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

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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.

Deja vu all over again: Lincoln

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Whether or not Steven Spielberg intended his latest film Lincoln to serve as a finely crafted allegory for our contentiously political times, it very much is one. The movie succeeds on multiple levels, not only allegorical but also as instructively engaging historical psychodrama and crackerjack cinematic entertainment.

Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular American president is warm yet flinty and infinitely watchable in yet another amazingly chameleonic performance in his long and storied career. He manages to evade the trap of most historical biopics – he is neither overly reverential nor artistically self-indulgent. And he is most assuredly not some wax figure in Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.”

Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a fully realized, at times lovable, always affecting flesh-and-blood creation. I challenge anyone to read about Lincoln after watching this movie and NOT hear Day-Lewis’ voice in your head or visualize the mischievous, twinkly fire in his eyes.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil War (no shock there) and focuses on the political machinations required to have the 13th Amendment pass the House of Representatives, where it has been stuck for the better part of a year. Lincoln realizes that, if the Civil War ends before the Amendment’s passage, he might not ever amend the Constitution to prevent slavery forevermore.

Needless to say, Beltway (was it called the “Beltway” in those days?) backstabbing and hijinks ensue, and anyone who has lived in America in the past twelve years will reflect  “the more things change…the more they stay the same.” Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter Tony Kushner proselytize (though there is speechifyin’-a-plenty) but the ugliness of watching entitled white dudes debating the finer points of social issues for which they have no real skin in the game is like deja vu all over again.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of America’s finest players, from always delightful David Strathairn to a gonzo-fun James Spader who seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr., at his most drug-addled. Lee Pace of ABC’s short-lived Pushing Daisies is fun as a posturing, preening Congressman opposed to the Amendment, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his run of great late-career performances as the peace-seeking Confederate Veep, literally left cooling his heals on a riverboat as Lincoln pushes the Amendment through.

Sally Field as Mary Todd-Lincoln is adequate, and I’m not sure if her part was a bit underwritten or if I have just seen her return to the same actorly well a few too many times. Kushner seems to be channeling a postmodern perspective on the Lincolns’ marriage/family through every bit of Field’s dialogue, and she does yeoman’s work making it sound natural but at times it still seems stilted.

The film also suffers from about four endings too many. We know what happens to Lincoln in the weeks and months following the Amendment’s passage, and, trying to cram all of that detail into what is more-or-less an extended diorama-like montage at the film’s conclusion detracts. And, of course, Spielberg can’t help but include his trademark fairy tale mythologizing here and there – it is ok, but the film is so strong otherwise that I could have done without those vintage touches.

But the best moments of the film come at the hands of two old pros who don’t share a minute of screen time: Tommy Lee Jones as Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Both bring gravitas and pixie dust to their roles, more than holding their own with Day-Lewis. Their characters leap from the pages of history books and very quickly feel like people you have known personally for years. Absolutely remarkable work here.