It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything here, but that’s what happens when you move to a new state and start a new job during the movie dead zones known as August and September. But, since it’s October and I’ve settled into my new surroundings, it’s time for some new writing.This weekend, multiple movies, including the first with real Oscar hopes,got released on the same weekend. Since this has been a really slow movie year, I went and saw all of them. Interestingly, I have almost the same criticism of all 3 movies: superb technical achievements, but on the nose, and uninteresting screenplays. I’d like to point out that I’ve never been a big fan of knee jerk reviews. I think all good film criticism occurs after you’ve had time to digest a movie, and preferably have seen it multiple times. That being said, there is a value in being able to analyze as much of a movie as possible on first watch, so it’s something I’ve been making an effort to do recently. So, here are my immediate impressions of these three films.
Plot: An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.
Sicario, the latest film from Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incindies, Enemy), is a good example of the two skill necessary to make a good narrative film: craftsmanship, the ability to compose a scene, direct good performances, and edit a coherent film, and a keen sense of drama and an understanding of storytelling. Villeneuve, in addition to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins on his 2nd collaboration with the director, display an incredible sense of craftsmanship on Sicario, but fail to display a similar sense of storytelling. The actual filmmaking though is some of the best of the year. Villeneuve and Deakins weave together shot after shot of imagery that is both striking to look at, but also tells a story in its own way. Some of the best scenes in Sicario are also among the best scenes of any film this year.
Unfortunately, Cinematography is the best thing Sicario has going for it, and it’s not quite enough to boost Sicario from a good to a great movie. The performances are a mixed bag; Blunt is a very good actress, yet she never really seems to fit into this movie (this might be a purposeful choice because of the role her character serves in the film, but it’s distracting on a scene by scene basis). Josh Brolin and, in particular, Benecio Del Toro are much more enjoyable in this film, even as they play the de facto villains. Del Toro in particular gives on of the year’s best performances and reminds everyone that he might very well be the most under-appreciated modern actors. The tonal shift of the last act, while undermining the rest of the film, does give a glimpse of an awesome Del Toro action franchise that never existed. The last thing that makes Sicario one of the year’s better films is the score by Johan Johannson, a brooding, horror-esque piece of electronic music that effectively underscores the almost otherworldly atmosphere of aspects of the drug war.
What drags Sicario down is terribly on the nose screenplay that adds nothing that previous drug war movies haven’t hammered into cliches. Even worse, Sicario’s screenplay has a slightly obnoxious sense of profundity surrounding it, as if it’s letting you in on an amazing secret, even though everybody knows it. To mirror Blunt’s sense of confusion over her circumstances, the audience itself is also frequently kept completely in the dark over what’s actually happening on screen. This of course is an attempt to serve a thematic purpose, but as a practical consequence the audience is hard pressed to be invested in most action sequence for the first 2/3’s of the movie.
My overall first impression of Sicario- It’s a stunningly crafted movie that goes out of its way to tell the audience exactly what it want’s them to think. Unfortunately, what it wants us to think isn’t anything that other, better movies haven’t already told us with significantly more grace.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Plot: In 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit recruits a team of people to help him realize his dream: to walk the the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.
As I said in the introduction, The Walk shares a lot of the problems that Sicario did; it’s a stunning display of the technical side of moviemaking, but doesn’t do as well as the storytelling part. Compared to Sicario, The Walk tries much harder to give its audience something to hold on to. It’s sentimental in a good way and doesn’t try to hammer home its ugly side to audiences. However, The Walk has its own set of flaws, mostly due to subpar character work on the part of its screenplay and supporting cast. While most of the supporting characters are played by good actors (Ben Kinglsey for one) they exist in this movie almost exclusively to help Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Phillipe on his “coup”, as he calls his attempt to walk between the two towers of the world trade center. Phillipe himself, who we know from the documentary Man on Wire was a fascinatingly oddball character, really only comes to life because of Levitt’s charming central performance. To foreshadow my upcoming criticisms of The Martian, a good portion of The Walk is simply characters figuring out things, or preparing for the upcoming feat. It’s basically a heist movie without much of the character interactions that the best films of that genre contain. That being said, the actual walk itself, with CGI perfectly reconstructing the twin towers, is among the best 20 minutes of any film this year. Rarely has distance, or heights, felt so tangible in a CGI landscape. Despite me already knowing he finishes his walk unharmed, Zemeckis manages to extract an enormous amount of tension. Like Sicario, The Walk also is heavy handed in how it tries to convey its themes to its audience, repeating over and over again the importance of going after your dreams. If you don’t get it the first time, don’t worry, The Walk will repeat it every 10 minutes until you do.
My overall first impression of The Walk- Like Sicario, The Walk is a great technical feat mired by an underachieving screenplay. That being said, it manages a charming sense of tone that won me over, and in its final minutes it turns into a touching tribute to the Twin Towers and the city of New York. It’s undeniably a flawed movie, but I enjoyed it regardless.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Plot: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.
Let me get this out of the way at the beginning; The Martian is hopelessly, shamelessly in love with science and the process of figuring things out. It’s more infatuated with it than God’s Not Dead is infatuated with evil liberal professors or M Night Shyamalan is with twist endings. If you think you’ll like watching 2 hours of people figure things out, The Martian is for you. If you want an interesting drama, you’ll probably be bored. The Martian, I’d imagine, could serve as sort of a litmus test for what people actually want to get out from movies. I for one was less than satisfied with what kind of movie The Martian chose to be. I love sci-fi, and I love science; my favorite TV show is Star Trek, I have a STEM degree, and I enjoy technobabble in movies as much as the next guy, but even I got tired of the constant “yes we can” problem solving attitude of The Martian.
I think the core problem of The Martian stems from how safe it is. The Martian knows exactly who its audience is, scientists, engineers, and people who complain about sci-fi movies not caring enough about scientist. The Martian plays very, very effectively to that audience, but I disagree that it ever objectively turns into an effective drama or an example of good storytelling. It depends on hitting the big crowd pleasing moments (an observation: scene with large crowds of people cheering and applauding are the filmic audience shortcut equivalent of the laughtrack in sitcoms) and making people who watch it “feel” smart.
The problem is that it never even feels like a real movie. There’s no real drama or any palpable sense of danger (except in a few, admittedly good scenes) surrounding Damon’s stranded astronaut. It plays almost like a Bear Grylls episode on Mars; you get to see Matt Damon and NASA display survival techniques, except this time it’s for 2 hours instead of 30 minutes. This movie will undoubtedly be compared, probably favorably by general audiences, to Gravity and Interstellar, the most recent big space movies. The problem is that the ambition found in Gravity and Interstellar puts The Martian to shame; they attempt to be real movies, not science porn. When it comes to dialogue, The Martian falls to every cliche possible, even as it attempts to circumvent Hollywood’s reluctance to showing “real” science. The screenplay leans much more comedic than dramatic; it’s the kind of movie where the characters refuse to stop spouting wise cracks even when they’re in mortal danger. Despite having one of the best casts I’ve ever seen in this kind of movie; half of the actors in this movie could legitimately play the stranded astronaut with no loss in the movie’s quality. Yet, the almost constant technical talk keeps any of them from actually being able to do anything on-screen. The only actor who really stands out, due to the most screentime and the best jokes, is Damon, and even he depends mostly on his natural charm than any great character writing.
That being said, I should point out that, yet again, The Martian is a bit of a technical marvel. I legitimately could not tell if the landscapes were computer generated or filmed on Earth and made to look like Mars (I looked it up. A lot of the movie was filmed in Jordan). The editing and directing flawlessly manage 3 different stories: Damon’s stranded astronaut, the crew of the Hermes on their way back to Earth, and NASA’s attempts to mount a rescue. This is a harder task than it sounds, but the filmmaking and, to give the screenplay some credit, The Martian pulls it off brilliantly. There’s a lot of old-school, competent filmmaking that went into making The Martian, but unfortunately there’s not a lot to work with.
My overall first impression of The Martian- It’s basically a 2 hour combination of a science lecture and a Bear Grylls episode on Mars. There’s not a whole lot of dramatic tension or storytelling heft. It lacks most of the ambition that the great sci-fi movies have, but I can tell it’s already going to become an audience classic (cue my inner snob). It is, however, an incredible technical accomplishment, which keeps it from being a complete snooze fest, while the incredible cast manages to salvage a completely ordinary script. Despite all my criticisms, I would say that The Martian is worth watching once, but it’s not a movie I’ll really remember this time next year.
My Rating: 3/5