The Martian movie review

Featuring:: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay) adapted from the novel by Andy Weir
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 1 Oct

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Fun, entertaining, and refreshing in its hope and optimism.

This is going to be a box office smash. That’s not to say it’s a great movie – it’s not. But it is enjoyable and gripping, different from yer usual sci-fi in that there are no monsters or bad guys, and the science is well figured out and sounds theoretically plausible despite some far-fetched elements. But perhaps most significant of all it is well-timed.

See, although the narrative is set in the not-too-distant future, it hearkens back to the early days of space travel when the world watched in awe as America landed a man on the moon, and people of all nations shared a sense of ownership and pride, because there was the feeling that we were all in this together. Space travel was romantic and ennobling, turning our focus as a species outwards to a wondrous universe that suddenly seemed accessible. America’s technological triumph belonged to planet Earth, to humanity. A man on the moon signified something great, a “giant leap for mankind”.

Well, that’s not how it turned out. That moment of global unity now seems a long, long way away. Manned space travel to new frontiers has long ago ceased. America has been discredited, no longer represents the ideal it once was, and planet Earth has never been so divided. And now along comes Ridley Scott with this baby boomer fantasy of restoring space travel and global unity and America to an earlier time of hope and multinational goodwill and triumph. And for 2 hours in a cinema, the fantasy delivers.

The story centres on biologist astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is left behind on Mars, presumed dead, after his crew abandons their mission and takes off into space to escape an horrendous storm. With a limited store of food and at least 4 years before the next mission to Mars will arrive, his survival depends on his ingenuity, scientific knowledge and maintaining resilience in the face of impossible odds. Using his faeces to fertilise the Martian soil and some chemistry improvisation to produce water, he plants potatoes, and sets about devising a way to make contact with NASA.

Of course he is successful, and NASA draws on the intellectual resources of the world’s most gifted science nerds, including some in China, to attempt to rescue their space-age Robinson Crusoe, whose plight soon captures global attention. It’s warming at a time when humanity is so inward-looking, self-centred and divided, to encounter the notion of all of humanity joined in goodwill and hope for a single member of the species trapped on a distant planet. And that’s why I say The Martian is well-timed.

The film’s entertainment value is enhanced by a directorial lightness of touch. Ridley Scott isn’t trying to do a 2001 A Space Odyssey here. He is not taking himself or the film too seriously. There are some hokey scenes in which the use of miniature models is obvious, for instance, although the special effects are generally impressive, and never more so than the opening Martian storm scenes, which utilise 3D to terrific effect. And there is a lot of humour (not all of it successful) in between the dramatics.

One gripe: most of the music that features is circa 70s or earlier. This seems odd, and jars. It’s a Boomer imprint that is out of place in a future time setting. As are Watney’s jibes about the 70s disco recordings one of his crew members has left behind. That said, the use of Bowie’s Starman is a high point of the film, shiver-inducing.

Overall, The Martian is refreshingly positive, and carries with it a pertinent and important message while it entertains. I hope it’s the smash I think it will be. We need that message, and we need the hope and optimism that the film is built upon. Who knows – maybe it will sow a seed in the young and inspire a new era of manned space exploration and future dreaming. Beats the hell out of the devolution we are currently going through.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl movie review

Featuring:: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni, Abby Wait
Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Phoebe Gloeckner (novel), Marielle Heller (screenplay)
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 1 Oct

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Honest, funny, poignant and REAL. Watching this movie is like being kissed by youth.

This open-hearted, mercilessly honest, funny and poignant story of teenage girl Minnie’s metamorphosis into adulthood is a career maker for two women: director Marielle Heller (astonishingly, this is her feature movie debut) and lead actor Bel Powley.

15-year-old Minnie’s ‘diary’ is a cassette recorder, her bedroom confidante. The first entry is also one of the first lines of the film: “I had sex today.” Rewind (in time, not on tape), and it transpires that she is referring to her first experience of sex – with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 30-something boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Okaaay.

It is important to factor in the setting, which is morally fluid San Francisco of the mid-70s. Further, the counter-culture overhang from the late 60s still looms large: Minnie’s mum and her friends are recreational cocaine users, and it is evident from Minnie’s musical taste that she is drawn to the subversive and not destined to join the suburban middle-class. She wants to be a graphic artist (her drawings are incorporated in some delightful animations throughout the film), has a picture of a glowering Iggy Pop on her bedroom wall, and in one joyously juvenile scene jumps up and down on her bed with her girlfriend to the brutally compelling primal beat of The Stooges’ rock classic Down on the Street. Television’s See No Evil features later on. Tremendous time and culture markers, these songs (and yeah, Minnie’s around my vintage, so this is the era of my youth – call that a disclaimer, if you like).

As Minnie and Monroe carry on their increasingly torrid clandestine affair, inevitable complications arise. Minnie’s girl-woman confusion and her emotional swings and confronting realisations are superbly negotiated by Powley, who lends her character a rare sense of authenticity – indeed, this sense that we’re watching something REAL and TRUE, albeit manifested in fictional form, is characteristic of the entire movie. And as such, there is little room or reason for judgement on the part of the filmmakers.

Minnie is who she is – a complex developing female of artistic temperament paying heed to her instincts, prioritising personal adventure and exploration over conventional social restraints as she straddles the child and adult worlds, oscillating, unsure whether to go forward or back, sampling the sweet and the sour. There’s no doubt that Monroe is a predator, but he’s weak, not bad. The viewer may put him to the moral torch based on contemporary standards, but the filmmakers are less righteous in their approach. Ditto, with Minnie’s mother. How refreshing, how artistically brave in these PC-hobbled times.

Power shifts begin as Minnie begins to see Monroe more clearly, and to seek independence, while his now uncontrolled emotions pull him in the opposite direction. Then, of course, there’s the Chekovian gun – the cassette recorder – that must be discharged. When the shit hits the fan, Minnie hits the road with her wayward bohemian girlfriend, and does some growing up the hard way.

Coming-of-age stories don’t get any better, but this terrific film is more than that. It’s a rebel yell straight from the feminist heart, but minus the ideological bullshit, and with a deep-felt sense of gender-irrelevant humanity at its core. I don’t think I’ve felt so thrilled at the movies, so inspired to fist pump and shout out “Yes!” (were it not for social restraints, heh heh) since that humdinger of a scene in Rebel Without A Cause in which James Dean kicks in the portrait of his grandmother as he storms out the door after an argument with his folks.

For those whose teenage heart still beats beneath the layers of disillusionment and world-weariness that build up over the years, watching this movie is like being kissed by youth. Awake, sleeping beauty – and all for the price of a movie ticket.

Do. Not. Miss.

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Macbeth movie review

Featuring:: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Sean Harris, Paddy Considine
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso (adapted from Shakespeare’s play)
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 1 Oct

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Excels as a visual realisation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but is let down by hard-to-hear dialogue and less-than-stellar performances.

As a visual imagining of the war-torn Scotland of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this gothy adaptation by Australian director Justin Kurzel excels. As with his brilliant 2011 feature debut, Snowtown, he combines a grim setting – in this case, the brutal, foggy, sodden highlands – with a brooding musical soundscape to convey a sense of gloom and foreboding. The dark mood directly reflects the inner turmoil of murderous and morally fraught lead character, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), a fearsome warrior in battle yet no match for his deftly manipulative wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), who exploits his ambition and lust for power (and her), persuading him to kill the king, Duncan (David Thewlis), and seize the throne. Neither anticipate the demons of conscience that will torment them ever after.

Macbeth strives to ensure that the prophesy of his downfall made by a trio of witches (who materialise eerily in and out of the highland mists) does not come to pass by visiting further atrocities on his rivals and their families. There are ambushes and killings in the wood, the burning at the stake of a young family, and some tremendously well staged and shot battle scenes.

Unfortunately, there is a problem, and it’s a serious one: it’s difficult to hear the dialogue. Vocal projection is part of the stage actor’s craft, but sounds unnatural in a film. Nevertheless, this is Shakespeare – you’ve gotta be able to hear the actors’ lines! Far too often, Fassbinder, in particular, is indistinct in his enunciation. Factor in the Scottish brogue and the intrusion of the score, and many viewers – those who aren’t Scottish or well familiar with the play, at least – will be left straining to pick up what’s going on. That makes for a frustrating experience, compromising emotional involvement, rendering the narrative hard to follow, and worst of all undermining one of the great tortured characters of western literature!

It’s some consolation that Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” soliloquy comes across loud and clear.

Perhaps largely due to the dialogue discernability issues, the performances, while competent, fall well short of inspirational.

Nevertheless, the film is worth seeing for its visual power alone. Some of the imagery is stunningly dramatic and figuratively profoundly resonant (a scene towards the end of a slain Macbeth left upright in death, kneeling in a supplication pose, is a case in point). If you don’t know the play well, though, read it before you go so you can follow the narrative – or take a short cut and have a look at the synopsis on Wikipedia. I won’t tell if you don’t.

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Cut Snake movie review

Featuring: Sullivan Stapleton, Alex Russell, Jessica De Gouw
Director: Tony Ayres
Writer: Blake Ayshford
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 24 Sep

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Starts as a tense crime drama that builds promisingly, then abruptly collapses into excruciating melodrama.

Like many crime thrillers, this new Australian release begins promisingly, delivers quite some way in, then abruptly hits that “oh no” moment where the wheels begin to wobble. Sometimes a bit of rattle and shake is correctable, but all too often the whole shebang veers off track and bumps along to a miserable end in the ditch. In the case of Cut Snake, it’s worse than that – what starts as a tense-as-hell and well managed thriller ends up as an excruciatingly melodramatic, mangled write-off of a flick that has you wondering how stuff like this ever gets funded in the first place.

Lead actor Sullivan Stapleton is certainly not to blame. He’s the one quality constant throughout, but is unable to save the film on his own. He plays Pommie, a career crim and killer just released from years in the can, and infuses his character with a barely suppressed rage and threat of explosive violence that gives the film real edge in its first half. The time bomb within begins to tick when he looks up his old cellmate, Sparra (Alex Russell), whom he anticipates becoming his partner in crime, only to find that the lad’s gone straight, has a regular job, and is setting up house in a country town with his fiancée, Paula (Jessica De Gouw). Unwilling to let matters rest, Pommie insinuates himself into the couple’s lives, and sets out to draw Sparra back to the dark side.

Part of his strategy is to drive a wedge between the couple. The sexually charged cat-and-mouse games he plays with Paula, who is not entirely discouraging, make for gripping if uncomfortable viewing.

Turns out it is not only a partnership in crime that Pommie is seeking from Sparra – the revelation that the two were a little closer than mere cell mates is the dreaded “oh no moment” that sends the film into a death spin. The mean crim with lit fuse sputtering dangerously suddenly erupts with soppy declarations of love for Sparra, passionate kisses are exchanged, and be buggered if we’re not dropped into the middle of a yes-you-want-it/no-I-don’t melodrama that would not be out of place in a teen soapie, were it not for the machismo, shared gender and criminal past of the participants.

Alex Russell obviously struggles with the emotional response required of his character at this point (and when the emotional going gets tough with his fiancée), and this doesn’t help, but the fatal flaw is clearly in the writing. The finest of acting could not make up for the ludicrous direction the narrative takes.

As the story lurches from one catastrophe to the next, there are several opportunities to end it and put the whole damned mess out of its misery, but none are taken. Instead, the wreck of a narrative rolls over and over as everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into a ludicrously OTT action finale that finally and mercifully expires out of sheer exhaustion. It’s as if the writer is making it up as he goes, ever excited by the ideas he is coming up with, in the manner of a theatre arts group getting off on an improvisation exercise. Sheesh! Where’s a good editor when you need them?

There’s a lot of unfair criticism levelled at Australian movies, and I am loathe to add to it, but really, this is a stinker. The shame of it is that with more thought and discipline on the part of the writer and his accomplices – the director has to be included – they could have delivered on the promise of the earlier stages simply by hinting at the nature of the relationship between the male leads, rather than hybridising the piece into a love story. Way too much information to maintain the intrigue, chaps (as is too often the case in contemporary cinema). Take a lesson from Hitchcock: less is more. The movie was at its best as a psychological thriller and that should have remained the main game.

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Life movie review

Featuring: Dane DeHaan, Robert Pattinson, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Luke Davies
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 10 Sep

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An intriguing characterisation of the person behind the James Dean image, and of the photographer who helped to establish him as an icon.

James Dean is among the most pervasive of Hollywood icons, but what of the man behind the legend? That largely unasked question is the jumping off point for this intriguing film from director Anton Corbijn. Having graduated to film from an acclaimed career in photography and rock videos, Corbijn is well-credentialed to take on the task of fleshing out the person beneath the image, presumably drawing on both biographical material and the qualities that Dean embodies in photographic and celluloid images.

The characterisation is facilitated by focusing the narrative on the developing friendship between photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and actor Dean (Dane DeHaan). Both are hip to the embryonic youth culture about to rise up like a tsunami and transform mid-50s America, and both are single-mindedly trying to break through in high-risk careers. Dean has just finished East of Eden and has come to notice within the industry (Jack Warner, despotic chief of Warner Bros, signs him up in a Faustian deal that speaks volumes about the nature of the industry in those days – and perhaps now). However, he is yet to hit big with the public. Stock sees something extraordinary in the strange but visually compelling young actor, which he hopes to capture in a series of spec photographs for LIFE magazine. Hence the title of the film, which speaks to the image vs personal reality dichotomy that is one of its central concerns. Clever.

The story has two settings, the first urban (LA and New York), with Dean introduced as a solitary figure sitting at a bar (naturally). DeHaan is a good likeness and has the Dean mumble down pat, but there’s an uneasy sense about what lies ahead. An exercise in recreating an icon of 50s post-Beat cool? Please no. And really, who can do Dean but Dean?

Such doubts are quickly dispelled as DeHaan makes the character his own and it becomes clear that there is to be much more to him than raised collars and sullen taciturnity in gloomy bars (the 50s bohemian fringe atmosphere comes across as remarkably authentic). The Dean that emerges here is eccentric, fiercely individualistic, insecure, funny, an ingénue in love and in Hollywood, and rather than cool or rebellious, an oddity moving to the very different beat of his own drum (he carts around a cherished Indian tomtom as he moves from one cheap apartment to another – it seems to serve as a comforting constant in his life).

Screen time is almost equally split between Dean and Stock, whose struggles with authority figures in their work environments and turmoil in their personal lives run in parallel. Indeed, Stock’s story is as interesting as Dean’s, and his character as well played by an excellent Robert Pattinson.

The lads’ time in New York takes in some superbly shot scenes, the most memorable (and predictable) being of Dean and a babe dancing to a jukebox in a diner while Stock watches on from a table, rapping feverishly to a girl as the effects of Benzedrine come on, and of Stock taking the famous boulevard shot of a grim Dean in his greatcoat, hunched against the winter chill.

The mood changes dramatically when Stock accompanies Dean to his small home town in Indiana. In leaving the urban for the rural, a more comfortable, content, family-orientated country-boy-James-Dean emerges that is far more endearing than the familiar figure of popular culture. In contrast, Stock flounders in the unfamiliar environment – as, we now realise, does Dean in urban settings (a key insight into the character).

There is a striking closing image of a plane bound for LA climbing steeply into the sun. Aboard is Dean, who is to begin shooting Rebel Without A Cause. At this point he is no longer an icon for the viewer, but a well-rounded character whose humanity has been reclaimed in the course of the film AND an Icarus who went too fast and flew too high. Thus, the image and the character are reconciled, while our awareness that he is to die in a car crash within months compounds the emotional power and figurative impact of this perfect final scene.

Highly recommended.

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