REVIEW: The Martian

24 10 2015

Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.

That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders.  While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.

While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.)  China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.

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REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods

29 11 2012

Shhh … don’t ruin Joss Whedon’s big year, but have you heard of this movie called “Scream?”  It’s a little vintage, I know.  In 1996, Wes Craven unleashed his film on audiences to massive acclaim and success.  He deftly sent up horror movie tropes with humor and a sharply philosophical slant – at the same time delivering a chilling horror movie!

Now Whedon, the fanboy favorite, has given us “The Cabin in the Woods,” a film he wrote along with director Drew Goddard.  The film took three years from shooting to release, although the satire feels relevant still as the climate of the horror genre remains roughly unchanged (with the exception of the found-footage epidemic that struck with “Paranormal Activity“).

And indeed, I really did enjoy some of the things it had to say and the clever way it presents them.  The deconstruction of the horror genre, particularly the onslaught of torture flicks, is done deftly and swiftly.  While “Scream” was Craven talking merely about the archetypes and trademarks, “The Cabin in the Woods” expands to include the audience.

What does it say about us that in our heads we are rooting for the directors, played to droll hilarity by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, to inflict the strangest and most unimaginable pain on people we don’t even know?

If we think it’s sick that there’s a betting pool on how long these characters will survive and how they will die, isn’t that essentially what we do when we gossip with the person in the seat next to us in the theater?

These questions were fun to ponder for a while, yet I found that “The Cabin in the Woods” quickly got on my nerves.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when a Hermione Granger-like student thinks they are the smartest person in the room and wants everyone to know it.  Whedon and Godard act like their film is the most ingenious thing to be dropped into cinema in ages.  Granted, anything that deviates from convention in this depraved artistic moment feels original.  Yet I couldn’t escape a sense of arrogance being radiated from the film.

And my only response was that I wanted to get on Amazon, order the Blu-Ray of “Scream,” and mail it to Whedon’s house.  The message: it’s been done before, and it’s been done better.  That doesn’t mean you can’t try, but you can’t gallivant around as if you are God’s gift to the genre.  You’ve made your contribution to the parodic state of horror, and you should be content with that.  B