There is an embarrassment of riches playing in the theaters. There is no better time to get out and watch a movie than right now. What’s even better is that there is something for everyone. Here are 3 recent films and who might want to check them out:
The Martian is a great film for STEM majors. It’s heroic and harrowing. It makes those in STEM professions look good. Literally. I mean Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and I could go on but you get the idea. It’s filled with stars in even the smallest roles making this the incredibly likable Hollywood hit to beat. Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut Mark Watney fights to stay alive on Mars with only his wits and wry sense of humor to keep himself from freezing, starving or going insane. The film’s standout moments come from Watney’s humor to keep himself going and us going right along with him. It connects the audience through every trial, victory and disaster. It’s also incredibly entertaining.
My second viewing was in a room full of engineer types who gave off the vibe that they were straight up not impressed with the flamboyant “I F*cking Love Science” parts of the film. This interpretation of the more robust self published book though came to my attention through an engineer who loved the book and loved the film. The book is a better fit for those who formally have declared their allegiance to equations and the hard process of mathing all the things. After reading the book, I’m sure even the most skeptical know-it-all will want to see the film.
Sicario will be great for edgy poli-sci majors who are inexplicably flirting with neo-something-ism after reading one issue of Foreign Affairs. I’ve jokingly called it Zero Dark Mexico because of the plot elements Sicario shares with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. For a certain “I think about foreign policy” type of person both of these films scratch an itch. In both films a female lead investigator in a foreign land ends up using a special forces team to do ambiguous dangerous stuff as retaliation for an attack on United States sovereign soil. While much of Zero Dark Thirty was inescapably political, some things like the use of torture in Sicario are surprisingly not political. Instead, Sicario plays at something smaller, though there are still mini-pronouncements about things like the failure of the war on drugs in quieter moments. Events are first rooted in character. At its heart Sicario is a small character piece that happens to have thrilling grounded action and ambiguity.
As the opening text of the film tells us, “In Mexico, Sicario means hitman.” Benicio Del Toro plays a character who is, as veteran border correspondent Sebastian Rotella writes, “a man who has nightmares — and inflicts them on others.”. Emily Blunt is the small fish in the big pond quickly needing to adjust to the various government agencies on her task force as well as the different extra-governmental factions who corrupt and kill without warning. How she grapples with Del Toro’s unaffiliated ‘consultant’ on the task force and how she, along with the audience, comes to terms with who he his, his past and his real motivations is pretty much the whole of the film.
The quality of the performances is only beaten by the quality of the images. Roger Deakins is the cinematographer of this film and his decades of work speak for themselves. Sicario is a real film for real grown ups. It is the only must-see on this list.
Crimson Peak is for people in the venn diagram overlap of those who like both Game of Thrones and Jane Austin or for the people who know enough about literature to know that this overlap does not even begin to describe gothic romance, the proper classification for stories like Crimson Peak. It’s not like people with this particular taste have a glut of champions who cater to them in the cinema so the core demo is probably on board already. Then what does this film have for normals? The first thing is tone. The second is vivid images.
For some movies if I just told you the wikipedia entry summary you would hate it. My favorite film Upstream Color is almost all tone and squishy cinematic feels. Trying to give you the play by play of that film’s choices, like intercutting slice of life short stories with a man observing pigs would make me seem insane. I love visual choices that don’t explain well, choices where you really had to be there with the film to feel the intent of the scene.
The story of this film is that a haunted young author inherits her family fortune, falls in love with a dark and mysterious stranger then unravels his mystery and her own. But the bullet point experience of the film is so different from what happens when you sit in the dark and give yourself to the silver screen. Cinema does something that text doesn’t, it suggests feelings. It encompasses. I’m predisposed to like pieces that lean hard on the echos pictures can make in your brain. After all is said and done, you realize, to further the analogy, just how great Guillermo Del Toro is at throwing his voice. In specific terms more work is done in the atmosphere by the red clay that somehow colors just about every surface in the environment than any other single element. The sludgy dark blood texture of the second and third act manor home marks a significant portion of the story in our brains as foreign, dangerous and dirty.
Additionally, the film always relies on particular gore that couldn’t be done in other films. There is never anonymous gore. There are none of those blood/viscera gags you can see cooked up with mashed potatoes and mannequins in some youtube kid’s backyard. Good taste in gore is obviously subjective and a lot of reviewers who wanted deliberate scares and go for broke bloodiness were disappointed by the film’s restraint and focus. Crimson Peak in my view didn’t put the gore into the film to make it horror or scary. It seems like the punctuated moments of violence were found as a consequence of the dramatic action. The moments are reliant on not only the story context but the wonderfully dressed locations that the set pieces happened in. The character investment considered with the color palate here makes what would be even the most mundane acts of violence in a lifeless blockbuster carry weight, threat and cruel beauty.
If you want a bookishly hot and ghostly yet grounded romance with an assured sensibility look no further than Crimson Peak.