VOD Movie Reviews: ‘The Martian’, ‘A Walk in the Woods’, & ‘Irrational Man’ (2016Jan14)


Thursday, January 14, 2016                                              12:45 PM

“The Martian” is Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Andy Weir novel—I had just read the novel a few months back, so I was very jazzed to see a big-screen imagining of same—and this movie does not disappoint. I don’t know what it would seem like to someone who expected a straight action sci-fi pic—I think the movie was just as exciting as any of them. But the book, and thankfully, Scott’s movie, are both throwbacks to the age of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov—when the science-fiction was science first, fiction only as a palliative to help you swallow all the information. Even without the book’s realistic, exhaustive explorations of how a sole person can produce his own oxygen, water, and food—and how to turn a Mars habitat plus a Mars rover into a Mars mobile home—the movie is replete with technological and engineering problem-solving.

Mr. Ridley very ably constructs the story so that one can do what I used to do reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace—I just bleeped over all the long Russian names—and you won’t need to study hard to follow the gist of the story. But as I understand the book’s evolution, it was something of a thought experiment—and there are no evil aliens—so I’m glad the filmmakers embraced the Clarke-ian aspect of “The Martian”—a thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable movie.

Matt Damon seems genetically structured to play an astronaut—so that’s good casting. His character’s frustration with his music playlist, which the Commander had filled with only disco music, was funny in the book—it plays a far larger part in the movie—and skates the edge of letting us all feel the horror of being trapped alone on Mars with nothing to listen to but Gloria Gaynor’s greatest hits. (Not that I don’t love Gloria Gaynor—in moderation.) At nearly two and a half hours, there’s an awful lot to like (and learn) in this film. I find that much comes out of Hollywood these days, but we still have to wait a year or two for something really good to come out—especially in the sci-fi genre—and “The Martian” is one of the good ones.

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“A Walk In The Woods” stars Robert Redford who, like Woody Allen, has been a big part of my cinematic life since the seventies—it also co-stars the equally familiar but more erratically-careered Nick Nolte. This movie was perfect for me in some ways—two old guys, grumbling about age, wondering what their lives had really been about, now that it’s too late to change them, and doing stupid stuff they’re too old for, because we never learn to stop liking the things we enjoyed—we just lose the ability. It’s definitely an older person’s movie—I can’t imagine a teenager sitting through it.

It made me proud in a way—the whole movie, I kept telling myself, “Hey, you’ve walked the Appalachian Trail—not all of it—but you’ve hiked alone through the cathedral of nature’s solitude.” Unfortunately, that thought was inevitably joined by the memory of how very long ago that was—and, worse yet, I couldn’t help thinking that those two geezers were still in better shape than I am—I couldn’t hike a half-mile, and don’t even ask about carrying a forty-pound pack on my back.

The cinematography was too beautiful to go unmentioned—but I hear that, since the movie, trail guides have been bitching and moaning about the sudden surge of wannabe hikers getting lost and needing rescuing on the trail. So, maybe the camera-person should’ve made it a little uglier—although, that’s a tall order. I’ve been, as I said, and despite all the rigors, the Trail is unendingly beautiful—awe-inspiring, really. Of course that poor little dirt trail is over-run after a movie like this—remember—it may be two thousand miles long, but it’s barely two feet wide in some places.

Still, “A Walk In The Woods” gave me a sudden thrill when it made me flash-back to my own time alone in Appalachian woods—I’d forgotten how magical it was. Plus, it’s always nice to see Redford on screen again—he’s pretty old now, but so am I. Great soundtrack, too.

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“Irrational Man” makes me wonder what Woody Allen has against college professors—they often feature in his stories, rarely to the benefit of their image. But this movie pretty much spells it out—there’s something suspicious about people whose career involves having a kind of absolute power over the most easily-manipulated group of people in the world—college students.

The best education teaches not what to think but how to think—a familiar adage that overlooks the fact that teaching someone ‘how to think’ is not an absolute act—there is bias in human thought. We speak of machines that think—and by inference we imagine our brains as computers. It is ironic that the greatest challenge facing developers of AI software is that the human brain does not perform mechanically—indeed, no one is exactly sure how we think. We certainly don’t think in binary—we know it’s some sort of messy, organic process—we know that brains are processing feelings, senses, and emotions while they calculate, plan, and reason—but we don’t know how.

Further, in “Irrational Man”, Mr. Allen shows us how easily intellectualism can devolve into a tool for rationalizing narcissism and immorality. But it also shows, in the Emma Stone character, how core beliefs can be held without any rational underpinning. It’s pretty right-wing stuff, for a leftist Manhattanite. While the story of a man who disappears up his own ass is fairly familiar territory, Woody Allen makes it into a Greek tragedy—I could have done with a few more laughs from a director famous for comedy—but at least he’s learned to avoid awkward pretension in his serious films, replacing it with his own style of seaminess.

The inexorable nature of Greek tragedy is not my favorite entertainment—if I want disaffection, disappointment, and confusion, I can have all that without turning the TV on. However, I can’t deny that I share the auteur’s belief that watching a movie is not a waste of time—that cinema has intrinsic value—particularly for someone as unbusy as myself. And Woody Allen makes a watchable movie—I just wish he’d consult me about the subject matter. Then again, he’d probably tell me to go make my own damn movies.

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