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: Fantastic Four

5 08 2015

Fantastic FourIn an world where comic book adaptations are becoming bigger and louder, “Fantastic Four” stands out.  Somehow, it manages to turn exciting material – which worked just fine a decade ago, I might add – into a dull movie that arrives stillborn and never gains a pulse.

Despite a cast of rising stars whose accomplishments and skills easily outweigh their counterparts in the 2005 iteration, writer/director Josh Trank never lets them achieve liftoff.  Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell are all better actors than “Fantastic Four” lets them be.  Every scene plays out like they were each slipped an Ambien right before the camera started rolling, inhibiting chemistry and numbing emotion.

Their energy would have served as a necessary component to make the film pass as even remotely serviceable.  Trank, working with frequent “X-Men” writer Simon Kinberg as well as Jeremy Slater, essentially stretches the plot of a typical Marvel first act to feature length.  What should take about 20-30 minutes plays out over 100 minutes in “Fantastic Four,” and the pace feels appropriately molasses-like.  Trank’s big climax would function as a precipitating event in a normal film.

Apparently no one at Fox paid attention to the cratering of fellow Marvel property “Spider-Man” when Sony rebooted it in 2012.  The diminishing returns of that franchise are largely attributable to the fact that audiences do not want to sit through a slightly altered retread of a story they liked just fine ten years ago.  “Fantastic Four,” like “The Amazing Spider-Man,” returns to the tale of heroic origins to issue a slight corrective that will eventually set the series on a different course.

There is simply too much vying for audiences’ attention, not only on the silver screen but also on televisions, tablets, and mobile devices.  If the creative minds that be want to do something new with familiar material, they had better go ahead and do it.  No one wants to wait around for them to get their act together as they rejuvenate it.  So, naturally, “Fantastic Four” inspires listlessness as it makes us consciously realize the drain on our time as it slips away from us.  D1star

REVIEW: Transcendence

8 11 2014

As Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, Wally Pfister has lensed some of the most iconic images of recent cinematic history.  Be it the field of lightbulbs in “The Prestige,” the stairwell in “Inception,” or practically any image in “The Dark Knight,” he certainly knows how to captivate with the visual language of film.

Transcendence” finds Pfister behind the camera calling the shots, not merely setting them up, for the first time.  While no ultimate judgment should be rendered on a filmmaker after just one feature, Pfister might not want to give up his day job as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer just yet.  His debut is a start-to-finish mess, mostly because of its almost incoherently assembled script.

The film begins rather simply and intelligibly with Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, a scientist attempting to create a fully sentient computer, getting assassinated by a radical anti-technology group R.I.F.T.  But once he dies and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, “Transcendence” shatters into fragments.  Only Caster’s wife (Rebecca Hall) stays loyal; meanwhile, the rest of the supporting cast spreads out into multiple subplots that divide attention and diminish effectiveness.

Caster’s research companion Max (Paul Bettany) defects to join R.I.F.T. under the leadership of Bree (Kate Mara).  The G-men of the FBI (Cillian Murpy, Morgan Freeman) are also making moves of their own to stop the supercomputer.  Meanwhile, Caster’s digital brain grows stronger by the minute … so be very afraid, because technology is scary!

Pfister is not even able to translate this technophobia into any memorable images to at least portray visually what the story is unable to communicate narratively.  He begins “Transcendence” with a shot of broken cell phones lying around, practically begging to be considered a zeitgeist film.  But of all the sentiments Pfister invokes, not one of them comes even remotely close to resembling the film’s titular sensation.  He certainly knows how to make noise, but hopefully in his next film, Pfister will actually have something interesting to say.  C-1halfstars