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The Martian (2015)
A Terrific Adaptation of a Terrific Novel
The Martian reminds us that the first word in "science fiction" is SCIENCE!
The film adaptation is largely faithful to the novel by Andy Weir. In either format, this a terrific story!
Of necessity in a visual medium, the movie doesn't spend any time on the equations or similar wonkiness that gave the book its signature credibility. It likewise culls some of the realistic personality quirks that got only a page or so in the print version, including the feuding nerds, the Aspergerite nature of the orbital-mechanics genius, and the vulgar cynicism of NASA's chief PR flack. They were practically cinematic from the get-go, but the movie runs 141 minutes as it is, and the tertiary stuff was what got the axe. The film also trades in the book's barely noticeable dust cloud at the end of Mark Watney's Martian trek for a more visually exciting use of atmospheric propulsion to effect the orbital rendezvous, which also has the salutary benefit of dramatizing the crew of the Hermes as having a significant role to play in the rescue beyond merely agreeing to do it.
You can search on line for more differences between the book and the movie and Weir's reaction to them.
To achieve a PG-13 rating (a move I reluctantly support in order to reach a wide audience), the screenplay (by Drew Goddard) neutered the novel's occasional (and wholly justifiable) profanity. (Shoot, I was really looking forward to Watney's typographical representation of boobs.) We do get a brief nude rear view of a body double showing a skeletal Watney after months on ⅓ rations, but that apparently wasn't enuf to push it into R territory.
In compensation for the cuts, we get the sort of things that movies are really good at: visuals! Looks like Mars, looks like space, looks like JPL, looks like science geeks. We're also reminded that a whole lot of mechanical problems can be fixed using only duct tape to make things sticky and WD-40 to make them slippery. And that it's a good idea to hang onto those decades-old Earth-based mockups.
The most engaging aspect of the book the crew's fierce loyalty to each other is preserved intact. However, aside from Watney (Matt Damon), mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ojiofor), and NASA chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the rest of the cast doesn't get much individual screen time. But even the tiny performances are pitch-perfect. It's relentlessly and unapologetically international and gender-neutral, as is science itself. Good! Better than good perfect, in fact is the tune played under the end credits: "I Will Survive".
You can see the movie in 3-D (post-production conversion), but there's no particular reason to do so. Arid, monotonously rusty desolation looks just as forbidding and depressing in 2 dimensions, and 3-D's wasted on anything occurring in space, where there aren't any referents to provide a sense of scale or depth.
This film marks a return to form for Ridley Scott after the regrettable Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings. No, it's not Blade Runner, but who (other than Stanley Kubrick) ever gets more than one masterpiece in a lifetime? He'll just have to settle for it being the best SF&F movie of the year.
New and Startling Then, Old and Humdrum Now
Poltergeist (fantasy: supernatural, 3rd string, remake, 1:33, PG-13, 3-D)
They changed the family name from Freeling to Bowen, and they threw in cell phones, wide-screen TV, and a commercial drone, but otherwise this is the same movie that, written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, scored a surprise hit in 1982.
A young family beset with financial difficulties downsizes into a newish home in a newish suburban development, unaware that it was built atop an abandoned cemetery. Despite the fact that neither the realtor nor the previous tenants nor any of the nabors has ever had a whiff of difficulty, these poor saps start experiencing weird phenomena within 10 minutes of moving in, and it only gets worse over the next couple of days.
When their cute little girl gets sucked into an adjacent dimension peopled by restless spirits seeking some kind of release, they're only able to talk to her thru their TV set. It was this fusion of bland suburbia and pristine, modern technology on the one hand with ancient dread, darkness, dirt, and death on the other that gave the original its unbalancing impact and led to 2 successful sequels.
But what was novel then is pretty ho-hum 3 decades later, so even tho the film is well acted, it's hard to take it seriously. People go thru the motions, but there really isn't any suspense. And, despite the presence of actors you may have heard of before (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie Dewitt, and Jared Harris), it's basically a low-budget, one-setting, paint-by-numbers effort with prosaic special effects.
Now let me tell you a true sad story. You may remember the sweet little blond girl from the original 3 Poltergeist films, Heather Michele O'Rourke, the one who uttered the memorable line "They're baa-aack". I wondered what ever became of her and looked up her bio on IMDb.com. The stark prose at the end of it packed more of an emotional punch than this remake did, and I suggest you check it out.
Jurassic World (2015)
The Kind of Spectacle That Imax, 3-D, and Dolby Stereo Were Invented For
Jurassic World (SF, biggie, sequel, 2:04, PG-13, Imax, 3-D) 8
Now THIS is what Imax, 3-D, and Dolby stereo were invented for pure spectacle, voluminous in both senses, immersive without being overwhelming. And spectacle is what it delivers, with both barrels, all cylinders, and every flag flying. A worthy sequel to Steven Spielberg's 1993 classic Jurassic Park, this summer blockbuster likewise envisions a 22-year time gap, during which time the theme park on Isla Nublar has grown huge, attracting over 20,000 people at a time, deserving the new "world" label.
There are plenty of resonances with the earlier film. Spielberg himself is executive producer, tho the directing has been turned over to Colin Trevorrow. Michael Giacchino, in charge of the music, has the eminent good sense to use a full-throated reprise of John Williams's magnificent theme at appropriate moments. We still get platoons of lightning- fast velociraptors, now rendered even more realistically. And B. D. Wong is back as ace geneticist Dr. Henry Wu. My only disappointment in the nostalgia department was the absence of a scene in corporate HQ with a large portrait of visionary John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) hanging at the front of the board room.
But, for all its harkbacks to Park, this World truly achieves its goal of being "bigger, louder, with more teeth". There's nothing at all wrong with the action, adventure, or pacing.
The one thing that prevents it from achieving 9-hood on my 9-point rating scale was that the human interactions were slightly off. Unlike Mad Max, here we are given 4 characters we can readily relate to: Chris Pratt as Owen Grady, ex-Navy, trainer of and surrogate father to 4 velociraptors; Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire, buttoned-up, all-business director of operations for the park; and Ty Simpkins as Gray and Nick Robinson as Zach, her 2 nephews, whom her sister naively expects will be getting the personal touch from their Aunt Claire. Unfortunately, these 4 relate to each other just a little too stiffly, with supposedly humanizing quirks more glued on than integral to their characters. Claire's slavish adherence to her stiletto heels, for example, just comes across as stupid, and their improbable cleanliness distracting. And the brothers' brief foray into the subject of their parents' possible divorce comes out of left field, lingers awkwardly like an unwashed guest, and then vanishes as pointlessly as it came. These aren't fatal flows, tho; the dialog isn't blatantly bad, just could've used more polishing.
The example they should have aspired to is the cinema's all-time greatest sight gag, the exquisitely timed glimpse of the phrase "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" from the original. There's no equivalent here.
The plot trigger is the escape from containment of the one and only specimen of a new species of dinosaur, the Indominus rex, created from a variety of predecessor species by means of genetic engineering, since the money guys behind the park evidently didn't think that regular dinosaurs were cool enuf all by themselves. (Totally wrong there; they are way cool!) Every time a new attraction has been introduced, we are informed, attendance has spiked. And they're overdue for another spike.
An unexpected side effect is that Indominus (Latin for "untamable") isn't just big, hungry, and ferocious, it's also smart, cunning, ruthless, and equipped with a cuttlefish's camouflage genes. When Owen discovers that it's loose, he doesn't hesitate for a second: He advises hitting it with every lethal weapon available. Claire and her staff, of course, are reluctant to just blow away a scientific wonder, a unique creature that they've invested heavily in and are counting on for the park's future income. But, despite these differences, all concerned agree that they've got to work together to keep the monster away from the paying customers.
About that word "monster". In one of the few reflective, philosophical moments of the film, one of the characters muses about whether it's appropriate to apply it to the big guy. "To a canary, a cat is a monster. We're just used to being the cat." Um, yeah. Yeah, you may be right. But check out all the former canaries around here. Now let's hit that monster with everything we've got.
In pursuit and attainment of a PG-13 rating, there's no gratuitous gore and violence here. People are obviously being slautered left and right, but very little of it occurs on screen, and only the occasional splash of blood on a wall or off-screen crunching sound gives any hint of the extent of the carnage.
2nd Half Was OK
Tomorrowland (SF, biggie, original, 2:10, PG, Imax)
Just over 2 hours long, it drags thru the first hour, wherein Britt Robinson (serviceable as the curious teen Casey Newton) tries to make sense of this "T"-emblem lapel pin that's mysteriously appeared among her belongings and can apparently transport her to a strange new world. How? Why? Who's behind it? She tries to figure it out, and an enigmatic tween named Athena, replete with the obligatory annoying accent, shows up along the way to provide some timely rescues and tantalizing clues but not much candor.
The pace and plot don't really pick up much until the George Clooney character (reclusive and embittered former child genius Frank Walker, presumably no relation to our governor) puts in an appearance and gradually reveals the secrets and pitfalls of time travel. Along with some spiffy gadgets and booby traps.
Of the movies based on Disneyland rides and attractions, the Pirates of the Caribbean series clearly holds pride of place, and this one is probably a middle-distance second, but it's still way above the Eddie Murphy vehicle The Haunted Mansion (2003) and the gaggingly bad The Country Bears (2002).
Directed and co-written (with Damon Lindelof) by Brad Bird, the guy behind The Incredibles and Ratatouille, this one comes from Walt Disney Pictures but lacks the Pixar magic touch.
It's available in Imax for no discernible reason, since most of the scenes are close-ups and interiors.
Orphan Black (2013)
1 Nominee 5 Times at the Next Emmy Awards
Really, at the next Emmy Awards, Tatiana Maslany should be all 5 nominees for Best Actress. This has got to be one of the world's all-time most virtuoso performances by anybody anywhere. Not only does she make each of her clones a distinct and memorable character, you can actually tell when one of the clones is assuming the role of a different one something that happens quite a lot!
So the acting is phenomenal, but if it were only that you could turn it into a kind of FaceOff competition. Instead there's much more. The plot is layer upon layer of intrigue, and every time one layer is peeled away and you think you're down to what's really going on, it turns out to be just a deeper layer.
A Canadian production made with a limited supply of Canadian dollars, "Orphan Black" proves that you don't need megabux worth of fancy special effects if you've got truly inspired writing.
One thing I really admire is that this is a serious show for serious adults, not children or the squeamish. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to bemoan the absence of an "A" rating for movies, for films that were intended for adults and didn't deserve the kiss of death that was the "X" rating (now wussified as "NC-17" but still just as deadly). This series earns its "A" in both meanings of the letter.
Really, the only thing keeping "Orphan Black" from being the best TV series on the air is that it had the misfortune to share the current decade with "Game of Thrones".
Penguins of Madagascar (2014)
Not for Unaccompanied Adults
(other: talking animals, 2nd string, sequel, PG, 1:32)
Penguins is from Dreamworks Animation and tries to capitalize on the popularity of penguins generally and more particularly the 4 little comic-relief guys from the earlier Madagascar movies (tho it tells you something about the rest of what purports to be a comedy in itself if it needs its own comic relief). They are Skipper (the boss), Kowalski (the intellectual analyst), Rico (eater and disgorger of many things; also the demolition guy, not entirely unrelated to the disgorging), and Private (the cute one).
Joining them this time around are agents of North Wind, a kind of wildlife version of Men from UNCLE, protectors of animals generally and penguins in particular: leader Classified (wolf), Eva (big-eyed, dulcet-voiced snowy owl), Short Fuse (some kind of bird, I think), and Corporal (polar bear, the muscle). Skipper and Classified bicker first over whether the penguins need protecting at all and later over which of them should lead the strike team while the other guys provide a diversion.
All of this is to combat Dave, a giant purple octopus who used to be a feature attraction at the New York City Zoo until the penguins came along and drew away all the crowds with their unrelenting adorability. Dave became jealous and vowed revenge, and he's taking it in the guise of more-or-less human Dr. Octavius Brine, who's developed a green-slime Medusa Serum that he plans to use to turn all penguins worldwide into monsters so people won't love them any more.
Yes, this is absolutely a by-the-numbers throwaway plot. There are a few decent sight gags, a couple of chuckly lines of dialog, some wordplay featuring names of movie stars, and the obligatory happy ending, where even the villain finds someone to love him. It doesn't really drag because it keeps coming at you so quickly, ideal for SAS audiences (IE, little kids). Overall it's harmless but hardly worth the time of unaccompanied adults.
It'll Probably Actually Make Money
(fantasy: supernatural, bargain basement, sequel, OSIT cynics, PG-13, 1:39)
The original Woman in Black from just 2 years ago (tho it seems like lots longer, such was its unmemorability) was notable mainly because it was Daniel Radcliffe's first vehicle after the Harry Potter series. In it he played a solicitor called to creepy old Eel Marsh House to settle the affairs of its late owner. The house was located on a bump of land that's an island at high tide but which turns into the end of a peninsula at low tide, when it's accessible only by a causeway winding thru the eponymous marsh. I assessed it as 3rd string, formulaic, and worthy only of a 4. The sequel is equally formulaic and also gets a 4 but is downgraded to bargain basement in the absence of anybody you've ever heard of before, a nickel-a-word script commissioned by nickel-lovers, and the recycling of what must be the last tangible asset that Hammer Films owns, that increasingly rickety house on the moors.
Set in the English countryside to which London children were evacuated during WW2, the cast comprises 2 teachers, 1 PTSDed RAF pilot from a naboring decoy airbase, and 8 children, only 3 of whom were paid to speak. The cast list is so short that they even pad it out with a credit for "Woman in Black", who barely appears at all, has no dialog, and could as easily have been rendered as a matte painting. Much of the plot is recycled from #1 young single mother had her only child taken away and raised by relatives, faces horrible early death, vows to come back for her son, but by then he's already dead, so she needs to take others instead, yada yada yada, here we go again.
It isn't actively bad (despite the usual batch of unimaginative and irritating jumpatchas), thus the 4, and there are modestly effective uses of music and lighting from time to time, but really, the only reason this sad excuse for a movie saw the light of day was that they probably knew they'd make their production costs back out of the first dozen theaters that screened it.
Nearly 3 Hours of Michael Bay Blowing Things Up
Transformers : Age of Extinction (PG-13, 2:45, Imax, 3-D) SF, biggie, sequel
No, 4 hours' worth would not have earned 4 stars.
Many years ago, I saw a movie about the Crusades, told (naturally) from the perspective of the Christian West trying to "civilize" the blasphemous Musselmen who were profaning the Holy Land with their mere presence. (How much things have changed since the 12th Century, eh?) During a truce, Richard the Lion-Hearted hosted Saladin at a grand feast in his royal tent and, wanting to impress the infidel with his puissance, seized a broadsword and, with a single hack, clove a large, solid object in twain. Saladin politely applauded, then arose, flung a convenient filmy veil into the air, and held his curved blade edge up as the veil settled gently across it, hanging for just a moment before its own weight parted it cleanly. (Damascus steel, you know.)
I was properly impressed at the time and the level of respect the film-maker had accorded to Saladin also formed a lasting memory for me but the real take-home point was that battles were not necessarily won with thud and blunder but sometimes with subtlety and finesse.
Expect none of that from the nearly 3 hours of Michael Bay blowing things up in Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Good things first. (It won't take long.) Yes, the movie was really loud, but it wasn't outright deafening, like its 2 immediate predecessors. A fast-talking, well buffed Mark Wahlberg was a distinct upgrade from Shia LaBeouf in the role of The Human We're Supposed To Care About. The 1st half-hour or so, the warmup that featured real human interaction, had some welcome goofy moments from screenwriter Ehren Kruger.
OK, so much for that. Let's smash some things. Let's smash some more. Nope, not enuf, more! Is that all you've got? Smash some more. C'mon, sissies, more! Look, we've still got an hour left to go, let's get with it! Whack. Bash. Slam. Ka-blooie. Whang. Ba-doom. Crash. Whoom. Clang. Bzzzap. Brief interlude in the lab. Kapow. Blooey. Somehow we found ourselves in Hong Kong. Hack, hack, hack. Metal dinosaurs. Gratuitous fireworks. Stabby. Pokey. Scratchy. Scrapy. Rakey. Ships falling from the sky. Whangy. Rippy. Smash, smash, smash, smash, smash! Gentle ringing sound of circular object slowly spinning down. SMASH IT!!!
Who are these giant robots? Apparently we're supposed to know in advance, because they're never properly introduced in the movie, and they move in such close-up and so confusingly and quickly (no cut longer than 3 seconds, lest Bay be accused of Attention Deficit Aversion) that we never have any idea of which of them is doing what to which others. I get the vague impression that there was supposed to be a 3rd group of them in addition to the 2 traditional ones, but really they're all indistinguishable from each other, except for a few who spout bad dialog a la the #3 henchthug in a 1947 gangster film. And those are, I surmise, the good robots.
Oh, incidentally, there are some characters. The one that showed the most promise gets fried early. All the rest have the sort of good fortune and miraculous escapes that are the stuff of epic poetry, legends, and holy books. Then again 4-5 more times for good measure.
You'd think it would be difficult to get bored with all this non-stop action roiling across the screen, but about 130 minutes in I found myself imagining Megatron sidling up to his director during a break in the filming and asking "What's my motivation here?" I expect that Bay would be at a total loss for words. But he'd make up for it by blowing something up.
The Rover (2014)
Hard, Desperate, Slightly Crazed Men in a Hard, Desperate Society
The Rover (R, 1:43) other: drama, 3rd string, original, OSIT cynics
We know this from the opening title card: It's Australlia, 10 years after "the collapse". That's the last nod to science fiction in the film, which is otherwise about hard, desperate, slightly crazed men in a hard, desperate society that might as well have been medieval Japan.
We learn this thru dialog: 4 such men have committed some kind of crime (never seen, even in flashback), and 3 of them are fleeing from the scene in their truck. The older of a pair of brothers, Henry (Scoot McNairy), has been shot in the leg and is in the truck; the younger, Rey (Robert Pattinson), a dimwit, was shot in the side and left for dead, but he wasn't.
We see this in the opening scene: A gaunt, grizzled, bearded loner in cargo shorts (Guy Pearce), sits brooding behind his steering wheel before bestirring himself to enter a ramshackle, isolated general store in the outer part of the Australian outback, where they sell limited amounts of expensive food, very limited amounts of very expensive petrol, ammunition, and serious, serious suspicion. The credits claim that this is Eric, but I don't recall him ever mentioning it, not even later, to the grandma who continuously importunes him for his name. As he nurses his mason jar of hooch, the overturned truck containing the 3 squabbling fugitive thugs slides by outside the store window.
That was probably the most expensive action scene in the whole film, which would have qualified as a bargain-basement production were it not for the presence of its 2 stars. There are few characters, almost no sets or locations, maybe 20 total costumes (mainly army surplus), and even dialog that appeared to be dispensed with eye-droppers. Screenwriter (and director) David Michôd was clearly not being paid by the word; the Pearce character in particular is monumentally taciturn.
The thugs get out of their truck, spot Eric's car standing nearby, hotwire it, and take off again. He immediately leaps into their truck (which has come to rest upright but entangled), rocks it out of its snare, and takes off after them. When they finally both stop for a confrontation, he is monomaniacal on a particular subject: "I want my cah back!" he repeatedly insists, in the thick Australian accent that makes it difficult to understand half of what limited dialog the movie offers up. And, despite the fact that the thieves are holding guns on him, he seems determined to beat that car out of them.
When he wakes up, they're long gone, but shortly thereafter, as he's trying to figure out what to do next, the halfwit Rey shows up, looking for the brother who abandoned him. These 2 form an uneasy partnership and set out on the trail of the desperados. Along the way they will encounter multiple hard-core and hard-luck types, and there will be a plethora of danger, punctuated by sudden, violent death.
About 99 minutes into the 103-minute run time, we finally find out why Eric was so damn obsessed with getting his cah back.
As I said, hard, desperate, and perhaps more than just slightly crazed.
The Signal (2014)
Spoiler Bait 1st 15 minutes described here, rest keeps getting weirder
The Signal SF, 3rd string, original
An odd film. A trio of hyper-bright MIT students are on a road trip to California to deliver 1 of them (the cute one, Olivia Cooke) to a year's fellowship at Caltech, but the other 2 (the dorky one, Beau Knapp, and the rugged, athletic-looking guy with the crutches, Brenton Thwaites) want to take a little side excursion to a spot in rural Nevada which seems to be the point of origin of a mysterious computer signal that trashed their computer servers back in Cambridge and which has been heckling them about it ever since.
They drive down a rutted dirt road to find what appears to be a deserted shack, and they figure it must just be a relay point for a hidden operative located elsewhere, but the lads go poking around inside it anyway, when they hear screams coming from outside. They rush back out just in time to see the gal suddenly levitated, then everything goes black. When they wake up, they're flat on their backs in separate rooms, wearing hospital gowns, in a strange, all-white underground lab, surrounded by mysterious people in hazmat suits, only one of whom (Laurence Fishburne as Damon) ever talks to them, often from behind a 1-way mirror.
What's up? They spend the rest of the movie trying to (a) find out and (b) get out.
It's a puzzlebox of a movie. It didn't need much of a budget, but it's well scripted (by William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank, and David Frigerio), aside from repeated obscure flashbacks by Nic (the viewpoint character), his legs all muscular, running thru the woods, pausing beside a rushing stream, and riding on a carnival tilt-a-whirl. We keep waiting for these scenes to contribute some explanatory power to the situation, but they never do, so in the end they're just a distracting annoyance.
There are few other characters, and aside from the central 3 they're all strangely "off" somehow. The actors sell them well. The plot keeps your attention all the way thru. It's an original. All of these are plusses. The main downsides are the credibility gaps, but if you go into it without conventional expectations, you'll probably be able to slide past them.