil here. Over the past few years or so, Hollywood has developed a worsening habit of giving away too much in trailers or TV spots in order to sell their movies and the promotion for Terminator Genisys may be the worst that I’ve seen so far. I accept that trailers are essential to selling a film and I even think they can be effective forms of mini-storytelling but it can’t be at the expense of ruining major plot points for potential moviegoers.
Despite this, I can’t say that I fully fault the poor saps at Paramount who were saddled with the insurmountable task of making this mess of a film look approachable. Of course the myriad callbacks to the original film are derivative and lazy but even the action sequences play out like rewarmed leftovers from better films, as when a school bus flips over front first à la the Joker’s 18-wheeler in The Dark Knight. At least there’s an attempt at a practical effect there, as the rest of the setpieces rely more on distractingly subpar CG effects that look much less convincing than those in the now 24-year old predecessor Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
That’s just one reason why that film works so much better than Terminator Genisys but Terminator 2 had another important aspect: it kept it simple. Once the characters and their motivations are established, the story progresses organically and at a reasonable pace. I gave up counting the number of times that characters in Genisys needed to stop and explain what was happening and even at that, plot holes and logical lapses crept up at a daunting rate. Even the best efforts of the charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t save this cumbersome and overcooked retread.