Darke Reviews – The Martian (2015)

This is not part of my October reviews, fortunately or unfortunately, my regular reviews do not get trumped by October. I had every intention of seeing this Thursday night but exhaustion kicked in and a desire for a record 6 hours of sleep ended up winning. Having seen it today and after some rest I can provide you the review you deserve.  I will say this, do not let Matt Damon or Jessica Chastain near the space program. Something goes wrong every time; how is it he is the one always stranded?

Anyway; does the movie hold up to the hype machine?

The film is based on a book by Andy Weir and adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard. I understand from some friends it is an excellent book and will be curious to hear the comparison between the two. Goddard on the other hand was the producer of the much loved (and very awesome) Netflix series Daredevil, The Cabin in the Woods, and Cloverfield. He also wrote one of my favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Conversations with Dead People.” So the source material is very strong, the writer has some solid understanding of characters and tension but do they have a director who can do something with that?

Well lets talk the story for a moment. This is a what you see is what you get. The movie literally is: Matt Damon gets left behind on Mars. NASA tries to figure out how to save him, while he tries to save himself.

Simple story. You need good actors and a good director to make it work. I give you Ridley Scott. I give you the man behind the camera and actors of Blade Runner, Alien, Black Hawk Down, and the list goes on. He doesn’t have a flawless list (Robin Hood, Hannibal, Exodus) but a solid one. He, despite his stumbles, is a brilliant film maker who can do more to create tension with a shot and space than a dozen of the modern horror directors combined. That is what this movie needed. Tension. You don’t know if they will bring him home, you don’t know if they will all survive doing so. Goddard, Weir, and Scott have masterfully crafted a story where you just aren’t sure.

Of course some of the work must go to the actors. Matt Damon by necessity carries the film and he has the chops to do it. I was watching the movie and thought is there another actor who could do this? Short answer I came up with is no. End to end of this movie, there’s not another bankable actor who could do this with such charm and such range.  Then you combine it with the following cast members

  • Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, Mama, Zero Dark Thirty)
  • Michael Peña (Shooter, Fury)
  • Jeff Daniels (Newsroom, Speed)
  • Kristen Wiig (Despicable Me 2, Brides Maids)
  • Sean Bean (duh)
  • Kate Mara (House of Cards)
  • Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier, Once Upon a Time)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, 12 Years a Slave)
  • Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire)
  • Donald Glover  (Community)

This is the literal definition of a powerhouse cast. Each person despite how much or little screen time they are given manages to translate that into a memorable or otherwise engaging character. That’s art folks. This movie would die in the vacuum of space if you didn’t want to root for the characters. If you didn’t want to sit at the edge of your seat or bite your lip. Everyone is understandable in every decision made. Every action. Every consequence.  The movie lives and dies because of the performances these people gave in conjunction with solid directing, and source material.

In other words, this is everything Fantastic Four was not.

It is also not as pretentious as Interstellar, which I wanted to like, but really couldn’t.

As a technical point, the CG enhancement of the landscapes, the background, the skies made me really believe that they could have been on Mars. This is the George Miller lesson folks. Use CG to enhance not dominate. There’s only one slightly jarring, but appropriate effect in the movie. Everything else to me is beautiful. I was commenting the other day how claustrophobic modern movies tend to be. Tight locations, tight camera’s, fear of long range shots or appropriate long range shots. This movie is anything but. It uses distance as a tool as much as it uses sound and lack there of when needed. It really lives by show don’t tell on a lot of points and again is a better movie for it. If there are any other flaws, there’s some pacing issues (a Ridley Scott natural flaw) but otherwise that’s it.

TL;DR?

This is a good movie. This is a damn go0d movie. This isn’t a good sci fi movie. This isn’t a good dramatic movie. This IS a good movie. I watched the movie on the edge of my seat more than a few times.

I came out of the movie inspired.

I came out of the movie wanting to Science!

I came out of the movie satisfied with my experience in a way few movies this year have.

I highly recommend The Martian to anyone.

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Darke Reviews – The Monuments Men (2014)

Been a few weeks since something came out I got to see, so thats the real reason for the delay here. This week is one of two movies for review, the other has more bite to it I hope. The Monuments Men tells a story I’ve not seen in film and certainly wasn’t told about in history class. It has quite a few things going for it in that regard. Telling a story from World War II that hasn’t before is actually quite hard these days. Let’s get into it shall we?

The story is adapted from a book by Robert Edsel titled “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”. It tells the story of the MFAA, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, a sadly little known unit established in 1943 to protect the cultural property in war areas during World War II. The screen play was adapted by Clooney himself with character actor and sometimes collaborator Grant Heslov (True Lies, Good Night and Good Luck, Ides of March). The movie focuses on one small group of the department and their attempt to rescue some priceless and personal artifacts from the Nazi’s as the war comes to an end. They face resistance from Nazi’s, Russians, and even their own people as they try to protect something the military itself cared little about during the war. Is a piece of art worth a mans life?

Clooney also directs this film, which combined with the script leaves most of the blame on him where the film goes wrong. Which, sadly, is quite a few places. One of the key functions of story is a narrative arc, with a a rise and fall in events that drives the characters forward through some form of conflict. The movie fails in that basic element of story. Yes, events happen. Yes, there are beats of cliche with moments of sadness or levity, but there is really no dramatic tension.

I wish I could say that there was, but the film just delivers a series of moments losely connected to each other by the plot of trying to find pieces of lot art. Few of the moments have any real weight to them and the moments that do are glossed over in such a hollow way that it loses the intensity it should have. Some are told out a strong dramatic order so that when you should be going “Oh damn…” you are simply shaking your head sadly. Even the few deaths that occur among the members of the cast come across as cliche and something you’ve seen a dozen times before and because of that become little more than a beat that has no meaning.

It’s unfortunate that as the movie pulls together an amazing cast of comedic talent that could have delivered some of the most dramatic performances of their careers. John Goodman, Bill Murray are wasted. Clooney’s own sense of timing seems off as he was focused three ways on script, acting and directing. The only high point is the interactions between Blanchett and Damon. Blanchetts character actually has the most depth of any of them, with the only arc worth a damn.

All of that said, the movie has some very pretty moments and some beautiful art. Art that would have been lost if not for the real men and women of the MFAA. The statues, the paintings, the lives displayed and lost. For all its flaws, of which there are many, the movie does remind us of a dark time in history that is quickly losing its weight in our modern world.

TL;DR?

The Monuments Men is an ok film that tells a story that needed to be told; but as a film it nearly fails. It wants to tell a story bigger than its capable and in that the weaknesses become apparent.

If you were interested in seeing it, its worth a matinee pass at best. The art alone and the history is worth it.

Otherwise, give this one a pass this weekend and save your money for Valentines day, or some other day where you might need money.

This should be a busy week for reviews, so sit tight folks!!

Darke Reviews – Elysium (2013)

I apologize for the delay on this, I watched this film Thursday night and it took me this long to settle on what I needed to say about it. If you are worried about the girl who won’t shut up about movies having to figure out what to say about this one; you should be.

This is Writer and Director Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore effort in the US. Most people remember the Peter Jackson produced (that means he was the money) District 9. A not so subtle story about the effects of racism in his native country of South Africa using aliens and humans as the opposing races. While many Americans that I know of derided the movie for it’s obvious themes and what appeared to be a “why now?” mindset. What those individuals forget is that while the laws against segregation were enacted within the US in 1964 it wasn’t for another 30 years until they were put into place in his country until 1994. Thats right, everyone reading this review was alive then. It was only 19 years ago (15 when District 9 came out); so it was fresh in his memory and his countries memory not something told in history books and hundreds of movies since.

This may seem like a long diatribe on history and this director without point, but I swear I have one. It’s that he has gone back to what the best of Science Fiction used to do; which is focus on social or current issues framing it in an alternate world that provokes thought and with a bit of luck awareness. So while films like District 9 and comics like X- men (originally) focused on racism, Elysium and other films in the sci fi and horror genre are beginning to focus on a new *ism*, class-ism.

But do they do it well?

That’s the question that kept me silent and wondering on this one. The answer I am afraid is *No*. While Elysium sets up a dystopian future with clear lines between the haves and the have nots, it doesn’t really do anything with it in a meaningful way. No one learns anything, no one evolves. While the plot lines introduced in the movie are resolved in a nice tidy bow, the only lessons the film teaches us:

If you are amoral – you will die If you are a have not – you will suffer first, then die. The only way the Have Nots can achieve what the Haves have (sounds weird), is through violence, treachery and few Haves wanting more and making a well timed mistake.

From a storytelling perspective, the movie does nothing new. If you saw the recent Total Recall remake (it is not as bad as people say), you have watched Elysium. Don’t believe me? While I normally remain spoiler free I feel that I must provide some synopsis that may contain spoilers.

Try this: A blue collar man who works on the robotic line that makes the robot police that keep him and the rest of the low class oppressed rises up and through violence and criminal amoral acts with the inspirational help a woman who loves him and reaches the other side of the world, while being hunted by a terminator esque force, where the Rich live and brings down the threat of oppression allowing his people, the poor working class to be free and live happily.

Another one? Johnny Mnemonic. Don’t boo, it has nostalgia value and is highly entertaining in the cyberpunk genre.

A man with a dubious and somewhat criminal history has data that can save the world implanted in his head. Rather than wanting to save the world, he wants nothing but to save himself. The people who like the world just the way it is dispatch a terminator esque creature to stop him from reaching a resistance that he is being guided to by a woman who cares for him. In the end to save his own life and those of the people around him he goes for broke and manages to use whats in his head to save the underclass citizens of the world.

Both of these synopsis just describe Elysium. WHile there are different effects, different characters, filming styles, etc Elysium adds nothing truly new other than a medical McGuffin that everyone wants. The acting is fine, the actors themselves are fine even if they are playing two dimensional stereotypes we have seen before.

STOP. WITH. THE. SHAKY. CAM.

I wanted to watch the fights and I couldn’t because the camera man was clearly involved in a 7.0 earthquake at the time of filming. I want to hunt the inventor of shaky cam to the ends of the earth for it.

TL;DR

WHile Elysium isn’t bad, I wasn’t really entertained except for a few moments of the film. Matt Damon and Sharlto COpley are all that save this from being a bad movie.

Matinée it if you must, skip it entirely if you mustn’t.

This movie doesn’t have a chance of overriding the system.