Saturday, November 14, 2015

Two Movie Movies: The Martian and Shanghai

Matt Damon in Ridley Scott's The Martian.

Ridley Scott has a reputation for making engrossing large-scale entertainments, but most of his movies are somber and bloated in almost equal parts. The somberness seems to be a pass at seriousness, but movies like Gladiator, American Gangster and Prometheus are humorless blockbusters that substitute layers of mass for layers of meaning. (At least his last, Exodus: Gods and Kings, had John Turturro camping it up Old Testament drag as Pharoah Seti, but the film killed him off early, Joel Edgerton inherited the throne, and any chance at fun went out the window.) Only occasionally does Scott turn out something I care about. Black Hawk Down is a conventional war picture but visceral and affecting; A Good Year, which got little attention, is a vivifying, sun-drenched comedy about an investment broker who inherits a vineyard in Provence and recalibrates his misdirected life. A Good Year is in the mold of the marvelous early-eighties Bill Forsyth movie Local Hero, where a corporate type sent by his Houston-based company to purchase an island off the Scottish coast falls in love with it, and Russell Crowe, as the main character, is supple and animated (his performance in Gladiator was paralytic); he seems turned on by both the bronzed light and all the beautiful women Scott has surrounded him with. Sensuality isn’t generally Scott’s forte, so you keep pinching yourself – and he’s done nothing remotely like it since. (It sank at the box office.) And I had a terrific time at The Martian, Scott’s latest, based on the Andy Weir bestseller about an astronaut on an exploratory trip to Mars (played by Matt Damon) whose crew abandons him on the mistaken assumption that he’s been killed in the sudden storm that leads NASA to abort the mission and send them back into space.

In this case Scott is working off a lean, cheeky screenplay by Drew Goddard, who wrote for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias and Lost on TV. The filmmakers don’t waste any time bringing on the storm, which is impressive but brief; they’re smart enough to figure out that the movie’s focus should be on how the survivor, Mark Watney, keeps himself alive on a deserted planet until the next space explorer lands. For most of the first act of the film he’s Robinson Crusoe in space, and luckily he’s both a botanist and extraordinarily resourceful, so though Mars is barren he works out a way to grow potatoes in a hothouse environment with his own excrement providing the nutrient. Then one of the NASA watchdogs spots evidence of movement on Mars and figures out that Mark is still alive. Once NASA makes contact, his next challenge is to devise a system of communication; when another storm wipes out his means of food production, it’s up to NASA to figure out how to reroute his crew to stage a rescue.

The movie is tense and exciting – especially in the second hour – but Goddard’s screenplay challenges Scott’s tendency to sacrifice humor and humanity to the visceral demands of a big-budget adventure. Goddard centers his screenplay on Watney’s slow-burn resilience, wry inventiveness and jocularity – his gift for finding the comedy in even a grim scenario. He’s injured in the storm, but he manages to pull a sliver of metal out of his chest and bandage himself up, and his only comment as he observes his wound is a single obscenity, delivered in an understated tone. In my review of Black Mass I complained about the stupefyingly excessive use of the word “fuck” in its various permutations in contemporary action movies. Cleverly, Goddard plays against the grain: he makes a running gag out of the fact that this is the only time we ever actually hear Mark utter that word. When he learns that, under orders from NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), his crew has not been informed that he survived the storm on Mars (Sanders decides that the information would distract them and thus escalate the dangers of an already difficult journey), he explodes – for the first and only time in the movie – but though we see his mouth move, we can’t hear the expletive because he can’t communicate vocally with Houston. His subsequent expressions of outrage are conveyed to Sanders by chief engineer Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in discreetly euphemistic renditions. (Goddard is my new hero.)

Damon, perfectly cast, gives a delightful performance, and since Goddard knows how to write distinctive, sharply etched characters, a number of the actors in the supporting cast are able to make strong impressions: Daniels (who gives his dialogue doses of authority and ironic awareness), Ejiofor, Sean Bean (as the Houston-based director of the Mars mission, who locks horns with Sanders over whether or not to tell the crew about Watney’s survival and ends up undermining his authority), and also Benedict Wong, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover and others. Jessica Chastain is somewhat more nuanced than usual as the commander of the crew. The only actor in the cast I had trouble with was Kristen Wiig as the head of PR for Nasa. As a revue-sketch caricaturist, Wiig is a comic genius, but except for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty her movie performances always feel too carefully prepared to me – a series of routines.

Bean is on camera when the movie makes a joke allusion to The Lord of the Rings, and he doesn’t break character. The Martian is loose enough to get away with this sort of in-joke without making you think Scott and Goddard are pandering to the audience. This is the kind of picture that builds your trust in the people who put it together.

John Cusack in Shanghai.

The Martian is one of the very few of the fall’s major releases that I’ve eagerly recommended to friends – and that they’ve been able to follow up with, pre-Netflix release, because it’s still in theatres. (Given the scathing reviews it’s received, it wasn’t surprising that Rock the Kasbah, Barry Levinson’s sweet-and-wild comedy built around a hilarious performance by Bill Murray, vanished so quickly. What a pity.) Shanghai barely got a release at all; Boston was one of the few places it appeared, and I had to seek it out at a movie house in a south-shore suburb because no other venue carried it. Shanghai never had a chance: it was finished five years ago and only recently saw the light of day. And though it could end up having an afterlife online and on DVD, it’s made for the big screen, where audiences can get the full benefit of Jim Clay’s sumptuous production design and Benoît Delhomme’s shimmering cinematography. The same is true of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was shot by John Mathieson; in another era, the visual accomplishments of these pictures, in addition to their other, considerable pleasures, might have guaranteed them at least a passing glance.

Shanghai is a spy thriller-romance set just before Pearl Harbor. It’s like something John Huston might have made in the early days of the Second World War (before he got deployed), with John Cusack in the Bogart part, an American spy named Paul Soames, investigating the murder of a friend in Shanghai, who falls in love with a beautiful married Chinese woman (Gong Li) with mysterious allegiances. The glamorous, skillful A-list cast also includes Chow Yun-Fat as her husband, a Chinese diplomat who has to maintain social relations with the invading Japanese, Ken Watanabe as a Japanese bigwig, Franka Potente (of Run, Lola, Run and the first two Bourne movies) as an unhappily married German socialite, David Morse as Soames’s handler and Hugh Bonneville (of Downton Abbey) as the newspaper editor Soames works for, maintaining a cover as a pro-fascist journalist. And hard-working Benedict Wong has a scene-stealing little role as a Chinese man Soames’s friend promised to furnish a rigged passport for and whom Soames, in the wake of his death, feels duty bound to help escape from China. Wong is a splendid character actor who’s not likely to become famous, but when he shows up in a movie you always want to watch him. (Movie history has a rich legacy of such sidelines actors: Jack Carson, Keenan Wynn, Michael Hordern and John Schuck come immediately to mind.) But in fact the whole cast is terrific.

I wouldn’t have thought of Cusack for this kind of role, but he’s very fine in it: he brings to it a mix of sexual confidence and real feeling. It’s as if he’d taken one of those Bogart adventurers, like the one he played for Huston in Across the Pacific, and dug underneath it to find the sadness and longing that those wartime heroes didn’t permit us access to. It’s just by happenstance that this movie has come out the same year as Love & Mercy, where Cusack plays the middle-aged Brian Wilson, but the juxtaposition shows him off in a way that his movie roles haven’t in many years. (I think his performance in Love & Mercy is the best acting I’ve seen all year.) Of course he’s able to take the role of Paul Soames as far as he does because the screenwriter, Hossein Amini, has given him so much to play with. Amini, who did the first-rate adaptations of The Wings of the Dove and Elmore Leonard’s Killshot and wrote and directed last year’s The Two Faces of January (out of a Patricia Highsmith novel), may be working old Hollywood territory in Shanghai, but he’s rethought it: all the archetypes turn out to be three-dimensional characters, and they’re still spinning surprises in the last minutes of the film. The direction by Mikael Håfström isn’t quite up to Amini’s script – it needs to be slyer, sharper of wit – but he doesn’t spoil it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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