Friday, October 2, 2015
In 2035, on the vast red planet, the only human presence is at an artificial habitat (Hab). The astronauts are brought in by NASA's exploration space-ship called Hermes Flight, led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). During a severe dust storm on Mars, the botanist Dr. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is injured by a broken antenna and is presumably dead. Melissa has to leave Mark behind and exit Mars with the rest of the crew: the pilot Major Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), the flight surgeon Dr. Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), the German chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and the system operator Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara).
But Mark is still alive and all alone on the empty red planet. Even if NASA finds out that he is alive and sends another space-ship to rescue him, it's going to be four years away, and he is going to run out of food long before then. Facing the bleak circumstance, Mark not only keeps his sense of humor intact, but also is in good spirit and speaks to his video journal that he is "gonna have to science the shit out of this."
Yes, he does just that indeed! He rations remaining food; he generates water; he grows potatoes; and most importantly, he ingeniously reestablishes his communication with NASA. As soon as NASA finds out that Mark is still alive, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) works with Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Hermes Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) to come up a rescue mission. With the help from China's space program, an impeccably orchestrated homecoming plan is carried out to bring Mark home.
Diligently detailed and easily accessible for the mass audience, the director Ridley Scott terrifically adapts Andy Wire's best-selling novel into an entertaining film. Even though there are plenty of stunning imageries about the red planet and the beautiful space-ship in 3D, the film successfully wins us over with its engrossing narrative, likable characters, humorous tone, uplifting spirit, and scientific accuracy.
Unlike many sci-fi films involving outer space, there is no alien or evil people in this film. Everyone acts based on solid science and good-natured conscious. Their bravery and selflessness are both admirable and inspiring. That's very welcoming and refreshing for a film in the crowded sci-fi genre.
Along with many other fine actors in the film, the convincing Matt Damon gives a superb performance as the cool headed scientist. As if in a classroom, he magically shows us how he tackles one problem after another while cracking jokes about things that seem devastating. Despite the eerie situation he endures, he doesn't panic or even hardly complains, except about the commander's horrible disco music taste.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
With the twin towers and the skyline of New York City as the backdrop, the film opens at a pretty high spot—next to the torch of the Statue of Liberty where the young Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrates the film and explains to us why he thinks walking on a high-wire is art. It all begins when he was a child in Paris. With carefully arranged colors, the film shuffles through charming imageries of Philippe as a street artist, where he meets a street musician Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) who becomes his love interest and his first partner-in-crime later. Coached by a Czech circus master Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), Philippe quickly masters the high-wire walking technique.
It doesn't take too long for Philippe to walk between Notre Dame de Paris's two towers without permission. But as soon as he learns that the World Trade Center is being built in the New York City, he sets his incredible goal up high. In order to accomplish his dream, he practices English and recruits more accomplices including a young photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and an acrophobic mathematician Jean-François (César Domboy).
Once these French adventurers come to the Big Apple, a few Americans join the gang. As if they are about to rob a bank, the crew painstakingly plan the infiltration inside the twin towers. Not only do they bring all the equipment to the roof which is 101 floors above the ground, but they also successfully install the steel wire while sneaking around the security guards.
When the sun rises up, the fog fades away. Philippe stands on the wire, realizes an once-in-a-lifetime dream, and creates an elegant piece of performance art.
This well-known extraordinary act is the subject in an Academy-award winning documentary "Man on Wire" (2008). Obviously, the director Robert Zemeckis is not going to retell the story in this new film. Instead, with astonishing 3D visual, he literally takes us to the high-wire and guides us into the mind of an outstanding artist. Philippe Petit may be the only human being who walks between the twin towers, but this film allows us to feel the thrill without the danger.
The first half of the film tells Philippe's past in a typical fashion as in the director's previous films such as "Back to the Future" (1985). The dramatic element is watchable but nothing too exciting, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's funny French accent is somewhat distracting due to his familiarity to us. However, when the story moves to New York City, all excitement breaks loose. By the time Joseph Gordon-Levitt stops talking with an accent and walks on the wire, the film literally lifts us into the sky and immerses us into the Philippe's tranquil mind. Overlooking the magnificent view of New York City under the rising sun, we begin to understand why Philippe Petit risked his life to fulfill his dream.
Looking at computer generated twin towers in the film, it's hard not to think about the 9/11 attack. By reenacting Philippe Petit's glorious walk, the film pays lovely tribute to the twin towers where Philippe Petit showed his intimate and passionate affection in person 41 years ago.
Friday, September 18, 2015
Back in 1975, Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is the leader of Winter Hill Gang in Boston. He isn't the mean-jerk-on-the-block type of gangster. Quite the contrary, he shows respect to the elderly in the neighborhood. He spends time with his cheerful mother and his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). He expresses his genuine affection toward his young son. He speaks softly but precisely to his fellow gang members. But make no mistake, he is anything but weak and soft. He is calculated, intelligent, cruel, and ambitious. He doesn't blink his eyes when he brutally destroys any obstacle that blocks his way to achieve his goal.
When a childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who works for the FBI, approaches Whitey and offers him a deal to be an informant, Whitey sees a golden opportunity to expand his territory by using the feds to get rid of the Italian mafia on his turf. He regards the arrangement as strict business and he insists that he is not a rat. In fact, the corrupt FBI agent John Connolly is the one who effectively helps Whitey to rise to immense power in Boston's organized crime world.
But the con-artist's scheme can only go so far being unnoticed. When the FBI zooms in on John Connolly, Whitey's kingdom collapses and he finally falls after winning the game for decades.
Although the director Scott Cooper superbly tells an arresting story about Whitey and brings together terrific performances by a large group of fine actors, this film doesn't reach to the greatness level of mafia films such as Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972) and Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (1990). However, the film does have plenty of mesmerizing moments that pay tributes to those great films. For example, when Whitney expresses his disgust about his man's poor hygiene manner while eating peanuts in a bar, the image reminds us of the garlic slicing scene in "Goodfellas." When Whitney asks about a secret recipe at the dining table, the scene nods to Joe Pesci's "funny how" question in "Goodfellas" as well. Unfortunately, the film doesn't seem to have much that is new to add to the gangster movies, other than exhibiting graphic violence like other typical movies about organized crimes.
That being said, you are in for a delightful treat to see an exhilarating performance by the almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp. Shaking off his cartoonish image as a pirate, he marvelously transcend Whitney's complex persona through his soft-spoken tone, his fierce gaze, and his subtle body language. I won't be surprised if he finally wins an Oscar after being nominated three times.
The film appears to make Whitey Bulger even more mysterious. It won't be long before another movie unveils his life in California as a fugitive for more than a decade.
Friday, August 28, 2015
In the opening scene, a retired poet Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) coldly dumps her much younger lover Olivia (Judy Greer) by labeling her as just a "footnote." Later we learn that Elle is still grieving for the recent death of her long time partner Violet, although that still doesn't make her behavior rational. She seems to be angry toward the world surrounding her. She hardly speaks to her estranged daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). She has few friends. Even though she has very little money in the wallet, she cuts up her credit cards to be free from debt. Now she is also free from her devastated young lover.
Then Elle's granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at Elle's door and drops a bomb—Sage is pregnant and she needs $620 to pay for an abortion in the afternoon. Elle is Sage's last resort because she cannot let her mom Judy know about this. Suddenly the forgotten feminist intellectual Elle finds her new purpose in life. But the trouble is that she can hardly find any money herself. Without wasting any time, Elle gets into her vintage car with Sage and starts their fund-raising effort, including paying a visit to Karl (Sam Elliott), whom she was married to a long time ago before she came out as a lesbian.
The setup of the plot seems a little bit too convenient. It's hard to believe that as an accomplished scholar and poet, Elle cannot even come up with $620. It's also incomprehensible that Sage is so desperate to have the abortion done today that Elle must go as far as seeing her ex-husband Karl whom she has not spoken to for decades. However, if you can forgive the convenient setup, you will appreciate the superb performances by a fine cast and many witty one-liners by the writer-director Paul Weitz. In fact, the coerced reunion between Elle and Sam is one of the most delicious moments in the film (minus the drinking and driving), and it's already generating some Oscar buzz.
Although the film is billed as a comedy, it's often more poignant than funny. The world appears to have moved on and has left Elle behind, or maybe she chooses to be left alone as the opening scene suggests. Perhaps Elle has her reasons to be angry and it's time for her to get the anger out of her chest.