Monday, January 18, 2016

Catching up

Having fallen behind in watching movies these days, I found out that several of them have arrived on Amazon in the interim and decided to catch up on a few that I'd intended to see in the theater, but never got around to.

The first is The Martian. Now, some of you that have actually stuck around for a few years know that I regard Ridley Scott's early phase to be among the finest directorial periods in modern film history. The vast majority of his output since then has been somewhere between middling and half-assed spectacle. The Martian does not deviate sharply from this trend. The film is good, but doesn't really excel in any notable way.

Matt Damon as the lead does well. It's tough to be the only person on screen for long stretches and I think that may have played into his performance as stranded astronaut, Mark Watney. You know that on the other side of that camera are people waiting to be entertained, so you have to do your best even when there's no one else to either bounce off of or divert attention to. But despite the star-studded roster that fills out the rest of the cast (Brandi Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean), no one but Ejiofor really stands out because there's not a lot for them to do other than stand there and look frustrated when things go wrong. The movie, as a whole, is very pro forma: here's the problem... and here's the solution. Just like Damon's quandary, it feels like the story kind of informs that approach, since Watney's/NASA's problem in most cases does come down to basic science and math. But the problem is that with the story being that direct, there's no room for that wonderful cast to show us much. Kate Mara, in particular, is completely wasted (Zoe Barnes from House of Cards), as the film's Wikipedia entry tells me more about her character than I actually got from the film.

The lone exception is Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, who does a great job of running with that frustration and bringing in other emotions and elements that give him a certain degree of magnetism when he's on screen. At several points, I was less interested in seeing Mars than I was in seeing Kapoor interact with Daniels' Teddy Sanders and the rest of the bureaucracy while he tries to save his man and his program. I certainly appreciated Scott's return to a hard science topic (as we studiously avoid the atrocious hackjob that was Prometheus...) and it's not as if the movie wasn't entertaining. It was. But it was also wholly predictable and linear and could not possibly be a better example of the term "star vehicle". This was Damon's show. Everyone, and everything, else was just background noise.

Next up was Ant-Man. I've written before about what seems to be the "fun" side of the Marvel Creative Universe. I thought that first effort was subpar, largely because the screenplay was and most of the actors employed seemed to be ill-suited to the kind of goofiness that the film seemed to be calling for. There were no worries in that respect for Ant-Man with Paul Rudd taking the lead.

As they have with most of their productions, Marvel Studios just let the comics set the story ("These things almost write themselves!") and connected the dots. Michael Douglas was the former title hero, Hank Pym (albeit minus the domestic abuse issues that surfaced in the early 80s) and he recruits thief, Scott Lang, to be his replacement. Back in the day, of course, Lang was a cat burglar (albeit, still an electronics expert), not a cybercrook, but that's how the world has changed, kids. Interestingly, despite Rudd's self-effacing humor (honed through years of work with Judd Apatow), this is one of the more serious roles he's undertaken and he spends a fair amount of time redirecting others to what the important stuff is supposed to be, when he's not playing straight man to Michael Peña (who was also in The Martian; it's like long-range, delayed cinematic stalking. They're after me.) But even with the "real" issues of importance, there's no getting around the fact that Ant-Man's most notable ability is controlling ants. No space gods, no Cosmic Cubes, no world-destroying robots. Ants. And that's why it had to be on the goofier end of the spectrum.

Michael Douglas looked like he was just filling time as Pym, but I thought Corey Stoll as Darren Cross was a good choice, since he'd showed a bit of that angry, manic side in House of Cards (seriously, the parallels.) While it was obvious that Evangeline Lilly was going to be a bit more than just the female stand-in as Hope van Dyne to us comic nerds, since she was wearing the Wasp's most memorable haircut, she had enough stage presence to sell the role on her own. While most of Rudd's personal storyline reminded me a bit too much of Hugh Jackman's (to cite another Marvel character) in Swordfish, I get that there's only so many "good guy does bad thing he used to do but doesn't want to do anymore for what's actually a good reason" approaches that you can take.

Finally, there was Sicario. Speaking of parallels, the comparison between Traffic and Sicario is obvious, even if Benicio Del Toro hadn't put in excellent performances in both (and, of course, Michael Douglas was in Traffic; was Kevin Bacon in any of these three films?) Where Traffic showed the seedy side of the American consumer end and the impact on Mexican neighborhoods, Sicario shows the American response to the current chaos and how the Mexican impact is far more direct, at least in Juarez.

I wanted to like the film mostly for Del Toro and Josh Brolin's performances, as I'll generally watch anything that either of them make. The story was kept taut and lacked the more rangy and comprehensive Soderbergh approach, but it seemed to end up too taut. Del Toro's character was simply too perfect and the end of his storyline was too pat to be believable. It seemed like they had a chance to keep things relatively big picture (i.e. the references to the collapse of the Medellin cartel turning the business and much of the surrounding Mexican community into a free-for-all and the CIA having lost control of what was its pet source of income) but instead reduced it to a simple revenge story. If that's what it was, you'd expect Del Toro's Alejandro Gillick to have greater depth so we could watch what happens to him in the course of finally bringing a close to the focus of his life. But everything he does simply slides off. Or we could have gone back to the big picture and watched Brolin's Matt Graver veer even deeper into the ruthlessness that belies his casual flip-flops attitude.

Instead, the personal angle to this revenge tale was taken up by Emily Blunt who, unfortunately, portrayed the least interesting and largely one-dimensional role of the cop that "doesn't think any of this is right." Granted, if they wanted to do the Training Day thing, fine. It's been done, but fine. But instead she has basically zero development from the beginning to the end and, instead, is a sideshow to Del Toro's revenge mission. Somewhere along the way, it feels like the story was either trimmed too much or was two films cobbled together and it lost some of its internal sense. That said, it's paced really well and the action sequences are constructed for maximum tension. It's a good film, but not a great one. One thing it did do was remind me of a solid documentary about the drug gangs in Mexico and how ordinary people are resisting them on both sides of the border, Cartel Land. Again, sticking to that angle might have produced a better film.

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