The Martian (A). Woo-hoo! The Movie Snob is back in action. Recently I’ve been taking care of my mom after cataract surgery, so not much time for movie watching. But today I got out and finally saw the latest movie from director Ridley Scott (Alien), and I thought it was great. If you liked Gravity and Apollo 13, you need to get out there and see this film. Matt Damon (Interstellar) plays a modern-day Robinson Crusoe—an astronaut on a mission to Mars who is separated from the rest of the crew in a terrible windstorm. His comrades believe (with good reason) that he has been killed, and they have to blast off to save their own lives. But he survives the storm, and the rest of the movie is about whether he can somehow survive long enough to get rescued. The cast is full of big stars: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as the mission commander. Michael Pena (Ant-Man) as the pilot. Sean Bean (TV’s Game of Thrones) as the earth-side head of the particular Mars mission. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as the overall head of the Mars program (if I understood right). Jeff Daniels (Arachnophobia) as the head of NASA. Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) as the NASA public-relations person who mostly stands around and looks concerned. Anyhoo, this movie will keep you on the edge of your seat. I saw the 2D version, but I heard good things about the 3D version. Check it out before it leaves the theaters.
Mystic Pizza (B). I found this 1988 flick in a bargain bin at Big Lots! for $1.50. As fate would have it, I had just read a piece about it in Entertainment Weekly, so I decided to give it a try. It stars a young Julia Roberts (Charlie Wilson’s War) as a poor young woman named Daisy. Daisy is a waitress working at a pizza joint in Mystic, Connecticut, alongside her Yale-bound younger sister Kat (Annabeth Gish, Beautiful Girls) and their best pal Jojo (Lili Taylor, Ransom). The movie spans several months in their lives as they try to deal with man problems—Daisy has attracted the attention of a rich but potentially untrustworthy suitor, Jojo can’t decide whether to marry the fisherman she loves, and Kat falls for a married man after she starts a part-time job babysitting his daughter. It’s a pretty cheesy movie, but it apparently attracted a strong cult following, and I can see why. The characters are appealing, and their trials and tribulations are fairly realistically drawn. Director Donald Petrie would go on to direct Grumpy Old Men and Miss Congeniality. Look fast and you may spot a young Matt Damon (We Bought a Zoo) as the brother of Daisy’s rich suitor.
We Bought a Zoo (C+). This was a nice enough little movie, but not good enough to give a strong recommendation. Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) plays Benjamin Mee, a recent widower and father to an angry 14-year-old son and an adorable 6- or 7-year-old girl. He decides the family needs a change of scenery, so he starts house hunting. Before you can say “resale value,” he has bought a house some 9 miles outside of town that is attached to, as the title indicates, a small, broken-down old zoo. A small team of dedicated zoo employees led by the fetching Kelly (Scarlett Johansson, The Island) tries to help Benjamin get the place up to code so the jerkish state inspector (John Michael Higgins, A Mighty Wind) will let them reopen and start making money to keep the place afloat. A nice concept, but at 2:04 the movie feels long, the relationship between Benjamin and Kelly is left curiously undercooked, and the talented Elle Fanning (Super 8) is wasted as the youngest zookeeper who inexplicably falls in puppy love with Benjamin’s rude son. And a few curse words hamper the general family-friendliness of it all. Its heart is in the right place, but you can definitely wait for the DVD.
Contagion. (C-). The great cast in this film is what attracted me to see it. Lawrence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Gweneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould. That should be enough to make a good movie, right? Nope. This film had very little plot. It’s more of a mockumentary. A what-if scenario. The film looks at what might happen if a supervirus were to get loose. That’s too simple of a concept to drive a feature-length film. A plot is needed. In about 5 minutes time, you can see how a supervirus can multiply and spread across the globe. The rest is pretty much filler. Gweneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet are dead early in the film, so we don’t get to see much of them. Jude Law plays a blogger and his character is just strange. As a viewer, you don’t know whether you want to like him or hate him. Marion Cotillard’s talents are wasted on a role that seems nearly pointless to the overall action. In short, don’t waste your money on this one–either in the theaters or as a rental.
The Adjustment Bureau (C). I knew from the trailer alone that this movie had to be based on a story by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, whose paranoia-driven work has inspired such movies as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly. According to Bureau, there is a shadowy force of serious men wearing serious suits and hats that secretly controls everything that goes on in the world, making sure that everything happens according to “The Plan.” But they aren’t quite infallible, or there wouldn’t be a movie. A straight-talking New York congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon, True Grit) is running for the Senate. Along the way, he briefly encounters a lovely woman named Elise (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada). An agent from the Adjustment Bureau is supposed to prevent them from ever meeting again, but he drops the ball, and they meet again and fall in love. This violates The Plan, so the Bureau goes into overdrive to try to minimize the “ripples” from this mistake–meaning they try to break David and Elise up by any means necessary. It’s an interesting premise, but I didn’t think the movie generated any real sense of menace or urgency. It was worth the $1.25 I paid for it, though.
True Grit (A). I am unfamiliar with the book and the John Wayne version of this movie, so I had no preconceived notions–except that I would probably like this movie because I’ve liked everything I’ve seen by the Coen brothers for a long time. (I still don’t get Barton Fink, though.) Obviously, I thoroughly liked this movie. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose father has just been murdered in 1870s Fort Smith, Arkansas (on the border with the Indian Territory). Smart and determined, she persuades broken-down federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, Tron) to pursue the murderer into the Indian Territory for the promise of a $100 reward. Matt Damon (The Informant!) plays LaBoeuf, a Texas ranger who’s tracking the same guy for a crime he committed in Texas. The dialogue is strangely elevated, almost like a Whit Stillman film, but it somehow seems right. Mayhem is never far away as they track the villainous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, The Goonies). Good stuff!
True Grit (A-). I’ll resist the urge to compare this film to the original starring John Wayne–mainly because it’s been too long since I saw the original version. I confess, however, that I was prepared to boycott this film because it seems wrong to push John Wayne deeper into the shadows by making another movie from the book. But when I saw the cast and directors, I couldn’t resist the lure to see it.
This 2010 film is very entertaining. A big part of what makes this movie so good is the witty dialogue. One of my favorite lines is delivered by spitfire Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) after Leboeuf stakes a claim to the outlaw Tom Cheney by telling Ross that he’s been pursuing Cheney hither and yon for a very long time: “Why have you ineffectually been pursuing Cheney?” But even good dialogue needs the actors capable of delivering it, and this film obviously has that, with Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn, Damon as the boasting bounty hunter from Texas, and Josh Brolin as the outlaw Tom Cheney, who killed Ross’s father. Relative newcomer Steinfeld rounds out the cast and proves that she’s an equal to her co-stars. If there is one weakness in this film, it comes at the end when you see a grown-up version of Mattie Ross. The grown-up version doesn’t really match what you’d expect Mattie to become as an adult. But this is a minor point.
I recommend seeing this film. You’ll be glad you did. I was.