Unexpected bliss from interplanetary angst.
Oct 19, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 06 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
When was the last time a movie was just, you know, lovable? Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe—all the more so because its lovability was so unexpected, coming as it did from the Marvel comic book movie factory. The same is true of The Martian, a movie so spectacularly winsome it’s almost beyond criticism. How could this have happened with this piece of hard science fiction, full of talk about orbiting distances and vectors and botany, derived from a nerdy novel first published chapter by chapter on the writer Andy Weir’s blog?
The Martian is about a man stranded on the Red Planet, which is hardly the sort of plot you expect will leave you in a state of near-bliss at the end. That sure wasn’t the case with the somewhat similar Cast Away, which told the story of the marooning of Tom Hanks on a South Sea island; nobody left the theater after that powerfully intense study of loneliness and isolation with a smile on his face.
Nor was there any reason to expect much from its director, the 77-year-old Ridley Scott, who has spent the past decade making an almost unrivaled procession of stinkers (A Good Year, Body of Lies, Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, Exodus, The Counselor). But it just goes to show what can happen when a filmmaker as accomplished and visually sophisticated as Scott finally gets his hands on a good script (by Drew Goddard) and succeeds in gathering a large and perfect cast led by the (always quietly and unshowily) splendid Matt Damon.
But even all these elements, brought together, wouldn’t normally result in The Martian being lovable. No, what makes it lovable is that it’s a work of hard science fiction about a man stranded on Mars that chooses not to stress the existential agony of his solitude, but rather the conscious and brave decision made by Damon’s character, Mark Watney, to evade despair and use everything he knows and everything he’s learned and everything that he has at hand to keep himself alive.
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” he says in one of the narrative logs he keeps of his four-year trial. Damon builds his character through these monologues, which is a very tricky acting challenge and one he pulls off magnificently. Damon and the creative team (especially Andy Weir, author of the original novel) have made Watney a classic old-fashioned astronaut—corny, jokey, not all that introspective, a doer rather than a ruminator. Watney may be a fictional character, and the things that happen to him may never have happened to anyone, but still, The Martian is one of the most inspiring movies I’ve ever seen.
His humorous determination proves to be an inspiration to people back on earth as well, scores of whom dedicate themselves to figuring out how to launch a rescue mission before he runs out of food. And here again The Martian does something unexpected that elevates it from being a gripping race against time into something more like (you may groan prospectively at the cliché I’m about to use) a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. Simply put: There are no bad guys. The movie wisely does not attempt to manufacture silly conflicts because the central concept is itself so awesome. As Watney says, everything he does is being done for the first time in four billion years, and that is drama enough—that, and the way he survives, and what has to happen for him to get back home.
There is only one narrative mistake I can think of. The chief PR person at NASA (Kristin Wiig) is annoyed when, in history’s first interplanetary photo shoot, Watney ends up posing like the Fonz on Happy Days (one of the few entertainments he has as a diversion, along with disco music from the 1970s). That’s just ridiculous. She, and the world, would swoon at such a thing—just as the audience at The Martian does, at that little bit and dozens more like it in this exhilarating feat of popular storytelling.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
If you don’t see this movie—well, you know what happens.Oct 12, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 05 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you are a person of a certain age—by which I mean a person who receives unsolicited mailings from AARP—and you don’t mind old-fashioned dirty talk, you will likely find yourself utterly entranced by a wonderful new documentary called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. That’s especially true if you watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead On Demand, which you can right now, because you can pause it to take those restroom breaks you are probably finding an increasingly urgent call on your attention.
Any ways left to make mobster-monsters interesting?
Oct 5, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 04 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Black Mass is the latest cinematic portrayal of the life and career of James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who ran roughshod over Boston for nearly 20 years with the odd assistance of an F B I agent whose secret informant he was. Nine years ago, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed merged the plotline of a Hong Kong movie called Infernal Affairs with l’affaire Bulger and came out with a terrific Oscar-winning picture.
Breathing new life into a very old story.
Sep 21, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 02 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Meryl Streep is so extraordinary she can do anything—anything, that is, except play an ordinary person. She’s only tried to do so twice in her 35-year career as a leading lady, and in both cases she was called upon to embody an unsatisfied suburban wife, first in 1984’s Falling in Love and almost three decades later in Hope Springs (2012).
The irresistible rise of gangsta rap.
Sep 14, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 01 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Just as Philip Larkin sighed that the sexual revolution “came too late for me,” I had already aged out of rap as it emerged with enormous force in the 1980s. I was then in my twenties and, listening to it, I felt for the first time the same sort of generational disdain that adults of the 1950s had felt upon listening to rock ’n’ roll. It was a lot of noise, you couldn’t understand the words, and everybody who performed it was just too angry and hyper-sexualized.
The return of the classic thriller. Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Gift—a compact picture written and directed by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton—is the best American thriller in 20 years or more. On its own limited terms, The Gift is an almost perfect piece of work; in an extraordinarily controlled debut behind the camera, Edgerton doesn’t make a false move.
The increasingly unwilling suspension of disbelief. Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation makes no sense. Even more striking, this fifth installment in the Tom Cruise movie series based on the 1960s television show doesn’t even try to make sense.
Human-android love is a nonstarter. Period. Aug 10, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 45 • By JOE QUEENAN
In the uplifting, if somewhat confusing, film Tomorrowland, George Clooney plays a brilliant scientist who suffers from a broken heart. Long ago and far way, he fell in love with a girl named Athena when they were children. Athena was smart and spunky and seemed genuinely to like George Clooney as a boy. But over the next four decades, the relationship never went anywhere: It never developed, it never evolved, they did not live happily ever after. Not even close.
Amy Schumer benefits from Judd Apatow’s formula. Aug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
With Trainwreck, the comedy impresario Judd Apatow has once again made a movie about an irresponsible adult-child who is compelled to grow up by the end of the film. This was the plotline of both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the two box-office sensations that made Apatow’s career, and it resurfaces here.
But there are fewer laurels for craftsmanship. Jul 27, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 43 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Every now and then, on Twitter or Facebook, I find myself referring to something I really enjoyed as “genius” or “a work of genius” or “pure genius.” Why do I do this? After all, I don’t actually think Richard Benjamin’s performance as an unhinged Jewish Van Helsing in the 1979 Dracula parody Love at First Bite is “genius.” I think it’s hilarious and unexpected and that Benjamin’s turn raises the movie’s comic game.
Inside Riley Anderson is the better place to be. Jul 20, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The new Pixar film about an 11-year-old girl’s moment of crisis and change is called Inside Out, and it’s a perfect title—maybe too perfect for its own good. Everything the movie shows going on inside Riley’s head is glorious. And that’s most of what we see, so Inside Out deserves to be called the best American movie of the year so far.
The dinosaur quality of a blockbuster franchise.Jun 29, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 40 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Jurassic World is a movie about itself. It tells a story about the difficulty of making special effects exciting when it seems like audiences have already seen it all. In the movie, the titular theme park has been built on the same island that hosted the old Jurassic Park back in the day when people would gasp upon seeing a realistic-looking T. rex—just as many of the same multiplexes that are showing Jurassic World showed Jurassic Park 22 years ago.
Not for the first time, the star outshines the movie. Jun 22, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 39 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
As a comic actress, Melissa McCarthy resembles a first-rate baseball pitcher—because, unlike many of her brethren, who have a singular shtick and stick with it, she has both a curve and a fastball.
The heart and soul of a late revelation. Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
William Butler Yeats might have described an old person as a “paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick,” but then Yeats didn’t live to see the 72-year-old actress Blythe Danner bloom like a bird of paradise in the first starring role she’s had on screen in her 43-year career. I’ll See You in My Dreams was made over the course of 18 days for $500,000, and its modesty is evident in every frame.
The first postapocalyptic vision remains the best. May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
One Friday evening in 1980, I journeyed to the far West Side of Chicago to a drive-in on Cicero Avenue and attended what may have been the strangest double feature in the history of the world. The top of the bill was The Gong Show Movie, a film written by, directed by, and starring Chuck Barris, the host of the TV show of the same name. The B-picture was something called Mad Max.