The Martian (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

The Martian (2015) posterRidley Scott directs his best film in years (if not decades), and it’s an inspirational science fiction epic about human ingenuity in the face of enormous obstacles, rather than timey-wimey space magic and the power of love over the laws of thermodynamics.

The least plausible element in the film is, of course, the initial premise of a series of American-led human missions to Mars in a recognizable near-future. The obligatory disclaimer in the closing credits that NASA doesn’t actually endorse this film is a bit disingenuous; this film is, however unofficially, propaganda for the space program.

I am personally too cynical to fully accept the vision of scientific and political cooperation on display in The Martian, and sometimes the optimism is a bit forced. (As when the film pointedly uses Bowie’s “Starman” rather than, say, “Space Oddity” for a musical montage.) Still, I would like to believe that human beings could accomplish things like this within my lifetime, and that certainly colors my perception of the film.

Probably my favorite part of The Martian is not any of the stirring inspirational drama, or the technical aspects of the science fiction, but the matter-of-factness with which the movie asks us to treat interplanetary travel. For the most part, the script doesn’t shy away from the implication that pretty much every character in it is, by definition, smarter and better at their jobs than almost any member of the audience. The film’s worst missteps are precisely when it plays to the crowd: an eccentric genius making infuriating comedy-relief rocket noises as he explains his plan; a fully-qualified astronaut and pilot demanding things be explained to him “in English!”

There are characters and scenes which seem practically irrelevant to the story. Not having read the novel, I can’t tell whether their purpose will be clearer in the inevitable director’s cut, or if they are simply vestigial elements of the source material which could have been eliminated. Along those lines, there is one gag presumably from the novel which, though amusing, also pulled me out of the film because of a casting choice. (One does not simply walk into Tolkien references.)

Finally, I do hope that The Martian sets a precedent for more lenient MPAA ratings for films not from major directors; it gets a PG-13 despite explicitly drawing attention to its multiple examples of “strong language” through a self-reflexive bit of self-censorship that is the funniest thing in the film.

Ex Machina (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

A gorgeous display of minimalist style, and minimal substance, in a film as limited as the week-long Turing test that is the basis for its plot.

I’m an antisocial nerd over-reliant on an inflated measure of my own intellect, who dabbles in non-specific contempt for the human race. The cold and distant aspects of Kubrick or Nolan films are frequently the only things I find tolerable about them. I loved this movie, and I find that disturbing, because it has very little to say.

One difficulty in stories about AI—particularly ones based around the notion of a Turing test—is the difficulty of constructing fictional people who seem like real, baseline human beings. Garland doesn’t do this (or try to). All of the characters in Ex Machina, be they human or android, are simulacra whose moving parts and emotional subroutines are conspicuous in their operation.

The most consistent theme in Ex Machina is not the wonder of intelligence in an artificial being, but rather the limits of sapience in Homo sapiens. If the subject of Ex Machina is a Turing test, the form of Ex Machina is a reverse Turing test, in which very talented actors spend two hours trying to confuse the audience as to whether their characters are actually as stupid as they seem, or merely pretending to be so. (That the film tends to the latter more than the former doesn’t necessarily make it less tedious to watch.)

This is a remarkably well-crafted film, and I sincerely respect that. But I don’t particularly want more films like it.

Selma (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

Selma (2014) poster

Selma is an occasionally clunky morality play, featuring numerous recognizable actors in a self-congratulatory parade. It is also, by far, the most visceral, moving, and important film of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture of 2014. It’s a travesty that the Academy didn’t recognize any of the performances in this film, particularly David Oyelowo’s or Carmen Ejogo’s.

Like all movies “about race” and the American civil rights movement, Selma serves as a Rorschach test. For some, it’s a simplistic fable about how bad those evil southern racists used to be, and how we’re all so much better than that now. For others, it’s a reminder of how little fundamental attitudes have actually changed in the half century since the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

In a more reasonable world, Selma‘s relatively mild caricature of LBJ wouldn’t attract the same level of controversy as Oliver Stone’s insinuation that LBJ was involved in a conspiracy to murder the President of the United States. (Or more pushback than Oscar-bait Frost/Nixon‘s insinuation that a cartoonishly venal Nixon was aware of the Watergate burglary in advance.)

In a fairer world, Selma would at least spark conversations the way The China Syndrome did after Three Mile Island, with the often striking parallels to the events in Ferguson, MO and beyond in 2014.

In a better world, Selma‘s painful and occasionally brutal reminders of continued systematic racism in America would be unnecessary.

Interstellar (2014)

★★★★ / 👎

Interstellar (2014) poster

(If seeing Interstellar as I did—theatrically, in 70mm, on a genuine IMAX screen—is an option for you, stop reading reviews and go buy tickets. Seriously.)

I don’t care for most Nolan films, and I didn’t particularly care for this one, either. That said, Interstellar is a technical marvel which should absolutely be seen theatrically, with the best presentation available, and possibly more than once.

Despite the degree to which it buries 45 minutes of undeniable sensawunda under two hours of egregious bullshit.

Despite a script that literally telegraphs its story beats, and dialogue that had me rolling my eyes so hard I may have seen God.

Despite the most unpleasant Hans Zimmer score I have ever heard, which bludgeons the point home at all times with overbearing rumble and incredibly distracting mickymousing.

I hated the majority of this movie, and I can’t wait to see it again.

John Wick (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

John Wick (2014) poster

A well-made and effective action movie, with fight sequences which are kinetic and brutal in ways that surprisingly few films actually manage. I don’t care if Paul Greengrass is the greatest stylist since King Hu; when I watch an action movie, I want to see the goddamn action, and John Wick lets me see the goddamn action.

Sure, this tale of a revenge-seeking ex-hitman (and recent widower) hits exactly the beats you’d expect: Sad Keanu, Mad Keanu, Kung-Fu Keanu. But it also gives Reeves an archetypal role that turns his tendency to underplay into a strength, while still allowing him room to emote without losing his Cool Guy status.

Big-budget Hollywood productions tend to cast for acting talent and/or star power, relying on the second unit to sell the spectacle. “Stunt team” productions tend to surround Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa almost exclusively with amazing martial artists, while settling for more…functional performances overall. John Wick splits the difference, and doubles down on the stunt/actor dichotomy. Keanu plows through waves of clones in black suits in order to converse with the real players in the criminal underworld, all of whom are played by recognizable character actors with unique looks and points of view.

The conceit of a criminal fraternity straight out of a Teens and Up comic book is enhanced by the gorgeous art direction and cinematography. The world of John Wick is that of a stark, stylized New York (and New Jersey!) in which there are no innocent bystanders, only hardcases of all types skulking in time to a dance/rock beat under a neon-noir glow.

Best of all for this kind of movie, the action is clean and generally easy to read in a way that I, at least, find deeply satisfying. The hand-to-hand combat goes a beat “too long” on occasion as a result, but it feels messily realistic rather than self-indulgent on the part of the fight choreographer. That same relative restraint is also present in the frequent gunplay. While the violence is often bloody, it never seems excessively gory. Unlike in, say, The Raid 2, I never found myself wondering when John Wick—and all the poor doomed bastards who aren’t John Wick—would stop trying to gross out the audience, and get back to killing people. Likewise, despite featuring more headshots than your average zombie flick, the protagonist’s reliance on “control shots” seems appropriate given his background as a cold-blooded killer for a Russian mafiya type.

Finally, it helps significantly that unlike its titular protagonist, John Wick has a sense of humor. This is, after all, a film in which the proximate cause for the Roaring Rampage of Revenge is literally “they stole my car and killed my dog,” and which features a radio announcer blandly reporting the “seven inches of rain” that have drenched New York over the course of the film. It’s hard to hold a grudge against a movie as deliberately made and self-aware as John Wick.

Chef (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

Chef (2014) poster

I want to quibble about the too-pat ending, but the movie makes a decent argument that even the “sure-fire crowd-pleaser” dessert requires skill and passion to execute properly. The makers of this film make expert use of both traits throughout (though not always at the same time).