The Martian

Is there such a thing as too much comic relief? Yes, and The Martian is plagued by it.

The Martian has a heck of a story. A NASA mission to Mars chooses to begin its journey home to Earth hurriedly as a giant storm stirs on the red planet. One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is blown away by the high winds and left for dead as the others blast off for home.

But, wait! Watney’s not quite dead. He heads back into the Mars mission habitat the next day and evaluates his chances of surviving until the next NASA Mars mission occurs. He constructs an indoor potato farm to provide an ongoing food source and makes other accommodations to stay alive.

Meanwhile, the NASA crew in Houston (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and others) eulogizes Watney but soon realizes that he is still alive. Watney manages to communicate, crudely at first, with the crew back on Earth.

As the other members of the departed Mars crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara) hurdle through space on the long journey home, they learn that Watney is alive and that he does not blame them for abandoning him.

Will Watney stay alive? Will NASA rescue him? Will NASA send him food and supplies? Will NASA move up the next scheduled MARS mission? How will Mark Watney’s story end? The tension builds. But each time it begins to crescendo, here comes the comic relief.

The funny stuff IS amusing. But it lightens the mood a bit too much, in my opinion. (This was an issue with 2013’s Gravity where George Clooney’s jokey character seemed more like the real-life Clooney than a believable astronaut. In 2000’s Cast Away, a similarly stranded Tom Hanks had some lighter moments—notably with a volleyball—but the underlying peril level was maintained throughout his ordeal.)

The Martian looks great, particularly in 3D. It is directed by one of our best directors, Ridley Scott. Matt Damon, as usual, is solid in the title role. The script is by Drew Goddard from the popular novel by Andy Weir. (That’s the one that started in 2011 with the author sharing one chapter at a time online, followed by a Kindle version, followed by publication in hardcover last year.)

The Martian comes close to being a home run, but doesn’t quite clear the fence. It’s a solid three-bagger, however, and that is not a bad thing. (Baseball is on our minds these days here in St. Louis.)

The Walk

The Walk is a technical marvel. The reality created onscreen—that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are standing and a man is walking between them—is awe-inspiring.

Viewed on the IMAX screen in 3D—the recommend way to see this one—watching the recreation of Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) completing this real-life high wire walk is thrilling.

Back in the 60’s, Cinerama (with its 3-screens surrounding the viewer) was an immersive experience that caused some moviegoers to have slight motion sickness. Dramamine may not be necessary for The Walk, but if your acrophobia is acute, be prepared to be just a bit uneasy.

Surprisingly, The Walk also touches emotions. There’s the exhilaration of Petit and his crew successfully pulling off the stunt. There’s also the shared anguish we all feel for the buildings and their destruction on 9/11/01. Seeing the buildings standing tall in the distance during Petit’s narrations delivered from the Statue of Liberty recalls their prominence in the New York City skyline. It feels good to see the World Trade Center as it was before the attack.

Director and co-writer Robert Zameckis tells the story of a driven young Frenchman who plans and executes his amazing 1974 walk between the two buildings. Petit is a street performer who, at a young age, sees circus performers on high wires. He seeks guidance from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) a veteran of the high wire. His team of “accomplices” includes romantic interest Annie (Charlotte LeBon), Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) and Jean-Louis (Cesar Domboy).

The best “true story” movies are the ones that create tension, anticipation and yes, suspense, even when the moviegoer already knows the outcome. A prime example is Apollo 13. The Walk is similarly successful in building up for 90 minutes to the big event, revealing the intense preparation and the recon work to scope out the buildings. In his 1974 walk, Petit was on the wire for 45 minutes. In The Walk, he is on for 15-20 minutes, but each moment, each step is fraught with perceived danger.

Go for the visual thrills, stay for the emotions. I dined at Windows on the World in the North Tower four months before the 9/11 attacks. I visited Ground Zero in Summer 2002. But even if you’ve never been to New York City, you felt the kick in the gut that the U.S. suffered that day. The computer-generated depictions of the towers in the film moved me.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the star of The Walk. But the World Trade Center plays a major supporting role.

Black Mass

If you’ve seen the ads on TV, in print and on the web for Black Mass, you’ve seen Johnny Depp’s latest look. When he appears on the movie screen, with his blue/green eyes, thinning hair and bad front tooth, even if you’ve seen the ads, it’s still a stunning transformation.

Depp gives a mighty performance as James “Whitey” Bulger, a real-life notorious Boston criminal who committed numerous murders, many in a particularly violent manner, along with lesser felonies. For Depp, the role redeems him after several recent misfires. Award nominations will be forthcoming.

But Black Mass is more than just Depp. Director Scott Cooper deftly relates a complex narrative in two hours. The brooding soundtrack by Tom Holkenborg (AKA Junkie XL) complements perfectly the dark story and its gloomy look. The tight script is by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill.

(Side note: Is it always cloudy in Boston? Based on this film, Mystic River, The Departed, The Town and others, it seems that the city is constantly under overcast skies.)

The story is told in flashbacks, framed by investigator interviews with Bulger lieutenants Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). In 1975, Bulger is a small-time hood. Soon, he forms an “alliance” with FBI agent and fellow “Southie” John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). They trade information. The deal helps the FBI take down Mafia interests in Boston, but also opens up those crime areas to Bulger and his cohorts.

The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, an elected official who somehow escapes being directly connected to his brother’s treachery. Dakota (Fifty Shades of Gray) Johnson plays Bulger’s girlfriend Lindsey, who is mother of Whitey Bulger’s son. The FBI crew includes Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and David Harbour. Corey Stoll is a take charge U.S. attorney who is baffled by the FBI’s coddling of Bulger.

Black Mass has already generated controversy in Boston. Family members of those killed by Bulger are upset that the movie shows his humanity. This week, Depp said of the character: “There’s a man who loves. There’s a man who cries. There’s a lot to the man.” (Yes, and John Wayne Gacy gave great clown shows for the kids.)

Just as there are many sides to Whitey Bulger, there are many aspects of Black Mass beyond its central character. Depp is excellent. So is the rest of the movie.


Everest is big. Appropriately so. It’s a big story with a big cast of characters and, of course, a big mountain. The biggest mountain, actually. The film is best viewed on a big screen.

In 1996, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) led expeditions to Mount Everest. Other groups were also at base camp, all set to make a final ascent on May 10. Everest shows Hall to be a conscientious, detail-oriented leader, a “hand holder” as Fischer calls him. Fischer is a more casual leader with his climbers.

Among those in Hall’s group are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a big, boisterous Texan; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman of more modest means than most climbers; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a quiet Japanese woman; and Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist who plans to do a cover story on the trek for Outside magazine.

Emily Watson and Elizabeth Debicki are Hall’s base camp support team. Hall’s pregnant wife Jan (Kiera Knightley), who had climbed Everest with him in ‘93, is at home in New Zealand where she communicates with him by phone. Robin Wright plays Weathers’ wife, back home in Texas.

If you are unfamiliar with the story you may want to avoid plot synopses and remain unaware of the challenges the climbers encountered on May 10, 1996.

Though the story of the May 1996 expedition to Everest has been told before, most notably in Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, this new movie provides thrilling visuals and recreates the real-life peril of an Everest climb. Director Baltasar Kormakur brings the tale to life with realistic location shots in hazardous weather conditions. The cast and crew are to be congratulated for what one would presume to have been a tough shoot.

For those who have read Krakauer’s book (which I, incidentally, consider to be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read), there are slight differences in the story told in the film. Most significantly, the logjam that occurs at the Hillary Step just below the summit plays a bigger role in the book than in the movie.

Last year’s Wild has led to more traffic on the Pacific Crest Trail this year and the recent A Walk In The Woods is expected to send more hikers to the Appalachian Trail in 2016. Will Everest result in even more climbers attempting to ascend to the top of the world? Probably, even though the danger of an Everest climb far outweighs than that of a trail hike. The difficulties chronicled in Everest will, for many, likely be outweighed by the lust for adventure and the glory of reaching the summit.

If you prefer to experience an Everest climb vicariously (as do I) and enjoy a good story about people who climb, the best way is to see Everest. And remember, this is one to see on a big movie screen.

The Visit

Grandparents are weird. They talk funny, they smell funny, they act funny. And those are your normal, run-of-the-mill grandparents!

In The Visit, Becca and Tyler (ages 15 and 13) take a train ride from Philly to rural Pennsylvania to spend a week with grandparents they’ve never met. Their single mom has been estranged from her parents for years, until they find their daughter online and ask to see the grandkids.

Why would a mother (Kathryn Hahn) allow such a thing? Well, the teens (played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are bright and self-assured. And mom wants to go away on a cruise with her new guy.

The grandkids are delightfully chatty, always recording video. Many of the film’s key scenes include their “found footage.” They engage in Skype conversations with their mom while she cruises. Tyler’s white-kid raps are clever and hilarious.

The grandparents Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem like sweet people. They pick up the kids at the train station and bring them back to their farmhouse. Soon, weird things begin to happen. Frightening things. Funny things.

As nights and days go by, the grandparents are revealed to be a bit stranger than your grandparents or mine. The Visit establishes a solid level of creepiness. There’s a visual shout out to a horror/suspense classic. Suspense builds.

Two questions need answering: What the heck is going on? And… Is writer/director M. Night Shyamalan still capable of making an engaging movie?

Second question first. Shyamalan, who burst onto the movie scene with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and followed with Unbreakable in 2000, went into an artistic slump after 2002’s Signs. With The Visit, he shows that he maintains the ability to merge strong characters with a plot that keeps an audience engaged and wondering.

Regarding what the heck is going on… well, no spoilers here. But… A key element of a successful suspense thriller is a decent payoff to the setup. The Visit accomplishes that trick and delivers a fast-moving hour and a half of creepy fun. It’s a movie to enjoy.

Call your grandma and see if she’d like to go with you!

A Walk In The Woods


Ever since I read Edward Garvey’s 1972 book about his Appalachian Trail thru-hike several decades ago, I’ve fantasized about hiking the AT. But a thru-hike, from Georgia to Maine, requires a huge chunk of time away from work and family.

Last year’s Wild, which chronicled Cheryl Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, provided vicarious thrills, but that tale was more about a woman’s self-discovery than about her actual hike.

The new film A Walk In The Woods satisfies outdoor adventure desires on many levels, but disappoints on others. Based on the book by humorist/memoirist Bill Bryson, the story walks a fine line (pun intended) between serious quest and chucklefest.

Sadly, the main flaw of A Walk In The Woods is the casting of Robert Redford in the lead role as Bryson. Not because he’s too old for the role (though he probably is), but because he seems to be phoning in his performance. Did he only do the movie to placate his fellow producers?

Happily, the casting of Nick Nolte as Bryson’s long ago acquaintance from Des Moines, Stephen Katz, is a masterful choice. Nolte plays an unkempt recovering alcoholic whose life hasn’t worked out as nicely as Bryson’s. Emma Thompson appears as Mrs. Bryson, playing the role she often plays—a not particularly likable, very British woman.

Bryson’s idea for the expedition, as depicted in the movie, seems like a sudden random urge. (Whereas you or I might give such an undertaking a bit more consideration.)

After a trip to REI for gear (where Nick Offerman makes a so-quick-if-you-blink-you’ll-miss-it appearance as a clerk), this odd couple shoves off from the AT’s start point in Georgia. Episodes along the way include encounters with annoying solo hiker Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a pair of fierce looking bears, a surprise snowstorm and a flirty off-trail motel operator (Mary Steenburgen).

After each episode, Katz tells Bryson, “You’ve got to put that in the book.” Bryson keeps saying he’s not going to write a book about the hike. (Of course, he did.)

Director Ken Kwapis (a man with a deep movie and TV resumé) has crafted a film that’s beautiful to look at and generally enjoyable. I would’ve liked to see more of their story, but 1:44 is long enough for most folks. The film is rated R for language, but is not particularly offensive.

A Walk In The Woods is expected to generate increased hiker traffic on the AT, just as Wild has done for the PCT. My personal desire to hike the full Appalachian Trail will have to wait until my next lifetime, but I’ll be thinking of Bryson and Katz the next time I ascend the bluff at Castlewood Park or traipse through the meadow at Queeny Park.

Mistress America

If, when you were younger, you got to hang with the older kids, you can understand how Tracy (Lola Korke) feels when she gets to pal around with her older sister-to-be Brooke (Greta Gerwig) in Mistress America.

It’s nice to be accepted by someone with more life experience. But sometimes you find that the more worldly person may lack certain life skills. Mistress America is a tale of a few weeks in the lives of these two likeable women and it’s a fun visit to their worlds.

Tracy is a lonely freshman at Barnard College. She meets and likes nerdy guy Tony (Matthew Shear), but he directs his affection to Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Tracy calls Brooke, the 30-year-old daughter of the widower who’s set to wed Tracy’s divorced mom. Brooke and Tracy explore Manhattan. Brooke drinks, she smokes, she exudes confidence. She is beautiful and seemingly carefree. Her life is far more exciting than Tracy’s.

Brooke shares her life story with Tracy, including details about her “nemesis” Mamie-Claire and ex-fiancé Dylan, who is now married to the nemesis. She shares her vision for a restaurant she wants to open and shows Tracy the space she’s leased.

When investors pull out, Brooke must come up with $42K within days. Amazingly, she goes to visit Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) and Dylan (Michael Chernus) at their modern mansion in Greenwich to ask for money.

The mansion episode is madcap silliness. Because Tony has a car, he drives Brooke, Tracy and Nicolette to Connecticut. At the house they find Mamie-Claire leading a gathering of pregnant women. (It’s a book club meeting.)

Brooke delivers her pitch to Dylan for money. During the mansion visit, Tracy is accused of incorporating elements of Brooke’s life into a short story titled Mistress America (taken from the name of a TV show Brooke wants to create). The assemblage reads the story together and Brooke’s feelings are hurt.

The plot of Mistress America is secondary to these two characters and the way they interact, which is frequently hilarious. They present a number of contrasts: older/younger, gorgeous/plain, not obviously smart/brainy, brassy/quiet, callous/sensitive, etc.

Mistress America (directed by Noah Baumbach, co-written by Baumbach and girlfriend Gerwig) is light comedy but Gerwig’s performance is powerful and memorable. If you have 82 minutes (from opening logo to end titles), you’re likely to be amused, if not fascinated.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.


The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an uneven film with an obvious secondary goal. First agenda item is to sell a few tickets. It will. Second is to establish a franchise that will live on through sequel after sequel. It will not.

The best thing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has going for it is the finest cool music soundtrack since Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen (from David Holmes). Much of the music (credit to Daniel Pemberton) has a mid-20th-century feel; some of it is used mainly to punctuate the action, a la Tarantino.

The second best thing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has going for it are the women’s dresses. The colorful costumes on the ladies are gorgeous and the outfits do a nice job of evoking the 60s.

The story, inspired by the TV show that aired from 1964 to 1968, has the two lead characters American Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) teaming up to foil the fiendish plot of some folks who have a nuclear warhead. The setting is Cold War era Europe.

Almost every time Cavill speaks in the film, I am reminded of Bill Hader’s SNL impersonation of Dateline’s Keith Morrison. Apparently Cavill was trying to channel the speaking style of the late Robert Vaughn, the original Solo from TV. Hammer is good, but not quite the compelling screen presence needed to keep the dream alive for more U.N.C.L.E. movies.

Gaby (Alicia Vikander) is on the good guys’ side. Her father has been forced to work on the bomb. She and Elizabeth Dibecki (as the villainess Victoria) get to wear the neat throwback threads. Vikander is beautiful and has genuine charm in this role that’s quite different from her breakthrough performance earlier this year in Ex Machina. Also in the film is Hugh Grant as Waverly.

Director Guy Ritchie (who co-wrote the script) maintains a good pace and delivers several memorable shots. Chuckles are spread throughout the film. My favorite silly moment has an unconcerned Solo sitting in a truck cab, enjoying a sandwich and a glass of wine, while Kuryakin is right in front of him in a burning motorboat trying to elude a pursuer.

While The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has the legacy of its TV antecedent to help generate ticket sales, the story is almost boilerplate and the lead actors lack the heft to carry The Man From U.N.C.L.E. onward to franchise glory.

The Gift

Creepy and suspenseful, The Gift is filled with people and actions that are not what they always appear to be. As secrets are revealed, outcomes remain in question.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a married couple who have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. For Simon, it’s a return to his former stomping grounds. They encounter one of Simon’s old high school classmates, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), while shopping. Gordo begins dropping off a series of gifts at the couple’s front door.

Simon is dubious about Gordo’s aggressive gifting but Robyn is welcoming. The couple invites Gordo over for dinner. Gordo drops by during the daytime when Simon is at work. Robyn invites him in for tea. When Gordo invites them to his place for dinner and steps out for a moment, Simon teases Robyn about her supposed attraction to Gordo (and his to her).

As some of the couple’s past difficulties are revealed and their relationship with Gordo stumbles, tension builds. Robyn jogs, she reaches out to neighbors, she works from home, she attempts normalcy, but there’s an underlying unease.

One source of unease is the couple’s ongoing difficulty having a baby. When Robyn becomes pregnant, there’s relief. But more revelations and troubles lurk nearby.

An uncredited character in The Gift is Simon and Robyn’s hillside home where most of the film’s scenes take place. It’s a cool mid-century modern house, with lots of glass and great views. Despite the home’s appeal, it’s not the ideal abode for a woman who has Robyn’s concerns.

Joel Edgerton not only stars as the creepy Gordo, he also wrote and directed The Gift. He was crafted a movie that works, keeping the anxiety at a low simmer with occasional crescendos of distress. Like Shrek says about ogres and onions, The Gift has layers, as do its characters.

Because you won’t just dismiss it, but will talk about it later, this film is (to use the old radio spot cliché) The Gift that keeps on giving.

Ricki And The Flash

Relationships between parents and their adult children can be difficult. Particularly if a parent is in California playing in a bar band while her kids are in the Midwest where they rarely hear from their mother.

Ricki, real name Linda (Meryl Streep), is long divorced from Paul (Kevin Kline). Their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real life daughter) is having a breakdown because her husband has left her. Ricki comes back home to provide motherly support.

The contrast between Ricki’s life and that of her ex is stark. She lives in a modest apartment in the San Fernando Valley; he lives in an upscale, gated community in Indianapolis. She has a boyfriend who’s in the band, Greg (Rick Springfield). Paul has a second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald) who’s been a responsible, loving stepmother during Ricki/Linda’s absence.

The visit to help her daughter through her crisis is somewhat successful. There’s a funny but sadly awkward family dinner at a restaurant where Ricki/Linda reconnects with her two sons and revisits old family emotional wounds. Before she heads back to California, Maureen vents about Ricki/Linda’s abandonment of motherly responsibilities.

Back in the Valley, Ricki keeps rocking while she works on her relationship with Greg. Maureen makes a peace offering to Ricki and an opportunity for redemption. Screenwriter Diablo Cody of Juno and Young Adult script fame brings a too neat but acceptable ending.

Director Jonathan Demme, who directed entertaining concert films Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads) and Heart of Gold (Neil Young), devotes too much of the movie’s runtime to musical performances. Meryl Streep is a passable bar band singer but the performances are merely okay, not special.

The acting performances are better. Kline and McDonald (both of whom did not sing in RATF despite solid cred) are excellent. Streep, obviously enjoying working with her daughter, is having fun in a less-serious-than-the-usual-Meryl-role role. Gummer is good as a woman with more issues than impending divorce. Rick Springfield rocks a guitar but his acting abilities are on a lower plain than those of his cast mates.

Ricki and The Flash is an okay movie that will resonate with Streep’s boomer fans. This is a movie that could’ve/should’ve been better.