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.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard
Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths
The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.
Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.
Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).
Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).
Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.
Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.
Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.
It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.
Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…
Hotel Artemis ★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.
On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.
On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.
On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.
Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.
Released: 12th July 2018
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.
Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.
Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.
Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.
In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.
It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.
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