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New films: The Martian & Sicario

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The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott

At 77, director Ridley Scott has become a hard guy to predict. If he had stopped making films 20 years ago, he’d already have secured his place in the annals of filmdom with such varied titles as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Black Rain,” and “Legend.” Meanwhile, although I wasn’t as huge a fan of 2000’s “Gladiator” as many were, it was certainly received well and highly respected, winning 5 of the 12 Academy Awards it was nominated for.

But this is the same director who brought us last year’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” – a sword and sandals biblical adaptation so bad on so many levels that it was hard to decide whether to focus one’s dislike on the story itself or the depiction of ancient Egypt as a land full of white people. And 2013’s “The Counselor” hadn’t been received with much greater acclaim.

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So it’s a great pleasure to report that “The Martian” is probably Scott’s best film since the phenomenal 2001 “Black Hawk Down.” This is a truly fantastic film that deserves the attention and box office love it’s receiving.

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut and scientist who is inadvertently left behind during an aborted mission to Mars. Caught in a severe sandstorm, the rest of the crew evacuate the planet, believing Watney to be already dead. This is also the story believed on earth, at mission control, until somebody notices equipment moving on the surface of the planet. Not only has Watney survived the storm, but he’s also started to figure out how to remain alive – transforming himself from dead hero to living public relations liability overnight.

What really carries “The Martian” is the attention to detail and the believability of the science depicted on screen. Although it carries a PG-13 rating, I’d recommend it for any kids with a strong interest in science or space travel as the more mature content is primarily limited to some close-up depictions of an injury and swearing that’s seen rather than heard.

This is a film that could turn kids into science geeks and science geeks into engineers and botanists. I watched it at an early screening heavily populated by invited guests with interests in astrophysics and they all appeared to walk away satisfied. Unlike the visually appealing but narratively flawed “Gravity,” “The Martian” doesn’t repeatedly spoil its own story with lengthy plot reveals. This is a story that unfolds one crisis at a time, with problem after problem that requires a rational solution.

And those solutions are largely understandable. “The Martian” manages to tread a fine line between having too little science for scientists and too much for ordinary viewers who perhaps favored the arts in school: It’s the Goldilocks of science balancing acts. There was only one element in the film that detracted from my enjoyment in that regard: At one moment a young astrophysicist clearly has a game-changing idea and then he largely disappears for a surprising period, working on his calculations, before he reappears. The math he’s dealing with is certainly complex but the idea itself seemed like it could have been introduced a little more quickly and neatly. It’s essentially the element we’re all waiting for at that point and it felt a little drawn out – although that may be an overly critical opinion with regards to a film this good.

Damon is very strong in this role as is the supporting cast, including Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña in the crew and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean on the ground. Kristin Wiig is an interesting and successful choice as a NASA public relations officer, who essentially acts as the proxy for an incredulous audience, as is Jeff Daniels as the supremely pragmatic NASA Director.

There have been films this year that have left me more giddy with excitement, or which have delivered more simple pleasure or fun, but very few that have felt this well put together or which have impressed me more as an overall package. This is Sir Ridley Scott back at the top of his game.


Sicario
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

“Sicario” is one of those great but disturbing films that’s hard to recommend without knowing another’s taste in film content. It’s a strong, well-acted movie and a story that’s well told – but it’s also gruesomely violent and likely to disturb many with its subject matter and bleakness.

Emily Blunt is excellent as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who’s established a solid track record of finding hostages victims and leading the charge against sites with known drug connections. But it’s work that barely scratches the surface of the larger problems – she’s dealing with symptoms rather than causes at the point she’s pulled aside by a mysterious group of suits who seem intent on recruiting her for something darker and more dangerous.

She goes along with this offer, repeatedly frustrated by the limited information she’s being given, and curious about the men she’s now teamed up with – especially the enigmatic characters played so well here by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro.

“Sicario” is a film that delivers rather than pulls punches. It doesn’t flinch from showing torture and violence, including bodies hanged by roadsides in Juarez, Mexico as a warning to those who would cross the drug cartels. But it raises deeper and harder questions about rules of engagement, especially in situations where the other side in a conflict doesn’t begin to entertain such pleasant and restrained concepts.

This is a film that happens to address the so-called drug war, but it might just as well be a story about other international struggles, wars and terrorism and is almost certain to cause comparisons with such concepts as “enhanced interrogations” and torture in the discussions it’s likely to prompt. It’s less about following rules than about the very idea of rules even existing, or who might be allowed to operate outside them and under what circumstances. It’s a remarkable film but, for example, as a companion to dinner, it’s likely to suppress some appetites and lead to some pretty challenging conversations.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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