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TIFF 2015: THE MARTIAN Review

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The Martian One Sheet

Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Ridley Scott

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Sean Bean

Released: September 30, 2015 (UK)

It’s weird. With everything The Martian has going on and going for it you’d think it might be more of a straightforward action film, but rather this is a movie about problem solving. Problem solving in the cheesy sense of never giving up, but legitimate in that our protagonists circumstances have him stranded on Mars. These days, one almost goes into a Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) picture with the expectation of receiving something handsome without necessarily having any sustenance and that reaction has been warranted over the last few years (Prometheus has it’s lovers and it’s haters, but I’m in the former camp). What makes The Martian different than say Robin Hood, The Counselor or even Exodus though is that it once again sets the director up in what seems to be his most comfortable and inspiring setting: space. In going back to the cosmos, the director does his own problem solving and dives head first into his grand new science fiction film by embracing every aspect that makes up this story. Whether that be in the Mars-based segments with Matt Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney or on Earth at the various NASA headquarters with engaging intellects like Chewitel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels. Beyond having rounded up a stellar cast Scott has more or less crafted his most entertaining film in years by really seeming passionate about the material. Of course, rather than space, this could be the reason all of his films taking place out of our planet’s orbit tend to generally turn out for the best. Scott is an explorer, a man who likes his scope large and his stories fairly bombastic. What bigger canvas is there to paint on than space?

Before we know anything else in the film we know there is a strong camaraderie between the crew of the Ares III mission. Led by Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the rest of the team includes Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). It is when an unexpected storm rolls up on the crew as they walk the surface of mars that they are forced to evacuate their mission. In making their way to the escape pod Watney is impaled by an antenna during the storm destroying his flight suit’s bio-monitor computer, rendering his crewmates unable to detect him and leaving them to believe him dead. In reality, Watney’s injury proves to be relatively minor, but with no way to contact Earth, he is forced to rely on his scientific and technical skills to survive. Given Watney is a botanist and mechanical engineer though, he has a leg up on the typical competition. While the odds still seem insurmountable there is certainly hope. Enter the problem solving skills. Watney begins growing potatoes in the crew’s Martian habitat (or Hab as it is referred to) and burning hydrazine to make water. On the other side of things, millions of miles away, NASA is working tirelessly to bring Watney home. While Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor (Head of NASA Mars Missions) and Daniels Teddy Sanders (Director of NASA) feel it best to not allow the information that Watney did indeed survive and is still alive to reach the ears of his crewmates for the sake of their own sanity the world looks on anxiously. And so, with those odds stacked against them NASA and Watney work tirelessly to come up with and conduct a plan that will guarantee his safe return.

If you’ve been living under a rock as of late The Martian is actually based on Any Weir’s best-selling novel that he originally self-published. Having read the book I was curious as to how Scott, but more screenwriter Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) would go about adapting the dialogue heavy narrative. While the NASA segments and much of the third act are told from a third person omniscient point of view a large portion of the first half of the book is strictly Watney’s logs that he creates to keep a record of his activity. These log entries are plagued with massive amounts of scientific verbiage as much of the time I wasn’t exactly sure what I was reading was supposed to add up to, but trusted that by the time Watney made it around to his point I would understand. This of course worked out fine for my brain to process when reading the words on a page, but Goddard wisely streamlined much of this information into clips of Damon talking straight into the camera while at the same time working on whatever he was describing giving audiences a visual feel for what was necessary to continue to survive.

Damon, who at this point kind of seems like the obvious choice, is really terrific as Watney. He fully embodies the laid-back All-American astronaut who has a generous sense of humor while never not being able to convince us that he’s indeed as intelligent as he’s supposed to be. What is refreshing about The Martian is that the majority of the time Scott keeps things rolling by having his editor give the film a breathless pace, but every once and a while he’ll stop to take a breath and let the bigness of the situation sink in not only on the audience, but on Watney. Watney is like the movie in this sense. He is constantly working, figuring things out, planning his next excursion, attempting to fix communications, plotting how to grow things on a planet that doesn’t typically stand for such things, but every once in a while he’ll stop and look around. There is a specific sequence such as this late in the film where Watney discusses the fact that any time he does something on Mars he is the first person to do so. That the planet has existed for billions of years and yet he is the one to accomplish a number of firsts on it’s surface. It is a wonder what that kind of realization does to a man psychologically and if you’re wondering you can guess as much by the ticks and body language that Damon puts into his performance. Moments of simple realizations within confined spaces draw tears from him and send chills down us, but the realization that he might die there is the one that continues to push him to solve problems. Without this kind of can-do mentality that is so present in Damon’s interpretation the film wouldn’t feel nearly as weightless or fun, but Damon is our All-American boy and he hits a sweet stride here that truly makes the film more than entertaining, but affecting.

While all of the credible facets that The Martian has going for it make it seem like it would be a very serious, dramatic picture about saving a man’s life there is plenty of humor here as well. It’s funny. Just like it would seem to be an action film it seems it’s main genre distinction would be drama, but that the film turns these expectations on their head and delivers a frequently humorous film with more focus on the details than the broad missions make it all the better. This is clearly taken from the novel as Weir provided his lead character with a great, relatable sense of humor while making jokes concerning how bad seventies disco is that are both safe enough to guarantee a laugh while being safe from criticism for being too safe because of the dire circumstances. Scott takes advantage of this inclusion in the book to provide a lively and uniquely fitting soundtrack rather than have the typical orchestral swells at the expected turns. That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of tension. There certainly are and enough bad things happening and enough plans failing throughout that we never feel assured throughout the entire runtime that Watney will necessarily end up safe. Even better, these obstacles never feel like a reason to extend the runtime, but rather natural obstacles that a company and a mission as large as the space program would encounter.

This is all to say that Scott seems to have at least returned to ground where he can feel a purpose in his work because there is real weight to the motions that take place here. Sure, there are times when we wonder why Donald Glover or Kristen Wiig were cast for what essentially add up to be cameos or if there wasn’t a better, less overly dramatic and ridiculous (no matter how scientifically accurate) way to stage the final act, but the good outweighs the bad. The film is beautifully shot (no surprise there) and gorgeous to behold on the big screen. The NASA scenes are as modern, but lived in as we could expect from those working around the clock while the Mars scenes are claustrophobic when necessary (in the rover, in the hab) and sweeping when reminding us of just how lost Watney really is. Ejiofor is especially terrific while Sean Bean is more or less rendered moot by the presence of both he and Daniels. It’s also a shame we don’t get to spend more time with the Ares III crew as there is both a lot of talent and chemistry there between the actors. Chastain, as always, is especially effective in her few larger moments. All in all though, The Martian is a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction film that puts the science front and center while allowing the human characters to serve as the most exciting aspects. More exciting than any battle scene could have proved to be. It’s weird. Apparently not all space adventures have to include aliens or extravagant spaceships to be exciting, but sometimes the will to live is enough to create something truly compelling.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Featured Review

Climax ★★★★★

Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)

Directed By: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer

Reviewed By: Dion Wyn

Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.

Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?

Climax Still Movie Marker

Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.

Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and un-tameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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