The Martian

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is one of the director’s most accomplished films in a long time. The film’s success is partly due to Scott’s stunning visual style, rendered in gorgeous visuals by DOP Dariusz Wolski, where vast desert landscapes express the terrible isolation of Mars, in sharp contrast to the supportive, enclosing environments of Earth. Credit must also be given to Drew Godard’s witty and engaging script, Matt Damon’s roguishly charming performance as Mark Watney and Pietro Scalia’s smooth editing, all of which combine to keep the film flowing easily but informatively. Due to an accident during an evacuation, Watney is marooned on Mars and must ensure his own survival or, as he puts it, “science the shit out of this.” What follows is a hugely engaging portrayal of ingenuity and determination, as Watney uses his own waste to fertilise a potato patch, creates water from the requisite ingredients, and records multiple video diary entries as a record of his experience. Meanwhile, his NASA colleagues both on Earth and aboard the spaceship Hermes grapple with the personal guilt of leaving Watney behind and the practical difficulties of helping him stay alive. This singular goal permeates the entire film, and allows for fine humour as Watney comments on his surroundings, political tensions as NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) clashes with department heads Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), scientific and engineering problems on both Earth and Mars, and some nail-biting set pieces where physics is an inexorable antagonist but also the only means of survival. Despite these apparently disparate elements, The Martian is a bravura success, a gripping and perfectly-paced survival story filled with wit, brio and invention.


Everest is a mountain with two peaks, one of which is the highest point on Earth. Similarly, Baltasar Kormákur’s dramatization of a famous 1996 Everest expedition is a film of two halves, one of which is a gripping, moving and occasionally visceral experience, but the other is meandering and unfocused. The latter is the first half, in which the film becomes burdened with too many characters and fails to explore the motivations of those who risk life and limb to scale the mountain. The engaging half of the film is that concerned with the actual climb, as a motley crew of climbers, led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) experience extraordinary cold, sparse oxygen and treacherous ice and rock faces. There are vertiginous moments where the viewer gets a sense of the sheer drop below, as well as the scale of the mountain and the immense storms that assail them. But there are just as many moments where the film cuts between its range of rather bland characters, never spending enough time to really understand them or communicate their situation. This lack of focus or depth is most apparent in the first half of the film, as the climbing team assemble and acclimatise to the mountainous conditions. There is amiable bickering and brief discussions of overcrowding, but the paradox of overcrowding in one of the world’s most inhospitable places is not explored. At its best moments, Everest shows agony and anguish in equal measure, especially when Rob, now in dire straights, talks on the radio to his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley). This moment wrung tears from me, but overall I found the film lacking in emotional engagement. One might see the film because it’s there, but you may come down wondering if that’s reason enough.

Irrational Man


Films that deal with philosophy do so in several ways. They may obliquely explore philosophy through their narratives, as is the case with much of Christopher Nolan‘s oeuvre. They may use cinematic devices such as editing and cinematography to work through philosophical concepts, such as Last Year at Marienbad and The Thin Red Line. Or they may explicitly state that they are being philosophical through dialogue and voiceover. Such is the case with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, which not only has its characters discuss morality, and how to find/create meaning amidst the meaningless of existence, but features a university professor as its protagonist who embodies the philosophical issues that he ponders upon. This has the unfortunate effect of making the film obvious and ham-fisted, which is disappointing from Allen who explored similar concepts far more interestingly in Match Point. Carl Sprague and Jennifer Engel’s production design is engaging and Darius Khondji’s cinematography gives both human and non-human surfaces a gorgeous hue, while Joaquin Phoenix’s is perfectly fine as the angst-ridden professor to Emma Stone’s engagingly starstruck student (see if you can guess where that goes). Allen’s direction is assured and efficient, but his script is clunky and over-determined to the point of being obvious. Perhaps ironically, Irrational Man is too rational for its own good, explaining too much rather than performing the true practice of philosophy, that of questioning.




The romantic comedy is a much maligned genre, continually treated with disdain and a lack of respect, given the derogatory term “chick flick,” as if films “for women” are somehow other and lesser than “regular people” (i.e. men). This is often unwarranted, as the rom-com provides great opportunities for comedic scenarios and engaging characters. Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow and written by star Amy Schumer, demonstrates this potential, as Schumer and co-star Bill Hader are very funny as well as being a convincingly adorable couple whose path does not run smooth. Furthermore, while the film follows a conventional plot of troubled romance, it does so with verve and brio, delivering comedic and heartfelt moments in equal measure. Much of Trainwreck’s success comes from presenting the gross-out humour that Apatow excels at from a woman’s perspective. Much like Bridesmaids, Trainwreck is not afraid of bodily function gags that are as nauseating as they are hilarious, nor does it shy away from sex jokes. Again like Bridesmaids (but unlike many other sex comedies), these jokes are from a woman’s perspective, Schumer’s script explicitly exploring the humour of sexuality from a point of view seen all too rarely in mainstream cinema. In so doing, it is reminiscent of another recent comedy, Spy, as Trainwreck demonstrates what really shouldn’t be unusual or striking – films focused on women are not just for women, they are about people and all people can enjoy them.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.


2015 has proved an interesting year for secret agents. Kingsman: The Secret Service did for spy films what Kick-Ass did for superhero films; Spy had the courage to place a non-conventionally shaped protagonist at the centre of its drama; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation gave us more Cruising adventures. But before James Bond graces us with his presence once more in Spectre, spy fans could do a lot worse than Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1960s TV series, as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proves a smart and stylish entry to the genre. What makes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stand out from the crowd is its deliberately arch humour and expressive production design. To accuse the film of valuing style over substance would be to miss the point, as the film makes substance from its style. Each costume of CIA man Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and their German charge Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander) illustrates not only something about the character(s), but also the excessive design of the genre, such as James Bond’s tuxedo and the glamorous outfits of lady lovelies from Diamonds Are Forever to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The biggest action set piece has more emphasis on screen divisions and crosscutting than on the action itself. Rather than detracting from the narrative, this stylistic emphasis plays up the film’s affection for the genre and its history. For fans of the spy genre that enjoy reveling in its absurdity, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. offers much to enjoy.


Fantastic Four

F4 poster

Marvel’s super family has had a rough ride at the cinema. After a mid-90s film that was never released and two instalments from Tim Story that were met with negative reviews and audience disappointment, hopes were high for Chronicle director Josh Trank’s reboot. But amidst review embargoes, accusations of studio tampering and dismal box office, Fantastic Four (2015) looks set to continue the awesome foursome’s misfortunes. But considering the painful mess that is Catwoman or the embarrassed denial of Batman & Robin, Fantastic Four is far from the worst that the superhero genre has to offer. Trank lends the film a sombre mood, with gloomy visuals from DOP Matthew Jensen and some surprisingly gory moments. The central characters, Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are a decently disparate group, with suggestions of the snippy but affectionate relationships central to the mythos. They are not the family unit of the comic books (or earlier films), but as a group of young friends experiencing some unusual growing pains they just about work. The film’s strongest moments are those featuring our four heroes experiencing their altered states, with some genuinely unsettling moments of body horror, such as when Reed looks down at his elastic limbs and Ben’s evident sadness and disgust at his monstrous state once he becomes the Thing. The family dynamic is seen between Sue and Johnny and their father Franklin (Reg E. Cathey), and while their interchanges are clichéd they are at least consistent. Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) offers some interesting views on the hijacking of scientific discovery by the military-industrial complex, but his final act appearance as Dr Doom is wasted and undoes much of the solid work done previously.

This is the central problem of the film. It begins as a dour drama about friends grappling with changes that manifest in horrifying ways. Yet it also needs to be a superpowered adventure with grand set pieces and spectacular displays of amazing abilities. Perhaps Trank’s original version was more drama and less spectacle, and the reshoots forced in the rushed finale. The end result is unbalanced but still manages some interesting depictions of the body and explorations of outsiderness, ambition and hubris. The best super-family movie remains Pixar’s The Incredibles, but Fantastic Four (or perhaps Fantastic Flaw) is still worth a look.


Inside Out

Inside Out

Inside Out might just be the best film of the year. High praise from other quarters raised my expectations, although recent Pixar efforts such as Brave caused trepidation. But all my fears swiftly evaporated as Inside Out proves to be Pixar’s strongest film at least since WALL-E. Beginning literally with the dawning of consciousness, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) first experiences Joy (Amy Poehler), as does the viewer in appreciating the filmmakers’ sublimely realised efforts at personifying feelings. Subsequent emotions Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) add to the mix, this jostling of emotion familiar to children and adults alike. Riley’s mindscape is dazzlingly realised, from personality islands to the thought train to the abyss of forgetfulness, and the random jingles that play in our head for no discernible reason. Nor are any of these elements gimmicky, as they all make sense within the film’s overall conceit: the seemingly random aspects of our minds have reasons and motivations, these aspects don’t always agree and sometimes feeling can be complicated. Most touchingly and movingly, Inside Out demonstrates that feeling Joy all the time is not only unrealistic but unhealthy, and that Sadness is essential and even positive. Inside Out made me laugh uproariously and I can unashamedly report that I cried, more than I have at almost any other film. For that, I cannot applaud it enough.


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