The Martian (2015)

★★★★★

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The Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Release Date: September 30th, 2015 (UK); October 2nd, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara

As Ridley Scott’s fourth headline entry in the science fiction genre, you might pre-emptively think The Martian is one giant leap too many. The film opens with a steady pan across wondrous space, a shot that harkens back to his first offering, Alien. But this isn’t Alien, far from it. Nor is it Blade Runner or Prometheus. The Martian is too busy swimming in the delightful proclivities of space pirates and gaffer tape to concern itself with morose terminators and monstrous creatures. In short, this giant leap is the best one Scott could hope to make at this stage in his career and, indeed, the right one for mankind to feast on.

Drew Goddard recalibrates Andy Weir’s highly regarded novel with impetus, creating a screenplay that sparks with life and manifests on screen in surprisingly slick 140-minute form. It’s about botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars after an Ares 3 mission catastrophe (a scene shot with intense furore). Accordingly, we spend a lot of time in the company of a man whose technical wizardry acts as a lifeboat. There is a lot of scientific space lingo and control room hubris, yet a combination of Goddard’s wily script and Damon’s charming performance renders the would-be impersonal exceedingly personal.

Mars’ landscape is incredible — when Watney awakens from his unconscious state and ambles across the rusty sand, you really feel his isolation. The grandeur both intimidates and inspires. His first call of duty is a squirm-worthy medical scene involving pliers and the astronaut’s gaping abdomen. Matt Damon recaptures the tortured spirit unleashed by Noomi Rapace in Prometheus, and the excruciating results would make her proud. His eyes are black and heavy at this point. To fund the sense of total seclusion, we’re stuck with Watney on Mars for a good chunk of the movie (though “stuck” suggests it is time spent against our will, when in fact it is some of the best time I’ve spent at the cinema this year).

The Martian is about a smart person (and later people) doing smart things, and Damon is perfect as the savvy loner. He is brilliant company, erupting with charismatic poise and an everymanness that usurps his specialised occupation. You feel an authentic burst of joy every time he connects the problematic dots via intellect and nous. Cinema will do well to conjure up a more likeable presence before 2015 is out. There’s no volleyball, but for a companion Watney employs a webcam and, like Cillian Murphy’s Capa in Sunshine, our hero speaks to the camera as if conversing with us and not with a machine. Emotions become capital and we absolutely get our money’s worth: whenever Watney wells up our natural instinct suggests we do the same.

The self-proclaimed greatest botanist on the planet often wears a scowl that implies a freak out is imminent, but instead whimsical quips relieve any tension. He has to be sarcastic and jokey in order to survive, and his jokes are unequivocally funny (“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup”). David Bowie’s “Starman” tune is part of an expertly employed soundtrack that feeds the genial air surrounding Watney’s shenanigans — potato growing, alphabet reconfiguration, machine hacking, to name but a few.

In any other Ridley Scott sci-fi effort, the titular man-Martian would be cursing God and trembling through his deserted predicament. But not here. Here, the prevailing sentiment is a hearty, somewhat sly, “Fuck you Mars.” Watney throws a plethora of insults at his host — the planet becomes the enemy. It’s man versus wild, and there is an acknowledgement from the filmmaker that threat ought to still linger despite the upbeat atmosphere. Watney, as such, has to contend with peril constantly swirling around him, danger emboldened by the movie’s forthright sound design.

Goddard’s screenplay — which he initially wrote intending to direct — likes to poke fun at PR and at press discourse. The film is barely five minutes old before the digs start: “Mark just discovered dirt — should we alert the media?” (as fate, or otherwise, would have it we got a water-related Mars announcement from NASA just days before the film’s release). While Watney does his best to stay alive, the mission back on Earth is to somehow spin his survival into a non-destructive PR story. Those doing the spinning, somewhat amazingly given the cynical Zeitgeist in which we live, are far from deplorable.

They each have flaws: Jeff Daniels’ NASA chief is a bit impersonal; Sean Bean’s Ares 3 crew supervisor heralds gut reaction over practicality; and even Kristen Wiig’s publicity woman can be on the dismissive side. But they are all amiable people trying to do good. While on Mars it is all about Spielbergian wonderment, quirky humour, and a genuinely winsome crust, the Earth arc mixes a jaunty detective movie with corporate drama. Bureaucracy plays a part — should they or should they not inform the Ares 3 crew that their man is still alive? Those at NASA struggle to keep up with Watney’s ingenious prowess despite their technological advantage, and the film hilariously emphasises this.

The cast is rich in depth but very large, and you worry that some might suffer due to a lack of screen time (a criticism many aimed at Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest). Thankfully, by the end, the vast majority are afforded a moment to shine. It’s great seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor in a breezier role, and he fits the bill as home-based NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor with coolness to spare. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña and the remaining Ares 3 crew members function like a well-oiled team despite their comparatively short-lived screen stint. Mackenzie Davis is very good as the freshman NASA analyst, energising a potentially corny role. Kristen Wiig, too, confidently plays against type.

As the film advances, the Sol counts (the number of days spent on Mars) that are systematically thrown up on screen do lose their clout. It could be argued that the piece unwittingly stumbles into a pacing issue; not that it ever threatens to plod along, but rather that the on screen presentation of advancing time is a tad careless. The longer we go, the less it impacts on us (though admittedly, by the time the grand conclusion gets under way nobody really cares).

It is dramatically better than Apollo 13. Visually, it rides the same rocketship as Gravity — Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is foolproof. The Martian probably isn’t Ridley Scott’s best sci-fi movie (both Alien and Blade Runner will take some beating), but his love letter to human dexterity, perseverance, and personality is an utter triumph.

The Martian - Matt Damon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Oscars 2014 — Final Predictions

Hollywood’s favourite night of the year is once again upon us. Stars have campaigned. Odds have shortened. Dresses have been selected. Cinema trips have come thick and fast. Jared Leto’s hair has been straightened.

And, now that I’ve seen all the nominated films in all the most talked about categories, here are my final predictions for the 86th Academy Awards.

If you want to know a bit more about why I picked what/who, there are a few ponderings towards the end. For my review of each Best Picture nominee, click on the respective title.

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Matthew McConaughey

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominatedAdèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour)

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

Who should’ve been nominated: N/A

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Lupita Nyong’o

Who should’ve been nominated: Scarlett Johansson (Her)

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will winAlfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: Steve McQueen

Who should’ve been nominated: Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

Additional Quick-hits

With the exception of a few glaring errors, The Academy has more or less come up trumps this year, at least nominations-wise. Time will tell whether the industry congregation get it right on the night, but until then, let’s take a look at some of the unfortunate snubbees (in a personal snub, I’ve opted not to include my Best Foreign Language picks above as, for whatever reason, i haven’t seen enough of the nominated films).

Inside Llewyn Davis, what is going on? Only up for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing, my personal favourite film of the year has strummed a valiant strum, only to be waived by another Bud Grossman. As unlucky as Llewyn himself (irony eh?) the film should be up for a lot more.

Tom Hanks delivers the performance of a lifetime in the final moments of Captain Phillips, but his name is nowhere to be seen. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, and thought he was really good in American Hustle, but no phony wig can hide the travesty that places his performance ahead of Hanks’. Having said that, old Tom’s already won a couple, so he might not be that bothered.

Another disappointingly shunned near-masterpiece, the folks behind Blue is the Warmest Colour must feel hard done by. Adèle Exarchopoulos’ raw, enchanting portrayal is criminally ignored. The film was ineligible for a Best Foreign Language nomination, but Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film nods should’ve been calling. It’s almost as if some of those hardened Americana execs don’t fancy reading subtitles…

On to the actual bunch clambering for awards, and it seems Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor are all pretty much sown up. I’d love Leo DiCaprio to finally receive the adulation he deserves in the form of a golden statuette, but McConaughey is the favourite and a worthy winner. Barkhad Abdi surprised at the BAFTAs, but won’t here. Cate Blanchett is the definitive stick on.

Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o have been tussling for Best Supporting Actress throughout this awards season, the former having come out on top more often. Nyong’o delivers the more powerful and wholly better performance, thus should win the gong. Gravity is up for a lot, but outwith the technical categories, might only win Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón.

What then, of the top prize? Best Film. It appears to be a three-way jostle between the important 12 Years a Slave, the glitzy American Hustle, and the floaty Gravity. Apparently, some Academy members find 12 Years a Slave too tough a watch – which is absurd – and Gravity ain’t exactly at its best on a laptop screen (most voters see the films at home), therefore a shock could be on the cards which would see American Hustle hustle its way to the top. I don’t think so. For me, there’s no looking past Steve McQueen’s haunting 12 Years a Slave.

There we have it.

After a fairly lacklustre spring/summer, the arrival of that typical awards scent in late autumn summoned a plethora of very good to great films. From Captain Phillips to The Wolf of Wall Street, and many others in between, we’ve seen a mixture of high intensity drama, awe-inspiring visuals, harrowing story-telling and debaucherous eccentricity. All in all, I reckon it’s been a pretty good year.

Here’s to another!

12 Years a Slave (2014)

★★★★★

Director: Steve McQueen

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (US); January 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

“I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

Those purposeful words, you will have heard over the last few months in trailers, adverts and previews. They are strong-willed; in one sense uplifting, yet in another more visceral sense, haunted by humanity’s most evil endeavours. Despair and freedom, traits inversely diverging in the life, rather, the existence of Solomon Norfolk. Steve McQueen challenges us to consider and then reconsider as his depiction of the animalistic slave trade hammers with shock, but does not rely on it. For the most part, the moments of solitude and silence profoundly exhibit a monstrous reality lived by those such as the remorseless slave owner Edwin Epps. There are no punches pulled, no whippings recoiled; McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing watch without question. More than that though, it is a necessary watch. Not to reassure a cultural ridding that hasn’t fully been expunged. Rather, to condemn what should never have occurred, and to shed a flicker of true resilience on a truly despicable time.

A well-off and considerate skilled carpenter, Solomon Norfolk (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tends to the every need of his young family. It’s 1841 and the slave trade is rife with wealthy disregard. Approached by two not noticeably iffy gentlemen, Solomon — a fiddle player at heart — is offered an extended musical job, an offer greeted with appreciative acceptance. After a drunken night, he awakens in chains, stripped of his identity and mercilessly pawned. 12 Years a Slave tells Solomon’s harrowing story, as he is traded from a would-be sympathetic slave owner (that is, if such a juxtaposition exists) to the vile, despicable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has abomination clenched in his fists and the abyss peering through his eyes.

This is an intense watch, no doubt. Not necessarily because it’s another retelling of a horrible time — though that alone warrants attention and denouncing. Rather, it comes down to how Steve McQueen unflinchingly tells the story. His directorial application is admirable in that no disservice is done to those who fell victim to slavery, this isn’t in any remote sense a Hollywood-esque drama bloated full of riveting set pieces or manipulative tones. Nor is it buoyed by a somewhat ironic, semi-exploitative raft akin to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a cinematic spectacle in every sense. 12 Years a Slave is real life, a reflection of events not so long gone. You may judge success on ticket sales, or audience reception, or even personal affirmation, but there’s also a genuine feeling abound that McQueen’s priorities are and would always have been aligned alongside authentic storytelling regardless. His straightforward devotion to re-imagining the unimaginable is admirable, and it’s this wholeheartedness that enables the viewer to watch with an only just an ounce of ease, but an ounce nonetheless.

From the point of his wrongful capture, Solomon wrestles with a tragic dignity-driven dilemma: does he succumb to hate to become bastion of support for his helpless compatriots already grappled by despair, or does he stoutly, fearlessly stare directly into the heartlessness of one of humanity’s worst episodes? Initially, Solomon is disbelieving, perhaps as much of slavery’s existence as of his own forced manoeuvre into it. “They were not kidnappers, they were artists… fellow performers,” he wrongly assures, detailing those absolutely iffy gentlemen. Maybe if he can convince someone, anyone, they’ll see sense. But there is no sense, not in the racist pits of Southern USA. Everywhere Solomon glances there is a monster in human skin. The slave-trader, auctioning off people like watches (“My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”). The plantation owner, who treats his slaves fairly well — but to treat a slave well would be to treat a slave as a human, not an object, therefore not to treat a slave at all. His empathy is misguided. The hired carpenter, a white pre-Nazi figure teaming with abhorrent spew. Yet through these early trials, Solomon remains resilient and hopeful — freedom is still vaguely in sight.

Wholly, 12 Years a Slave is mighty, but a number of moments stand out in their contrasting potency. As a twenty-first century audience, we’ve sponged it all, and have resultantly become immune to most atrocities displayed in film or any other art-form. There’s something to be said, then, for an act of depicted violence that leaves you mouth gaping, eyes watering and mind searching. In a sickening whipping display not far removed from The Passion of the Christ, the film emphatically compounds its horrors. Yet it remains realistic, and that rankles the stomach. Conversely, a scene of isolation is striking. Surrounded by an audibly hissing nature, pupils dark and eclipsing, Solomon slowly stares right and left before catching the camera’s lens. Profound, absolutely. Painful, worryingly. You wonder whether Solomon has approached the point of no return, the despair, and assume thereafter that he has seen no end. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, perhaps the most poignant all both in delivery and meaning.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon is utterly remarkable. He is defiant in hope, upsetting in pain and compelling throughout, embodying this range in absolute earnest. The role is a difficult one; Ejiofor must reign in grief and disperse it invariably at the correct moments, or risk devaluing the man. At the same time, Solomon’s sympathetic nature cannot restrain, and instead Ejiofor has to symbolise at least partial hope where there is none. Ejiofor masterfully accomplishes all of this, and more — every strained note from his mouth rings with plea, and his eyes bulge with emotion. As diabolical slave-owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender demonstrably bewitches himself in a spell of pure evil. At one point Epps falls flat on his face, yet you cannot muster up the slightest node of joy because it’s obvious that his repulsive mindset enjoyed the discomfort.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is also incredible. She plays Patsey, a young female slave whom Epps fantasies over and hates himself for it. Nyong’o displays an air of vulnerability, whilst at the same time commanding the screen with her undeniably astute presence. Paul Giamatti has a minor role as the aforementioned slave-trader, excelling in cruelty, the same uncaring sensibility as Paul Dano, the aforementioned hired carpenter. Brad Pitt oddly appears as a different carpenter, Amish beard and all. His random arrival is slightly off-putting, though the co-producer of the film (ah, that’s why) is solid enough. Benedict Cumberbatch is William Ford, the empathetic plantation owner whose sentences begin with an English accent and end in a southern drawl. Having said that, Cumberbatch is an excellent choice to play the role, that much-loved real life personality giving the character some small semblance of decency.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is exquisite, offering a pristine vehicle for the film to vibrantly beam out of. A contagious scent of excellence must’ve attached itself to each component on set, and Hans Zimmer’s score is no different. Moving and soaring, Zimmer’s orchestral harmonies wrap around events on screen as if to comfort the forsaken humans. This contrasts with the weighty Roll Jordan Roll, a roar of solidarity that you don’t want Solomon to contribute to for fear of his own confirmation of plight.

If not the best film of the year, 12 Years a Slave is certainly the most important and probably the least comfortable to watch. Steve McQueen powerfully unravels a horrific period lived mercilessly by those far wickeder than any revised history suggests, and endured harrowingly by those whose suffering is unrelenting in its depiction. It’s stark and honest, so much so that you’ll exit the cinema, mind image-strewn, wishing the film never had to be made.