REVIEW: Armageddon (1998)

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Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and  J.J. Abrams, Adapted by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, Story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormaire, Keith David, Jason Isaacs

I would call Armageddon my greatest guilty pleasure….if I considered it a guilty pleasure. But I don’t. In fact, I am going to go all black sheep on you and say Armageddon is secretly a great film, simply misunderstood by the masses who tolerate unbelievable and trite premises in other films because they simply do not have Michael Bay listed as their director. Indefensible? Misguided? Just plain wrong? Nope, I’ll prove it to you.

With the space shuttle Atlantis’s unfortunate demise in outer space and the devastation of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States by meteor showers, NASA becomes aware of a doomsday asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. After numerous plans are tabled, it seems that the only way to knock it off course is to drill into its surface and detonate a nuclear weapon. But as NASA’s under-funded yet resourceful team train the world’s best drillers for the job, under the auspices of their boss Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the social order of the world begins to break down as the information reaches the public and hysteria results. As high-ranking officials play politics with the effort, the drilling team all faces deep personal issues which may jeopardize humanity’s last chance…

So what makes Armageddon a good movie in my eyes? Well, the first indication is that Michael Bay most certainly has the favor of the cinematic gods when it comes to an eye for composition. Even Bay’s critics have always been quick to point out that his visual style is distinctive and even beautiful at times, and that style is present in force within Armageddon. Every shot is incredibly dynamic, with sweeping camera and character movement that achieves a high parallax, coupled with equally dynamic editing in which the average shot length is about 1.5 seconds. It sounds like a cacophony of undecipherable images, and I grant you, the nameless reader in my head, that in most of his more recent films, like Transformers, this causes quite the headache, but it works for Armageddon, which commands a more J.J. Abrams-esque command of light and color and most certainly doesn’t have to deal with alien shards of sentient metal constantly shifting in the frame.

Still, Armageddon is not for the viewer who is even the least bit slow-eyed, because every one of their senses will be under assault by deafening loudness, both physical and metaphorical. Everything about Armageddon is decidedly unsubtle, and I think this is what works against the film in the eyes of its detractors. Okay, that was a nice way of saying that’s why the film is so hated. But, and let’s be honest here, what other films are like that? If you said just about every superhero film put out by Marvel and Warner Brothers today, than you would be correct. So maybe it’s high time to knock it off with the hypocrisy, shall we?

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What truly works in Armageddon are the characters. Before we even meet our main heroes, we are treated to the denizens of the NASA control room, headed by Director Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texan throwback to the days of the early Space Race, full of Southern charm and fire. He works as an excellent bridge and confidant between the military and scientific elites and the drill team of oilman Harry Stamper, played in the usual lunkhead everyman caricature by Die Hard‘s own Bruce Willis. Stamper’s team are a veritable Dirty Dozen, composed of an array of blue-collar types who range from dependable to shaky to downright crazy. Luckily, some of the best character actors of the decade were assembled to play them, giving us the likes of Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, and in a special note, the absolutely hilarious Steve Buscemi.

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All is not well among them, however, as Harry has a daughter (or rather, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith’s daughter, Liv Tyler) who is being courted by none other than Ben Affleck as Harry’s young hot-shot A.J. The less that can be said about this subplot however, the better, because it just isn’t up to scratch with the rest of the picture.

Image result for armageddon aj graceSomewhere out there, a hater is thinking, “The whole picture isn’t up to scratch. WTF are you talking about?”

Once we get off the ground, the full force of “Bayhem,” as his visual style is so often derided or praised as, hits the audience and propels them into satisfying blend of action and disaster genres, throwing our already likeable heroes into intense situations such as the destruction of a Russian space station in orbit or the insanely difficult landing maneuvers onto the asteroid. The script attempts to inject some political turmoil into this script with the President and his advisors deciding to blow the bomb early due to their doubts that the drillers can succeed, and as you would have guessed, it is handled with the subtlety of a nine-year-old who’s found his dad’s gun.

But, again, this is okay. Not every science fiction film can be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the case, the farcical and over-the-top nature of the narrative and the people that move it along are a main feature, meant to be enjoyed as spectacle, not nuance. Hell, I’ve even made the argument that Armageddon should be considered a quintessential 4th of July movie, and that allegorical connection is about as unsubtle as a Donald Trump rally. That is the point. America is never subtle. Neither is Bay, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I hope I’ve been able to get somewhere with this argument, but in the end, I guess it comes down to preferences. Those who prefer their entertainment more simple-minded will love this movie, as will people who are flexible like myself, while those who demand narrative and technical perfection will never listen to a word I say. But for those who may be undecided, I feel that early Bay, from Bad Boys to Pearl Harbor, offered excellent spectacle filmmaking, before he let his juvenile frat-boy streak take over. Since Armageddon fits firmly in the middle of this part of his career, I hope that you will give at least one more chance.

 

REVIEW: Apollo 13 (1995)

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, Based on the Book “Lost Moon” by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris

How can you tell a historical drama is good? When it keeps you at the edge of your seat despite you knowing the outcome because–after all–it already happened. Apollo 13 is that good and more.

It had been less than a year since man first walked on the Moon, but as far as the American public was concerned, Apollo 13 was just another “routine” space flight–until these words pierced the immense void of space: “Houston, we have a problem.” Stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) fight a desperate battle to survive. Meanwhile, at Mission Control, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), and a heroic ground crew race against time–and the odds–to bring them home.

If I were teaching a film class, Apollo 13 would be under the suspense category, despite being more a drama than anything. It can roll with the best Hitchcock ever put out, and the reason is obvious. It is so damn suspenseful despite have the handicap that the events it portrays already occurred that I’m always on edge during the drama and moved to tears by the end. Call me sentimental, call me ridiculous, but this is among Ron Howard’s finest works, if not his absolute best.

Beginning with a watch party at Jim Lovell’s house during Neil Armstrong’s historic moon walk, Apollo 13 already steams full ahead into creating  flawless period atmosphere, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and optimism of the era in just under a few minutes. From there, we enter a protracted period before the fateful mission in which human drama over personnel changes force Ken Mattingly off of the 13 crew. Gary Sinise, one of my favorite actors of his generation, easily pulls ahead of his peers in the film, going through a whirlwind of emotion in the film from his devastating grounding to becoming the tireless professional working to save the men when their spacecraft is suddenly crippled in space.

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With Mattingly on the ground are a heaping of wonderfully-relatable character actors portraying the Houston flight control team, headed by the great Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz. Playing a very different character than his rendition of John Glenn in The Right Stuff, Harris’ Kranz is unpolished and upfront, ready to move mountains to bring his men home, all while keeping a straight face that only contorts to shout when the more doubtful of his team suggest failure is inevitable.

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But of course, the real stars of the film are Hanks, Paxton, Swigert, and the incredible depiction of spaceflight by Howard and his crew. The three astronauts, despite already being big names by the time of the film, are completely convincing, helped along in their jobs by the great strides made toward total scientific accuracy. The interiors of the Odyssey and the Aquarius are faithfully recreated with stunning attention to detail, and Howard even managed to stuff the sets into a KC-135 to create believable microgravity conditions, resulting in shots that leave the audience shaking their head in disbelief before finally accepting that, “they must have really gone into space to make this movie!”

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One more actor to mention is the exquisite Kathleen Quinlan, playing Lovell’s wife Marilyn. Quinlan could have easily disappeared into the background with this role, but she is so stunningly authentic that not only did she garner an Oscar nomination, but she impressed the real Marilyn Lovell herself, who heeped the highest praise upon Quinlan when the film was released.

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In the end, Apollo 13 stands on its own as great film and as a worthy companion piece to another Space Race film I have recently reviewed, The Right Stuff. Both depict a time when America was at a difficult and painful crossroads but still had a heaping of pride to swell over that was pure and incredible. And even when that pride turned to fear and terror before our very eyes as three courageous men faced death in the most inhospitable environment known to life, we pulled through together, and showed that anything is possible when humanity feels that it is.

Double Bill Drive-In: The Right Stuff / Apollo 13

Double Bill Drive-In

Independence Day is almost upon us, and what better way to celebrate the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave than with a double feature of two high-flying movies of the highest American caliber!

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Relive the glory days of America’s supremacy in the Space Race, when we all watched in awe as red-blooded American boys of the air became astronauts, the bravest and most daring of professions around! In this double bill, you’ll see our boys in spacesuits during their finest hour and their most dangerous moments, in triumph and tragedy, where they will show us all what being an American truly means!

First, two previews for you:

And the first feature of the night:

The Right Stuff Movie Poster

A sweeping epic of the early days of America’s space program, The Right Stuff is brought to you by filmmaker Philip Kaufman in a three-plus hour grand story featuring the greatest of America’s early astronauts, including John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Gordo Cooper, and many more. Watch them soar past the Wild Blue Yonder first tamed by Chuck Yeager and into the vast open regions of the cosmos, painting a picture of the triumph of American ingenuity and exceptionalism in the face of the tumultuous 1960s.

“Remember: no bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Three more trailers for your intermission!

And for the second feature of the night:

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Making a return engagement at our establishment after our first ever double bill, Apollo 13 makes for a brilliant compliment to The Right Stuff, continuing the story of America’s journey to the Moon whilst putting the exceptionalism of our daring astronauts in incredible danger for the first time, as the crew of Apollo 13 encounter a disaster which could strand them in space, sealing their fates.

“This 4th of July weekend, I wanted to give to viewers a vision of America that was good and pure in its own way. While the 1960s brought dramatic upheaval to the American Way, in many ways deserved, one shining light of pride was always our space program. While indeed started to beat the Soviets into the military high ground of Earth orbit, it became an incredible odyssey of mankind’s capacity to rise above its terrestrial origins and do what had never been done before. What a time to have been alive that would be. If you have stared up at the moon and ever wished you could have seen those events in person, like me, then this is the double feature for you. I guarantee it; you will never feel a bigger swelling of both American patriotism and love for the human race than will right here.”
– The Movie Maestro, Theater Owner

And that’s all she wrote, folks! Please remember to do your part by picking up your trash, and enjoy the fireworks on the way out! Happy 4th of July to you all!

REVIEW: The Martian (2015)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Drew Goddard, Based on the novel by Andy Weir
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover

Anybody remember video rental stores? Blockbuster? Hollywood Video? Family Video? Those were the days. Anywho, one of the subgenres of science fiction and horror movies I used to rent en masse growing up were what I call the “space survival” stories. These films were usually either low-budget or foreign, always revolving around a group of astronauts (or one) stranded either in space or on some distant, inhospitable planet, with the odds heavily stacked against them. Not to say that Hollywood has never used the genre before (Marooned and Apollo 13 come to mind), not many were able to reach a level of technical and original flair displayed in 2013’s Gravity. The Martian is a bit more formulaic than Gravity, but is not to be dismissed at all. In fact, I’d say it should be even a bit more embraced.

During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return.

The first aspect of The Martian‘s excellent production one tends to notice is the cast. It’s big, a true ensemble. If I’d been blogging in 2015, I would have added a special note in my Top Ten that The Martian would have the Best Ensemble Cast; not only are the finest actors in the film, they are all perfectly cast to their roles. Nobody is out of place, from Damon’s endlessly sympathetic and funny Watney all the way down to a wonderful “breakout” performance from Donald Glover as a young physicist at NASA. (I put breakout in quotations because he really earned a name in Community, but was unknown to most non-viewers of that series until this film and the Amazing Spider-Man controversy.)

The next aspect to notice is the hyper-realistic consistency to the look of the film, a fact no doubt attributable to director Ridley Scott, one of my favorite filmmakers. Ridley, famous for Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator to name a few, is the master at squeezing every bit of minute detail into the frame without sacrificing his incredible compositions. This greatly elevates a film like The Martian, being grounded more so in real-world space tech than the Alien series, by allowing the NASA environments to stand out just as much as the beautiful Martian landscape. Seriously, there is not an ugly shot anywhere in this film. I looked. It’s a shame we are all reduced to having to watch it at home, as with all of Ridley’s work, it must be fully-appreciated in a big cinema.

Third is the screenplay. Based on an excellently-researched and written novel by first-timer Andy Weir, Drew Goddard’s script balances the science-heavy action with deft social commentary on government space travel and bureaucracy, while still managing to keep Watney’s distinctly-American sense of humor intact. Not an easy feat. I actually predict that in twenty to thirty years, a lot of prominent up-and-coming scientists will be citing this film as their inspiration to go into the field, and it’s no wonder. Watney runs into problem after problem attempting to survive over a year past his habitation module’s designed lifespan, while NASA endures plenty of setbacks and terrifying malfunctions of their own. These aren’t simple problems either; while a broken door at your house may result in a couple-hundred dollars spent at a hardware store and a day of work, a broken door on Mars is literal death, for Watney and the potato crops he is attempting to cultivate to ensure his survival. Every little thing on an alien planet is trying to kill you, just like Earth, only a thousand-fold. Watney rises to the challenge over and over again, and the efforts of those back home are just as inspiring. Not only that, but the way in which they tackles these challenges is as authentically scientific as cinema will allow. You can tell Weir is a scientist at heart: he actually think out his plot, and still believes in humanity.

Cinematography, as noted earlier, is excellent and beautifully executed by Ridley’s current partner Dariusz Wolski. Editing is tight and consistent. One noteworthy technical merit, beyond the already excellent rest of them, is the music by Harry Gregson-Williams. The score imparts a style reminiscent of Mark Isham, very earthy and atmospheric, but every now and then he seems to channel Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score, providing truly gorgeous melodic cues that never seem out of place. A real treat that might be worth picking up on CD or iTunes. And despite my hatred of disco music, the frequent use of it in the soundtrack never gets overbearing. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. Bravo.

The Martian is available in two versions: a 2 hour, 21 minute theatrical cut and an extended version with ten minutes of additional footage. Pacing is in no way affected by the additions, as they are well spread out across the feature. It had been a while since I had seen The Martian in theaters, so I didn’t recognize all the new scenes at first, so it is entirely up to you which version you want to seek out. Nothing is really lost watching the theatrical cut, so if that helps, so be it.

The Martian definitely feels like the overachieving big brother of the ‘survival in space’ films I watched in my youth; everything is simply better. Acting, direction, writing, camerawork, visual effects, music, and on and on…it all works. Gravity may be a more ambitious film, but you simply can’t beat Ridley Scott, especially when he decides to do sci-fi that doesn’t leave you trembling in a corner or wondering if human beings are worth the space they occupy. The Martian fully answers that question: yes we do.