THE MARTIAN – Matt Damon’s Neither Little or Green ***

What he is is the one left behind when a monstrous Martian windstorm threatens to topple a NASA expedition’s ride back to their orbiting base, and Mission Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) aborts it.  Feisty Mark Watney (Damon) disagrees with the decision, dawdles while getting back to the escape rocket (called a MAV), and gets knocked out when a communications dish gets blown away and clonks him on the head.  Try as they might, Lewis and her crew, including Beth (Kate Mara) and Rick (Michael Pena), can’t find Watney in the blinding sand.  Lewis reluctantly calls everyone back in, and they ditch the base, dock with their orbiting mother ship, and head out on their 4-month journey back to Earth.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Watney wakes up later to find himself alone and abandoned.  He staggers back into the base compound, and, after handling the immediate problem of the metal rod stuck in his gut, sits down to contemplate his situation, recording everything on what we would probably call his personal video blog.  What follows is an account of Watney’s genius and resourcefulness as he finds ways to manufacture oxygen, grow his own food, rig the base’s battery-powered vehicle with solar panels to give it unlimited range, and even dig up the old NASA unmanned probe Pathfinder to rig up a way to potentially communicate with Mission Control back on Earth.

Meanwhile, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (a deadpan Jeff Daniels) has long since declared Watney dead and Lewis and her crew are over halfway home.  So it’s quite a shock when they hear transmissions coming from the long-defunct probe announcing that Watney is indeed not only alive, but also has made provision to survive all the way until the next NASA manned mission arrives three and a half years later at a site some 2000 miles from Watney’s base.

Things become more urgent, though, when Watney returns to his base, an airlock explosion nearly kills him, and destroys his food-growing system.  Now with only enough food to last roughly another year, Watney abandons his fractured base with what food and supplies he can hook up to his vehicle, and heads out in a doomed effort to make it to the site of NASA’S next landing, where another MAV stands, though there will be no mother ship out in orbit for it to dock with.

Back on Earth, Sanders nixes any attempt to mount a special rescue mission, but more humane (and ingenious) friends, both on the ground, in Watney’s crew, and even in China conspire behind Sander’s back to make such a mission happen, at their own peril.

As wonderfully cast, directed, and shot that this film is, there’s something a bit off about it for me, and I think it’s in the writing.  It’s a tough enough challenge to make a story which basically comes down to being Castaway in space (the Robert Zemeckis film starring Tom Hanks) seem interesting despite things like the long passages of time involved and the fact that the main character is essentially able to talk only to himself.  But when you’re asked to make all this, plus everything else that happens in the film, look, feel, and sound like a real NASA mission, complete with its intentionally emotionless dialogue, much of what feeling that might be expressed between the characters is pretty much sucked out of the story.  And ironically, despite his impossible situation, things always seem to work out pretty much according to plan for Watney, and even his crew, and the folks on the ground.  Unlike another similar movie, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, where every trial seems fraught with error, here, aside from a couple of notable glitches, things just kind of hum along for our heroes.   Only at one point after the initial tragedy did I ever feel like anyone was in any real, mortal danger.

So, while there’s a lot to like in this film and a lot done well by Director Ridley Scott and crew, in the end, the result is a film that perhaps should be a bit more riveting than it actually is, at least for me.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN – Family Films Lead the Way at your Local Metroplex

Happily, it’s actually the family films that are getting the biggest nods of approval from both critics and audiences this season, which can be truly frightful at this time of year (and that’s a good thing).  Here’s some short reviews of films you might want to consider taking the whole fam to see when you celebrate, as well as a sentence or two about a couple others of note that might be worthwhile for the olders of your brood.

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 *** – This is the sequel to Adam Sandler’s pleasantly unexpected hit from two years ago about the benevolent Count Drac (Sandler) who has created a haven for misunderstood monsters in his haunted hotel, then things get a shake-up when a “slacker” hippie throwback Jonathan (Andy Samberg) happens by and is taken to by Drac’s daughter Mavis, who’s about to celebrate her 118th birthday.

This time around, Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Jonathan have enjoyed several years of wedded bliss at the hotel haunts (much to Jonathan’s parents chagrin) and Mavis is expecting their first child.  When the blessed event happens though, Grandpa Drac is a bit disturbed that, as little Dennis grows, he’s increasingly human-like and doesn’t seem to be developing vampire fangs like a “normal” vamp kid would.  At the same time, Mavis wonders if a motel full of monsters is the best place to raise her hybrid boy.  So, while she goes with Jonathan back to his surfer-dude stomping grounds in Santa Cruz, CA to check out life with humans, Drac and his monster buddies take little “Dennisovich” out on a hilarious crash course in monstering as they visit the places where good ole Gramps grew up.

As with the original, this animated film is filled to the brim with spooky-cutie monsters that little kids will adore and  spooky-goofy one-liners, site-gags, and even songs that will have the parents and older kids continually cracking up.  Whether you’ve seen it already or not, this would be a safe and fun way to celebrate the season either before, after, or instead of the traditional trick-or-treating, especially if your little monsters–er, kids–happen to be on the younger side.

 

GOOSEBUMPS *** – And just as entertaining for families whose little monsters aren’t so little anymore is this new film from Sony based on the wildly popular kids’ books by R.L. Stine that have been a staple of school and/or classroom library reading material since the early 90’s.  Designed to be a kiddie alternative to Stine’s more teen-orientated horror series Fear Street, the Goosebumps series went on to make Stine USA Today’s number one-selling author in the country for three straight years in the 90’s (even selling more books than fellow horror writer Stephen King, as the movie jokingly points out), and by 2008 had sold over 400 million copies.  Hollywood’s been trying to think of a way to make Stine’s myriad of Goosebumps books and spinoffs into a film for nearly the same duration, and finally has come up with a solution that works surprisingly well.

Jack Black is perfectly cast as Stine, an eccentric author who hides from the rest of the world and requires the same of his teenage daughter Hannah (the alluring Odeya Rush).  When reluctant “new kid” Zach Cooper (fresh-faced Dylan Minnet) shows up next door, his newly widowed mom having moved out of New York to help both her and Zach cope with their loss, Zach sees new hope in a budding friendship with Hannah.  That is, until Daddy Stine crushes it just as it gets going, chastising Hannah in frightening fashion for even considering it.

Fearing the worst, Zach and Champ, his impossibly nerdy–and only–friend from school (a hilarious Ryan Lee) creep into the Stine house to investigate, only to set into motion a chain of events that eventually leads to a torrent of monsters being unleashed on their little town when the locks on Stine’s original manuscripts are opened, spewing them forth.  The resulting mayhem and our heroes’ efforts to set things to right lie somewhere between Ghostbusters and a sequel to a Scooby-Doo movie in tone as the edgy, effects-driven horror is effectively blunted by both belly-laughing humor, sheer silliness, and a pleasantly surprising touch of sweetness.

It all makes for a very winning mix, one that is a fitting tribute to Stine and his work (he actually has a cameo in the show, as a school teacher with the ironic name of “Mr. Black”) and will serve up lively, spooky entertainment both for fans of the stories as well as newcomers like me (can you believe it–a teacher like me, never read a Goosebumps book???  For shame!!!).  While a bit intense possibly for the 8 and unders in your fam, this would make both frightful and fun fare for most any family’s Halloween festivities.

 

And for the adults and older teens who like a more serious “creeping out” as part of their Halloween, cinemas will also be featuring…

The Last Witch-Hunter – Vin Diesel heads an all-star cast (Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Rose Leslie, etc.) in a big-budget supernatural thriller that someone (probably mistakenly) thinks is going launch a new genre franchise ala Underworld or Blade.  It’s about an immortal ass-kicker of evil who, well, hunts witches.  It only managed #4 ($11 M) in its opening weekend.  Not a good sign.

Crimson Peak – A classic, gothic haunted house tale with a touch of class lent by its strong cast (Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tim “Loki” Hiddleston, etc.) and illustrious director (Guillermo “Pan’s Labyrinth” del Toro).  Some feel this is truly creepy, others that it’s also too predictable.  You can decide for yourself, as I’d probably just be hiding under the seat the whole time in something like this.

The Ghost Dimension – I believe this is supposed to be the last in the Paranormal Activity franchise that made a household name out of Jason Blum, Hollywood’s king of “low-budget horror.”  Here, the big secret of the whole series is supposed to be revealed, but in its opening weekend, it could only manage 6th at the box office with an underwhelming $8.2 M.  Sounds like this is pretty much a meh for most movie-goers, and, more alarmingly for Blum, even for fans of the once-venerable franchise.

EVEREST – Superb Portrayal of a Tragedy of Errors ***

Everest is the latest film to feature the world’s most prodigious mountain and mankind’s continuing efforts to conquer it.  Based on the true accounts of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and writings and interviews of other participants, this Everest film centers itself on the 1996 climbing season of the mountain (a narrow window of a few weeks in May when weather on the mountain is traditionally the least inclement), one in which a “perfect storm” of human arrogance, error, and nature’s unexpected fury came together with epic results.

The film begins with a brief synopsis of the history of men on the mountain, noting that it was first conquered by Englishman Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tensing Norgay back in 1954, and in the subsequent 40 years before this story begins, had only been assaulted by a few thousand professional climbers, 25% of whom had died in the attempt.  But in 1991, a company called Adventure Consultants, headed by climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of New Zealand, had devised a way to “safely” guide amateur climbers up the mighty slopes–for a price, of course–and since then numerous other companies led by other professional climbers and been formed.

Consequently, the story really kicks into gear with an ironic scene that Hillary and Norgay would have found laughably insane had they been around to see it–over a dozen professional mountaineers, each leading groups of essentially tourist climbers (one including an IMAX film crew, another a noted outdoor journalist), discussing the ominous (or perhaps ludicrous?) possibility of a traffic jam of people developing as the various groups attempt their final ascents of the mountain.  Compromises are eventually worked out, with two of the largest groups, Hall’s Adventure Consultants and daredevil climber Scott Fisher’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness, agreeing to work together and pool their resources.

Meanwhile, journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly) sits amongst the “climbers” trying to get a feel for just why each one would literally risk their lives on what is, essentially, a very self-absorbed adventure.  After all, no one’s making them do it, and, as Hall had ominously warned, “human life was not meant to survive at the cruising altitude of a 747 airliner” while describing the mountain’s infamous Death Zone (the last 2000 feet of the climb).  A Japanese woman (Naoko Mori) wants to be the oldest woman to climb the highest peaks on every continent (“the Seven”).  Doug (John Hawkes), who’s failed on two other attempts, wants to show schoolchildren back home that “if an ordinary guy like me can reach the top of the world, they should be able to accomplish anything if they work hard and don’t quit.”  And veteran climber Buck (Josh Brolin) just wants to “feel alive” again compared to how he feels in his normal life back home, where his wife has threatened to divorce him if he climbs another mountain.  It’s evident that none of these folks, despite their brave words and noble (or not so noble) intentions, really has any idea what they’re getting themselves into.

But onward they go, through “practice runs” that take them up to various camps and back to the over-populated base camp, ending in the final assault which will go all the way to the 29,002 ft. summit.  It’s on that ascent that things for Hall’s and Fisher’s parties begin to go awry.  Like rusty joints beginning to give way on an old bridge, one error leads to another slip-up and to another mistake, amateur climbers begin to whither as they face perils that even professionals struggle to conquer, guides who want desperately for their clients to reach their dreams must make life-and-death decisions, and then Mother Nature throws in a curve ball that sends the whole, delicately-balanced structure crumbling to ruins, with predictable results.  The action is tense, the drama even more so, and all is brilliantly filmed with a jaw-dropping reality that should be remembered in Oscar’s more technical awards categories.  Performances by the all-star ensemble cast are uniformly brilliant, with special kudos to Clarke (Terminator Genysis), who’s portrayal of Hall is simply gut-wrenching.

While some might call Everest one of those “triumph of the human spirit” films that such stories usually are lumped into, I would call it, perhaps, a step beyond that, a sort of post-human triumph film; one in which the human spirit arrogantly drives a person just a few steps too far, its myth of invincibility clouds the person’s reason, and all too suddenly, reality sets in, and like Icarus with his wax wings, the person realizes what he or she really is; frail, faulted, hopelessly in over their head, and ultimately clinging to whatever might be of comfort as they drift into oblivion.  And of course that kind of film has its own moniker–the “disaster film.”

You can make your own judgement about Everest when you see it.

 

Maze Runner: THE SCORCH TRIALS

This is the second in Fox’s adaptation of the dystopian YA book series by best-selling author James Dashner that began with The Maze Runner last year about this time.  Though I was not a big fan of the first film, this one broke with sequel tradition and was, for me at least, a lot more enjoyable film than the first, a pleasant surprise.

The story picks up right where last year’s film left off, with Thomas (Dylan O’Bryan) and his motley crew of escapees from The Maze spirited away to safety by the mysterious Janson, played deliciously by Aiden Gillen, a duplicitous savior nearly as slippery as Gillen’s more recognizable character, the conniving Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in HBO’s Game of Thrones.  Thomas and friends are brought into one of those “too good to be true” compounds where all is happiness and light–except that their female companion Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is separated from them and no one will tell Thomas where she is.  And a smallish gutter-snipe (literally) named Aris (Jacob Lofland) pops up into Thomas’s room one night and takes him to Janson’s secret lab where Thomas discovers what’s really up in this “perfect” little world (note; always beware of perfect little worlds in dystopian YA fiction).

So the crew is on the run again, this time out into the Scorch, mankind’s name for what’s left of the Earth, and a very apropos name it is.  Their aim is to meet up with a group of rebels in the far-off mountains whose goal is to take down the Maze-based establishment run by the snow-white clad leader Ava (Patricia Clarkson–note; beware of snow-white clad leaders of the establishment in dystopian YA fiction), which they do after many trials (thus the name…) and tribulations, only to find they’ve been betrayed by one of their own, who leads Ava straight to them that results in a battle royale that sets up things nicely for the last film of this trilogy.  I think it was the sense of movement and the strong performances of both O’Bryan and his entire crew of cohorts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores) along with newcomer Rosa Salazar as Brenda, one of the mountain clan, and Giancarlo Esposito as her father (a role nearly as slippery as his more recognizable character; snake-like Major Tom Neville in NBC’s sadly canceled sic-fi series Revolution) that made this so much more fun for me than the first film.  Nice to be out in the wide open spaces, and have action that involves more than just running around endless walls of hedges.

With the final film in this series slated to come out in 2017, and the final episodes of The Hunger Games and The Divergent Trilogy to come out by then or before, we’ll finally ring up the end to Hollywood’s waning love affair with YA dystopian novels, a teen trend that has long since stopped “trending.”  While the gross box office for each series is already in the billions for Lionsgate/Summit, who produced both Hunger Games and Divergent and might just make it to a billion for Fox, and launched the adult careers of several bona fide stars who could well dominate the Hollywood A-list for decades (O’Bryan, Jennifer Lawrence, Shalene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Josh Hutchinson, Jai Courtney, Ansel Elgort, and others…), hundreds of millions more were lost and many more fine young actors relegated to the back burners as each of the various studios ran through YA book series after book series describing every grim dystopia imaginable in desperate pursuit of “the next Hunger Games” only to find the target audience as fickle as teens and young adults always are.  The Hollywood gods should have known better.

Perhaps a lesson has been learned–that searching for the next NEW thing (which is how The Hunger Games was found) would be far more profitable than searching for the next imitation of what is already an old thing.  And if that’s the case, then maybe, just maybe, all the carnage of the YA dystopian book series adaptation era will have been worth it.

We can always hope so, anyway…

WAR ROOM; Powerful Preaching–to the Choir *** (less if not a “believer”)

Here’s another well-written and excellently produced faith-based film from the Kendrick Brothers production company (Fireproof, Courageous, et al) that’s made by evangelical Christians specifically for the evangelical Christian audience.  But, as with other genre films like R-rated horror or hard sic-fi, those who aren’t fans will probably find little to like here, and perhaps even something offensive.

And most people in the faith-based audience; evangelical church-goers who avoid mainstream movies because of their overt amorality, violence, and depictions of social issues that are largely offensive to them, are just fine with that.  So is Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose Affirm Films finances projects for the Kendricks, and usually makes a tidy sum because the Kendricks’ Faithstep Films only needs a couple million to produce their movies ($3 M in this case), which then return eye-popping profits as millions of the evangelical faithful flock to multiplexes to see one of “their” films (War Room took in $64 M at the box office for a staggering 2133% return on investment–a $150 M Marvel superhero film would have to gross over $3.2 BILLION at the box office to equal such a profit margin).  And so everybody’s happy–at least if you’re an evangelical Christian, an evangelical Christian filmmaker, or an exec at Sony.

If there is a problem here, it’s that “evangelical” Christians, by definition, are supposed to be out in the world bringing the unchurched to salvation, yet “their” movies would be as incomprehensible and blah-seise to “non-Christians” as a lecture on quantum physics would be to a crowd at a Comic-con.  War Room is no exception, with all its lead and supporting characters being evangelical Christians who, for the most part, at least attempt to walk the walk, and definitely talk the talk, which unfortunately is a lingo that leaves most “unchurched” scratching their heads.  Though well-written and wonderfully acted by an entirely no-name cast, the story is all about believers and their struggles to live out those beliefs, which will thrill the evangelicals, but largely confuse those that they’re supposedly evangelizing.

And, to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.  There are genre movies and “cult” films for just about every stripe of movie-goer, and why shouldn’t evangelical Christians have theirs, too?

But at times I do wonder why these people, who profess to have a mission to “evangelize” a world they see as lost and in desperate need of their Savior, are so comfortable spending–and making–millions producing movies that not only are solely for their own enjoyment, but largely turn away the very people they profess they want to reach, in the one venue where their message could reach literally millions–if anyone besides evangelical Christians could actually figure out what’s going on.  Is it possible that one day, faith-based, “evangelical” filmmakers might make movies that would actually “evangelize?”