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By Tom Demerly.

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Matt Damon as Mark Watney comes to grips with a bleak landscape, literal and figurative, in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”.

Know two things about The Martian: 1. I normally don’t like outer space movies and, 2. Director Ridley Scott is the single greatest film director of our time.

The Martian is a triumph of film we haven’t seen in over a decade- or more. It lingers like the one book you read as a youth that changed the trajectory of your life. As with the space mission it depicts, it uses existing technology masterfully to meld plot, theatre and visual effect into one of the finest movies in the history of film. It is without flaw.

The Martian chronicles stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s survival ordeal after being trapped on Mars alone. It documents themes of survival, valor, and unity.

But there is one shining idol in The Martian, one hero, one savior- and it is the savior we increasingly must look to in our modern world: Knowledge.

The film is supported by an equally outstanding sidekick: Unity.

While the cast of The Martian is incredible, it is the theme that wins this remarkable journey. That we must think, learn and reason to survive; that we must do these things in unity and cooperation.

The Martian isn’t about space exploration; it is about our collective future and mutual society on earth. The story is told against the dusty, hostile canvas of the Martian landscape, a metaphor for our terrestrial world that has become increasingly bleak- nearly identical to the dry surface of a hostile planet. While told as a story about survival on Mars, this is a story about our lives on earth, increasingly separated- and oddly united- by technology against a backdrop of survival in a modern age. In the end the film’s hero character relies on knowledge, learning, thinking and the international cooperation of a unified mankind for survival. It isn’t about reaching for the stars, it’s about getting back to earth.

I don’t like “FX” movies, and that (by necessity) defines the space film genre’. But Scott creates visual magic in The Martian with effects that are stunning and vast. He creates a sense of distance and time in the open space visuals, and a sense of remote desolation in the Mars scenes.The film is also visually luxurious and adventurous. I grew up in the Apollo age, and this is the first thing that has ever made me want to actually go into outer space.

Many of the Mars scenes in Martian were filmed in Wadi Rum Jordan, a desolate canyon system in the western Sahara that is home to extreme endurance events like the 150-mile Marathon des Sables ultra-running race and the Paris-Dakar rally. Wadi Rum was also the haven of the real-life Sir Lawrence of Arabia. This accounts for much of its authentic visual feel.

The visual treat extends from judicious and masterful effects to stunning and desolate real life sets and finishes with remarkable treatment of the technology props from space suits to communications equipment to Watney’s Martian rover vehicle.

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That this movie is a Ridley Scott product is no surprise. But there are two surprises; Ridley Scott keeps churning out perfectly timed masterworks. Recall his landmark Gladiator, a film so perfectly done, so utterly out of left field, and so universally received across cultures that it became one of a small handful of modern classics alongside Forest Gump, Titanic, and a select collection of other blockbusters. Gladiator was released in 2000. It became a metaphor for many as the world squared off in a global war beginning the next year. And it expressed the fatality of conflict, even set against heroism. Scott also produced the landmark war film Blackhawk Down. Scott was even executive producer of the joyous Life in a Day documentary celebration of mankind around the world.

As for the cast of The Martian, they are secondary but integral, and stand in the foundational role of theme and plot like concrete thespian pillars. Each characters performs, no character overwhelms. Their performances are subtle mastery.

And then there is Matt Damon. Damon trumps the best of movie and theater by presenting characters on his personal canvas that is dashing and endearing. You love the guy. He is real, accessible and grows to hero status before your eyes. No author could hope for a better interpreter of their main character than Matt Damon, whether it is Robert Ludlum’s character Jason Bourne or as Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting.

Finally, I acknowledged a hefty paradigm shift with two other similarly themed movies when leaving the theater after The Martian. Both Castaway and Life of Pi discussed themes of isolation and survival. These stories guide us through an ordeal against which our values are recalibrated. We learn what is important. But The Martian makes Life of Pi feel oddly clinical and cryptic and makes Castaway feel desolate and sad in theme. The Martian renews our faith.

The great gift you leave the theater with after The Martian is hope, and that is perhaps our most valuable gift right now.

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By Tom Demerly.

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If you made it to this review, you’re somehow curious. And that is the premise that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey works on: curiosity.

If you want me to tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey was a bad movie, then leave now.

Fifty Shades of Grey is every guilty dessert you’ve ever had, and crave again. A sticky, corny, breathless mix of horny inference and naughty voyeurism combined with a visual and aural experience that is incredibly satisfying for those open to admit it. For everyone else, Disney is releasing a new version of Cinderella on March 13.

But Fifty Shades hits all the grown-up hot buttons of Cinderella, Titanic, The Beach, Dracula and every other cliché’ romantic theme, and it spins these clichés freshly enough for two very rapt hours. On a cold winter’s night, that is pretty damn hot.

Firstly, Fifty Shades of Gray is a visual treat. With beautiful, escapist sets, wardrobes and music this is the 120+ minute escape from reality we buy a movie a ticket for. Every detail is at least well done, some so well done they are breathless. And while the bondage and dominance themes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, everyone but the most severely repressed will find naughty, voyeuristic fun in this corny fantasy. Even Anastasia’s Steele’s lilting and gentle voice is a method of seduction that punctuates the movie. The scene where Christian straps Anastasia into the helicopter is absolutely incendiary.

Casting is also superb, with Dakota Johnson interpreting Anastasia with incredible accuracy and function and Jamie Dornan as a perfect mix of hot, demented, tormented and tender as Christian Grey. 

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This is a movie of gems, from a beautiful scene where Christian Grey takes Anastasia for a ride in a glider to a lilting dance scene where wardrobe, music (Frank Sinatra, of course), set and characters make movie history. All of these scenes are stolen clichés, and all of them are done brilliantly. Interestingly enough, the bondage sex scenes really don’t push limits or get very racy, they just have a breathy inference that does the trick.

The mastery in this film includes a use of silence that is captivating, using it as an awkward negative space that anyone who has ever suffered obsession has felt.

A packed theater for a 10 PM showing contained only about 10 men- in the entire movie theater. The assembled hen party alternately giggled during the sex scenes and was in rapt silence during the heavy parts when the audience hung on the dialogue in virtual bondage- with no safe word. It’s pretty safe to assume that PTA meetings and knitting circles were poorly attended the night Fifty Shades opened

There is one disturbing sequence in the movie, when boundaries are bent just a little too far, and the movie isn’t fun there. But even this heavy moment can be forgiven- only in artistic context- as an appliance of punctuation in the story line.

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For those who are wary of the movie and fear it crosses lines that advocate abuse, I can respect and identify with that perspective. The movie is about power trips and control, and those are things easily demented. But this movie is also about tender themes of communication and honesty, and to lose those against the sultry and pornographic backdrop is to not get everything you paid for in the story. That said, for victims of abuse, this is not the right movie and should be avoided. The story itself does not endorse non-consensual abuse, and makes repeated and clear statements to that effect. And recall that there are more than a few epic and noteworthy romances that challenge boundaries and cross lines, from Gone With The Wind to Casablanca.

The movie does exploit gender role stereotypes, and there are victims on both sides; the innocent simple girl and the tormented powerful man. If you are offended by stereotypes then take equal offense at each. Both are exploited here. That is a function of great fiction. Remember- this is fiction. The fact is people control or attempt to control each other in many ways in relationships; this story expands on those themes. Its over-emphasized delivery of these themes is what gives it such unusual candor, and make it such a spectacle.

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The inspiration of this story includes themes from the life of Howard Hughes and borrows snippets from little known cult classics like the much more disturbing Boxing Helena from 1993. This is simply an updated compendium of all these themes. It’s been a while since we had something like this, so audiences are ripe for Fifty Shades.

What is so well done about Fifty Shades of Grey is its wide band of erotic frequencies. The hottest scenes have neither nudity or sex, although there is plenty of that too, and it is pretty darn good. Perhaps some of the most powerful scenes include a brand of honesty and openness almost never seen in real life relationships, and seeing that is incredibly hot. The “contract negotiation” scene is a fantasy I wager everyone has wished for. There is also the dramatic back-and-forth of control, and the concession that having it is usually an illusion, and always ephemeral. In that regard, Fifty Shades of Grey is a documentary.

Ultimately you are either a fan of this romantic theme or you aren’t. For fence sitters I wager Fifty Shades of Grey will win some people over to the dark side and sell a lot of bondage gear. If it’s not your thing, avoid it. But if you are curious, then submit to the cliché and caricature of Fifty Shades of Grey and get ready to be strapped down for two hours with a racing heart on a wild, romantic and naughty ride.

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

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If you were waiting for the release of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper you have probably seen it by now. If you haven’t, and have no interest in movies of this genre, then you need to see it.

American Sniper is three distinct things: Firstly and most profoundly, it is an unflinching commentary on the American experience in the Global War On Terror. Secondly, it is a brilliantly crafted film in every way that uses contrast and plot to slam home a message of ongoing relevance. And lastly, it is a call to action to adapt our doctrine in the never-ending conflict with barbarism and cruelty.

Modern American Heroes are Tragic Figures.

American culture has a habit of moderating the horrors of war by deifying the sacrifice of those lost to it. We build heroes. And then we aspire to be heroes. This has a dreadful self-perpetuating tendency to use war as our primary tool in the darkest corners of international conflict. American Sniper challenges that national notion.

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Our heroes are often tragic figures, wracked with conflict and fear, who meet sad and untimely endings. The main figure in American Sniper, Naval Special Warfare Operator Chris Kyle, is just such a character. His valor, patriotism and loyalty were unswerving. This film celebrates that. But he mounted a quest to slay an un-slayable dragon, and was tragically consumed by it. This film mourns that.

This is a notice to American culture in a new age: maintain our current doctrine and continue to produce tragic heroes like Chris Kyle, or advance our thinking in conflict resolution and find a less costly method that produces more tangible results.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the tragic theme of American Sniper is that U.S. troops still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan will see this movie there instead of being at home. And the region is still locked in conflict.

Flawless and Authentic Filmmaking.

American Sniper is marble-hard filmmaking perfection. Director Clint Eastwood employs every trick of drama, suspense, tragedy and action with expertise. Casting is also superb down to the minor characters. There is not a single weak spot or feature to American Sniper. The film is so effective and hard-hitting that when it ends the theatre is left in stunned and exhausted silence. If you calibrate this film against the standards of Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down or any other conflict film it exceeds them all. This is the new standard in conflict commentary film.

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A National Call to Action in an Unresolved War.

Finally, American Sniper holds a vivid mirror up to our military doctrine in the ongoing Global War on Terror. The inescapable verdict is that, while we have succeeded in thwarting any major terrorist actions on U.S. soil, we have fallen short of providing functional reform and security to much of the region where the GWOT is waged. The significance of both of these points is more relevant now than ever, after two weeks of new terror attacks in France and months of escalated terrorist activity by ISIL in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve kept the (Middle Eastern) terrorists off U.S. soil since 9/11, but we are far from anything resembling a “victory”.

American Sniper is made with sensitivity and care, expertise and authenticity. It is also a relevant movie for the times. Eastwood’s film rises to the very top of the GWOT film genre’ and challenges all of our thinking about the past and the direction of our future role in this seemingly never-ending conflict.

By Tom Demerly.

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Brutal and intimate, Fury delivers an artful insight into the horror of war so masterful it leaves you tense and beaten.

Writer and Director David Ayer, who also made Training Day and End of Watch, rivals the terror and rhythm of Saving Private Ryan in Fury but with a more visual and animated presentation. Many of the scenes in Fury appear ghostly and impressionistic, almost like a graphic novel. They combine a vivid and experiential depiction of war. The movie is so effective at drawing you in you leave the theatre stiff and battle fatigued, as though you had spent cold hours in a rattling Sherman tank like the characters so brightly brought to life in the movie.

Fury opens a little clunky, trying a little too hard to show the horrors of war and knocking off the initial story line of Saving Private Ryan perhaps more closely than not. Once the movie moves out, literally and figuratively, it hits its stride and you better take a deep breath.

The second act of Fury is one of the most incredible scenes in any war movie. In an artful reflection of the true horror of war, David Ayer builds this scene without a shot fired or even a weapon in the scene. It is only characters, dialogue and circumstance combined with terrifying contrast and predicament that build an awful tension. Ayer was brilliant to include this scene because it adds an ingredient missing from the current perspective of conflict; context. It dramatically shows the contrast between fragile civility and apocalyptic war. Most war movies show sweeping battlefields and fast action. This scene brings the horror of war into your dining room. This scene alone is a triumph of the film and leaves you ragged and stressed.

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The degree of technical accuracy in Fury is remarkable, down to the minute details of personal equipment, tactics and set dressing. The entire production is built around meticulous attention to detail, and this realism supports a plot that does, at times, feel like a bit of a stretch until you recall your history of WWII. Fury is likely more realistic than we’re comfortable accepting.

In a four on one tank duel with the vastly superior German Tiger I tank, the U.S. Sherman tanks demonstrate the authentic tactics used to try to defeat the boxy German monster, and with the usual authentic result. This scene conjured images of the huge tank battles in the Iraq Wars along with WWII.

Brad Pitt is predictably excellent and does not weigh the film down with his brand. Other characters follow the real life storylines of the people you knew in the army; the offensive hick, the Latino, the brainy guy. Those stereotypes are redone in Fury but with maxed-out realism. If there is a standout performance in the film it is Alicia von Rittberg as Emma. Her character is a flower in the battlefield, and this impossible contrast creates an unbearable tension.

Fury is an ordeal to see. You don’t leave wanting another look, but you do leave in awe of what a well-crafted visual story can do to you. It’s also an ode to the harrowing ordeal of our greatest generation and the horrors that contrast against their great successes. Fury earns its place on the shelf with truly great war films with its realism, horror and even its sensitivity.

By Tom Demerly

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The greatest fear I had going into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was that it would be a sad eulogy to Tom Clancy’s genius. I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Director Kenneth Branagh did his homework and borrowed subtle and successful elements from each of the Jason Bourne, James Bond, Mission Impossible and Tom Clancy franchises to weave a surprisingly good story thread that is visually well done.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a tight and snappy spy thriller. It’s well written, tightly shown and quickly paced. Camera, sound and production techniques are tasteful and pay homage to its influences. Very little is over blown. Even the sets are well dressed and chosen.

Writers David Koepp and Adam Cozad used Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan with reverence for Clancy’s original vision of Dr. Ryan, the nerdy analyst turned reluctant but capable action hero.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Chris Pine as Jack Ryan is fantastic as is Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper, his CIA boss. And because no great spy film is a success without great villains, it is a pleasure to have Kenneth Branagh as the dangerous Russian, Viktor Cherevin.

The plot hits ominously close to home, literally and figuratively, with a story line that weaves into the little known world of economic warfare. Villains originate from Dearborn, Michigan in the shadow of Ford World Headquarters. The plan is to crash the stock market in a combined terror and economic attack; a scenario everyone hopes will remain fiction.

But Tom Clancy’s fiction has an ominous way of weaving its way into the headlines.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit never sags and builds well to a strong climax. There are a few corny moments but remember, this isn’t a strict Clancy plot. It weaves influences from every corner of the spy thriller genre, and does it with respect and tribute to each. While these stories do become somewhat cookie-cutter this one is flavored uniquely and with enough craft to make it a snappy 105-minutes. And yes, there is a sequel planned that hopefully continues with this fine cast in the upcoming Without Remorse.

Tom Clancy would have loved Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It is tight, quick and nice looking. This is a pleasant surprise after the painful loss of a great author and storyteller who created these characters. That new writers are able to execute on Clancy’s vision confirms their talent and reverence for his mastery.

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in "Shadow Recruit".

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in “Shadow Recruit”.

By Tom Demerly.

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Early July 2005: I was in the car. CNN was on. There was a report of a “U.S. long range reconnaissance team lost in Afghanistan”. They went to a commercial.

I pictured what must have been going on. Marine recon, Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare, Air Force Special Operations. It was one or some combination of them.  They had no comms, they were cut off, they may be lost, their food was gone. They may not even be alive by the time it made the news.

In the mid to late 1980’s I was a member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team, Co. F., 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Michigan National Guard. I was the scout/observer for our five man reconnaissance team.  We never saw combat then. But the sense of being a long way from home, cold, wet, hungry and with no communications is a very familiar one. Our radios never worked. We rarely got comms. We often walked home, even on training missions.

In 2007 when Marcus Luttrell wrote his book Lone Survivor I read it in one sitting, and didn’t sleep well for days. His account of a long range surveillance mission gone bad is harrowing and realistic.

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“Lone Survivor” author Marcus Luttrell signs his new book “Service”. Luttrell’s incredible account of Operation Red Wings deserved a better film adaptation.

This weekend Director Peter Berg’s adaptation of Lone Survivor hit theaters. Berg is the mastermind behind the impressive and haunting film The Kingdom from 2007.

Berg executes the complex story of Operation Red Wings told in Luttrell’s Lone Survivor with the level of authenticity you expect for a 121-minute Hollywood movie. There are moments when the film “works”, sort of. But for the most part it is clunky, forced and unrealistic feeling.

Berg may get a pass because faithfully depicting the horror of a small recon team retreating down a cliff side in the high Afghan mountains of Kunar Province is technically demanding. But remember Steven Spielberg’s D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, a scene so real it makes you recoil in terror and smell the cordite, exhaust fumes and gore. Even Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, while very “Hollywood-ized” provides a more authentic and vertiginous sense of what combat must be like. Both Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down “feel” more realistic. Lone Survivor relied too heavily on bad set dressing, rotten camera movement, poor make-up and a generally inauthentic “look” to deliver.

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The cast of “Lone Survivor” look more like an airsoft convention than a Long Range Surveillance Team.

The shape and storyline of Lone Survivor is good but the look and feel is shallow and contrite. There is so much “punch” and terror to this story it could have been done better. The digital effects, especially of aircraft and wide scenes, are embarrassingly poor by current standards. Lone Survivor simply looked “hurried” and synthetic. The make-up effects of wounds and blood looked like something you’d see in a Halloween haunted house. Even after three days of a long range reconnaissance patrol the characters didn’t look authentically dirty and grimy.

Another nick against Lone Survivor is that the “Afghanis” didn’t look like they lived in the mountains of Kunar Province. They looked like people from an L.A. cattle call for “Afghan” extras for a film shoot. For reference on how to get it right look at the realistic pirate depictions in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips . Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman were authentic and believable in their roles as Somali pirates, in no small part because they are from Somalia.

Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is not a total failure. The audience in the theater spontaneously applauded when the credits rolled, so it got their attention. But it isn’t the authentic and horrifying insight into Long Range Surveillance and Marcus Luttrell’s incredible book that I had hoped for.

By Tom Demerly.

Like a modern James Dean, Paul Walker starred in hot rod movies, lived his character and tragically died as his character.

Like a modern James Dean, Paul Walker starred in hot rod movies, lived his character and tragically died as his character.

Paul Walker, a modern day James Dean, died tragically in a fiery car accident Saturday in Valencia, California at age 40. The parallels between his life and predecessor “B” movie film icon James Dean are uncanny.

The “B” movie hot rod genre and male heartthrob is as much a cliche as the tragic, too early death of both Walker and Dean.

Walker was a modern day James Dean.

Walker was a modern day James Dean.

Walker stared in the Fast and Furious series of action movies that brought back hot rodding in the form of modern “tuner” cars and introduced a generation to the bad-boy car movie. The poodle skirts and drive-ins have been replaced by yoga pants and Uggs at the local megaplex, but the theme of hot cars, hot boys and hot girls has stayed rock solid. Now the ending is even the same.

Walker was oddly perfect in his roles. In Into The Blue Walker was perfect as the buff beach and dive bum who courted a ravishing Jessica Alba and found a fortune in lost drug money under the waves. The cute little movie is fun and captivating. It’s cheesy appeal spans all age categories and melts the heart of even the snootiest critic. Walker’s movies are a guilty pleasure.

"Into the Blue" was sexy, adventurous and romantic. A perfect role for Walker.

“Into the Blue” was sexy, adventurous and romantic. A perfect role for Walker.

Walker created an aspirational look that included natural handsomeness, an easy surf-dude persona and an incredible build. His acting was convincing and real in the roles he played best, the hot-guy hard man who was an outward bad-boy come hero.

His loss is a significant one as he showed promise and versatility that may have suited new roles well. It is a sad, tragic loss that cements him as legend, will vault his films into recirculation but tragically takes his niche’ talent from us way too soon and way before he was able to share more of his gifts for character and drama.