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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!

Movie Reviews

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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