Mission to Mars


Mission to Mars

A little romantic skydancing never hurts a relationship.

(2000) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Peter Outerbridge Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Robert Bailey Jr., Patricia Harras, Lynda Boyd, Jody Thompson, Lucia Walters Pamela Diaz. Directed by Brian De Palma

The human nature is to explore, to find out what lies beyond where we have already been; to ask questions and then find answers. We explore without; the world around us, and someday, the worlds beyond our own. We also explore within; who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Hey, it keeps us busy.

Mission to Mars looks at that aspect of ourselves. Set in 2020, it posits the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Tragedy dogs the mission even before it leaves; its commander, Jim McConnell (Sinese), withdraws following the death of his wife and co-commander of the mission.

At first, the mission seems fairly routine; to discover the feasibility of colonization. However, the new mission commander, Luke Graham (Cheadle) discovers an anomaly, one which quickly turns deadly. When it becomes clear to mission control that something has gone wrong at Mars Base, a rescue mission is mounted, led by Woody Blake (Robbins), his wife Terri (Nielsen) and mission specialist Phil Ohlmyer (O’Connell). Blake insists that McConnell accompany the team, as he is the one who wrote the mission plan for the original expedition, including a possible rescue situation, and knows more about Mars than any other astronaut. It takes some convincing of the still-grieving McConnell but he eventually realizes that he could save lives so he assents.

The rescue mission also meets with unexpected tragedy after a micrometeorite shower holes the ship. The rescue party has to use all their resourcefulness in order to make it to the planet. There, they find the object of their mission … and a puzzle for them to solve. It explains why the first mission had to die … and a whole lot more. Think of this as a junior 2001: A Space Odyssey with better special effects and a director who is more of a storyteller. That, perhaps, is the biggest problem with M2M; rather than leave the mystery pretty much unsolved, letting the audience come to its own conclusions as Stanley Kubrick did with his film, director Brian de Palma makes sure that everything is explained in nice, neat little packages. That takes away from the grandeur of the mystery, and leaves us feeling like Peggy Lee; is that all there is?

Visually, there are some stunning moments, particularly late in the movie during the Martian Head scene, and during a cataclysmic accident. Sinese and Robbins are solid actors who never disappoint; Sinese is particularly excellent, playing an astronaut for the first time since Apollo 13 and comporting himself as a complex man, switching between mourning his wife and achieving the dream they both shared. Cheadle is an actor whose stock in Hollywood was on the rise when this was made; for me it cemented his standing as an actor whose every role was worth seeking out, a place he occupies to this day.

It makes for an odd switch; I’m usually more forgiving of the excesses of sci-fi flicks than Da Queen, but she liked this movie better than I did. That it got a one-hanky recommendation from Da Queen is telling enough; that she found it thought-provoking should be recommendation enough for anyone. For my part, I give it a mild recommendation; certainly, it’s worth seeing for the scope of its vision as well as the performances of its solid cast. I also give the writers props for avoiding cliché characterization and action for its own sake.

Still, I’ve seen 2001, I’ve enjoyed 2001 (although I didn’t love 2001), but this ain’t 2001.

WHY RENT THIS: Some spectacular effects sequences. Solid performances from Sinese, Cheadle and Robbins.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Explains too much – a little more mystery would have gone a long way. Could have used more depth in characterization.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of violence, some bad language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a “hidden Mickey,” seen here when the Mars Explorer lines up with Mars, the rotating circular hub of the spacecraft and antenna dish form the iconic image of Mickey Mouse. Of course, Touchstone is a division of Disney, and “hidden Mickeys” are notoriously placed throughout all of the Disney theme parks as easter eggs for their guests.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an animatics to finished scene comparison that is fairly interesting. The making of featurette also shows the input of NASA into the finished film making it a little more interesting than most.

BOX OFICE PERFORMANCE: $111.0M on a $100M production budget; the movie’s ambitious budget outpaced it’s decent box office and so it was unprofitable during its theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in case I didn’t make it clear in the review)

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Skyfall

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Forrest Gump


Forrest Gump

Life is like a box of chocolate.

(1994) Drama (Paramount) Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinese, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Conner Humphreys, Margo Moorer, Haley Joel Osment, Siobhan J. Fallon, Hanna R. Hall, Marlena Smalls, Geoffrey Blake, Dick Cavett, Nora Dunfee. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Every so often a movie comes along that simply connects on a nearly universal level. It becomes a cultural touchstone, referred to for years after its release and most people will understand the references to it.

Forrest Gump is such a movie. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hanks (his second Oscar in a row after Philadelphia). Catch phrases like “Stupid is as stupid does” and “Life is like a box of chocolates” made it into the lexicon, not to mention “Run, Forrest, Run!”

Forrest Gump (Hanks) was born in Greenbow, Alabama to a mama (Fields) who rented out rooms in her large house to boarders, one of whom would turn out to be Elvis Presley. In fact, Forrest would have encounters with a number of historic, political and cultural figures of the 20th century throughout his life but he only has eyes for Jenny (Wright). She, however, had the rotten luck to be born to an abusive father and spends most of her life running away in one form or another whether that be through drugs or through a succession of skeezy men.

Gump isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier – in fact, he might well be the dimmest – but he attends the University of Alabama on a football scholarship and ends up going to Vietnam after his college days are over. There he meets Bubba Blue (Williamson), a fellow soldier who like Forrest is a bit on the slow side but Bubba still has big dreams – running a shrimp boat of his own from his home in Bayou LeBatre, Louisiana. They are under the command of Lieutenant Dan (Sinese), whose family has a history of sacrifice in war.

Things being what they are, Gump gets wounded in Vietnam and while convalescing discovers ping pong and turns out to be rather good at it. He goes on a goodwill tour of China and upon his return home goes on the Dick Cavett show along with John Lennon and inadvertently supplies the former Beatle with the lyrics of his most iconic song.

He also follows through on his promise to Bubba, buying a shrimping boat and taking on Lieutenant Dan as a first mate, is blessed with the good fortune of being the only surviving boat in Bayou LeBatre after a hurricane decimates it’s shrimping fleet. This enables Forrest to buy more boats and with Lieutenant Dan’s business acumen leading the way, becomes wealthy.

But all his wealth, all his fame mean nothing to Forrest Gump. What matters is his Jenny, the love he’s carried his entire life but she is damaged goods. Can she ever love a man who isn’t very smart?

Zemeckis has in many ways created a movie that captured America during its most tumultuous phase, from the 60s through the 80s. It is a country in turmoil, rocked with anti-war protests and a wide racial divide. America is growing up on its way to 200 years old, going from the self-confident 50s to the troubled 70s, from JFK to Nixon and beyond. Most of the major events of the era are touched by Forrest Gump in some way, whether directly or indirectly.

Hanks gives a performance that is going to forever be one of his most strongly identified. Hanks will always be Forrest Gump to a certain degree and justifiably so – while Forrest Gump is intellectually challenged (slow is how they used to term it), he has a good heart. He is in many ways the ultimate American – not book smart maybe, but hard working and kind. These are for the most part attributes that Americans admire, particularly these days when education is regarded with suspicion in some quarters.

There are those who have analyzed the film and criticized it (and the Winston Groom book it is based on) as promoting an anti-intelligence mindset, which I think is a bit harsh. Many have called it an embrace of conservative values and an indictment of the failure of the counterculture and liberalism in general. Forrest, who embraces traditional American values, is successful. Jenny, who embraces the criticism of those values, becomes a drug addict and the victim of abuse throughout her life; she only finds peace and contentment when she is with Forrest. Conservative politicians have often cited the film as an affirmation of their political ideals.

I do believe that the movie was meant to be more apolitical than it is now believed to be. Regardless of whether you believe this to be anti-intellectual and/or anti-Liberal, I think we can all agree this is wonderful entertainment and a terrific movie. It is most certainly one of the best movies of the 90s, and one of Hanks’ most memorable performances ever – reasons enough to check it out if you are one of the few who hasn’t already.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the classic movies of the 90s.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to celebrate heart over smarts.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some drugs, a little bit of sex, a touch of violence and a modicum of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The legs of Gary Sinese were wrapped in a special blue fabric so that they could be digitally removed during the post-production process.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a trivia track that covers most of the music (hosted by Rolling Stone contributor Ben Fong-Torres) and a Q&A session of Zemeckis, Hanks, Sinese and producer Joe Roth at the University of Southern California on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the movie’s release. There are also some audition tapes as well as a plethora of featurettes on the special effects and sound of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $677.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was as big a blockbuster as it gets.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zelig

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes

The Green Mile


The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan shows Tom Hanks which direction he'll have to grow in to be as tall as he.

(1999) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Gary Sinese, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton, William Sadler. Directed by Frank Darabont

 

I know of at least three authentic American geniuses in the arts named Steve: Stephen Sondheim, who doesn’t figure into this; Steven Spielberg; and Stephen King.

Spielberg started out as a director of entertainments that while not always taken seriously by the critical cognoscenti nonetheless enjoyed extreme popularity. Later, he would direct projects that met with critical acclaim, Oscars and the respect of his peers. He is now rightly considered one of the greatest directors of all time.

Stephen King appears to be paralleling Spielberg’s course. At the start of his career, his work was dismissed as mere horror novels, but they sold in record numbers. Then starting in the late 1990s, he began to produce works of greater depth and heart. Witness The Green Mile, which has been brought to the screen by Frank Darabont, who also directed one of the best filmed adaptations of King’s work, The Shawshank Redemption.

Like Shawshank, The Green Mile is set in a prison in the ’30s at the start of the film. In this case, it’s in cellblock E of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana (moved from Mississippi in the book) circa 1935. Paul Edgecombe (Hanks) supervises the guards on the cellblock, which is better known as Death Row. He has a pretty good team of guards working for him, most notably Brutus “Brutal” Howell (Morse), a surprisingly gentle-natured bear of a man. Their job is to keep calm the men who are waiting to die because, as Edgecombe tells Percy Wetmore (Hutchison), a sadistic guard with connections to the governor, “they can snap at anytime and hurt themselves, or somebody else.”

Into this volatile mix comes John Coffey (Duncan), a huge, hulking, simple man who dwarfs even Brutal. He has been convicted of the rape and particularly brutal murder of two young girls. He seems gentle and frightened, but as his lawyer (an uncredited Gary Sinese) explains, a dog may seem gentle and loving and then unexpectedly turn on you.

Coffey joins a group of men waiting to be executed, including Eduart Delacroix (Jeter), a timid prisoner with a very precocious pet; Wild Bill Wharton (Rockwell), who is understatedly described by Warden Hal Moores (Cromwell) as “a problem child”; and Mr. Jingles, a mischievous mouse.

Coffey, you see, has a gift – a unique and miraculous gift. He shoulders the burden of this gift in a world of suspicion, prejudice and brutality. The Green Mile looks at that world without flinching or blinking, the kind of a world that produces a Wild Bill, a John Coffey and a Paul Edgecombe, who is a decent man doing a horrible job.

Parts of The Green Mile are hideous (a botched execution attempt) and sometimes beautiful (unexplainable cures, fireflies in the moonlight). It also has more urine than you’ll ever see in five movies (courtesy a urinary tract infection for Edgecombe), so those who are squeamish about bodily fluids be warned.

 The acting here is uniformly good, with Hanks at the top of his game and Morse, Jeter and Cromwell – some of the finest character actors in Hollywood then and now – all delivering fine performances. Duncan and Rockwell, both at the very beginnings of their careers, were both terrific, Duncan receiving an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. That was one of four Oscar nominations the film received and while it didn’t win any of them, certainly it received plenty of love from the Academy who are not known for extending much of it to Stephen King and his movie adaptations.

Despite being three hours long, The Green Mile never drags for a moment. That’s because this really isn’t a film about prisons and crime; the human spirit is really the subject of the picture – the nature of good and evil, death and dignity. There are some emotionally gut-wrenching moments. Da Queen had tears streaming down her face for about the last half hour. She claims that The Green Mile is off the Hankie scale completely, and advises that you just have a whole box of tissues available when you sit down and watch the movie. Preferably one of those industrial strength Costco sizes. Trust me, you’re gonna need it.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that you know from the first few moments is going to be a great motion picture experience, one that touches you in deep places, perhaps even comforts you. The Green Mile is just such a movie. It was my pick for the best film of 1999 and remains to this day more than a decade later a modern classic, one which bears repeated viewings. It certainly is a staple in my family and I’m not alone in that assessment. If you haven’t seen it, you are truly missing out.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern classic. A touching treatise on the human spirit. Excellent performances from Hanks, Morse, Duncan, Rockwell, Cromwell and Jeter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe you hate Stephen King on general principles.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can be pretty foul, there are some sexually oriented scenes as well as some fairly disturbing images of murder and execution. There are also lots of scenes involving urine, so be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Stephen King visited the set during filming and asked to be strapped into the electric chair. He was somewhat unnerved by the experience and immediately asked to be released.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While the original DVD release (2000) didn’t have much room for features, the 2-disc special edition (2006) did and included Duncan’s original screen test and a make-up test with Hanks (he was originally set to play Edgecomb as an old man but the make-up was unconvincing and so Dabbs Greer was cast in the role in his final screen appearance) as well as a new nearly two hour feature on the making of the film. The Blu-Ray (2009) has all of these as well as a 34-page Digibook with background on the film, actor bios and an essay on Darabont’s three King adaptations to date.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $286.8M on a $60M production budget; the movie was pretty much a Blockbuster (and is the highest-grossing Stephen King adaptation to date).

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Brothers at War


Brothers at War

The Rademacher Family

(Goldwyn) Jake Rademacher, Isaac Rademacher, Jenny Rademacher, Claus Rademacher, Robert Smallwood, Edward Allier. Directed by Jake Rademacher

One of the defining events of the first part of this century is the Iraq War. The effect of it on our national psyche, our economy and the way America is perceived in the world has been examined in many different documentaries, but few have chosen to directly examine its effect on a single family.

Jake Rademacher is an actor and filmmaker who at one time wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and his brothers and join the military. While he was unable to fulfill that dream, he undertook a lifestyle very much different than that of the rest of his family. Like them, when his brothers Joe and Isaac were deployed to Iraq, he worried about them. When they returned, he sensed a gulf growing between them.

Jake began to suspect that he could not possibly understand his brothers because he hadn’t walked in their shoes. The only way he could do that was to accompany them back on their next tour of duty, and he did just that. The Pentagon co-operated fully and the result here is a documentary that captures the points of view of individual soldiers, and of those they leave waiting and worrying back home.

Yes, there are some scenes of combat, but mostly you get a sense of what makes up the average soldier’s life; boredom and loneliness followed by brief flurries of adrenalin rush. Mostly the soldiers here joke around, reminisce and find ways to pass the time, whether it is in arguing the relative merits of hotties from the O.C. to listening to iPods.

Rademacher talks to soldiers who have returned home from tour and feeling the surrealness of overhearing shoppers in a local grocery store complain about their phone bills, whereas weeks and sometimes days before they were risking their lives in combat. There is some poignancy in listening to Jenny Rademacher (wife of Isaac) who was herself a West Point graduate who had left the military after having their child, feeling the pain of her husband who was away during his daughter’s birth and missing so much of her childhood.

At times, this feels more like a chronicle of Jake’s personal journey to win the approval of his father and brothers rather than a real attempt to understand what they’re going through. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jake agreed with me on that score but nonetheless the filmmaker’s ego is occasionally intrusive, which does not serve the film – or its audience – well.

Some have criticized this movie for not having a political point of view, either pro or con. Quite frankly, that’s not what I think Jake had in mind when he made this film, to express his opinion of the war. I think in fact the movie is stronger for staying away from that particular debate.

In fact, this isn’t really a war documentary, although that is the setting for the film. What I think it is really is a slice of life albeit one that is life in the military. On that level, the movie does justice to those who do serve and to those who await their safe return home. Whether or not you believe that we should have been there, the fact is that we were there and the effect that being there had on families and the men who served deserves to be chronicled.

WHY RENT THIS: A slice-of-life documentary disguised as a documentary on the war.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times you get a sense this is more about Jake Rademacher’s attempt to attract attention from his family rather than to genuinely understand his brothers.

FAMILY VALUES: These are real soldiers in really stressful conditions; their language is accordingly salty. In all honesty, I think most teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Gary Sinese, a friend of Jake Rademacher, was one of the producers for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An update on the status of the Rademacher brothers is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $153,000 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snakes on a Plane