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.)

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland should be a slam dunk. It’s Disney. It’s George Clooney. It’s Brad Bird (director). It’s nostalgia. It’s the future. But, like an errant jet pack, it goes off course.

Not to say that Tomorrowland isn’t entertaining. It is. But it could’ve been great. And, sadly, it’s just okay.

The concept has merit, but there’s just too much “business” going on and not quite enough real meat on the bones of this message movie. And, in case you don’t get the message, it is pounded into you: Yes, we have big problems in our world. But rather than complain about them, you should get busy solving those problems.

Frank Walker (George Clooney, with stubble) opens the film by talking about the future and how attitudes toward the future have changed since he was a kid.

A young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is shown attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair and showing off the jet pack he’s invented. Nix (Hugh Laurie) nixes the device but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) helps deliver him (and the jetpack) into Oz, um, I mean, Tomorrowland.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is busted while trying to sneak onto the grounds at Cape Canaveral. She finds a cool pin among her personal effects when her rocket scientist dad (Tim McGraw) bails her out. The pin takes her to Tomorrowland.

Upon her return, she visits a collectables store and asks the clerks (Keegan-Michael Key and Katherine Hahn) about the pin, thereby setting in motion a sequence that echoes Men In Black.

With guidance from Athena, Casey meets up with Frank Walker and they begin their mission to get back to where they once belonged.

Tomorrowland bogs down on more than one occasion in preachy dialogue. And for a PG-rated movie, there are a couple of things that might freak out a small fry—such as when a little girl is hit by a speeding truck. Oh, she bounces right up, but the shock resonates.

For those of us who’ve made a few journeys around the sun, Tomorrowland comes off as idealistic pap. We’ve rolled our eyes at futuristic visions for decades.

For the younger, bright-eyed optimists of the world, this great big beautiful Tomorrowland is manna from Disney heaven. If your cynicism level is zero, you’ll eat Tomorrowland up like warm gooey butter cake.

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men is a movie that could’ve been made any time in the last 50 years. It has an old-timey feel to it. The film is rated PG-13 for war violence and smoking, but except for a couple of exclamations of “holy s—,” there’s nothing in the script that might offend.

Based on a true story, this tale has Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gathering a team of art lovers to go into the rapidly cooling World War II European war zone and save classic works of art from the Germans. It’s a war movie complete with peril and death, but it lacks that gritty feel of the more hardcore war films.

The Monuments Men are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). After they arrive in Europe, they add Dimitri Leonidas (Sam Epstein).

They begin their mission after D-Day when the Allies have the Germans on the run. Granger goes to just-liberated Paris where he tracks down Claire (Cate Blanchett) who provides vital info regarding certain works that were taken. After spending time working with him, she transforms from cold fish to would-be seductress.

Jeffries goes to Bruges, Belgium to protect a Michelangelo sculpture from Nazi capture. Campbell and Savitz encamp near the Battle of the Bulge in a sequence reminiscent of M*A*S*H. Garfield and Clermont go to the frontlines.

As the Monuments Men begin to recover these purloined art treasures, competition to regain the works heats up versus… the Russians! Our guys know that if the Ruskies—officially Allies versus Hitler—get to the paintings first, they will claim them for Mother Russia. The situation becomes tense, even after the Germans have surrendered.

In addition to starring, George Clooney directed and co-wrote The Monuments Men. It’s a vanity piece. He looks good. Rarely does he have even one hair of his 40’s-era haircut out of place. (He even gives his dad Nick a cameo.)

The Monuments Men is a decent, but not great, movie. Give Clooney credit for telling a story that’s not been told before. As mentioned above, this is not a gritty war film. So, for those who didn’t care for the language and the gore of Saving Private Ryan (which coincidentally had Damon in the title role), The Monuments Men may be the perfect war movie for you.

Gravity

And you thought George Clooney was up in the air in 2009!

How good is Gravity? It’s pretty darn good, but it falls way short of greatness. Still, it’s a movie to see because (1) it’s a complete, competent movie with only two onscreen actors and (2) it has some spectacular images.

Is every special effect awesome? No, a few are fakey, obviously done with miniatures. But many do look terrific.

The title has two meanings here. Gravity is the force that pulls us to the earth. And gravity describes a tense, serious life situation.

George Clooney, as astronaut Matt Kowalski, defies gravity—both kinds. As a veteran of the space program, he has escaped earth’s gravity numerous times. And in a time of looming danger, he wants to tell stories of a trip to Mardi Gras in the 80’s and flirt with space chum Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).

Astronauts (especially those from the Right Stuff era) are a different breed but Kowalski seems more like a typical earthbound Clooney charmer than a NASA space cowboy. His almost flip attitude is balanced by his deep fascination with the views he sees, even after many trips to the sky.

Stone, on the other hand, is all business. She’s an engineer and has a stoic, let’s-stick-to-the-task disposition.

Their spacewalk is interrupted by orbiting space debris. The flying flotsam wreaks significant havoc on its first go-around. The experienced Kowalski points out that the next orbit of space junk could be worse.

Interestingly, when Stone takes refuge inside a space station, the first thing she does is strip down to her shorts and t-shirt. Sure, it’s less bulky than a spacesuit, but it also serves to add a bit of sex appeal when she “swims” weightlessly through the facility. This setting renders a memorable shot when the camera backfocuses on a floating tear.

Gravity is essentially a story of survival, one where human instincts merge with technical knowledge and skill. To be sure, we haven’t seen this many narrow escapes since Indy Jones hung up his fedora. But the intensity starts early and keeps going to the end. Enjoy the ride!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Louis Film Critics 2011 Award Winners

Here are the winners and runners-up of the 2011 St. Louis Film Critics’ Awards.

Best Film
The Artist
runner-up: The Descendants

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
runner-up: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Best Actor
George Clooney (The Descendants)
runner-up: Ryan Gosling (Drive)

Best Actress
Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
runners-up – tied: Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)

Best Supporting Actor
Albert Brooks (Drive)
runner-up: Alan Rickman (Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

Best Supporting Actress
Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
runners-up – tied: Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

Best Original Screenplay
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
runner-up: Will Reiser (50/50)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel) for The Descendants
runner-up: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin and Michael Lewis (book) for Moneyball

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree Of Life)
runners-up – tied: Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
and Janusz Kaminski (War Horse)

Best Visual Effects
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2
runner-up: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

Best Music
The Artist
runner-up: Drive

Best Foreign-Language Film
13 Assassins (Japan)
runner-up: Winter in Wartime (Netherlands)

Best Documentary
Being Elmo
runner-up: Tabloid

Best Comedy
Bridesmaids
runner-up: Midnight In Paris

Best Animated Film
The Adventures of Tintin
runner-up: Rango

Best Art-House or Festival Film
(for artistic excellence in quality art-house cinema, limited to films that played at film festivals or film series here or those that had a limited-release here, playing one or two cinemas.)
We Need To Talk About Kevin
runner-up: Win Win

Best Scene
(favorite movie scene or sequence)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: the opening titles sequence
runner-up: The Artist: the dance scene finale