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(Movies) My Last 3: Get Hard, The Martian, Quick Change

Entertainment 150Get Hard (2015)
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart had to manage a storm of controversy around the release of this film; a lot of people thought it was pretty blatantly racist at worst, and tone-deaf at best. Their response wasn’t the best — basically, they were telling racist jokes to make fun of the people who would think that way. While I’ve been a defender of comedic boundaries before, I couldn’t say that I liked the rationalization for it. You can make fun of the mindset of racist people without resorting to racially-insensitive comedy; yeah, it’s more difficult, but good comedy is hard, right?

I was inclined to give this a miss until Ryan recommended it to me, and I’m actually glad he did. Get Hard is without a doubt a problematic comedy, but it’s also an incredibly funny one. I hadn’t been exposed to Kevin Hart very much before this, but I have to say I’m a fan at this point. Will Ferrell continues to find ways to refine and develop his stock comedic character so that while you know what you’re getting with him, there are always a few pleasant surprises in store.

Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager who is completely oblivious to the class divide that he embodies; he has an immense house, a super-hot wife who’s addicted to power, and is prepared to ascend to the highest echelons of the financial community. The insane lifestyle of James King is one that he feels he’s earned; he’s great at his job, put in his time, and is now reaping the expected rewards.

Hart is a struggling family man who just wants enough money for a down payment on a modest house in a better school district so that his daughter won’t have to go to an elementary school with metal detectors outside the front door. When King gets popped for fraud and threatened with a fairly intense jail sentence, he hires Hart’s Darnell Lewis to teach him to get ready for prison because being a black guy he had to have served time right? And we’re off to the races.

Through the first act and about half of the second, you’re actually ready to buy the excuses of Ferrell and Hart; James King is an astonishingly assinine person oblivious to the struggles of the people all around him and living a life of extraordinary wealth and privilege. The scenes where he actually has to deal with people outside of his bubble provides some hilarious and pointed social commentary. Darnell’s problems are only slightly exaggerated for comedic effect, but Hart plays him as earnest and relatable. When James and Darnell team up, it’s legitimately magical.

Then we get to Darnell’s cousin, Russell (played by the rapper T.I.) and then we’re suddenly in a much less comfortable place with the comedy. Russell is a member of the Crenshaw Kings, and Darnell thinks he might be able to convince the gang to protect James in prison. The usual “hoodrat black guys react to the whitest of the white guys” hijinks ensue and while it’s surprisingly funny it also undercuts the point the film tried to make up front — most black people (and other minorities) aren’t the stereotypes we make them out to be. By populating the rest of the film mostly with these exact stereotypes, the message comes across as fairly hollow.

Despite that, it’s still really funny. Get Hard is one of those films that I wish weren’t so easily dismissed because it could open up an interesting and necessary conversation about the prejudices even well-meaning but disconnected white folks have about minorities, and how the film’s ultimately letting James off the hook (his greatest crime is outstanding ignorance and that’s about it) doesn’t take its message far enough. It could have been so much more than it was, but what it was is actually pretty good.

The Martian (2015)
This movie is effectively anti-Gravity. Matt Damon is the title character, Mark Watney. During a months-long mission to Mars, a rather intense storm forces the astronauts to abandon their station in a hurry. Watney is hit by a piece of debris and goes flying off into the dust-storm; his vitals read as flat. The mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to abandon him, but surprise! Watney has survived, and now must find a way to survive until he is discovered and a mission to rescue him is organized.

What follows is an intense struggle to survive for Watney, and a series of jumping hurdles for his colleagues at NASA as they figure out just how they can help him across such great distances. While The Martian certainly pulls no punches detailing the inhospitable nature of space and other planets, it ultimately makes the case that human ingenuity, collaboration and willpower can overcome any problem — known or spontaneous — that the great void can throw at us. Watney is an inherently fascinating character; even though he’s on the mission as its chief botanist, he quickly learns how to turn his faculties towards doing whatever it takes to hold on until he can be rescued.

Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor are equally arresting as the various NASA administrators and engineers trying to bring Watney home. They have to navigate very real issues of time and budget constraints, political realities and public relations issues to figure out the best course of action. While it would have been lovely to imagine that NASA would be given unlimited funding and time to bring Watney home with the unwavering support of the public at their back, that simply isn’t the case. Forcing everyone involved to make do with less, we see the pressure everyone is under to find creative (and dangerous) solutions to accomplish what seems impossible.

In a lot of ways, the story of The Martian is the story of Gravity — a single astronaut stranded in the unforgiving void of space after a cataclysmic event leaves them without the necessities for survival. But while Gravity tightens its focus on Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone to explore the existential question of what motivates us to soldier on in the face of extreme difficulty and lingering trauma, The Martian pulls back to examine how we as human beings pull together in times of crisis to do amazing things we never thought we could. I think both films are uplifting for different reasons; Gravity tells us that we as individuals are stronger than we could ever believe, while The Martian tells us that we as a tribe are even smarter, stronger and more resilient than that. It’s really exciting to think about, and actually makes you want to see us living up to that potential.

Matt Damon is immensely charismatic here, and he pulls off the trick of effectively being alone through much of the film’s run time. Watney’s crewmates — including Chastain, Michael Pena, Mara Rooney and others — are competent and compassionate people, and watching them deal with the realization they’ve left a man behind is just as engrossing.

Director Ridley Scott, coming off a pretty bad pair of movies in Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings, could have used a hit and I’m glad he’s found one here. Mars feels like a surprisingly interesting place under his lens — even though it’s foreboding and dangerous, it can also be beautiful in the sparse manner of, say, an Arizona desert. He keeps the action rolling forward, pausing for just long enough to get a sense of place here. I’m glad that we saw the movie in theatres; the landscape and sense of distance really tracks well on the big screen.

All in all, The Martian makes a good counterpoint to the steady stream of space disaster films we’ve been getting recently. Yeah, things go catastrophically wrong, but the triumph over adversity actually feels better than a successful mission that goes according to plan.

Quick Change (1990)
Between Ghostbusters II and Groundhog Day, Bill Murray starred in this overlooked gem of a movie that also starred Geena Davis (right before she was in Thelma and Louise) and Randy Quaid (one year out of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). There are small parts in the film from Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci and Kurtwood Smith (the dad on That 70s Show), and they’re all great. It also features quite possibly the greatest public bus driver in all of comedic film. And I’ve never heard of it until now.

Quick Change tells the story of a man named Grimm (Murray) so fed up with New York City that he decides to rob a bank to get out of town. The bank heist itself is pretty funny and twisty enough that I won’t say too much about it here, but the Grimm’s attempt to get away with his accomplices make up most of the film. The city itself seems to conspire against them, throwing its labyrinthine geography and endless supply of random kooks to keep them in town. Grimm and his compatriots keep getting pulled down into the murk of the city the closer they get to the airport.

Murray plays the jaded genius really well — no surprise there. His co-stars, Davis and Quaid, are pretty amazing too. Jason Robards is the crusty old police detective two days from retirement and charged with bringing them in. He’s jaded too, perhaps moreso than Grimm, but still believes enough in the rule of law to keep plugging away at an impossible, Sisyphean task.

The writing is whip-smart and surreal; the characters that Grimm and company come across own their scenes completely. From the taxi driver who doesn’t speak English to the bus driver with crippling OCD, to the random unhelpful sociopaths they meet in their travels, New York is populated with pretty amazing people all living their own stories. It’s both one of the best and worst things about pretty much any major city, and Quick Change captures it so well.

Another surprising thing about the movie is how prescient it is; one of the big reasons Murray wants to get out of the city is gentrification and development — new condos are going up on every block and pricing long-time residents out of the city. A huge plot point is the necessity of strapping the money to himself because terrorism has made airport security draconian and inconvenient. And the police are constantly missing their men because they’re getting caught up chasing down minorities.

The more I think about this film, the more I love it. Everyone’s at the top of their game; the story is surprising, engaging and actually driven by characters who are smart, funny and interesting; and this is one of the only movies actually directed by Murray himself. This is the first (and best) of three movies Murray collaborated on with his co-director and the writer of the film, Howard Franklin. If you’re a big Bill Murray fan who’s seen most of his Wes Anderson stuff, this is the movie for you.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Star Wars (#15)

Entertainment 150Star Wars (1977)
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
Written and Directed by George Lucas

What could I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before? The impact of this space fantasy epic can’t really be understated. It provided a template for science fiction movies to follow for a long time to come, and the universe first seen here is still alive and passionately followed today, over 35 years after its release. An entire generation of geeks (myself included) know all about the exploits of Luke Skywalker and his cohorts; the story of the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance has nearly reached the level of modern myth.

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away there was a band of rebels fighting an evil Empire that had nearly total control over a vast galactic civilization filled with thousands of sentient species numbering in the trillions of souls. A confluence of events brought young farmer Luke Skywalker (Hamill) into the conflict, pairing him with an old recluse who belonged to an ancient and mystical order, a princess and leader of the rebel organization, a selfish mercenary and his tall, furry alien co-pilot. Together, they discovered the Empire’s new weapon of terrible power — capable of destroying entire planets in one shot — and worked to destroy it, turning the tide of the fight towards the rebels for the first time.

Everyone knows this story, and most of us know how this story came to be. Or at least, we’ve heard apocryphal versions of it. When we think of Star Wars we tend to think of the entire trilogy of films as a single work, but most of the really iconic stuff is yet to come. Luke’s battle with Darth Vader doesn’t happen until The Empire Strikes Back, and Vader’s redemption doesn’t come until the final film, Return of the Jedi. Both are excellent in their own right, but let’s take a look at the original movie on its own terms. Star Wars as a standalone story is actually fun to pick apart; there’s a lot of interesting stuff there.

I’m sure this has been mentioned elsewhere, but Luke really isn’t the main character of the story. He doesn’t appear until about 30 minutes in, and he doesn’t have an arc to speak of. He doesn’t grow or change through his experiences. He starts out as a young farm-hand itching to get off of his planet and have cool adventures in space, and that’s precisely what happens. He’s taught to be a Jedi, uses his newfound understanding of the Universe to beat the bad guys, and goes home. Nothing to it! There’s not much in the way of personal stakes there. Han Solo, on the other hand…

When we meet Han, it’s in a wretched hive of scum and villainy; he’s willing to con just about anyone to get out ahead of any meeting he’s in, and he doesn’t join Obi-Wan and Luke for any reason other than payment. It’s a real struggle for him to stick with the gang when things get tough. At least on the surface, he’s only into the idea of getting paid. Gradually, however, he comes to value the relationships he’s formed over the course of the movie and even comes back to join in the rebel’s final, desperate fight. It’s a completely selfless act that signifies deep and lasting character growth. Even though Luke is hailed as the hero and gets the final shot that takes down the Death Star, Han is the person who allows that to happen. Han’s the true protagonist of Star Wars here, and Luke is more of a catalyst for his journey.

The story, overall, is relatively simple, but that’s not where the magic is. George Lucas has a fairly good grasp of the film’s structure and pacing, so he hits all of the beats he needs to exactly when he needs to hit them. Besides that, the movie simply LOOKS gorgeous, and it treats us to a science-fiction landscape that’s still unique to this day. The settings look fantastic yet lived-in, really grounding the world and enabling us to get invested in it. Everything looks real, functional. The tech — light-years beyond anything we could have dreamed at the time — looks beaten up and sometimes barely works.

Even today it’s difficult to find a movie — especially a science fiction film — that blends the fantastic and the mundane quite that well. I think that’s one of the reasons Joss Whedon’s Firefly is so beloved — it manages to make a fantastic universe that feels….used. And that makes us all the more excited for it, because it’s easier for us to imagine living there, eating the food, drinking exotic alcohols, feeling the heat and dust and fabric we use to protect ourselves from it. Lucas managed to create a movie that encourages our imagination to fill the world beyond the screen. That’s the lightning in a bottle Star Wars captured.

It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s a vastly entertaining one. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill have a great chemistry together, and it’s enough for us to overlook the many shortcomings in the script and direction. It’s easy to see Star Wars as the skeleton on which an entire universe was fleshed out, and that’s largely true. But taking a moment to appreciate the construction of the foundation is a worthy exercise just the same.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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