Friday 15 December 2017

Reviews: The Martian, The Intern and Macbeth


The Martian gets lost in space, The Intern sees De Niro slumming it and Macbeth is a bloody fantastic retelling of the Baird's great work

The Martian

Action/Sci-Fi. Starring: Matt  Damon, Jessica Chastain,  Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara,  Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Pena. Director: Ridley Scott. Cert: 12A

 Is there life on Mars? Perhaps, but what we do know is that there's certainly water.

No Hollywood studio in the world could choreograph a publicity stunt quite like it: on the opening week of The Martian, NASA discovers that there is indeed life-giving water on Mars. High fives all round, and the marketing department can take a well-deserved break.

But to be fair, The Martian sorely needed a publicity boost like this; without it, the film was careening its way towards a much sorrier fate.

The story goes as follows: after being left for dead on Mars by his comrades after a mission goes a bit awry, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself living on Mars, alone and with a finite supply of food.

As luck would have it, Watney is a botanist, and as he reminds himself and us after growing a crop of potatoes on the hostile Martian terrain, the finest botanist on the planet.

Meanwhile, the boffins down at NASA's headquarters in Texas - and by god, are they boffins - have realised the crews' mistake, and are on a mission to save their guy.

The main problem? It takes about four years to reach the planet from Texas. It's all highly reminiscent of the Tom Hanks vehicle Cast Away, in which a man was left to his own devices, presumed dead, on a remote island.

So far, so intriguing, and with Ridley Scott in the director's chair, a rollicking good time is all but guaranteed, right? Eh, wrong.

Certainly, The Martian looks lavish, as one might expect from Scott, who is the grand don of sci-fi. And while there's no arguing with Damon's movie-star credentials, he doesn't carry the film in quite the same way as Tom Hanks did with Cast Away.

Watney is the fulcrum of the film, and sadly, the writers of The Martian (Drew Goddard and Andy Weir) haven't fleshed out the character of Watney fully enough for us to be stuck with him for much of the movie.

Certainly, he comes out with some witty one-liners to his video log ("potatoes with Vicodin for dinner. I ran out of ketchup this week"), but there's no backstory, no interiority, and no look at the psychological ramifications of being alone in space for months on end.

He grows a beard and drops a few pounds; other than that, it seems as though Watney might be perfectly content to spend eternity in the ether once he had grub.

There's plenty of scrimping, too, when it comes to using his comrades (played by a stellar list, among them Jessica Chastain and Rooney Mara).

They're all criminally underplayed and under-explored: Chastain's character Lewis likes disco music, and that's as far as we get with her. That there's no sniff of a love interest or a family for Watney is a nicely skewed cliché, but this would have helped to get some meat on this otherwise paltry tale. Similarly, any efforts at tension, like Watney's spuds coming a cropper, come to very little.

What we do get is a lot of science; in fact, we're clobbered about the head with quantum physics and other technological jargon, constantly. Everyone sounds very clever and committed to their work… it's just such a shame they're all so boring.

If you're a sci-fi nerd, there is plenty to like in The Martian. As Watney says, he will survive his time on Mars if he can 'science the sh** out of this'. Sadly, you'll feel every bit as scienced out.

It's the nearest most of us will get to feeling like we've lived on Mars for an eternity. And that's not saying a lot.


The Intern


Comedy. Starring: Robert de Niro, Anna Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, JoJo Kushner, Andrew Rannells, Nat Wolff, Zach Pearlman. Director Nancy Meyers. Cert: 12A

I'm just going to come out and say this, and to hell with unpopular opinion: Robert De Niro hasn't made a decent film this side of the millennium. An unkinder commentator might go so far as to say that de Niro is trading on former glories. And sad to say, this isn't quite his comeback movie.

That said, the actor plays Ben Whittaker, an entirely affable gentleman in the old mould. He carries a briefcase and handkerchief, and finds himself back in the rat race, thanks to a new initiative that reaches out to active seniors.

In a time-honoured 'fish-out-of-water' scenario, he finds himself at a desk in a hyper-modern digital company, headed up by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).

Helming a staff of 220 and an online fashion company that she started at her kitchen table, Jules is in over her head. Luckily for her, she now has an intern about with over 50 years' experience when it comes to relationships, responsibility and professionalism. Handy, that.

Nancy Meyers has always given a voice to older characters with impressive sleight of hand, and she explores the generation gap with vim and humour.

These aren't revelations that anyone within eyeline of the zeitgeist doesn't already know - relationships are conducted by text, men dress up by putting on a new checked shirt - but they still make for a humorous tale. What does stick in the craw, however, is Meyer's handling of Jules' 'having-it-all' life. Vilified at the school gates, appeasing an emasculated husband, being punished for wanting a life beyond baking and homemaking; it's all a bit careworn by now.

Still, The Intern is entertaining and charming, wrapped up with an ending that's not quite the neat bow that everyone wants.

We may still be waiting for de Niro to reclaim his place at Hollywood's top table, but for now, he is doing just fine.

Rating: ***




Drama. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki. Director: Justin Kurzel. Cert: 15A

There is already plenty of chatter about how the complex Macbeth is the character that Michael Fassbender was born to play. Certainly, he has the wolfish grin and the glint in the eye to bring a whole new dimension to Shakespeare's dastardly laird.

There's little point in retelling Shakespeare's tragic tale in too much detail, but suffice it to say that Fassbender as the conflicted nobleman and Marion Cotillard as his ruthless (and, in Kurzel's version, grieving) wife, are chillingly perfect. Both have the sort of faces that say a thousand words and the chops to breathe new life into speeches we've heard hundreds of times before, making this film entirely watchable.

The tale has been dredged up time and time again, but can Justin Kurzel bring something new to the table? In a word, yes.

Under Kurzel's watchful eye, Macbeth's battle scenes are visceral and thrilling, the Scottish highlands throbbing with unease. In fact, Macbeth's orange-hued war zone might have made a better backdrop for The Martian. Even the three witches are given a dazzling, inventive makeover. The entire production is fresh, vivid and vital.

If you've been wary of Shakespeare rehashes since being force-fed the stuff during school, this is the perfect opportunity to jump back in and get reacquainted with the laird, and for that matter, the Baird himself.

Rating: ****

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