Don’t Diss On Matt Damon And Miss THE MARTIAN

Now playing at multiplexes from here to Acidalia Planitia:

THE MARTIAN (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2015)

Two years ago around this time we had Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY, last year there was Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, and now there’s this year’s cerebral sci-fi fall release about astronauts struggling for survival in space, Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN, an adaptation of the 2011 bestseller by Andrew Weir that I never got around to reading. And with the news that they just found water on Mars, it couldn’t be more timely.

Set in the near future, the film stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA Astronaut who is left behind by mistake on Mars when the crew of the Ares 3 mission are forced to evacuate during a dangerous dust storm. In the chaos, Damon’s Watney is impaled by flying debris and sent flying off into the distance, leaving his team members to believe that he’s dead.

After Watney regains consciousness and gets back to his house base module in the middle of a large northern basin on Mars called Acidalia Planitia (a real area on the planet) he sizes up the situation via a direct-to-camera video log: “I have no way to contact NASA or my crewmates, but even if I could, it would take four years for another manned mission to reach me, and I’m in a hab designed to last 31 days.”

Our hero figures in order to make water (I guess this aspect is now retro-dated) and grow food on a planet where nothing grows, re-establish contact with NASA, and make the months long journey on the Mars rover cross-planet to the landing site of the next mission he’s “going to have to science the shit out of this!”

Meanwhile back on earth, NASA scientists and officials, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Director of Mars Mission, Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Kristen Wiig as NASA’s head of public relations, and Sean Bean as the flight director, find out that Watney is still alive and they attempt to do the math, with the help of Donald Glover as a awkward scruffy astrodynamicist, and unravel the red tape needed to get him back.

Oh, and the NASA brain trust struggles with whether or not to tell the returning crew headed by Jessica Chastain, who, guilt-stricken at leaving behind her fellow colleague, would surely go against orders to turn her ship around to go back and try to save him if she knew. Also on board with Chastain are Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie, who each have their moments and add to the film’s driving force of humanity.

Damon’s performance as the can-do optimist Watney is so solid that you’ll forget about the controversial crap he’s said that’s had him raked over the coals by the press lately. Here he’s a guy you are really rooting for as he successfully grows a crop of potatoes and laughing with as he bitches about the only music he has to listen to – Commander Chastain’s disco collection on her computer: “I will not turn the beat around!”

Despite the stakes, which do carry considerable weight, this is one of Scott’s sunniest and most fun films. Especially when compared to his last space epic, the ALIEN prequel PROMETHEUS, which I found more grueling than a good time.

Sure, there shades of many movies in play here from APOLLO 13 to CASTAWAY; from the aforementioned GRAVITY to 127 HOURS and so on, but THE MARTIAN never feels derivative. Drew Goddard’s tightly scripted structure smoothes out the tropes into a thoroughly engaging, and consistently gripping narrative. It’s also the second film I’ve seen this week that well utilized the 3D format – THE WALK was the other.

THE MARTIAN and THE WALK, which both open this week, are also alike in that they are inspirational epics that were immaculately shot by the same cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski. I’ll be shocked if Wolski doesn’t take home an Oscar next year for one of these visual feasts.

It’s so nice to be back in the ‘movies are getting good again’ season, with such a marvelously gripping movie as THE MARTIAN heading the herd. Just don’t be dissing on Damon so hard that you miss it.

More later…

JGL’s Breathtaking High Wire Walk Between The WTC Towers In THE WALK

Now playing at an IMAX theater near you:

THE WALK (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

While watching James Marsh’s excellent Oscar-winning documentary MAN ON WIRE back in 2008, I thought many times that the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 could really make for a great dramatized movie.

Obviously I wasn’t alone in that thinking because now we’ve got Robert Zemeckis’ supersized recreation of the event, releasing today only in IMAX theaters (it will enter wide release on October 9), starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, and featuring some of the most exquisite and breathtaking visual effects ever rendered on the big screen.

It starts with an extreme, ginormous close-up of Gordon-Levitt telling us his story from the top of the Statue of Liberty with an immaculate view of the Manhattan skyline of the ‘70s behind him. Gordon-Levitt’s French accent may be just barely passable, but his boundless energy and charm make him a great Petit (he was also trained to walk on wire by Petit himself, so there’s that). 

And check out JGL’s mad miming and acrobatic skills in the early Paris scenes, in which Zemeckis mimics jaunty new wave French films in bits in black and white, and shots in the grainy color textures of that era.

Petit’s life is one of obsessions. First, he’s obsessed with learning how to tightrope walk, under the tutelage of a circus ringleader/father figure named Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley doing his Yoda thing); then he’s obsessed with finding the perfect place to perform his wire-walking act (the towers of Notre Dame cathedral is one early effort), and finally he’s obsessed with pulling off what he calls “the artistic coup of the 20th century.”

That is, of course, to illegally infiltrate the World Trade Center, which was still under construction, string a 450-pound steel cable between the towers, and conduct a high-wire walk for the whole world.

To pull it off, Petit recruits a rag tag crew of accomplices for the coup. First, there’s the lovely Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who he has a meet-cute with in the streets of Paris – she’s busking Leonard Cohen songs while he upstages and steals her audience with his shenigans on the same block. Then there’s Clément Sibony as a dapper photographer, César Domboy as a math teacher, who is afraid of heights; James Badge Dale as a savvy electronics salesman, Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation!) as a New York recruit, and Steve Valentine as Petit’s inside man at the Trade Center as he has an office on the 82nd floor. 

The pacing really picks up as Petit’s meticulous plotting, 6 years in the making, gets put into action, helped along by longtime Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri’s score which takes its jazzy queue from such ‘70s crime capers as THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1,2,3 for the heist-like sequences.

The first half is fine, but as you’d expect it’s the second half involving the staging of the stunt itself that really – forgive me, but it’s right there – reaches incredible heights.

Every shot pops, with not a single moment that’s unconvincing, of Petit’s walk across the air 110 stories above street level, as crowds gather to watch, and policemen pop up on both towers waiting to arrest the performing perpetrator.

Look for cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie to get many accolades this upcoming awards season – what these guys did here, helped by an army of digital technicians, of course, is beyond stellar. It’s also one of the few 3D films in which the format feels the most necessary.

Now, I have a bit of a fear of heights, so I strongly felt the sensation of being on the edge of my seat – I don’t care how much of a cliché that is – throughout the sky high scenes that form the climax. At the same time, I felt the regret that I had never been to the top of the towers when I had the chance (in 1995, I was visiting my brother in New York and came close to going up, but the lines were too long for us. Sigh).

Like many of Zemeckis’s films, THE WALK is several movies at once: it’s a heist thriller, it’s a high-scaling adventure, it’s a comedy, and it’s a love story – though, one that’s about being in love with a dream. All of these genres collide together into a pure piece of pop entertainment that’s one of the director’s and the year’s best films.

More later…