Archive for The Martian

I still don’t know how a pharaoh talks

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2021 by dcairns

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is this giant Ridley Scott biblical epic and although it’s not ludicrous it somehow doesn’t impress either. You don’t know what’s real and what’s just pixels until finally you assume it’s all pixels. In fact they built quite a lot. It’s all colour-corrected to within an inch of its life, or beyond. Watching the extras was a breath of fresh air, suddenly things had their own colours and existence, of which they’re deprived in the movie itself.

The cast seem either clinically depressed or else just underused. Aaron Paul is introduced as a man who feels no pain, and then this never comes into play again. Sigourney Weaver has nothing to do. Christian Bayle — does he exist? His lack of personhood really comes across onscreen: maybe his best casting was VELVET GOLDMINE, which imagined its Bowie-figure as a shapeshifter with a void at the centre. In his interviews in the extras, Bayle speaks with the same gruff mockney accent he uses for Moses and which Russell Crowe used in GLADIATOR.

Joel Edgerton’s Ramses is based not on the Book of Exodus or Yul Brynner but on Joaquin Phoenix in the earlier hit. Phoenix’s confrontation with his father, Richard Harris, already echoed BLADE RUNNER’s meet-up between replicant Roy and his progenitor Tyrrel. It’s hard to decide if the echoes are deliberate, a recurrent theme as beloved of auteurists, or simply a case of Scott repeating a commercial formula that worked.

The movie is dedicated to Tony Scott, who took his life in 2012. As a tale of brothers, E:GAK is an odd tribute. Firstly, they’re not really brothers. Exactly as in GLADIATOR, the pharaoh (John Turturro)/emperor (Richard Harris) has a young warrior he wishes were his son. His natural son is a twisted egomaniac, lacking the competence of Moses/Maximus. The script’s only addition to Biblical lore that seems to resonate with the Scott brothers’ lives, in a way that isn’t grotesque, is Moses/Ridley trying to save Ramses/Tony from the annihilating Red Sea tsunami, which in this context would represent whatever depression or despair led Tony Scott to jump. But I don’t know if this was a conscious echo.

I also don’t know to what extent the film is deliberately right-wing. Scott films often seem to land in such terrain, but you can never get a sense of intent. Still, the movie is more concerned with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, rather than their founding of their own land, so the film’s semi-namesake Preminger film is not evoked, and the film stops just short of being nakedly Zionist in a modern sense.

Scott in interviews appears tongue-tied, unfamiliar with basic figures of speech, at sea in anything resembling abstract concepts. His brains only work at full capacity when directed through his eyes, and then his design sense and imagery are often dazzling. But his colour sense, which always tends towards filtration, desaturisation, monochrome, has overlaid everything in a deadening glaze. Admittedly, this would be less of an issue in 3D, and I ought to have gone to see it on the big screen, if the lovely dimensional-environmental work in THE MARTIAN is anything to go by. But THE MARTIAN was far more involving on a human level.

The dialogue is functional. They avoid making the past seem like another country, they’re trying to make it seem like wherever we are now. I’m not sure this is a good call. I feel shortchanged — like I paid for a holiday and the plane never took off. The characters don’t feel like people you could know, which would be the advantage of robbing them of ancient world alienness. They just feel like movie cliches.

The real false good idea — apart from remaking De Mille, which apparently didn’t inspire the public with the desire to submit to spectacle — is the idea of demythologising the good book. The plagues of ancient Egypt are presented as natural phenomena. Moses communes with God via dreams, and even then, the burning bush doesn’t speak. Somebody stands in front of it and speaks. The dreams are quite scary and Lynchian, but devoid of magic. And the parting of the Red Sea is a tsunami where the tide goes out and rushes back in. Well staged, but you don’t get suspended walls of water. I think, just as the public wasn’t particularly drawn to Sir Rid’s dowdy ROBIN HOOD, a dowdy, unswashbuckled version with a chunky Robin, they weren’t enchanted by the idea of a Red Sea that doesn’t part, but just goes away.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS stars Patrick Bateman; Tom Buchanan; Barton Fink, Jesse Pinkman; Orson Krennic; Lucrecia Borgia; Ellen Ripley; Mahatma Gandhi; Halliday 7 Years Old; Freysa; Maya; Shansa; Saladin; Selyse Baratheon; Qotho; and Spud.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 8, 2015 by dcairns


Charles Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that the only thing he learned from his first director, Henry “Pathe” Lehrmann, was that if a character exited frame left he should enter frame right in the next shot (maintaining continuity of movement, you see). This was kind of a put-down, but in fact you could argue that Chaplin learned very little film technique, besides this basic and essential component, at any point during his fifty-three year directing career. (And if that seems like a put-down, remember what Chaplin was able to accomplish using his “limited” technique.)

In fact, Chaplin sometimes got basic screen direction wrong. In SHANGHAIED, made a hundred years ago (!), Charlie is working in the ship’s galley, mistaking the soup pot for a wash pot and washing the dishes in it. He exits to deliver the now-soapy soup to the captain and first mate —



–and exercises a 180 flip upon passing through the doorway. Now, CC hasn’t done anything impossible (yet) — it’s not even a continuity error, it’s just bad matching of screen direction. We’ve crossed the line while passing from room to room, so that Chaplin seems to be moving in a different direction all of a sudden,

Later, things get weirder still, as the tasting of the soup results in a beating for the cook, who then discovers Charlie’s role in the fiasco. A scuffle, ending with Charlie delivering one of his trademark kicks up the arse to the cook, propelling him through the same door Charlie used earlier —



— only now the door teleports the cook onto the ship’s deck. Same doorway, different destination. A Twilight Zone moment. At least it didn’t flip him 180, which would have made things even more disorienting for him.

The life of a sea cook is rough and confusing, which must be why they’re always fathering illegitimate children.

STOP PRESS: it’s not over until it’s over — a late, and very great blogathon entry from Scout Tafoya, covering late/latest Ridley Scott and late/latest Orson Welles. Here.

Watney’s Red Planet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2015 by dcairns


Matt Damon as Mark Watney became the second ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS in my birthday treat movie on Saturday, which turned out to be a bigger treat than I’d expected, and quite possibly Ridley Scott’s best film since the eighties.

THE MARTIAN — filmed in all three dimensions of outer space! 3D seems to be something directors get better at on repeated exposure — Fleischer, Dante, Arnold. Scott, speaking of PROMETHEUS actually said, “The 3D was no problem at all. We actually see in 3D all the time,” which one might charitably interpret as a senior moment, but Fiona says, “Ridley would still have said that in 1979.” One worried that he hadn’t given the matter sufficient study.

In THE MARTIAN, there’s far more exploitation of the gimmick, but not in a chuck-spaceships-at-the-lens way. PROMETHEUS’s best quality was its vivid and immersive environments, and here the planetscapes are more shapes and multi-leveled, with aerial shots that let the dunes and buttes roll past the lens. But Scott also gets great value out of little sprouts poking through topsoil, and the multiple rows of screens and workstations in NASA HQ. And in the Hermes, he’s gifted us a gyroscopic spacecraft that’s a sheer joy to observe as we fly past it or through its rotating rings. The sensual pleasure of moving through a deep environment becomes as rich as the use of smoke, rain, multiple little light sources, widescreen composition, long lens ECUs, and all the other features of the Scott visual style.


The dumbness of PROMETHEUS, its bad dialogue, and its mainly dopey, inconsistent and unappealing 2D characters, have all been replaced here with an intelligent scenario by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel, full of nice people working together to help each other. It’s astonishingly positive. This, along with the NASA mission control setting, has led to a lot of comparisons with APOLLO 13, which is a very good film, probably Ron Howard’s best, so the likening isn’t an insult, but I think this one’s better, because it has the same virtues plus some extra ones, mostly audio-visual.

Scott’s always been rather good at casting, though his background in ads would seem to equip him solely to flick through Spotlight and pick out faces he liked. But look at ALIEN — every one of the Nostromo’s crew is a wonderfully quirky thesp. When ill-health forced Jon Finch to drop out, Scott replaced him with John Hurt, which shows flexibility as well as excellent taste. For BLADE RUNNER, Scott’s masterstroke was Rutger Hauer, but he also saw something in Darryl Hannah that nobody else had recognized, and was one of very few directors to have tapped the potential of Joe Turkel (basically Kubrick and Scott are his whole career).

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Here, Damon is a personable everyman, onscreen solo for most of 140 mins, and neither bland nor irksomely quirky. The quirks are left to the supporting cast, all briefly sketched in but suggesting the possibility of greater depths. For a while it feels like Kate Mara is going to do nothing but punch computer keys, but some more stuff eventually happens. Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and of course Kirsten Wiig are often associated with comedies, which I guess equips them to be likable. Sean Bean seems like a stand-in for the director. And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña… it’s just such lovely company to be in.


In Bunuel’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, when Dan O’Herlihy leaves the island he hears his dog bark — a dog that had died some years before. This is something I sometimes quote to students as an example of the poetic power of surrealism. Nobody needs to have the moment explained, yet it comes from a place beyond the rational. There’s nothing as elegantly imaginative as that here, but there is the power of realism. The design and performances and writing create a conviction that carries us along. We don’t need interpersonal conflict hyped up when the central situation works as a magnificent plot motor.

Robinson Crusoe is a tricky figure to make work on screen, since fictional characters feed off their interrelationships with one another to become real and engaging. Someone else has to care about them before we can. Watney is alone for ages, and we get very little interaction with his team-mates, but what makes us go with him is his relationship with US, via the vidcams dotted around his Martian “hab.” Implausibly, these all provide a 3D image, something I guess you just have to go with, but it’s worth it.

Saw the film with an actual botanist, who thought it plausible enough except that Martian sunlight would be rather weak for growing veg, and Damon should have swept the red dust off his skylight to help things along.