“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup.” The Martian (2015 film)

"The Martian film poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Martian_film_poster.jpg#/media/File:The_Martian_film_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, does everyone at NASA fist-bump and wave their hands around and holler every time something goes well? “Hey, gang, I ordered a pizza!” Orgy of bourgeois whooping and wailing. “Look, I just got this snazzy shirt at Kohl’s!” Crowd goes wild; face-painting ensues. “Well, I’ll be … we actually got a rocket launched without showering the American south-land in carcinogenic debris!” Crazy dancing in the aisles, with Clint Howard, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Sinise, and Bill Paxton sharing a do si do to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.”

If the movies are to be believed, NASA is just rife with bro-tastic little celebrations every time anyone reboots their computer without a minor incident. Who is to blame for this cinematic cliche? Ron Howard with the exceptional-but-not-aging-well Apollo 13? Michael Bay with the DOA-turd-about-a-deadly-meteor-with-an-even-turdier-theme-song-by-Aerosmith Armageddon? Golden-Girls-in-space Space Cowboys with a mincing manopausal crowd of Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner? Or is it all some form of jingoistic retribution for Kurbrick’s incisive and timeless Dr. Strangelove? Whatever may have started it, I hate it. Please make it stop.

Yet, if those are the only false moments (and they are) to sully Ridley Scott’s otherwise (mostly) great film adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestseller The Martian, so be it.

(But there are a lot of unwarranted fist bumps in the flick. Ridley Scott, you know better.)

I went into the Matt Damon starrer accompanied by a clutch of folks who’d read and loved the book (I hadn’t read it; nor do I plan to). I was dreading the dissection that would follow – “why was this left out?” or “I can’t believe they cast so-and-so as so-and-so” or “that moment was just ruined…” Blessedly, the literary-minded in our happy band were pleased with the Hollywood outcome; FYI for those of you who are like-minded peeps.

I also approached this film thinking, “Do we really need another Robinson Crusoe in space. I’ve already lived through Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as ‘no-no-no-no’-ing astronauts (Gravity) and then Matthew McConaughey as an ‘all-right-all-right-all-right-ing’ space-farer (Interstellar). And now Matt Damon with his snub-nosed, soccer-coach-next-door glib bullsh*t?!” No, no, no, no, no!!

(Let it be said, that I liked both of those blockbusters, though you might not catch that from my snark.)

Well, Damon is plenty glib and snub-nosed in The Martian, but Scott knows how to compose and depict a narrative (e.g. Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner, Silence of the Lambs, even Exodus: Gods and Kings) about an intrepid soul, relying on nothing but wits and moxie surviving extreme circumstances. This is a film that benefits, rather than suffers, from Damon’s workaday commonality.

It helps that Scott has stacked the supporting cast deck with pros like Jessica Chastain (is she typecast to appear in every space exploration and/or paramilitary movie now?), Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. They all do quite well with very little to do, striking just the right balance of collaborative indifference and knowing tension as they work round the clock to bring Damon’s Mark Watney home.

You see, in the not-too-distant future, we figure out how to get a series of manned missions to Mars to explore the landscape and to escape Fox News (ok, I made that last part up). A nasty storm kicks up on the Red Planet, and Chastain has to make the tough decision to grab her crew and head back to Earth, after Damon’s Watney is swept away in a squall of crimson dust.

Except … Watney isn’t dead. And he has to spend the next year surviving on his own, terra-firming the alien landscape, growing potatoes (subtle immigrant, stranger-in-a-strange-land metaphor there), listening to the horrid (to him) disco music his crew-mates left behind, and maintaining an acerbic video diary so that he doesn’t sail completely off the deep end.

I’m not a fan of Damon’s (could you tell?). He seems like someone with whom I would have gone to high school. Doesn’t make him a bad soul (I appreciate his politics, generally, though he’s had some goony missteps lately), but I just don’t ever see him as an actor or a movie star.

In this case, though, that blah everydude quality suits the film nicely. Damon’s Watney is an average guy with an exceptional level of scientific and engineering knowledge, and his unyielding desire to survive comes not from some pixie-ish joie de vivre but from an obsessive need to solve one mathematical conundrum after another. Damon plays those notes beautifully, and it is only in those rare instances when deep-feeling angst is required that Damon becomes a caricature of himself. (I do wonder what someone more gleefully, introspectively nebbish-y could have done with the role? Alas, we shall never know.)

Fortunately, those “actorly” moments are few and far between, and the script gifts Damon with some delightful deadpan zingers, like, “it has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup” while he is coating one of his ubiquitous potatoes in Vicodin.

I enjoyed The Martian, but I wasn’t enthralled by The Martian. I feel (not unlike the recently reviewed Black Mass) that I’ve seen this story told a few too many times lately, and I don’t know that there is much wonder or ingenuity left in the telling.

What I enjoyed about the film most? The edgier, more satiric bits – like a Vonnegut novel waiting to burst from the middle-America conventionality of the plot. Daniels notably has a winking quality that would have fit nicely in the aforementioned Dr. Strangelove, and a number of Damon’s video diary asides take some lovely swipes at our insular privilege as a culture.

Naughty me, but if we’d gotten just a smidge more of that, this movie would have been a knockout.

____________________________

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

More Dickens than Kubrick: Interstellar

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I went into Interstellar with a bad attitude. I wanted to hate this movie. It’s three hours long. It stars swaggering/ posturing Matthew McConaughey, an actor I find as irritating as sand in my shoe. It has Anne Hathaway who is not that far behind McConaughey in the line of annoyingly self-satisfied celebs. It is directed by Christopher Nolan, who seems to have gotten more ponderous and more pretentious with every successive flick. Hell, it has a score by Hans Zimmer, who has gotten so lazy that most of his latter-day scores seem like they were composed on auto-pilot by a drum machine.

I’m an ass. And I was wrong.

I loved this movie.

It is, in fact, too long by half and, yes, is a bit ponderous and pretentious. All of the aforementioned annoying attributes of cast and crew are apparent. And the score does sound like a drum machine having a nervous breakdown … a really LOUD! nervous breakdown. Yet, it all works so beautifully.

The film has been billed as Nolan’s version of 2001, but I found the movie more Charles Dickens than Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative involves slow-moving, quietly-haunting, ethereally-staged space travel with the future of all mankind at stake, but at its heart, this is a film about the devastating impact of time’s passage and of well-intentioned decisions that unfortunately drive wedges between family/friends. There are moments, especially toward the film’s gonzo, fever-dream denouement that I thought I was watching A Christmas Carol … if staged by Twyla Tharp. That’s a compliment, by the way.

The older I get, the more I realize what an underrated gem Dickens’ holiday novella is. “Underrated” may seem like a strange word choice for something so widely known, but A Christmas Carol is often viewed as a lesser literary work or as a holiday novelty or as both. What Dickens captures so elegantly/efficiently, though, is that, with each year, we add layers and layers of memories – good and bad – and all the regrets and heartaches that accompany … like an ever-expanding box of ornaments gathering dust in the attic.

This is the psychological murk in which Interstellar traffics. Space exploration is but a metaphor for our unyielding pursuit of some brief, crystalline moments of unadulterated joy amidst all the sadness life brings.

The film is set in a disturbingly near-time future, a Ray Bradbury-esque Earth, where all of our selfish consumption has reduced our planet to a cruel, barren dustbowl in which the only remaining growable crop is corn. The world no longer needs engineers or scientists or professors – rather just people willing to grow corn with the aid of mindless robotic farm implements.

America appears to have been reduced to one continuous farm town (blink and you’ll miss the New York Yankees, now quite literally a farm team, playing ball in a sad little cornfield), and, periodically, the citizens have to set fire to the latest round of blight-infested crops. The only upshot I could see is that these circumstances finally force everyone to go vegetarian/vegan. 🙂

Nolan’s great gift is how he uses fantasy as metaphor for present-day turmoil. (See Dark Knight Rises for his take on the 1% ruling class). Interstellar is no exception. His muted gray yet epically widescreen cinematography creates some of the most indelible images in recent memory of our ongoing environmental crisis.

In the midst of this ecological upheaval, and in one of the film’s seemingly more nonsensical moments, McConaughey’s “Cooper” and his beloved daughter “Murphy” stumble across a hidden cadre of space scientists who decide that Cooper (yes, he just happens to be a former astronaut himself!) is our only hope to pilot the last remaining rocket ship off the planet, in order to find a new (less angrily dusty) world for us to inhabit.

If this movie weren’t so purposeful, so moving, and so well-acted, I would have lost it right there and been forcibly carried out of the theatre, racked by a convulsive giggle fit.

McConaughey and Hathaway are surrounded by top-shelf talent like Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine, all exhibiting gravitas and heartache in poignantly compelling spades. There’s a surprise cameo that I won’t spoil, but said unnamed actor (whom I typically find a bit boring) does a marvelous job in a pivotal role as an appropriately dubious explorer.

Heck, we even get some subtly funny voice work from delightful Bill Irwin as robot companion TARS, a sleek automaton who bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant, walking/talking deck of cards. Humor? In a Nolan film? Crazy talk! That alone should tell you this is a (sort of) different direction for him. Sort of.

There is a lot of gobbledy-gook pseudo-science talk: singularity! relativity! event horizon! There are a lot of epically dreamy long-shots of planets and cosmic gases and spinning spacecraft. There are a lot of lines that are trying so hard for deep poetic thought that they sounds stilted and just darn goofy. And, yes, there is a lot of furrowed-brow, sweaty-faced ACTING!

Eventually, though, our intrepid spacefaring crew do end up on other worlds, most of which are as deadly as the one they left behind. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises (or the movie’s more head-scratchingly kooky moments), but, in essence, humanity prevails … quite literally. The film, in total, is an argument for our innate goodness, even when we aren’t sure of it ourselves. Whether today or tomorrow, we will help each other and we will care.

This is a more hopeful message then we typically see in a Christopher Nolan production, and the optimism suits him.

________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Silver Linings Playbook

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

The countdown continues! 15 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of Silver Linings Playbook: “Make no mistake, Russell is offering pointed commentary on how we deal with mental illness in this country. Yes, people may need ‘help,’ but not pharmaceutical, not pigeonholing. There is a wonderful scene where both characters speak knowingly about the horrors of the various drugs they have had to endure but in a totally cavalier way, like kids comparing comic books or baseball cards they may have collected.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

World of broken toys: Silver Linings Playbook

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

OK, I have to fess up. I went into Silver Linings Playbook with axes to grind: Sullen, dull Jennifer Lawrence can’t be that good. The movie couldn’t be nearly as strong as the awards-season fawning implies. Bradley Cooper must be just doing his same smarmy/winsome crap. Jessica Chastain was robbed at the SAG Awards (and no doubt soon-to-be shanghaied at the Oscars too).

Wrong.

This is a sweet, deeply affecting film. My quibbles? I’m not totally on board the David O. Russell train. As a director, I feel like he aspires to be Paul Thomas Anderson grungy/dirty/epic (see: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) while riffing on a Robert Altman we’re-so-groovy-with-our-overlapping-improvised-dialogue vibe (see: Nashville, The Player, or my guilty pleasure Popeye). BUT he does consistently wring great performances from his players and has a lovely eye for skewering populist middle American conventions (see: The Fighter) .

I wasn’t nuts about Robert DeNiro or Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s haunted, crackpot parents. They had moments of authenticity, but mostly they seemed like they were well-heeled Yuppies slumming and winking at their hardscrabble Italian/Phildelphian roles. Their early scenes were the worst culprits of goofy look-at-us-make-up-the-dialogue-as-we-go-along bits.

(A sidebar plea: American directors, please, I implore you, just stop this improv junk, along with the twitchy, handheld camera stuff. The only people who can do this are the British…and maybe Australians…and only with Mike Leigh in charge – see: Secrets & Lies).

HOWEVER, what did I like…no, love…about this film? Lawrence and Cooper, especially when he was onscreen with Lawrence. Oh, and I adored always reliable Julia Stiles as Lawrence’s materialistic/tightly-wound sister. She nails the young Gen Y cloying mommy thing with that constant need to remodel/remake/reproduce. Love her!

The plot of the film just sounds ridiculous when you read about it: young man loses it when he catches his wife cheating on him; he is released under the care of his parents, though he still struggles with bipolar disorder; he meets cute with a young widow similarly afflicted; they enter a dance competition and simultaneously bet all his father’s money on a football game with a triumphant, fist-pumping Hollywood outcome for all. End scene.

Only…it’s not exactly like that. What you don’t get from that synopsis is that Lawrence  and Cooper zig when they might have zagged. They are broken toys hurt deeply by a world that only knows how to hurt. They are surrounded by friends and family who are just as afflicted (though not conveniently “diagnosed” for their “problems”). Cooper has a line at the end of the film about the world having a million ways to break our hearts.

The film addresses mental illness/health deftly and humanely. We may label people “ill”  out of our own fear or a desire to avoid any inconvenience they may cause us…when all of us are struggling with our own demons every day. Perhaps we do it out of resentment: “I can keep my genie in its bottle, so why can’t you?” Who knows. But it is hypocritical and unfair.

Cooper and Lawrence are quiet forces of nature. Blunt instruments with hurricanes of sadness roiling right beneath the surface. Anyone who knows me may not be surprised at this analogy, but they reminded me of abused, neglected strays one brings home to rehabilitate: gun shy, scared, sad, perhaps aggressive but with much stifled love to give.

Make no mistake, Russell is offering pointed commentary on how we deal with mental illness in this country. Yes, people may need “help,” but not pharmaceutical, not pigeonholing. There is a wonderful scene where both characters speak knowingly about the horrors of the various drugs they have had to endure but in a totally cavalier way, like kids comparing comic books or baseball cards they may have collected.

The most powerful statement the film makes is that what truly heals a broken heart/mind are kindness, attention, passion, and understanding.  Much humor is derived from the fact that these two characters are brutally, unflaggingly, purely honest. Like children. And what a wonderful way to be.

My week with Chastain: Mama

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Earlier this week, I saw talented Jessica Chastain in her Oscar-nominated role in critically acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty. Tonight, I saw her in the Guillermo Del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy fame) produced supernatural thriller Mama.

I think you can probably guess which is the better film.

That is not to say Mama is a bad movie. Quite the contrary. But it does suffer a bit arriving so freshly on the heels of Zero Dark Thirty‘s wide release last weekend.

Ah well. Chastain acquits herself nicely in this spooky curio so it shouldn’t hurt her award-winning streak. (Unlike Eddie Murphy’s disastrous January release Norbit a few years ago that all but decimated his chances of winning an Oscar that season for Dreamgirls…if ever).

Like The Others, The Sixth SenseLet Me In, or even the aforementioned Pan‘s Labyrinth, Mama is more dark fairy tale – sort of postmodern Brothers Grimm – than horror. Which was just fine by me. There is an ethereal quality to this story of two little girls left to fend for themselves in the wood after their investment banker father offs himself to avoid the consequences of shady dealings during the economic collapse of 2008. Five years later, their hippie boho uncle and his girlfriend (that would be Chastain) are alerted that the girls have been found and will be coming to live with the couple. Hijinks ensue.

So how did two feral little girls survive all that time alone? (By the way, both young actresses are quite remarkable and avoid all the goony, cloying child actor cliches.) Well, let’s just say the title character is a warm-hearted if rather vengeful apparition seeking redemption for an infant she lost decades ago by doing all she can to protect her two young charges from the big, bad world. And that includes terrorizing Chastain with various bumps and jolts and noisy shenanigans.

The whole proceedings are Twilight Zone/Outer Limits by way of the CW’s Supernatural. Nothing particularly remarkable or scary or even thought-provoking occurs, but the film has a purposeful, mature approach, establishing a genuinely creepy and compelling atmosphere.

The movie’s finest special effect though is Chastain. Like those A-list actors who would riff for Rod Serling for 30 minutes weekly in the 1960s, Chastain sells the silly subject matter, elevating what could have been awkward PG-13 goth drama to an interesting (if ultimately forgettable) allegory on familial heartbreak.

Living in a cage: Zero Dark Thirty

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The downside to Oscar season is that sometimes you see a movie after all the nominations and critical hype have rolled in and said movie buckles under all that trophy-festooned weight.

Happily, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest Zero Dark Thirty is not one of those films. Did I love this movie? Not really. It actually left me kind of cold, but I suspect that was the point.

The film doesn’t make any effort to ingratiate itself to the viewer. In fact, it feels like homework…like reading an intriguing chapter in a kinda dull poli sci textbook.

The film details the CIA’s ultimately successful decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The most pleasant surprise? The film, while indeed patriotic, does not traffic in fist-bumping, simple-minded, Lee-Greenwood’s-so-proud-to-be-an-American, self-aggrandizing flag-waving. In fact, this film is the total opposite.

Its brand of patriotism is much more nuanced. Like this year’s similarly themed Argo, Americans are a scruffy bunch, using ingenuity, persistence, and downright luck, mixed with a heaping dose of obsession, insecurity, and uncertainty, to save the day. In fact, always excellent Kyle Chandler plays almost identical roles in each film. The central characters are kind of a hard bunch to root for, in fact. No white hats here.

Is Jessica Chastain, as the CIA analyst who has an almost preternatural sixth sense about tracking Public Enemy #1, Oscar-winning good? Yup, she pretty much is.  It’s not a showy role – no scenery chewing, other than one sort of testy hallway chat with her boss (the aforementioned Chandler). Rather, Chastain paints a believable portrait of a careerist operative whose calloused growth parallels the nation’s growing frustrations and distaste with the CIA’s free-ranging intelligence-gathering techniques.

The supporting cast is roundly excellent from James Gandolfini to Chris Pratt, Mark Strong to Jennifer Ehle. Joel Edgerton is a particular standout as Chastain’s haunted compatriot.

The film paints a vivid portrait of how our world has changed, probably mostly for the worse. Violence is the only language anyone can speak, and the “heroes” and “villains” become a blur, employing interchangeable tactics to achieve spurious victories. The film’s most telling metaphor? The cage. Every character lives in one – some literally, some figuratively – with little solace, little meaningful connection.