Kicking the Tweets

The Martian (2015)

Exile in Dullsville 

To borrow a phrase from Real Genius, the problem with Ridley Scott's The Martian is that it's all science and no philosophy. The last two years have seen three big-studio, mega-budget space-exploration movies designed to excite the mind and electrify the nerves. Gravity was the innovative roller coaster, and Interstellar the visually stunning mystery that fizzled with bad answers to great questions. The Martian is a bland crowd-pleaser whose production design is off-the-shelf Scott, whose screenplay is Big Bang Theory nerd pandering, and whose dramatic tension might best be measured on a comparative scale of Burger King commercials. This film is a colossal let-down from lots of talented people who should (and do) know better.

Matt Damon stars as NASA botanist Mark Watney, who is accidentally left behind on Mars after a storm forces his survey crew to abort their mission. He has one year's worth of food and four years to wait for a rescue craft. Back on Earth, NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) bickers with various advisers and underlings (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean among them) about everything from covering up Watney's survival, to mounting an emergency expedition, to keeping Watney's communications secret from his former companions, who are well on their way home.

To their credit, the filmmakers ditch several tropes from disaster-in-space movies (which tend to be body-count pictures wrapped in thinking-person's dialogue), in an effort to defy convention. Often, in these kinds of stories, someone loses their footing on a space walk and disappears into the void; someone accidentally blows up an air-lock. Hell, you don't have to look further than Interstellar to see Matt Damon himself doing one of those things, while also playing a space-crazy astronaut marooned on a desert planet. In painstakingly removing the disaster elements from The Martian, though, Scott and writer Drew Goddard (adapting Andy Weir's novel of the same name) craft a small-scale space movie whose stakes feel as toothless as terrestrial training exercises.

There is zero tension in this film, once you understand what kind of film it is. Were there no such things as trailers or plot synopses, I might have white-knuckled it through the opening scene, in which a fast-moving storm descends upon the survey crew. But I knew that neither Watney nor anyone else on the ship was in real danger, because I was five minutes into a film about a stranded astronaut. I also latched onto a peculiar lack of grit on the astronauts' suits as they made their escape: though billions of computer-generated dust particles and rocks pelted them outside, they strapped into their command-center chairs wearing pristine uniforms and gleaming, un-scuffed helmets. Contrast this to an identical scene in Scott's Alien, which happens well into the movie and offers several lessons in building genuine dread, and The Martian leaves us with a technically well executed scene that feels utterly safe entirely perfunctory--like the previous-episode recaps you skip through on DVR'd TV.

Then there's Mark Watney. I haven't read Weir's book, but as written by Goddard and performed by Damon, he's a brilliant, smug egotist who talks in sub-Whedon hipster dialogue when he's not spouting formulas. He is a device, a science-can-be-funny cipher who would be much more interesting as a human being. It's telling that he apparently has no friends or family back home (aside from two parents we never meet). He records countless videos proclaiming himself the king of Mars, the first person to colonize Mars, the first person to climb such-and-such ridge. He relentlessly teases his captain (Jessica Chastain) about her awful taste in music (disco), and the movie goes out of its way to help Watney run the joke into the ground. We get it, Mark: disco sucks, and anyone who doesn't like what you like is a loser.

In the film's closing scene, he tells a group of students that the key to survival is simply figuring out an equation to fix the problem at hand and move on. It's a spectacularly self-centered attitude, that A) neglects to mention that all of the unfortunate situations Watney found himself in were, in one way or another, the result of his own carelessness and ego, and B) doesn't account for things like chance. This is different than optimism or self-reliance: Watney presupposes that, because he can "science the shit out of this planet", that everything will be okay in the end, no matter how much self-sabotage he indulges in.

Unfortunately, Scott and Goddard buy into their main character's hype. The Martian sails along on a current of setbacks that are tidily resolved almost as soon as they arise. Normally, in films like this, characters lay out elaborate plans and we, the audience, wait with baited breath to see something go wrong during the execution. Not here. People lay out plans, execute them, and everyone comes home safe. Conflict? Here's a Band-Aid, now shut up and move along. How can we ask the returning crew to extend their flight by a year-and-a-half in order to rescue Mark? Easily, since they jump in unanimously without so much as a panic attack or a tear for their families back home.

At two-and-a-half hours, the movie plods along from one smug Facebook video status update to another, occasionally peppering in stunts that are so crazy they're mathematically guaranteed not to work--until, of course, they do. Pairing Goddard with Scott was as grave a mistake as pairing Scott with Damon Lindelof on Prometheus: Goddard is terrific at writing snarky dialogue between characters who exist in heightened realities, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Cabin in the Woods.* But just as Lindelof's penchant for blue-balling audiences with endless, off-the-cuff mysteries bungled Scott's much-anticipated return to the Alien franchise,** Goddard's lack of three-dimensional writing deprives us of a vital connection to the what could have been fascinating material (imagine Ejiofor in the Watney role, facing real obstacles with the comportment of an adult).

The Maritan invites us to think of other movies, specifically two other big-screen big-events now playing in theatres, Everest and The Walk. Those offer harrowing stories based in reality--which means they are loaded with conflict and messy endings. The eighth lead in Everest has more charisma, believability, and entertainment value than what the entire cast of The Martian is called on to work with here. Worse yet, Goddard and Scott render flat the gorgeous cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, whose climactic high-wire scene in The Walk was anything but passé. Splitting my consciousness between other experiences and the one at hand may be unfair to the filmmakers, but it was the only way to cope with having been left for dead in a creatively barren wasteland where hope is as scarce as oxygen.

*Coincidentally, both Joss Whedon projects.

**Sorry, Prometheus wasn't officially connected to Alien continuity. Except now it is. Or it will be. Or something.

The Walk (2015)

Absurd on a Wire

Like the buildings that inspired it, Robert Zemeckis’ World Trade Center drama The Walk is a magnificent feat of engineering that collapses into its own footprint. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Philippe Petit, a French performance artist and high-wire specialist who dreams of walking between the Twin Towers on the eve of their completion in 1974. It’s a truly amazing story that deserves to be told—and has been, in Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds, and in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire.

So what does Zemeckis bring to the table? Besides a game cast and dazzling visual effects that once again  make a great case for 3D/IMAX technology, he also comes armed with a weeping reverence for the Twin Towers and an impulse to out-Gump his worst saccharine instincts. The result is a film that nearly buckles under Gordon-Levitt’s goofy, brie-laden Sesame Street narration while also offering the kind of genuinely dizzying spectacle that audiences simply must leave their homes to appreciate.

The first forty minutes of the film are a cartoon. A young Petit gets ousted from his disapproving parents’ home and comes under the tutelage of legendary circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). He befriends a street musician/art student named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who helps Petit turn his burgeoning wire-walking skills into paid performances. Soon, the couple are flying to New York and scoping out the finishing touches of the World Trade Center—which Petit had spotted in a magazine and declared the future site of his greatest artistic accomplishment.

Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne handicap their film from the start, introducing Petit as an omniscient host of his exploits who sits atop the Liberty torch, with the Towers gleaming in the background. He's an exuberant, arrogant, relentlessly optimistic caricature of the French Artist who feels like he could only exist in a celluloid world of black-and-white flashbacks, French covers of American pop songs, and swirling CGI pans of CGI characters traversing CGI wires between CGI landmarks.* Were I not aware that The Walk was based on a true story, I would not have believed that such an obnoxious personality could rally a small group of co-conspirators to help pull off what amounts to an extremely dangerous and grand-scheme pointless crime.**

At just about the halfway mark, Petit begins collecting people (he calls them “accomplices”), and the filmmakers steer The Walk into territory I’m not sure they’d intended to navigate. A black cloud of creepiness envelopes the film as Petit and Annie recruit a disparate gang of misfits--including an electronics store clerk (James Badge Dale) and a businessman who works in the North Tower (Steve Valentine)--to help them scope out security, calculate the stunt’s logistics, and smuggle their elaborate gear up to the 110th floor.

They forge identities, set up a fake company, recruit more malcontents, and drive a white van into the WTC parking garage—all of which are ingredients I’ve considered harmless in countless popcorn heist pictures. However, in the context of The Walk’s particular location, I couldn't help but wonder how much of these comically portrayed exploits mirrored the work of those who ultimately brought the Towers down. Additionally, Petit constantly references the need for his walk to occur on August 6th, even heavily circling it in red on a calendar. That this day would become infamous for its unheeded warnings of terrorism twenty-seven years later is perhaps a cosmic, sinister joke that Zemeckis reinforces by making every civil servant in the film an unobservant buffoon.

I found myself a bit soul-sick in the middle of this allegedly whimsical film, and was more than a little surprised to see those clouds part in the last thirty minutes. When Petit makes his final preparations to walk between buildings, warming up in his open-air “dressing room”, The Walk eases into a different tone—that of a bona fide artist’s-process movie. Gone is the main character’s innate silliness, replaced with a higher-consciousness concentration and awareness of (but not attachment to) his surroundings that make the centerpiece a rousing experience. The digital artistry and cinematography in this last extended sequence are so good as to be incongruous with the showy non-reality of everything that came before it. My brain knew that Petit’s walk was all a show, abetted by technology and supported by history, but my stomach believed otherwise. If there was a way to pay a partial admission to experience The Walk's climax in all its giant-screen, three-dimensional glory, I would wholeheartedly recommend that.***

But there isn’t, so I’m left with an “Enter at Your Own Risk” endorsement. The Walk ends as gracefully as it begins catastrophically. Just before the film fades to black, Zemeckis finally switches from crayon to calligraphy in composing his love letter to the Towers, to New York, and to big-hearted ambition, as embodied by Petit. It’s a bittersweet creative capper to one of our nation’s darkest hours, a meta-reminder that wonder can rise from tragedy, but not without leaving immortal psychic scars.

*In real life, Petit worked extensively with Gordon-Levitt on his wire-walking skills. It comes to little good in the end, since Zemeckis infuses his movie with so many fuzzy green-screen edges that absolutely everything looks like the victim of a computer pass or digital face replacement.

**Calling Petit’s work “pointless” is, I recognize, a potentially incendiary indictment. Art, after all, is in the eye of the beholder and the artist. But Zemeckis and Browne spend so much time on back story and laying out the wire walk that they forget to explain why we should believe in Petit’s objective—beyond the fact that it actually happened. Contrast this with the equally spectacular but far brainier and emotionally honest Everest, a film that shows and tells a great deal about man’s quest for conquering heights.

***There’s a moment involving a bird that you simply must experience with a packed theatre.


The Intern (2015)

The Angel Wears Pinstripes

I'd be curious to read how Nancy Meyers' The Intern tested with senior citizens and Millennials. It's ostensibly a comedy about the latter that's targeted at the former, and I'm just about in the middle, age-wise. In short, I may not be the best person to judge how accurately it speaks to these demographics (i.e. how well it works as a movie).

Meyers' screenplay may strike twentysomethings as patronizing: with few exceptions, the young men in the film are uniformly unfocused, unkempt, ironically bearded, and bespectacled; a dopey look for dopey man-children. The young women are uniformly hyperactive and professionally driven to the exclusion of all human relationships that don't directly involve their work. On the flip-side, I can see how older people might appreciate Meyers' relatively open-hearted look at a generation that generally gets a bad rap for being vacuous and buried in their phones--while also bristling at the fact that the only seniors besides Robert DeNiro who get real screen time are portrayed as either sour and or half-senile.*

As a comedy, The Intern is more cute than laugh-out-loud funny. It's a whimsical, white fantasy about an even-keeled, relentlessly optimistic widower named Ben (DeNiro) who lands an internship with Jules (Anne Hathaway), the no-nonsense head of a skyrocketing on-line-clothing start-up. He helps her smell the roses (and a rat that's almost too close for her to recognize); she helps him to...not die of boredom. True, Ben expresses his desire to feel like an active member of society, following several years of grieving and hobbying, but Meyer denies him an arc--relegating him instead to the role of geriatric Bagger Vance. He exists solely to help the insanely privileged but common-sense-deprived protagonist realize that budding millionaires aren't worth squat if they can't remember to thank their beleaguered personal assistants.

I didn't come up with that Dismaland assessment of Meyers' screenplay until a few days after watching The Intern. As a moviegoing experience, this is pure Magic Kingdom, thanks to Theodore Shapiro's relentlessly positive score, Stephen Goldblatt's fashion-ad cinematography, and Meyers' refusal to let the sticky realities of modern business get in the way of her workplace buddy comedy. The aesthetics worked me over, in a good way, and Hathaway and DeNiro's sparkling, casual chemistry helped me overlook some sitcom silliness that roots the film firmly in the "Mainstream Fluff" category.** 

There's another way to look at this film, and that's as a less cheesy, thoroughly entertaining spin on the corporate training video. Ben doesn't just help out Jules, he provides solid lessons on professionalism to all of his co-workers. He shows up on time every day, dresses like he wants to be taken seriously, looks people in the eye, and actively listens before doling out advice. When the dorky office manager (Adam Devine) complains that a co-worker (Christina Scherer) won't give him the time of day after he cheated on her, Ben assists him in talking out his passive-aggressive course of action and realizing just how badly he screwed up. To the Millennial characters' credit (and this may be more wishful editorializing on Meyers' part), everyone in the office laps up Ben's sage advice, as if he were the first adult to ever parent them hands-on. Hey, if Martin Scorsese can shoot an American Express commercial, I'm sure no one would bat an eye at DeNiro and Hathaway popping up in their mandatory "Professional Practices" training.

For the most part, The Intern is a breezy, plot-lite relationship movie. A little more than halfway through, however, Meyers injects a major development that steers the story into murky territory. I won't spoil it, except to say that it concerns Jules and her stay-at-home-dad husband, Matt (Anders Holm). The lesson she (and Ben) derive from this situation is key to Jules' growth as a business leader. But it's a cheap device that fits all too neatly with the other dozen contrivances that make Meyers' screenplay mass-market fodder and not an indie sensation. By indirectly hanging her strong female protagonist's fate on the clichéd actions of a man, Meyers (perhaps subconsciously) lessens Jules' victory of self-determination.

I don't mean to slam the movie too much. In truth, I genuinely love it the same way I love cotton candy: it's a sensorial delight, but a wretched excuse for food. I recommend 2009's It's Complicated, if you want to get Meyers' nuanced take on aging and relationships. For a more astute but equally heartfelt satire of Millennials, check out Noah Baumbach's While We're Young from earlier this year. The Intern is a like an ABC Family sequel to The Devil Wears Prada, in which Hathaway's wide-eyed intern becomes the chilly, harried boss who gets some unexpected generational perspective. If that doesn't sound appealing, you may be too old (or too young) for this one.

*Renee Russo is an exception, playing a massage therapist whom Deniro's character falls for. It's a sadly common practice for major motion pictures to pair up aging leading men with hot, young actresses at least ten years their junior. The Intern shakes up that convention by casting Russo, who at sixty-one, has heart and sensuality to spare.

**Choosing between which subplot carried more weight--the mini-heist to delete an e-mail or the search for a qualified CEO to lighten Jules' load--barely qualifies as an exercise.


Sicario (2015)

Law & Borders

The day before I saw Sicario, Lionsgate announced that it was already working on a follow-up. Oddly, this changed my perception of the film I was about to watch: developing sequels to movies that haven't come out yet is common in the popcorn realm of sci-fi franchises and comic-book movies, but director Denis Villeneuve's drug-war thriller was supposed to be Oscar fare, right? Are we universe-building with Serious Films now? Will 2017 be the year SicarIIo goes head-to-head with The IImitation Game and 45 Years Part II: Part I? I kid, of course, but it was weird having to re-set my expectations for a film that I hadn't previously considered capable of spawning a series.*

Having now watched Sicario, I can both compliment and criticize Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan for creating a movie that feels like the start of something larger. On one hand, the film features tremendous performances from great actors, and tackles its meaty subject matter with all the high-tech gear, location-hopping, and Roger Deakins lens-work money can buy. On the other hand, its structure is episodic, which breaks the big picture into little pictures--which, by turns of plot and theme, splinter further into tiny pictures that might be better suited for an HBO or Netflix series order. On a third, severed hand, Sicario is a visually spellbinding cliché assassin that deserves some big-screen love (for artistic reasons not at all related to the bottom line).

The plot is essentially Traffic by way of Zero Dark Thirty. While investigating a house full of corpses in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Mercer is recruited to work on a joint task-force with the Department of Defense. As represented by the duplicitous, shorts-and-sandals-wearing Matt (Josh Brolin) and a practically silent something-or-other named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the team has been ordered to disrupt the cash flow of a brutal Mexican cartel. The death-house, it is believed, was a burial spot for snitches and enemies, and Kate's eagerness for answers lands her at the tip of the DoD spear. Before she can say "jurisdiction", Matt has her tagging along on a covert kidnapping mission, engaging in a mule-tunnel firefight, and questioning the loyalty and priorities of everyone around her. Sicario even climaxes with a late-night compound raid, the result of which finds our heroine adrift in a darker, more complex world of fluid morality.

What sets Sicario apart from films like it (of which there are many) is Sheridan's understanding of his audience's weariness with the genre's tropes. Without giving too much away, I'll say this film sidesteps the post-climax loose-ends-tidying that usually accompanies stories about hitmen and secret government ops. There's no moustache-twirling, no drawn-out exposition. The second-hand puppeteers melt back into the shadows, moving onto some new assignment that will have officially never happened. The movie is full of these neat little tweaks to convention, including a late-breaking development that made me wonder whose story this really is.

It also helps that Blunt, Brolin, Del Toro, and Daniel Kaluuya (as Kate's sidelined Bureau partner) form a delectable quartet of charisma that imbues Sicario with an unexpected sense of humor. The sour, brooding, wounded characters in this film are not at the top of the marquee. They're little-seen middle-managers who must deal with the orders coming from flippant, dangerous superiors, while also tempering the expectations of idealists who've barely begun climbing the ladder. I could ramble on about each of the main cast, but I'll leave that treasure trove of brilliance for you to discover.**

The cherry on top of Sicario is Jóhann Jóhannsson's score. Infused with what sound like the screams of women and children and explosions, the orchestration underscores Villenueuve's themes of unspeakable violence humming just beyond our borders--both the physical ones and the psychic barriers we put up to convince ourselves that gunfire, mass beheadings, and inescapable poverty can only happen "over there" (it is perhaps cosmic poetry that one of Alejandro's interrogation methods involves jamming his finger in a redneck's ear). Jóhannsson's bleak soundtrack pairs hauntingly with Deakins' sweeping, tree-pocked Mexican desertscapes, which may hide untold numbers of passages, bodies, and dashed dreams.

On the down side, the very nature of our ever-lasting drug war makes narrative closure impossible. Like Traffic, the scenarios in Sicario form little more than a depressing snapshot whose place in the grand scheme of things is irrelevant. As a revelation for our wide-eyed characters to rail against, that is gripping stuff. As the ultimate point of a movie, though, it's as shrug-worthy a venture as Thor: The Dark World. Just as surely as multiple drug lords will sprout from the gaping head wound of each deposed gangster, we are destined to sit through more Hollywood epics about the drug trade. Lionsgate guarantees it.

*Sorry, one more: How's about Sicario: Agent 47?

**Okay, that's a lie. I haven't seen Brolin do anything like this before. With his gum-chewing, pseudo-jock cool, I could easily imagine him as having been a runner-up to Jeff Bridges. He's positively magnetic, and would make a terrific Phil Coulson-type in the inevitable ABC spin-off, Agents of S.I.C.A.R.I.O.


A Brilliant Young Mind (2014)

The Longest Division

Something doesn't add up. Where is the awards-season push for Morgan Matthews' A Brilliant Young Mind? Not that Oscars and Golden Globes mean anything (necessarily), but they tend to attract eyeballs, and this film's limited release is just plain criminal. 

Working with screenwriter James Graham, Matthews turns his 2007 documentary, Beautiful Young Minds, into a drama centering on an autistic British teen competing in the International Mathematics Olympics. Asa Butterfield stars as Nathan Ellis, an awkward, quiet boy who sees the world as patterns and colors. He depends on order to get by, which is a problem considering his mother, Julie (Sally Hawkins), struggles to provide for the family after the sudden death of Nathan's father (Martin McCann), and his tutor, Martin (Rafe Spall) is a scruffy mess of alcohol, snark, and resentment at having to live with Multiple Sclerosis. Much of the film takes place in Taiwan, at the IMO training facility, wherein Nathan must navigate new social pressures and sort out his feelings for a rival from the Chinese team, Zhang Mei (Jo Young). 

Like two other films I reviewed this week, Sicario and Everest, A Brilliant Young Mind ropes the audience in with the promise of a conventional movie narrative--only to upset those expectations in very satisfying ways. Ebert's Law of the Economy of Characters dictates that Julie and Martin will have a go at love; the tropes of Teen Competition movies lay out clear guidelines as to who will make the IMO cut, who won't, and at precisely which point Nathan and Zhang Mei's relationship will become a problem. Oh, don't worry: I didn't forget about the salty head coach of Team Britain (Eddie Marsan). He really does care, deep down inside.

When used as a foundation and not as a blueprint, clichés can lead to wonderful structures. Just as Nathan's expectation of order crumbles when breaking away from the shelter of home, A Brilliant Young Mind finds honesty in situations we think we've got pegged. Julie's desire for connection isn't just about intimacy; she never got time to properly mourn her husband, and Nathan's closed-off, often rude demeanor is a heartbreaking puzzlement that only his math instructor can help solve. Zhang Mei's inquisitiveness and good cheer open up doors for Nathan, who begins to understand that a messy, unpredictable world can be a lovely, life-long equation--rather than a seized-up source of dread.

It's easy to think of this film as a teen-angst version of The Theory of Everything ("Great, another math-and-disabilities movie. Yawn. LOL."), but Matthews and Graham go to great lengths to demonstrate mathematics' relationship to art, love and man's quest for understanding. In one of the film's final scenes, Julie and Nathan break down a crucial wall that has obstructed their view of one another for years; the flaw in their relationship was a single misplaced figure that upset the outcome of a highly complex equation--or, in artistic terms, an accidental brush stroke that kept their relationship from being a masterpiece.

A Brilliant Young Mind hinges on writing and performances, and the dynamic between Butterfield and Hawkins is outstanding here. We are presented with two characters reaching past each other in equally desperate but causally different battles with loneliness. Julie just wants to relate to her son in the same way he related to his late father; Nathan wants to understand why connectivity is so important, and then figure out a way to attain it. The actors make these feelings real; even when emotions run high, the performers never get showy--a feat that's worthy of some kind of recognition, even if it's just applause.

I love everything about this movie. It made me laugh, cry, think, and appreciate the beauty of randomness. Which brings me back to my original question: Where is the love for A Brilliant Young Mind? We are at the very beginning of Important Movie Season, I know, but Matthews' film nearly flew right past my radar. I'm worried that this miniscule run might be it. If you're in a city where it's playing (cough, such as Chicago this weekend, cough), do yourself--and the filmmakers--a favor and buy a ticket. We need more films that artfully explore the spaces between convention, whose purpose is to craft a new language rooted in clichés but not ruled by them.

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