The major studios and film producers are still holding the big Oscar candidates for release next month, but four films that might get some Oscar notice are already in theaters. Each merits attention. Here are capsule reviews:
“The Martian” – With Ridley Scott as its director and Matt Damon as its star, this film has gotten its fair share of very positive, if not glowing, reviews. The story is shamelessly contrived from the opening scene, which has Damon’s character abandoned by his crewmates on Mars when a sudden storm (never fully explained) for some reason forces the evacuation of the planet. Damon’s character survives the storm, unbeknownst to everyone on Earth for the first third of the picture. During that time, as the lone human on this very foreign planet, he figures out how to survive until someone can attempt to rescue him.
The story (from a 2011 novel by Andy Weir; screenplay by Drew Goddard) is fairly predictable (at least it was to us), but it has its heart-pounding moments nonetheless. And, for an extra five bucks or so, you can see the whole thing in 3-D, although there wasn’t much value added for us in that part of the experience. Still, the whole thing is a “trip,” if you get our drift, and worth three and a half (out of four) cheers.
“Steve Jobs” – Michael Fassbender does a great job in playing the title role in this Danny Boyle directed biopic about the guy who gave us the Mac and the iPhone and all the other gadgets that are now so ubiquitous in daily life. The depiction of the man (script by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s biography) is said to be either spot on or grossly inaccurate depending on whose opinion you happen to be hearing. Close friends and associates of him say it is unduly harsh, presenting him as something of a heartless bully. Those with less personal connection claim it shows him as he really was.
Regardless of which view is correct, the film is engrossing and entertaining, even if it lags a bit towards the end and borders on mawkish sentiment in its closing scene. The production values are first-rate, the supporting cast (Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, and Michael Stuhlbarg) is solid, and the cinematography (with the three acts shot, in succession, in 16 mm, 35 mm, and digital format) is clever. It’s a film to be admired more than loved, but the craftsmanship is so strong and the story (however accurate it is or isn’t) so compelling that it definitely merits three and a half (with a nudge towards four) cheers.
“Bridge of Spies” – Steven Spielberg’s latest is a quiet epic, which might sound oxymoronic, but is more probably damning with faint praise. But there is much to admire, and much less to sneer at (as in many of his other major releases – “Lincoln” and “War Horse” come to mind) in this telling of the way that Gary Powers (the downed U-2 pilot at the height of the Cold War) was recovered from the Soviet Union in exchange for a Soviet spy (Rudolf Abel).
Criticism of the film has been focused on the fact that the plot is slow in developing. (The screenplay is by Joel and Ethan Coen.) A more accurate concern would be that it isn’t all that interesting unless you have a memory (or awareness) of the actual event and the times that surrounded it. But that deficit, if such it is, ultimately doesn’t seem all that significant because the film resonates on its own merits.
Tom Hanks stars as the insurance attorney who oddly finds himself in the role of principal negotiator on behalf of the U.S. Hanks is so good in just about anything he does that his talent can be taken for granted. It shouldn’t be. As in 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” he is deserving of an Oscar for his portrayal, and it will be a shame if he isn’t at least nominated. And Mark Rylance is wonderful as the unassuming Soviet spy who refuses to worry (“would it help?” is one of those lines that makes the character). This one is tricky and takes hold slowly, but it is a gets a solid three and a half cheers from us.
“Truth” – Remember that flap back in 2004 about whether President Bush really served in the Texas Air National Guard? You probably don’t, because the story was lost in the hustle of the election campaign, especially after Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes” report questioning whether Bush had used special influence to get into the Guard was trashed by the White House propaganda machine.
Rather’s producer for that report was Mary Mapes, and after she was fired by CBS (for supposedly botching the story), she wrote a book about the incident and its implications for American journalism. That book has finally been made into a movie and it stars Cate Blanchett as the producer and Robert Redford as Rather. And the truth is that Mapes and Rather (who resigned as executive producer of the CBS Nightly News because of the CBS internal investigation) had it right after all. Or at least that’s what the book and the movie claim.
The film is clumsy in setting the stage for the underlying story, but it doesn’t pull its punches when it counts. While not at the level of brilliance that director Michael Mann achieved in “The Insider” (that one is a truly great film), this one serves as a very good reminder of the power of money (ultimately) to thwart the truth and thereby warrants a solid three cheers.