Archive | October, 2015

Caché – Review

27 Oct

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (I’m partial to the 2007 version) is one of my favorite films of all time, and I’ve been severely slacking at watching some of his other works. I’ve finally gotten around to it with his 2005 critical success Caché. This film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and many critics call it one of the best films of the 2000s. All of those critics kind of have to slow down a little bit there. Caché is a very interesting and complex film when all is said and done, but it’s also extremely pretentious and often feels like a chore to sit through. The real joy of this movie comes through when you begin thinking about it after the credits roll.

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Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juiliette Binoche) Laurent are a upper middle class family living a relatively quiet life in Paris. Georges is a talk show host on a public television station, Anne works as a publisher, and they both have a 12 year old son named Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). That quiet life soon gets uprooted when they begin finding videotapes from an anonymous stalker showing up at their doorstep. Why they are being recorded and who is responsible forces Georges to look back into his past and come to learn that actions he did when he was just a young boy could be the cause of the family’s stalker finally taking his revenge.

Caché is a very smart and well executed thriller that definitely does not fit the Hollywood definition of what a thriller is supposed to be. I highly respect Michael Haneke for stepping outside what is considered to be the genre conventions. Haneke said in an interview that he didn’t want the viewer to figure out what the one possible answer is to the mystery of this movie, he wanted people to accept all of the possible answers. This makes for some ingenious movie making, but to me it didn’t hit the mark well in the entertainment department. In my opinion, there are two kinds of art house movies. There’s a movie like Drive or even Requiem for a Dream. Those movies are “artsy.” Caché falls into the other category that I like to call “artsy fartsy.”

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Technically speaking, though, the movie is really cool. The very first shot lasts a few minutes, and just shows the front of the Laurent’s house. It’s a great opening shot and got me in the mood to see how Haneke’s artistic vision would help tell the story, but this trick is used a few times too many. The film is also shot on video, which is actually an appropriate choice since the whole plot revolves around videotapes being delivered to this family. All of the artistic qualities that are in Caché do enhance it and halp it stand apart from more run of the mill thrillers. I’m just saying that for me some of it was a bit too much for me.

I will praise wholeheartedly the performances in this movie. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche work perfectly together and both of their performances are very natural and feel very real. The same can be said about everyone in the movie, even the younger actor, Lester Makedonsky. Someone who really steals the show every time he’s onscreen is Maurice Bénichou, and while he’s not present very much, every scene he’s in is memorable.

This was a strange review to write because I liked Caché more as I thought about it, but as I was watching it, it felt pretty tiresome. This may be because the real payoff is looking back on the entire thing and putting all of the pieces together instead of just being confused the entire time. There’s that and the fact that Haneke goes a little overboard with long takes of nothing, which he is actually also guilty of in Funny Games, which I love. Caché is a memorable movie that is in the same vein as Hitchcock, but watching it is nowhere near as entertaining as it probably should be.

Sicario – Review

23 Oct

I’ve seen plenty of new movies this year, each with various degrees of emotion, suspense, and tension. Looking back on everything I’ve seen, I can honestly say that Sicario is the most intense film I have seen and probably will see all year. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners and Enemy), written by Taylor Sheridan (known for a performance on Sons of Anarchy), and filmed by Roger Deakins (who worked with Velleneuve and on many of the Coen Brothers’ films), Sicario not only looks beautiful and offers a very powerful and realistic story, it also features strong performances from all its actors. Sicario is definitely a stand out film of 2015.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a young FBI agent with a bright future ahead of her. After a terrifying encounter with murderous members of the cartel, Macer is recruited by mysterious government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to be part of a strike force aimed at crippling those responsible. She soon meets Graver’s partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who she can’t quite place on any particular side or agency, making him the wild card of the team. After joining this special operations team, Macer is plunged into the violent world of the Mexican drug trade where the reprehensible violence is done by the cartel as well as the Americans she is working for, and soon clear right and wrong becomes indistinguishable.

Sicario very much reminds me of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic from 2000. Both films show the realities of the drug trade and the lives that are affected by all of the violence. While Traffic is most certainly unapologetic, Sicario feels like a behind the scenes look at something we’re not supposed to see. There’s crime, lies, torture, and murder on both sides of the spectrum, which forces the audience to find logic in the lesser of two evils. This isn’t really a film that will allow you to kick back and relax for a few hours. There is way too much thought that has to be put into the story and characters, plus it’s just way too stressful.

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There’s a scene in Sicario where the special forces team is attempting to cross the Bridge of the Americas to get back into the United States. The only problem is that they are caught in a gridlock and are surrounded by a few cars filled with cartel members. Instead of creating what could’ve been a run of the mill action sequence, Villeneuve and Sheridan create an incredibly suspenseful and low key scene that explodes in only a few seconds of realistic violence. This scene is the best example of the tension that this movie creates. Never does anything in this movie seem overblown or unnecessary. This also means that there is a lot of down time between missions that the team goes on, which may seem boring, but remember that this film is striving for realism.

Even though Sicario strives to paint an accurate portrait reality, never does it forget that it is still a movie and requires time for cinematic drama and character development. Sheridan’s screenplay is very down to earth and all of the actors play their parts very well. Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro especially stand out as the scene stealers of this movie. Deakins’ cinematography is as beautiful as ever and deserves a possible Oscar nom when all is said and done. Speaking of Oscar noms, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is haunting and is certainly the best music I’ve heard in a movie all year.

Sicario is an unforgettable movie experience that feels like it sometimes bends the rulers of modern film making in order to create a unique story with real characters and situations. There have been a lot of great movies that came out this year, and this film stands up there in the upper echelons of my favorites of 2015. It can be difficult and unsettling at points, but it feels so authentic that it should be required viewing for anyone who loves movies.

Crimson Peak – Review

20 Oct

Has Guillermo del Toro ever done any wrong? Maybe just once, but he continues a streak of interesting and beautiful films with Crimson Peak. Let me just get something out of the way here. This film is nothing like what you may think it’s going to be based on the trailers and the other advertising done for it. What this film actually is is a Hammeresque fairy tale brought to you by one of the masters of the fantastical, Guillermo del Toro. Is Crimson Peak perfect? Absolutely not, in fact it’s one of this film makers weaker movies, but it’s still a good means of escape.

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As a young girl, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) was warned by the ghost of her mother, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” Some fourteen years later, Edith is all grown up and aspiring to be a writer of ghost stories. Her life starts going through a major change when she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who came to America to raise money for a new machine he has designed. After someone close to Edith dies under mysterious circumstances, she marries Sharpe and moves to his family’s mansion in England where he lives with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Both of the Sharpes begin acting a lot differently to Edith once she arrives. Not only that, but she begins getting visited by ghosts in the night who suffer from all sorts of physical deformities. Obviously, not everything is what it seems which reminds Edith once again of he dead mother’s mysterious warning.

The closest movie in del Toro’s filmography that I can compare Crimson Peak to is Pan’s Labyrinth, although it’s not nearly as epic as del Toro’s masterpiece. Like I said, this film is not exactly what you or I would call a modern horror film. There are horror elements to the story, but this mostly feels like a Grimm fairy tale told through the lens of del Toro working for Hammer Studios. That’s kind of a stretch in terms of descriptions, but that’s just how I see this movie. Edith’s last name is Cushing for heaven’s sake. Anyway, if you go into this film expecting to see a horror film or ghost story like Sinister or Insidious, you may be sorely disappointed.

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I’d love to say that Crimson Peak is a flawless movie, but that simply is not true. There are some aspects of this movie that really began to put me asleep in my seat. For one thing, the first half hour or so is excruciatingly boring. I get that it’s set up for everything that’s about to happen, but Edith’s character isn’t really interesting enough to make this part of the movie really anything special. There’s also the manner with which the ghosts are used in this movie. First of all, there were far too many jump scares. This film doesn’t need these cheap tricks. It’s already creepy enough. The ghosts also didn’t do as much as they were maybe intended to do. I loved their designs and how they moved, but I just wish their role in the story was tweaked a little bit so they could show off how cool they were some more.

Now let’s move on to what was awesome. First of all, this is a beautiful film with the best use of color I’ve seen this this year. The beautiful colors and the gorgeous costume and set design only add to my theory more that this is meant to be seen as a fairy tale and not a horror movie. The acting in this film is all fine too. Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska work well together and both really look and act the parts that they are trying to play. The real scene stealer in this movie though is Jessica Chastain. I’ve seen her in a lot of movies, but this may be my favorite performance of hers. It’s a side of her acting that I’ve never really seen before and I was really impressed. Finally, the whole movie just has a magical tone to it where things seem to float on air in some instances and crumble before your eyes the next. It’s hard to explain but it’s easy to lose yourself in the beauty of Crimson Peak.

While the advertising for Crimson Peak really blows the big one, the film itself does not. That being said, it’s far from being Guillermo del Toro’s best work and may even be one of his weakest in terms of storytelling and pacing. The film does succeed, however, in providing some legitimately cool scares, creating a creepy yet startlingly beautiful atmosphere, and telling an archetypical fairy tale. While Crimson Peak is a mild disappointment, I certainly wouldn’t mind revisiting it sooner rather than later.

Dogville (2003) & Manderlay (2005) – review

17 Oct

I can’t stay away from the works of Lars von Trier, the self-proclaimed “greatest film maker in the world” and the “Mad Genius of Denmark.” I could continue with all of the nicknames this eccentric guy has garnered over the years, but I’d like to instead look at two of his films that are supposed to be the first two in a trilogy. The trilogy is called USA: The Land of Opportunity and the two films are Dogville and Manderlay. Now, I knew nothing about these movies, other than they were made by Trier, but what I got out of them were two piece of experimental film that I haven’t quite seen the likes of before.

First, let’s tackle Dogville.

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Somewhere neatly tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, near an abandoned silver mine, is the small town of Dogville. Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany) is the moralist and philosopher of the town who does his best to teach the people of Dogville the proper way to live. Late one night, Tom hears gunshots and finds Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious woman who has just so happened to stumble onto the hidden little village. It turns out that Grace is on the run from the mob for some unknown reason, and a logical place for her to hide is this is hidden town. It takes a while for the townspeople to agree to let her stay in Dogville, and the only condition that she can is that she does labor for all of the people living there. This works well for a while, but soon the residents of Dogville begin to take advantage of Grace to the point of abuse. What they don’t realize is the dangerous secret the Grace is holding behind her unassuming demeanor.

Let me set the scene for you. I put in my DVD of Dogville, grabbed some food, and set myself up for what I thought was going to be a pretty run of the mill movie watching experience. Let me just reiterate that I had no idea what this movie was going to be like. When I saw what the movie actually was, I thought that I wasn’t going to make it through the entire three hour run time. Basically, the entire thing takes place on a stage with very little set design or props. It’s as minimalist as you could possibly get. As the film progressed, I realized that this is really the only way to tell this story, since Dogville isn’t about the the town itself, but more so the residents. Because of the minimal set, we can see into their houses for some of the most private moments and really learn what their characters are all about. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is one of the most brilliant films that Lars von Trier has ever made.

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Dogville isn’t just about visual flair, though. There’s also a really tricky story filled with memorable acting to back it up. Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany really steal the show as their characters. Supporting actors like Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgård, and James Caan also do great, and let me just say that John Hurt should narrate everything. Sorry Morgan Freeman. As far as the story goes, it’s subtle and effective. It plays out like an interesting character study of the evils that can broil in small towns like this, and the whole thing kind of plays out like some strange experiment in human psychology and morality.

The only thing I really have to add is that Dogville is a fantastic movie watching experience and may be my favorite of all of Lars von Trier’s works.

The sequel, Manderlay, continues Grace’s story not long after the events of Dogville. Even though it’s made in a similar style, my reactions to the film were far from that of its predecessor.

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Now on the road with her father (Willem DaFoe), Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the rest of the travelers happen upon an Alabama plantation called Manderlay. What shocks Grace is that this plantation is filled with slaves, even though at this point slavery has been abolished for 70 years. As soon as Grace arrives at the plantation, Mam (Lauren Bacall), the head of the plantation dies and Grace, angered by the idea that there are still slaves, writes a new contract for the people there. The white people living on the plantation become responsible for the hard labor, while the black slaves are allowed to live a more free life. Grace begins to see improvement, but there are many secrets of Manderlay that she doesn’t know.

While Dogville was a subtle film with a strange story that somehow made perfect sense, Manderlay practically bashes you over the head with it’s preachy morality tale. Even though the set remains similar to the first film with its minimalist style, that is just about the only similarity. Bryce Dallas Howard is nowhere near as affective as Nicole Kidman, in fact she just comes off as ignorant and annoying for pretty much the whole movie. The most interesting characters are the former slaves of Manderlay, with some of the most important of those characters played by Danny Glover and Isaach de Bankolé, but sadly their talents are underutilized and Howard’s played up too strong.

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To me, it sort of seemed that Trier didn’t care about Manderlay as much as he did Dogville. While some people may find this idea very upsetting, some of the main themes of these movies are very anti-American. That’s fine with me as long as I don’t feel like I’m getting preached to by someone who thinks they are far superior than us commoners. That’s what watching Manderlay felt like. It’s true that it is still a visually beautiful movie, but that’s all I can really say about it.

While Manderlay is a pretty rotten movie in my opinion, Dogville is a genuinely fantastic piece of experimental drama. The style of these movies take a little bit to get used to, but once you do Dogville is definitely worth your time, if not just to experience a different style of film making. Manderlay, however, can be left well enough alone.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky

13 Oct

… Hmm… How can I even start this review? I have just watched one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. As you can probably guess by the title, it’s the Hong Kong martial arts cult classic Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. Take the gore effects from exploitation horror films of the 1980s, combine that with martial arts action, and top it off with some wonderfully hilarious gallows humor and the end result is Riki-Oh. This will be an easy movie to talk about since it left me with such a strange reaction that made me both laugh and cringe, and while I personally thought this film was a riot, it really only is for a certain type of audience.

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In the early 200s, prisons have become a privatized business, which led to higher levels of corruption and violence in order to keep business booming. Ricky Ho (Fan Siu-wong) is the newest prisoner in one of the most violent prisons in the world. Upon his arrival, Ricky sees how corrupt the jail really is and how it’s actually run by a gang called the Gang of Four, who works in league with the sadistic Assistant Warden Den (Fan Mei-sheng) and the Warden (Ho Ka-kui). The gang and the wardens become determined to kill Ricky when he starts fighting their men and destroying their business, but what they fail to realize is that Ricky has the power of superhuman strength and is nearly invincible. Let the battle begin.

This may be a pretty short review because there isn’t a whole lot to say about it. It simply is what it is and you have to accept it as such. What’s actually surprising is how many really good reviews this movie has gotten. It looks like it’s filmed on the cheap, it’s loaded with over the top gore, and the English dubbing is so bad it’s hilarious. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky succeeds, however, because the movie knows what it is and takes great pleasure in being as over the top and stupid as it can possibly be. In some ways, that’s pretty respectable.

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Let’s get down to it though. What did I think of this movie? It’s not all too surprising that I think it’s a gem of a movie. It made me laugh the entire way through with both its intentional and unintentional humor. Let me just list a few of its most over the top moments. In one scene, Ricky punches the top half of a guy’s head clean off. He just punches it off. In another scene, an opponent of Ricky rips out his own stomach and tries to strangle Ricky with it. Who in the world can think of something like this? Someone with a twisted mind or a really strange sense of humor? Or both?

Everything else in the movie that has nothing to do with its violence or humor is pretty useless. There is almost literally no story, at least not one that I can see. Characters are introduced throughout the whole film but then die in the next scene, which means there isn’t any character development at all. That being said though, that’s not what the movie is about. This film is about showing off some pretty gross special effects and making people laugh. In that regard, it succeeds.

Since it’s release in 1991, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky has gained a fair amount of cult success. It makes sense that a movie like this doesn’t appeal to a wide audience. It’s schlocky, violent, and gory but it’s also a whole lot of fun. I can’t wait to show this movie to more people just to see how they are going to react to something like this. To me, this movie succeeds at what it sets out to do and I had more fun than I probably should have watching it.

GoodFellas – Review

11 Oct

Here we go, ladies and gentlemen. This review is a doozy since I will be looking at one of the most acclaimed, praised, and altogether adored American films of all time. This, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster epic GoodFellas. I don’t really know if I have any new opinions to add to table that haven’t already been said, so this review might just be a reiteration of many other critics and fans. What can I do, though? This film truly is a classic and I really had to review it eventually. Many people say that this is the best mob movie ever made, but I have to go with The Godfather: Part II. Even so, GoodFellas is an incredible movie and the landmark film of Scorsese’s illustrious career.

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For as long as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) could remember, he wanted to be a gangster. He gets his wish at a fairly young age when local mobster Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) takes an interest in him and starts him off with a couple of jobs. As the years progress, Hill becomes a more respected member of the family along with his two best friend Jimmy Conway (Robert Di Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). The three have become accomplished professional criminals and enjoy living the luxurious life of a gangster. As time goes on, however, the three friends soon find out that this idea of mob life was just fantasy, especially when their friends begin dying at a much more rapid rate, drugs begin taking their money, and their family lives begin to crumble around them.

I felt like I said the word “epic” too much in my previous review for The Martian, and this is another one of those times where that word is going to be thrown all over the place. GoodFellas is an epic crime story that, to me, almost seems impossible to pull off. I think it would’ve been if it were in any other hands other than Martin Scorsese. The biggest feat that Scorsese accomplished with this movie was cramming thirty years into two and a half hours. All of the important times of these people’s lives are shown, but I never felt like I missed out on anything else because of the intelligent uses of montage to skim over more unimportant parts, but still give the audience the full story.

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Of course none of this epic storytelling would have worked if there wasn’t an excellent cast backing everything up. At the forefront, GoodFellas has Ray Liotta, Robert Di Niro, and Joe Pecsi. Ray Liotta gives the best performance of his career as Henry Hill. It’s interesting watching Liotta here because it shows a range that I haven’t really seen in his acting anywhere else. Di Niro works great as always, but Pesci really steals the show as the sadistic Tommy DeVito. Pesci took home the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as well. Other than the three leading roles, I have to also give a lot of credit to Lorraine Bracco, who plays Henry Hill’s wife. The arc her character goes through is great, and she remains consistently on point with her character as the years stretch on in the film.

GoodFellas, believe it or not, is actually based off of a true crime book called Wiseguy written by Nicolas Pileggi in 1986. Scorsese got into contact with Pileggi, and both of them excitedly began working on the screenplay. What I’m getting at is the brilliance with which they handle the writing. Scenes were written with action and dialogue, but they knew that they had to let the actors act as naturally as the possibly could. The actors that were assembled were so talented and the writing was so real, that a lot of improvisation and natural reacting took place, which makes everything really seem to jump from the screen. This isn’t a glamorized version of mob life, and that’s exactly what the intention was. The writing combined with the acting makes it seem real, gritty, and altogether miserable in the end.

GoodFellas may not be my favorite mob movie ever, but it’s certainly up there with my favorites. Looking back on this movie, there really is nothing to complain about. Everything is so spot on from the cinematography, to the writing, and the acting. Still, the most impressive thing is how much material is squeezed into this movie, all while keeping the pacing fast and exciting. GoodFellas isn’t just the high point in Martin Scorsese’s career, it also marks a high point for American film as a whole.

The Martian – Review

7 Oct

Ridley Scott is known for his ability to craft some of the most epic movies in modern film. GladiatorKingdom of Heaven, and even the crime epic American Gangster all fit nicely into this category of huge films. Now we have a movie based off of a novel by Andy Weir, and in my opinion, this is a pretty absurd choice of book to make a movie out of. Not because it’s a bad story, but it’s actually too great of a story with different story lines that not only spans continents, but planets. If I was a major Hollywood film maker, a project like this would intimidate me, but leave it to Ridley Scott to take the source material and make it into one of the stand out movies of 2015.

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In the not too distant future, NASA sends a group of scientists to Mars to learn more about the desolate, red planet. When a violent storm cuts the mission short, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead. NASA releases the news, but are then shocked to learn that Watney is alive and well and has been stranded on Mars. Watney knows that it may be up to four years before the next mission can arrive to rescue him, so he begins working to make the dead soil of Mars into a place that he can live on. Meanwhile, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Ares III mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) start devising multiple different plans to not only provide food for Watney, but also find a way to rescue him from Mars as soon as possible. This may ultimately fall on Ares III commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of her crew, forcing them to turn back around and get Watney home.

I can’t stress it enough that the story of The Martian felt absolutely enormous. Not only does it cover over a year of time, but also involves so many different characters that each have very important jobs to do throughout the entire ordeal. There isn’t one character that felt wasted throughout the whole thing. It was also cool to see that even for some of the most minor roles, good actors would still fill their shoes. For example, one of the people that completely changes how NASA approaches the whole problem is astronomer Rich Purnell played by Donald Glover. This character is only in a few scenes for a few minutes, but they still casted a great actor to fill that role. Other than the people I already mentioned, there’s other actors like Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Benedict Wong, and Sean Bean. It’s one of the best casts that’s been assembled in recent memory.

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What seems to be surprising most critics and audiences is how lighthearted this movie actually is. Sure, it’s very dramatic and some of the scenes can get really intense, but I found myself laughing through a lot of the movie. The character of Mark Watney is literally what this story needs. Instead of letting his situation get the better of him, he remains optimistic and cracks jokes throughout the entire movie. If it wasn’t for him keeping his good humor, this would be an unbearably depressing movie. It’s also cool to see how his optimism affects the other characters and keep them from throwing in the towel before something can be done. Pretty much, this movie keeps you feeling great the whole time, and never did I feel like the situation was absolutely hopeless.

I can’t really find anything to complain about with The Martian. Not only is it very well written and acted, but it’s also a beautiful looking movie. In order to get the perfect look for his Martian landscape Scott and the rest of his special effects team filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan, which has a red desert. That location shooting combined with excellent special effects makes this film visually immersive. Harry Gregson-Williams’ low key score also accentuates the drama very nicely.

While Ridley Scott hasn’t made perfect movies and has recently slipped a little bit, The Martian is proof that he is still able to take huge stories, compress them, and successfully put them on film. This film is an achievement of special effects, but also stands out with it’s quick writing, believable characters, and feeling of hope and good humor that spans the entire two and a half hour run time. Nothing in this movie feels wasted, which means everything feels important and that isn’t easy to do. This is an outstanding movie.