“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.

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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.

Our Favorite Horrors — By Friends of the Blog

Thanks for the shout out, Gabriel! “Film/theatre critic Roy Sexton, who’s been a great supporter of our site, offered The Shining, Scream, and Psycho, but added ‘sometimes the best “horror” movies are those that deal with the terror of the mundane and, if that’s the case, one of the best recent examples for me would be Prisoners.'” Read more and be sure to follow his site below …

Gabriel Diego Valdez

Alien violation

by Gabriel Valdez

I recently conducted a poll regarding artists’ and filmmakers’ favorite horror movies, and the results aren’t what I expected at all. Now, this poll is about as scientific as my foot, so take it with a grain of salt, but it ended up being a tale of three very different movies:

Now, I wanted the artists themselves to define what “favorite” meant, and when pressed, I described it as “the movie you’ll berate your friends about until they sit down and watch it” and “the movie you’ll watch when you get home after a hard day and pull over yourself like a warm horror blanket.”

Playwright and critic Chris Braak, who wrote not just one, but two of the best articles of this past year, broke the question down into categories: which is the best movie, which is scariest, and which one does he like to watch the most?

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“Are humans more concerned with having than being?” Lucy (2014)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We finally got around to seeing Lucy, the Luc Besson-directed thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. (We do have a dog named Lucy, so I’m not sure why we didn’t get to it sooner? Hmmm…)

WTF, ‘Murica?

I don’t know if I’m horrified or delighted (or both) at the financial success enjoyed domestically this summer by this loopy, French existentialist, nonsensical genre mash-up of the much superior Bradley Cooper-starrer Limitless, John Travolta’s Phenomenon, the little-seen (and also superior) Chris Evans-flick Push, and Besson’s own La Femme Nikita (unnecessarily remade as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda) and The Fifth Element (with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich).

Don’t get me wrong – I was totally entertained during Lucy‘s blessedly expeditious 90-minute running time, but, every fifteen minutes or so, the script seems to jettison its own internal narrative logic (let alone anything remotely connected to real-world physics, biology, information technology, or screenwriting 101) as it careens toward a denouement that makes the final moments of, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Terrence Malick’s, well, anything look like the gritty, grounded urban dramas of Sidney Lumet.

The set-up (bear with me) is that Lucy (Johansson) is a college student (I think?) in Taipei (I think?) who has a one-week (?) stand with Richard, a skeezy beau wearing a cheap straw cowboy hat and awful, rose-colored (really.) wrap-around Bono-style sunglasses. They have an interminably cutesy exchange outside a fancy hotel as Richard tries to convince Lucy to deliver to a guest one of those stainless steel briefcases that only seem to exist in Hollywood movies (or holding poker chips at the last-minute holiday gift display at JCPenney).

Richard (Dick, get it?) ends up handcuffing Lucy to said suitcase (ah, bondage – is this a movie about female empowerment?), and shoves her into the hotel lobby, at which time an army of black-suited, indeterminately Asian mobsters swarm about her, put her through h*ll, shove some space-rock crack-esque drugs in her tummy, pop her on a plane, and leave her in a third-world dungeon somewhere. After she is brutalized by her captors, the bag of purple diamelles or whatever burst in her stomach, giving her the ability to increasingly access the remotest reaches of her brain.

See, we mere mortals access only 10% – which is why we make stupid decisions like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians or wearing PajamaJeans or eating Funyuns – but Lucy gets all kinds of nifty skills, like telepathy and computer programming and rocking stylish mini-dresses, when her cerebral cortex goes into overdrive.

Besson helps us neanderthals in the audience follow along by periodically flashing black and white percentages on the screen – 10%, 20%, 30%, 99% – not to mention random images of cheetahs chasing gazelles and Quest for Fire-extras discovering, er, fire. Deep, man.

Spoiler alert! As Lucy gets more and more authority over the idiots populating this Big Blue Marble, she starts to quite literally evaporate because her cells are multiplying at such a rapid rate her body can’t hold her consciousness (I think?). The film then becomes a race against time as a) Lucy heads to Europe to track down the remaining shipments of the glowy purple narcotics; b) hooks up with a hunky hawk-nosed French cop; c) runs away from and, inexplicably, does not use her super-brain to blow up the horde of angry Asian mobsters; d) has a sit-down with sage old wry Morgan Freeman doing that sage old wry Morgan Freeman thing as an academic who has been conveniently narrating the film up to this point to explain this whole “we only use 10% of our brains” nonsense; and, e) after surreally meeting our collective ancestor “original” cave-monkey-person Lucy, figures out how to ensure her own immortality by taking the form of a star-festooned … thumb drive.

(One could argue that the way the film ends actually tees up Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her. Heck, Lucy’s last message to humanity appears as a text on a cell phone. Just think about that! Minds blown. 🙂 )

All that said, I rather enjoyed myself at this idiotic movie.

Why? Besson is an incredibly stylish filmmaker – alongside Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, The Insider) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator), he is arguably one of the most. The visuals in Lucy POP!, with brilliant use of grime and fluorescent light, color contrast and international locales, jazzed with trippy intercuts and hyperkinetic pacing.

The wisest choices of all, though, were made in casting Johansson and Freeman who wink at the junk material without ever condescending to it. Freeman especially seems to be having a good time with what could have been a thankless role, both befuddled and surprised that his life’s theoretical work has apparently come to blazing life in the form of Lucy.

Johansson didn’t used to be my cup of tea. Not sure why. However, I’ve grown to appreciate her – both as a performer and a human – more and more, and, in Lucy, I loved every note of the fear, anger, inquisitiveness, exasperation, and (finally) magnanimous indifference she wrings from the paper-thin script.

Like any popcorn film that tries too hard to say something so philosophical, Lucy ends up not saying much at all. There is a zippy line early in the film that holds such promise but is never revisited: “Are humans more concerned with having than being?” I’m not sure that intriguing question is ever actually answered. In the end, Lucy only works as a movie if you don’t think about it too much…which is pretty ironic for a film that ostensibly is about using every last bit of our brains.

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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.

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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]

What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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]

Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.