Tuesday, January 5, 2016

2015 in Film: Black Mass, Beach Boys, and Why The Martian Appeals So Much To Liberals

So much “scientific accuracy”, yet no one bothered to science the sh** out of the script.

Blahck Mass

Black Mass is a technically solid historical movie almost every which way you look at it, well acted, directed, paced, and written for the most part. The problem is that it feels so much like a movie, from the very first shot we get of Johnny Depp made up to look like Whitey Bulger, which for me at least elicited undesired thoughts of, “That’s the guy from the trailer! Something’s going down, is he gonna die – no, it’s a medium shot…” And that’s exactly what happened. Jimmy Bulger, obviously enough from legend, isn’t a very nice guy, and he remains that way through the whole movie, so whenever he loses his cool and shoots one of his enemies in the head, it’s simply not that shocking of an image. It worked well in the trailer when I only got two-minute chunks of the brutality Bulger was notorious for wreaking, but when these chunks were drawn out to accommodate a feature-length movie wherein nobody undergoes a radical, moral change of conscience, they kind of exhausted any potential they may have had to thrill or appall or otherwise emotionally rile me. Half of Black Mass’s substance was its terrific marketing campaign, and while this half was very impressive, it didn’t leave a lot of meat for the remaining part.

Black Mass’s cast is full of famous and respected people, far too many perhaps for my brain to handle all at once without seeing through the movie’s fa├žade. Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, the guy from Walter Mitty, Parks and Recreation, and Krampus (more on that later), and Benedict Cumberbatch all bring Oscar credibility to the screen while sporting phony-looking makeup and even phonier-sounding accents. Then the 50 Shades of Grey girl shows up and utterly destroys the movie’s illusion of reality, not because she does a terrible job in the minor part of Bulger’s wife, but because she’s permanently branded her image on our minds as That Girl from the 50 Shades of Grey movie.

If the movie has a message, it’s a very cynical, pragmatic statement verbalized by Whitey in a conversation with his son, who’s been put in detention for striking back at a bully. “You didn’t get in trouble because you punched that boy. You got in trouble because you punched that boy around other people.” At the same time, one can only sustain a pattern of punching other people for so long before the secret breaks out, and this is what ultimately leads to the downfall of corrupt FBI intelligence agent John Connolly. The movie neither affirms nor censures his strategy to bring down rival gangs by teaming up with Bulger, and while I would normally respect a creative choice like that, the directors and writers don’t make much of an effort to show the activities of Bulger’s enemies. Hence we don’t know what kind of gains the FBI are winning against the losses of ignoring a particularly murderous informant. Maybe they could have filmed more scenes along that line instead of the numerous dramatic cityscape establishing shots they chose to retain for inclusion in the trailer. As it stands, I don’t have enough information to deduce whether Connolly was an essentially honorable man or an incompetent, self-serving scoundrel complicit in the deaths of many innocent people.

But I don’t think Black Mass really has a message, and hence it kind of bores me to keep writing about it. If you’re drawn to strong performances more than any other filmmaking component, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot as Depp and Edgerton both stake strong claims to acting awards, but otherwise it’s just a moderately interesting historical drama about bad people doing bad things and never really growing through the process. Now I want to talk about how dumb The Martian was.

The Matt Damon

If you follow movie chatter or get your Rotten Tomatoes fix at all, you’re no doubt aware that movie critics reviewers-turned-space travel experts have unanimously declared The Martian the most “scientifically accurate” of the mid-fall sci-fi blockbusters they’ve seen over the last three years. It also happens to be the corniest and least provocative of the three, boasting the largest concentration of optimistic, feel-good schmaltz and silly leftist fantasies. What a coincidence!

My first thought upon entering the theater was something like, “How did I follow my friends in subsidizing Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and Jeff Daniels all at once?” and my second thought was something like, “How could I follow my friends in subsidizing such an aggressively insincere and/or ignorant propaganda piece for NASA and the Communist News Network?”

What informed person in his right mind would extol the accuracy of a movie that’s predicated on the conceit that NASA will someday succeed in colonizing another world, let alone Mars? The same NASA that nowadays wiles its hours and bloated budget away composing alarmist BS articles on Global Warming, the same NASA that hasn’t even sent a man to the moon in more than 40 years? How can I take The Martian’s science seriously when it so forcefully flaunts its own scientific ambivalence on the organization that makes Matt Damon’s Martian man a reality? How can I respect The Martian’s reality when Matt Damon is able to puncture his suit in such a way that he can use the reactionary force of the escaping air to aim and propel himself into the open arms of another spaceman who’s hanging onto a tether for dear life?

Oops, did I just give away he doesn’t die? Mea culpa. Looks like I ruined the movie for you by confirming what you already knew by intuition to be the ending. Did any part of you think that Matt Damon was going to die or sacrifice himself or otherwise leave the picture at any point? The problem with naming the movie/book The Martian, putting the Martian on the poster, and selling it as a sci-fi thriller about the survival of the Martian is that the narrative inspiring such publicity inherently prohibits the filmmakers from killing off the Martian, and logical viewers will anticipate this prohibition very early on. Matt’s Damon constant stream of lame half-jokes (“I am the best botanist on the planet.”) doesn’t help augment the otherwise nonexistent tension, cluing us in that we’re essentially watching a comedy, where nothing terrible ever happens and all the suffering endured by the hero occurs on an impermanent detour from the fixed conditions of his day-to-day life. And does the comedy ever sink. “I’m going to have to science the sh** out of this,” says Damon in the movie’s most celebrated scene. Too bad no one scienced the sh** out of the script.

Would I call this a bad movie? Not necessarily, but if The Martian’s acclaim lasts as long as The Shawshank Redemption’s, 20 years from now I would find it grossly shallow and underwhelming. The Shawshank Redemption doesn’t hold up as a film in 2015 because it never had anything to add to the great conversation, except for some cute and pleasant homilies about the Power of the Human Spirit, and, um, Coming Together. Hope in the Darkness kind of stuff. Someday The Martian will fall into the same black hole of vapid, optimistic inanity that has effectively rendered Shawshank obsolete.

If not for some scattered and implied profanity (this feels kind of like an R-film that was scaled back to meet a PG-13), this would be a great movie to show your grandmother, because it’s all about Looking at the Positive Side of Things. The masses usually eat up stories like this because they reassure people that they have the power within to alter their own destinies, which is a very comforting, universal, proto-American feeling that has undergirded such swiftly forgotten crowdpleasers as The Blind Side, The King’s Speech, and Spielberg’s The Terminal (which I actually liked). They reassure them also that mankind are essentially benevolent and brotherly creatures who don’t hesitate to help out one of their own and will adjourn their racial, national, or personal hostilities if only they see a chance to work together for a common good that glorifies the whole human race. The Martian in particular is a hilarious offender in perpetrating this fraud, postulating a future scenario in which the Chi-Coms, the United States, and part-time rapper Childish Gambino team up to coordinate a rescue mission once they establish communication with Matt Damon.

Why didn’t the Soviet Union and America form a mutual alliance to reach the moon as fast as they could if it’d bring all the more glory to humanity and their technological advances? Why haven’t Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries charitably opened their own floodgates to “Syrian” “refugees” like the rest of the world is doing? Why do Democrats think this movie is so realistic? It’s not because every freaking TV in it is tuned to CNN, which probably gets twice as many viewers in the movies as it does in real life.

Assuming people will still be arguing about movies in 2035 or beyond, no one’s going to fondly reminisce about or dissect The King’s Speech against vastly superior 2010 films like The Social Network, Black Swan, Inception, and many others. The Martian doesn’t even have the educational benefit of being based on a true story; it’s just a stale, predictable, idealistic, implausible piece of blah based on a bestselling novel and recycling familiar tropes for maximum appeal to viewers skeptical of new ideas and thirsty for the old. Only two of the 10 highest-grossing movies in 2015 were “original” concepts, i.e. not sequels or reboots/remakes, but you’d have to be a cultural ignoramus to say that Martian was original. You’ve got the dug-up soundtrack as object of sanity and purpose (Guardians of the Galaxy), stupid and cheesy one-liners (The Avengers and almost every other Marvel product), Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon (Interstellar), using the gravity of one planet/black hole to slingshot a spaceship towards another planet (also Interstellar), racially diverse astronauts and NASA leadership (Alien), the whole idea and framework of the survival story (Gravity), shooting yourself through space by some air-releasing device (Gravity and Waaaaalle), the final rescue (practically a sequence from Gravity in reverse), recording sarcastic video logs (Avatar), epic storm sequence set during nighttime (Prometheus), and Ridley Scott doing another alien planet movie in general. The moment I saw the trailer I thought, “This looks like an Avatar, Prometheus, and Interstellar ripoff,” but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer breadth of source materials that Martian plunders besides its book.

Do The Martian’s creative inadequacies matter so long as the idiotic, comic book characters and imperceptible visual effects keep you entertained? That is ultimately for you to decide. For me they mattered a great deal, but I typically admire films that aspire to more than merely placating people. Hence I’m a little baffled at this film’s glamorous reception by those same critics who’ve lambasted Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, and now The Force Awakens for replicating the plot structure of older films. Despite all the unanswered questions and slasher movie logic of Scott’s also visually magnificent Prometheus, I’d much sooner watch that again before The Martian because the former took some risks and tried to tell a new and philosophically engaging story. As dated and lackluster as it is, even Red Planet has more memorable sequences than this higher-budget, 21st-century trip to Mars. The Martian doesn’t have an AMEE to call its own.

The Martian had no room for killer robots, but apparently it had a lot of room for “hard scientific facts” to be articulated by a surprisingly knowledgeable botanist in service of a completely fictional, frankly ludicrous narrative. If you can’t stand Gravity because the Hubble telescope actually isn’t on the same orbital path as the International Space Station, or if you hated Interstellar because it’s science-fiction based on the 5th dimension, which Christopher Nolan made up for the plot (along with the characters, the alien worlds, the spaceship, TARS, and the planetary agricultural collapse—that Nolan’s such a hack!), then The Martian is the movie for you. You should also probably get some better discrimination in movies.

Beached Boys

Rather like the creative rift we see play out between Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys, Love & Mercy feels like two different films revolving around the same person that were stitched together by a studio and opportunistically sold to pretentious indie fans as an important True Story about Artistic Genius. The parts where Paul Dano as a younger Wilson is coping with LSD-induced hallucinations, composing Pet Sounds, and trying to reconcile his art pop visions with the label’s commercialism all tread overly familiar biopic ground but still fascinated me for some reason. The scene where he’s directing an orchestra in the production of what will eventually come together as “Good Vibrations” is a humorous and riveting portrait of the frustration and perfectionism that went into some of the 60’s most iconic and acclaimed music. I don’t have the same infatuation with the Beach Boys as, say, the suck-ups at Pitchfork Media do, nor would I listen to all of Pet Sounds in one sitting unless I had to, but I would say Love and Mercy endowed me with a better appreciation for the innovative, exhaustive recording techniques of Brian Wilson, if not for the character of any of the other Beach Boys, who look like useless boy band models and whose only role in the film is to argue with the much more intelligent Wilson, reinforcing his misunderstood brilliance for stupid audiences who need everything to be hyper-exaggerated.

The other half of the film, starring John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks as Love Interest, and Paul Giamatti as the Bad Guy, is a bit of a mess. Cusack acts so anti-social and inept at basic human interaction it’s hard to see him as a real person, regardless of whether his scenes are true to Wilson’s memories (the screenplay’s based to some extent on his book). If you’ve discovered and avidly followed the Youtube channel of LAWHF, a.k.a. Andrew Hales —arbiter of awkwardness, ardent opponent of staged clickbait pranks (gone sexual, in the hood), and overall really funny guy—, then you’ve seen the better version of this half of Love and Mercy. Elizabeth Banks plays the blandest female character I’ve seen in any movie this year. She’s supposed to be sweet or nice, I guess? Paul Giamatti’s talents as an actor are wasted here on an irredeemable, psychiatric antagonist who wants to deny his famous client a shot at true love… because he’s evil, or something. Who cares what motivates him? The John Cusack section of the film seems less like an objective, multi-faceted examination of a cultural figure and more like Hollywood-ish hero worship.

If Love and Mercy taught me anything, it’s that we’ve been so inundated with Unappreciated Genius stories that it takes a really skilled director or writer to make any new riff on the formula worth our time. The Brian Wilson Story was not a “story that needed to be told”, and certainly not as artificially told as this. I can’t completely recommend you skip it, and I’m sure most hipstgender folks will get a kick out of it, but the general public wouldn’t miss anything by skipping liberally through all the parts where Paul Dano isn’t. God only knows what this would be without him.


  1. Have you seen "Silent Running"? It's SOOO good. I can not even. If you liked "The Martian", you'll love "Silent Running"! Absolutely, positively the BEST Sci-fi movie ever made.

  2. How about Looper? Have you seen that one? That movie is really dense; there's so much going on in every frame...


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