Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Scary Things

Somehow, I've gotten terribly behind with the blog, so I have to double up a bit in this post. I want to briefly discuss two new releases and one that's available outside of theaters. What all three films have in common is a certain "scare" factor.

 First, Ridley Scott's The Martian, which focuses on the triple fears of isolation, abandonment, and impending doom. Based on Andy Weir's captivating 2011 novel of the same name, Scott assembles a star-studded cast (Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, among others) to tell the story of Mark Watney, an American astronaut who gets left behind when a Mars mission goes terribly wrong. I think Matt Damon captures Watney's wry wit - there's a bit about Watney being a "space pirate" that's laugh-out-loud funny, for example. However, the film cuts out a good deal of the problem-solving that made the novel so compelling and, in a few places, just gets things flat-out wrong. (No, you can't use a teensy hole in your spacesuit to guide you toward your rescue ship, mostly because you'd have a bad case of the deads.) Weir likes science - in fact, he claims science makes a wonderful plot device - and it's a bit of a shame to see that serious thinking watered-down to a basic thrills-and-adventure plot. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film and would love to see it spark interest in manned space missions again. Seriously, why don't we have a moon base yet?

Second, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, which deals with the fear of trickery, war, and back-door deals. Okay, look - you pretty much can't go wrong with the combination of Tom Hanks, Spielberg, and American can-do attitude. In addition to working with Hanks on a number of other projects as producer, Spielberg has directed Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (where we also had to rescue Matt Damon - between that and Interstellar, Damon ought to just stay home by the fire), Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal. Here, Hanks is in full Jimmy Stewart mode and by that, I mean he's playing a solid, honest, decent man (James Donovan) who is convinced that the rule of law will lead to the light. When called upon to defend a Soviet national accused of espionage at the height of the Cold War, he takes the unwelcome assignment (he's an insurance attorney, not a high-powered government lawyer, which is an interesting story in itself) because he truly believes that the Constitution's guarantee of a competent defense is a cornerstone of our legal system. (He's right, by the way.) His client is guilty as original sin, but Donovan's arguments spare his client the death penalty. A few years later, the pilot of one of our super-duper-top-secret U2 spy planes is shot down and Donovan is called into service to arrange for a prisoner exchange. Bridge of Spies is a compelling movie and it's at its absolute best detailing Donovan's tense days in Berlin arranging the spy swap at the very time the Berlin Wall is going up. Sure, the film takes a few liberties with the story (and there's far too little smoking for the time period!), but an amazing film and one well worth seeing in these cynical times.

Lastly, the 2014 Australian horror-thriller The Babadook. I can't say much about this without worrying about giving something important away, so I'll be brief. This film, the first major release by Jennifer Kent, scared the bejeezus out of me. There's a bit of gore, but it's mostly "head scare" and reality gets very, very warped in the hour and a half run time. One thing this film does masterfully is set you off-kilter. My allegiances changed as I started the film sympathizing with one character and found myself moving to viewing that character as the Evil of the film. What's real? What's the mind capable of believing? And how much can untreated traumas manifest in our world? The Babadook is a film that made me cringe, jump, and actually think - and many others agree with me. Don't miss this one.