JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Martian, The Big Short, Far from the Madding Crowd (Directors: Ridley Scott, Adam McKay, Thomas Vinterberg) - January 31, 2016

The Martian, The Big Short, Far from the Madding Crowd

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Three decidedly different views of the human experience

Here are three 2015 films on the outs: Out of this world, out of cash/morals and very nearly out of luck.

The Martian
Ridley Scott
144 min., Four stars

Bringing the disco ball to interplanetary travel

Director Ridley Scott has launched Andy Weir’s book and Drew Goddard’s screenplay into the galaxy of imagination in a truly fantastic manner that could never have succeeded as much as it does without (a) ABBA’s catalogue of timeless hits (most notably “Rendezvous” at the climactic scene) and (b) Matt Damon’s ability to act where no actor has gone before.

For it is the abandoned botanist Damon (known as Mark Watney to his intrepid crew and adoring fans) who delightfully carries the bulk of the space odyssey gone south on his—still—fine-looking shoulders.

Assisting ably on the sidelines are Jessica Chastain playing the do-it-by-the-book Commander Melissa Lewis—forced to abandon the presumably dead Watney due to a horrific Mars natural blow-out, the ensuing debris of which has most certainly pierced the life-maintaining space suit of the “not really a scientist” space explorer. Best bud Rick Martinez (ably done up by Michael Peña) provides many of the straight lines to incongruously assure viewers (and awards committees) that this production is most assuredly a comedy (but that is one of the biggest, most opportunistic designations ever contrived by greedy producers and those who write the cheques).

Earth-side, Jeff Daniels is appropriately stoic and a touch uncaring as the head of NASA, trying to balance the wisdom of spending gazillions of bucks to bring one unfortunate, wise-cracking soul back home even as his humanistic nemesis, Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean at the top of his form, assuredly ready for a turn in a John le Carré intrigue), deftly plays the human card.

The ride is a hoot, the science head-scratching, the deliberate “leave the family out of it” (Watney’s parents MIA) ridiculous, but the film is engaging from stem (er, potato) to stern (the space capsules) nonetheless.

Who knew that such a lavish production could be constructed on a wing, prayer and a tarp?!

The Big Short
Adam McKay
130 min., Four stars

Making money the old-fashioned way: unbridled greed and manipulation

Living the American Dream went decidedly sour during the financial meltdown of 2007-2010. Millions lost much more than their shirts. Very, very few of the world’s financial leaders went to jail and—as in any widespread calamity—several visionaries struck gold on the backs of those lured into mortgages they really couldn’t afford.

Fodder indeed for writer Michael Lewis (also author of Moneyballcross-reference below) who painstakingly chronicled the self-made financial crisis into a bestselling book that pulls few punches. The translation of that tome to the screen has been accomplished by director Adam McKay (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph) and an all-star cast (notably Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Melissa Leo and delightfully crusty Brad Pitt).

The production values and crew are equally talented (superb cinematography once again from Barry Ackroyd), but by journey’s end most viewers will be forgiven if they suddenly feel the need to wash away the muck created by short sellers and “bubble” deniers alike (er, hello there Alan Greenspan).

Thank goodness lessons have been learned and financial market manipulation of all stripes will never happen again…

Far from the Madding Crowd
Thomas Vinterberg
119 min., Four stars

The wrong man

Thomas Hardy’s novel has received a beautifully crafted treatment where the cinematography (Charlotte Bruus Chistensen) is a visual joy in every frame, angle and flow (at key dramatic scenes, adding greatly to the mood of nervousness by allowing the camera to pace about along with its subjects), the orchestral score (Craig Armstrong is at one with the broad storyline of three disparate men in search of ever-elusive love—Clio Gould’s searing violin solos capturing the ideal of independent thinking to a finely bowed T) admirably captures Vinterberg’s savour-it-while-we-can flow only to have the village minstrels provide welcome relief between the long looks of hope, despair, pain and limited joy.

Mother Nature is most certainly a character unto herself unleashing fire, rain and wind upon the fascinating ensemble of characters, wordlessly changing the course of the lives swirling together in David Nicholls first-rate screenplay—far from the helter-skelter of big city living, indeed.

Vinterberg is blessed with an acting ensemble that, collectively, knows when to thrust, parry or step aside. Most memorable of all is Michael Sheen’s brilliant portrayal of rich-man-without-a-mate: the wonderfully named William Boldwood. Sheen takes on his character’s many humiliations with a perfectly understated voice that is most effectively reinforced by a series of stoic face tics that reveal far more than dialogue ever could. The shameless Sergeant Francis Troy is entirely convincing in the sword-sure hands of Tom Sturridge, giving hope to all that he might, at last, do the right thing.

In the pivotal role of independent-woman-ahead-of-her-time is Carey Mulligan taking on the challenging persona of Bathsheba Everdene. Mulligan fires on all cylinders in the film’s first half, but as she is drawn like a moth to the proverbial flame, can’t quite manage to convince that physical desire will trump unshakeable reason.

Matthias Schoenaerts also does commendable work in the early going, only for the self-confessed (on more than one occasion) “wrong man” to drift more into everyone’s favourite chap instead of a perpetual torch bearer for “forbidden” (class-wise, that is) love.

Classic novels are always difficult to translate into cinema, yet—nonetheless—this production has far more hits than misses, even as the masters try to sort themselves out. JWR

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