Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Matt Damon”

The Martian

This review first appeared in the Sunday Start-Times, 4th October 2015

Refreshingly free of actual monsters, the titular alien in Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic is Matt Damon’s botanist, Mark Watney, an affable astronaut left for dead after his crew makes an emergency departure from their exploratory mission of Mars. Determined to stay alive until NASA can send someone back for him in four years’ time, Watney embraces his “last man on the planet” status with surprisingly good humour – no mean feat given he lacks the ability to communicate with Earth or bolster his food supplies.

For those with little scientific nous, Watney’s ensuing ingenuity rings extremely impressive, all the more so because author Andy Weir, the child of a physicist and an engineer, researched his debut novel to the hilt and so the science is in fact watertight. Less credible perhaps is the depiction of the characters back on the ground at NASA who must face the facts of this public relations stuff-up – the flippant Director (a wry Jeff Bridges), the media relations expert (comedienne Kristen Wiig) and the surly renegade played by Sean Bean probably wouldn’t pass their probation period in the real world.

But once you realise The Martian is deliberately tonally different from pretty much every other sci-fi disaster movie you’ve ever seen (Watney’s to-camera complaints about having only disco music to listen to signal the shift into humour), the film is effortlessly enjoyable and gripping in equal measure. While the ground crew nerd out about trajectory and velocity, Watney attempts to grow vegetation on the Red Planet. The two and a half hours fly by and you could easily watch for longer.

Central to the film’s success is inescapably one’s enthusiasm for Damon, all the more important given most of his lines are delivered to us as he stars in his one-man show. But Scott’s direction, at age 78, seems to have taken on a new lease of life. Those still scarred by the disappointment of Prometheus can return to the cinema secure in the knowledge that not only does the director of Alien and Blade Runner still love his sci-fi, but he can occasionally produce a fantastic movie with tongue firmly in his cheek.

Advertisements

Behind the Candelabra

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 29th September 2013

Behind the Candelabra has glitz, glamour and pathos as it tells the mind-boggling story of the most flamboyantly closeted gay icon of our time – Las Vegas pianist and performer Liberace. Based on the telltale book by his much younger lover, it’s amazing to think this might just be true.

Famous for being director Steven Soderbergh’s final movie (at age 50 he’s retiring from cinema, though thankfully not from TV), Candelabra is warmed by yellow hues and golden glitter, from Matt Damon’s bouncy ’70s haircut to Michael Douglas’s gold slippers.

The acting on all counts is superb – Douglas excels at balancing Liberace’s nightclub camp with a heartfelt domestic longing which manifests in ways that may make you wriggle uncomfortably, yet is also tenderly sympathetic. Similarly, Damon is a wonder to behold – not just when he steps out of the swimming pool (cue gasps from both genders in the audience) but his film star status entirely deserved on the strength of his credible performance. From the innocence of his wide-eyed entrance into Liberace’s crazy world, Damon impresses in every scene on his bizarre and disturbing journey from toyboy to adoptive son.

And as for the production design… With glossy interiors to rival Paris Hilton’s house, the painstaking 1970s styling evokes Boogie Nights. You may not dream of exiting a chintzy limousine in a floorlength fur coat, but it’s sure fun to see it done by a character with a straight face and 100% commitment to living to excess.

The film has Soderbergh’s trademark edge (those who enjoyed Magic Mike for the grit as well as the spectacle will feel right at home) which is in keeping with the true story’s almost too-fantastical narrative. However, although much of it is played for laughs – Rob Lowe steals all his scenes, literally without lifting an eyebrow –miraculously this is still a heartfelt, wonderful film.

Elysium

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 18th August 2013

Neill Blomkamp, the bright young South African whose star burgeoned with the release of his breakout hit District 9, is back four years later with a significantly bigger production. He now has the clout to get a major filmstar as his lead, so Matt Damon (who got the role after the first-choice, rapper Eminem, declined) plays Max, one of the many worker bees living in brutalised poverty on a devastated planet Earth in the year 2154.

The rich Earthlings have abandoned it to inhabit an idyllic space station called Elysium, where there is no pain, hardship or illness. You can’t blame them – it’s a beautifully rendered New World where the slim and immaculately coiffed live in white stucco mansions. A mere 19 minute shuttle ride away, the hoi polloi slave away in ghettos, pausing occasionally to gaze in envious wonder up to the sky. When Max is stricken by a debilitating work accident, he effects a plan to steal away to Elysium to get cured. But of course in this tale, which boasts elements of 1984, Total Recall and Children of Men, such a dream comes at great cost.

Blomkamp’s visionary sci-fi aesthetic is truly striking throughout, from his perpetually smoking, bombed-out Los Angeles to the detail of technological advances which are painted so naturally you wonder why they haven’t been invented already. Max’s parole officer is a robot programmed to sniff out his sarcasm then offer him the chance to speak to a human; the exosuit transplant that turns him into an action hero is both grotesque and fascinating. Even the villain’s shuttle is the epitome of futuristic style, looking like a Vespa Transformer.

Narratively it’s a fairly standard quest movie, framed against a political commentary on free healthcare (there ain’t any) and the have-nots’ Robin Hood attitude. This is mostly fine because you spend so much time oohing and aahing at the production design, but the obligatory romantic subplot feels weak, lacking chemistry or any real engagement from Damon’s Max, who otherwise does what he can with a fairly one-note character. Jodie Foster makes a good villain despite her one-dimensionally hard heart, perfectly accented as the French Secretary of Defence who speaks flawless English.

But the standout baddie is District 9’s Sharlto Copley, clearly relishing the chance to play against his previous role and thus superbly sinister as the hired gun with his sharp Afrikaans lilt and rapist tendencies. (New Zealand audiences familiar with the tone of our new cousins may find him somewhat amusing, but one wonders if the Americans will understand a word.) Copley is a delight in every scene, and after his brief foray into Hollywood with The A-Team, this role ought to open doors much wider.

Elysium doesn’t impress to quite the extent that District 9 did when it burst onto the scene, but it is nonetheless a spectacular-looking work with a terrific premise and some awesome weaponry.

Contagion

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 13th November 2011

Forget zombies, aliens or supernatural beings, fomites – that is, inanimate objects capable of carrying infection – are the new instrument of fear, spreading end-of-the-world-panic in a matter of days, as the planet’s population risks being swiftly decimated by a mysterious virus.

Director Steven Soderbergh has a knack for fun and wit (see Oceans Eleven et al), but arguably a better talent for the serious, as evidenced in his Oscar-winning film Traffic, which dealt with the various effects of drug crime on different milieus of North America and Mexico. And so here, when one of Hollywood’s biggest stars is killed off in the opening scenes, you know his film means business.

A businesswoman returns from a trip to Hong Kong, and immediately falls gravely ill. Meanwhile, people in Tokyo, Canton and Chicago are sweating and coughing on public buses, touching doorknobs, handrails and passers-by.  Before you can say “Marie Curie”, Epidemic Intelligence Service officer Kate Winslet (excellent as always) and Laurence Fishburne are joining forces to track the origin of the virus and prevent its spread. Calling in the WHO (personified by the increasingly ubiquitous Marion Cotillard), the various strands of the story pick up pace to mirror the rate of infection.

The boffins are great (principally the fascinated but emotionally remote Jennifer Ehle) and even the science they teach us is enlivened by such phrases as “the wrong pig met the wrong bat”. The “conspiracy” strand, however, while necessary as a realistic depiction of how the online world responds to outbreaks and dramas of all sorts, is undermined by Jude Law’s dodgy tooth and even dodgier Australian accent, as his blogger improbably meets US officials in rainy public parks to convince them that “12 million unique visitors” to his website think his is a voice worth listening to.

As with all Soderbergh’s work, the film is beautifully lit, shifting between a lush colour palette and the greys of illness and death. It’s well acted and largely compelling (it’s always reassuring to have Matt Damon steering you through troubled waters), but, despite this, somehow doesn’t quite capture the desperation of the situation.

Using the same notion of universal applicability as A Nightmare on Elm Street (which posited that anyone who fell asleep might be murdered in repose), Contagion‘s effect on the cinema-going masses may be proven by an increase in diagnosed cases of OCD and sales of hand sanitiser.

The Adjustment Bureau

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 13 March 2011
Many people like to think that things happens for a reason – there is reassurance to be had in the glass-half-full attitude that “what’s meant to be, will be”.  At the same time, we believe we can control and attain what we want in life.  But imagine life is actually more structured, and less random, than either philosophy allows – and that every step we take, and choice we make, irreparably affects the way our life unfolds.

This is the premise of The Adjustment Bureau, as politician David Norris (an immensely likeable Matt Damon) threatens to tip off his path to the White House when he meets and falls in love with a complete stranger.  In a situation reminiscent of Sliding Doors, things get complicated when Norris turns up to work minutes earlier than “planned” and witnesses something he shouldn’t.  Suddenly he is a target for the enforcers of the eponymous Bureau as they contrive to get him back on track.

Emily Blunt plays the dancer who captures Norris’ heart, and there is real chemistry in the couple’s quick-fire banter and immediate ease with one another.  The story (taken from Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Adjustment Team”) dallies with cod-religious philosophy while not quite giving us answers, nor anything polemical that might offend our own sensibilities.  The script is well-paced, toying with interesting ideas around freewill and destiny, and we are kept guessing, along with Norris, as strange men in fedoras try to prevent his blossoming romance by hurtling through doorways that don’t quite lead where you’d expect, like something out of The Matrix or Alice in Wonderland.

The conceit is arguably quite complex for the inevitably cursory handling in a 95-minute film – at times the ideas feel glossed over, and the denouement is somewhat clunky.  But it’s an intriguing film, nonetheless, and any flaws can be overlooked by its ability to offer you an alternate reality for a while, and the necessity for a post-mortem after it ends.

Inside Job

The banker did it

Nowadays, documentaries are savvy enough to make themselves almost as exciting as fiction films – and in some cases, more so.  Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop is a very current example of a movie that has captured the enthusiasm (as well as the admiration/skepticism/curiosity) of its worldwide audience.  Its history of street art littered with jump-cuts and an exhuberant soundtrack, Exit… is at times reminiscent of the filmmaking style of Tony Scott or Michael Bay, thankfully without sacrificing its credibility.

Inside Job takes a more serious and considerably drier subject – the recent Global Financial Crisis (hereinafter the GFC) and explores the GFC’s origins, tracks its destructive path and analyses its (almost) aftermath.  It’s a fascinating and sobering study of something that, whether we are financial bods or not, has affected every one of us in some way.  The breadth of its likely audience will depend on how interested people are in sitting through what could have been construed as a 2-hour Powerpoint presentation.

However, director Charles Ferguson builds tension and intrigue by interviewing the great and the not-so-good of the finance world, from Harvard dons to disgraced New York governors (the seeming irony of Eliot Spitzer expressing his opinion about others’ wrongdoing is put into context in the final reel).  Of course, the likes of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield have been buttonholing unwilling interviewees for decades.  Ferguson is to be applauded for knowing his stuff, and engaging with his subjects intelligently and respectfully – even if he is given short shrift once or twice when his spade suddenly hits the lid of the treasure chest.

One often forgets, when watching a non-fiction film, that even documentaries purporting to express unbiased, objective statements are subject to all manner of subjective construction – the choice of when to edit a scene; the framing of the interviewee; the handling of those who refuse to take part (it’s virtually impossible to see the banker who “declined to be interviewed for this film” as anything other than a crook with something to hide).  With that in mind, the audience collectively balks at the bar graphs showing obscene profits, bonuses and dividends that would pay off the aghast viewers’ combined mortgages many times over.

With a suitably grave and persuasive tone, Matt Damon narrates the subtly simplified story of hedge funds and derivatives, cocaine and strippers.  You don’t have to have a commerce degree, but it would probably help.  In any event, Ferguson manages to piece together a coherent and accessible analysis of the GFC, eschewing the manipulations of Moore and even Errol Morris (for whose work I have great respect) to allow the widely-felt reality of the GFC to do all the talking.

Post Navigation