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Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Watch this on The Scene.

The New Yorker's Richard Brody posted the above "Movie Of The Week" video essay about Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars today on his blog. Here is the text he posted to accompany the video:

"The best thing in The Martian isn’t the science or the suspense but the strangeness of space—an element that its director, Ridley Scott, downplays and that Brian De Palma revels in, with gleeful inventiveness, in his 2000 feature, Mission to Mars, which I discuss in this clip. De Palma’s film is a story of rescue as well, in which Don Cheadle plays an astronaut marooned on Mars; Gary Sinise, Connie Nielsen, Tim Robbins, and Jerry O’Connell play his crewmates, who are making the return trip to Earth when they learn of his survival and head back to get him. The strangeness that De Palma conveys is as much psychological and even metaphysical as it is practical. Space is big and empty, stations are confined, weightlessness is baffling, durations are distorted, and relationships are skewed. The scientific angle of Mission to Mars is approached with wonder, but there’s also a supernatural angle that simultaneously tethers the movie to classic life-in-space fantasies and gives rise to a second layer of speculation (which I also discuss in this clip) that, while defying the letter of the plot, is entirely in tune with its spirit."

Posted by Geoff at 6:24 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, October 28, 2015 6:31 PM CDT
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Saturday, October 10, 2015


David Sims, associate editor for The Atlantic, covering culture: 

"In 2000, two films emerged that were obviously inspired by recent successful NASA missions that uncovered evidence Mars had once borne water (and possibly life). As such, they felt less rooted in that Western spirit—instead, both serve as darker parables on the dangers of exploration. Antony Hoffman’s Red Planetstarring Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss, is a grunting techno-thriller with a terrific electronic score but horrible, muddy visuals. In the 2050s, Kilmer’s character and his NASA team discover evidence of giant insect life on Mars, somehow awakened by human exploration. It’s ultimately a grim tale of survival against the odds, with its colorful ensemble (including Terence Stamp and Benjamin Bratt) getting picked off one by one. At the end, Kilmer blasts off the surface with a middle finger raised to it, screaming 'Fuck this planet!' Budgeted at $80 million, Red Planet grossed only $33 million worldwide.

"Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars is a more elegant beast in the hands of a director who happily apes Stanley Kubrick’s greatest hits from 2001The film is most assured when its crew is in space, en route to Mars to rescue the survivors of an exploration mission gone wrong. It also plays on some of the planet’s most recognizable and strange surface features, like the Cydonia region that features an outcropping that looks, from satellite imagery, like a giant face. But on the whole, Mission to Mars feels like a religious pilgrimage. There are nasty moments, like when a sand tornado rips one astronaut into pieces, but the film dwells on its final realization that the planet once harbored alien life that seeded human existence on Earth. Like its genre-mates, Mission to Mars is best when it focuses on the science, and it loses its grip when the story turns hokey.

"That’s the ultimate achievement of The Martian. When Watney grows his potatoes, the director Ridley Scott makes each sprout feel like an achievement; every effort to cross Mars’s terrain follows weeks of forethought. Though it’s lacking Martians, ancient edifices, or even a threatening algae bloom, it comes closest to Burroughs’s original romantic conception of the world as one so similar, yet so frighteningly different to the one we know. There’s a reason pundits are predicting the film will set off renewed interest in manned exploration of the Solar System. Though Watney clings to survival throughout, the idea of creating life and a home in such an empty new world is as challenging and stirring as the most idyllic visions of the Wild West."

Posted by Geoff at 5:23 PM CDT
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Thursday, October 8, 2015



Writing for National Review, Armond White reviews Ridley Scott's The Martian

"Scott’s extravagant, hackneyed approach to genre overtakes The Martian’s drawn-out narrative. As Watney struggles, his crewmates atone, NASA watches, China lends a hand, and a diverse gathering of Earth-bound well-wishers wish each other well, the pile-up of clichés reminded me that all this has been seen and done before: Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, James Franciscus, Richard Crenna, and Lee Grant were more relatable at it in John Sturges’s conventional but effective Marooned. James Caan’s stranded yet ecstatic astronaut in Robert Altman’s Countdown was the purest expression of space-age aspiration. The distress metaphor was singlehandedly accomplished by Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Robert Redford in All Is Lost. Watney’s crew captain Jessica Chastain just endured a similar predicament in Interstellar. Best of all, Brian DePalma turned the dilemma into visual poetry with Mission to Mars (2000). It owed little to Kubrick’s 2001; instead it boasted DePalma’s exquisite languor, tension, and humor. Mission to Mars leapt beyond death to spiritual evolution in vibrant sci-fi hues. The ultimate disappointment of The Martian is Scott’s lackluster post-Alien style. He can’t disguise his detachment. Without highly aesthetic imagery, Scott’s just a low-NRG J. J. Abrams."

Posted by Geoff at 12:12 AM CDT
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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stephanie Zacharek reviews Ridley Scott's The Martian at The Village Voice
Scott orchestrates all of this like a pro. Two of his last three movies (Exodus: Gods and Kings and Prometheus) were so grand in scale that making this one probably wasn't a leap. He's workmanlike in his approach to science, which always trumps magic in The Martian — that's the point. But if we can't feel a sense of wonder at the magnitude and mystery of space, why even bother? In 3-D, at least, The Martian is handsome only in a perfunctory way: As with so many 3-D movies — Hugo and Gravity are exceptions — its hues look somewhat anemic and drained. (Stills from the film look brighter and richer, suggesting it might be best viewed in 2-D.) Even Mars's craggy landscape is less than vivid. Portions of the film were shot in Wadi Rum, in Jordan, but cinematographer Dariusz Wolski fails to make this desert landscape look otherworldly — the Death Valley of so many B westerns looks more mysterious and threatening.

Or, flipping to a more recent reference, what about the satiny red sandscape of Brian De Palma's 2000 Mission to Mars, a half-dreamy, half-plausible effect achieved in part by cinematographer Stephen Burum's use of light reflectors made of copper sheeting? If I have to be stuck on Mars for any length of time, that's the one I want. The most affecting sequence in The Martian comes late, after Damon's Watney has been stranded on this dangerously semi-hospitable planet for such a very long time: His previously robust frame is bony. His face — that of a man who, even in his mid-forties, looks barely old enough to shave — has sprouted a rangy, mountain-man beard. Watney has refashioned himself as a space pirate. Finally, he's gone potty, but only just a little — he'll spring back to normal soon enough.

But for a few moments, he's a spiritual twin to Don Cheadle in Mission to Mars, another left-behind astronaut who managed to make stuff grow. By the time Cheadle's friends and colleagues finally rescue him, he has become the prisoner of a greenhouse that has also saved his life — it's enemy and sustenance at once. And even though he, like Watney, regains his sanity, there's a glimmer of madness in his eyes that will never fully dissipate. Mission to Mars was derided on its release, but there are few movies about space exploration as visually resplendent, or as delicately perched between mournfulness and optimism. And have we really reached the point where advanced special effects count for more than visual imagination? De Palma, himself a high school science fair winner, approached space as a mystery, a problem beautiful in its vast unsolvability. Scott, all about solutions, gives us the most seemingly authentic Mars money can buy. That doesn't make it the best.


Posted by Geoff at 7:13 PM CDT
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Monday, September 14, 2015
A couple of Mission To Mars-related items, beginning with John Semley, special to The Globe and Mail:
In past years covering TIFF, I’ve generally avoided the parties. There are a few reasons for this.

First, I am generally contemptuous (or at least wary) of celebrity and everything it connotes, and really don’t care if I am, technically, standing in the same room as George Clooney or Susan Sarandon or Pete Postlethwaite or whoever. Second, as a working journalist, parties have previously served a purely utilitarian function, providing free food and booze that I can suck back, hunched over a tiny cocktail napkin, wearing a knapsack like a cartoon turtle. I also generally try to avoid any social event where I’d have to wear much more than jeans and a t-shirt.

But in the spirit of experiencing new things, pushing myself outside my comfort zone, wearing pants that aren’t stained with mustard, etc., I accepted an invitation to the cocktail party celebrating the premiere of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, starring Matt Damon as a NASA botanist accidentally left behind on the Red Planet.

The movie itself is a fairly hollow crowd-pleaser, workshopped to feel massively appealing — funny enough, tense enough, propelled by Drew Goddard’s glib, Sorkin-lite dialogue. It’s fine. Is it as good as Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, in which Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen’s slow dance in Zero Gs to Van Halen’s Dance the Night Away? No. Of course it isn’t. But then, what is?

And last month, Reb MacRath posted a highly entertaining rant on why De Palma is "the Real Deal," under the headline, "Too Wild to Not Be Reviled". I like his description of Passion as "a beautifully calm thriller." Check it out:
No matter what he did, though, two things could be counted on: bubble-headed critics would still call him a clone of Alfred Hitchcock with an obsessive interest in voyeurism and kinky sex,..and the hardest core De Palmians would stand by their man.

Until...Well, every story has one...Until he put out a completely non De Palma movie entitled Mission to Mars. And you'll have to travel far and wide to find a movie this reviled.

I mean, really, imagine a De Palma Movie with just one splashing bloody sequence, no kinky sex and almost no trademark camera work. What is [it] about? Well, it combines, quite wonderfully, elements of Gravity, Interstellar and the upcoming movie, The Martian. We begin, Interstellar-like, with a sequence set on earth, in which we get to know the characters. The 15 minutes are well-spent. The flight to Mars is shown in an interesting compression of time. The astronauts land, explore--and are gruesomely dispatched by--we cannot be certain if it's a force of nature or...maybe an alien presence. A rescue team is sent. Lovely scenes aboard their craft until the rocket springs a leak. Gravity-style repair work. Not entirely successful. Exquisite suspense and a heartbreaking loss as they abandon ship and try to reach the dispatched rescue vehicle. They land...search...find graves, indicating someone's still alive. And then...

Now comes the movie's first big surprise--which I won't reveal. Another, still bigger, is coming. What I will say is that, in a two-hour film, the structure and pacing are both spot-on. The acting and scripting are equally good. ('I didn't travel 100 million miles to stumble in the last ten steps.' Or: when chided because he can't dance, the hero tells his wife: 'Hey, some couples tango and some go to Mars.') The movie's inner Swiss watch ticks as we advance on schedule to the Big Reveal.

As for the last fifteen minutes...Here we come to the great I Don't Know. I didn't like the ending. I'd wanted something different. Many viewers have hated the ending and condemned the entire film because of it. Stand back, though. We can't have it all ways.

We can't have a Real Deal Rebel who's been completely housebroken and repeats all the tricks we love best, at our call. The Real Deal is subversive and loves to thwart expectations. The Real Deal will transform a kinky, borderline sleazy film like Femme Fatale into a dream, onto which he then tacks on a lush, romantic ending. The Real Deal, late in his career, [will] thwart all expectations with a beautifully calm thriller, Passion.

Because he refuses to 'heel' on command, we should never grow too comfortable in the presence of such an artist. The best are loving people--with a streak of junkyard dog.

But relax. They're not out to hurt but delight us as they take us by the throat. Now and then they succeed at that by showing us their hearts.

Posted by Geoff at 10:58 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, September 14, 2015 11:02 PM CDT
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Friday, December 6, 2013
Critics At Large's Steve Vineberg revisted Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars a couple of weeks ago for an ongoing series called "Neglected Gems." "When I saw Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars in 2000 with a heckling, pre-release audience, I didn’t think much of it," begins Vineberg. "A year later, though, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria screened it on a double bill with The Fury as part of a month-long De Palma retrospective, and a group of former students who took me out there to see The Fury persuaded me to stay and take a second look at Mission to Mars. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the two movies that made me look at Mission to Mars with new eyes, but the second time around I fell in love with it. The Fury has an almost insane narrative, but it’s a work of such visual inventiveness and emotional potency that, if you connect with it, the story is no obstacle; its excesses serve the movie just as equally ridiculous stories serve Jacobean tragedies and nineteenth-century operas. And though Mission to Mars has a much simpler silly plot, it too is a kind of outline – you might say a metaphor – for De Palma’s ideas about the tension between technology and humanity and the nature of loss, his two favorite subjects."

After describing the plot of Mission To Mars, Vineberg continues, "The key to gaining access to the face in the sand, it turns out, is the crew’s ability to furnish proof that they’re human. Mission to Mars is a space story, but it’s the anti-2001: A Space Odyssey. In De Palma’s Blow Out, the hero (John Travolta) keeps making the mistake of putting his faith in technology; so, on a smaller scale, does the teenage boy (Keith Gordon) in Dressed to Kill who’s trying to track down his mother’s killer. For these characters, technology is at best inadequate to achieve the (human, emotional) ends they want to put it at the service of; at worst it backfires and results in the deaths of the people they care about. By the time Mission to Mars takes place, technology is inescapably the ruling force, but De Palma uses the fact of all this technology, ironically, as a way of focusing on the human dilemmas that beset the people who have to deal with its inadequacy and its capacity for bringing disaster. Science has found a way for the astronauts to float through space without the benefit of a space capsule, but only for limited amounts of time, i.e., only as long as the oxygen in the tanks strapped to their backs holds out. When Woody is unable to harness the drifting capsule after the rest of the spaceship has crashed, he finds he hasn’t enough oxygen left to return to his companions. Terri insists she should float out to rescue him – a futile act that would end up killing both of them. So Woody pulls off his helmet and meets the lethal pressure of Mars’s atmosphere head-on, an act of self-sacrifice that comes out of his love for his wife. The separation of husband and wife plays off one of the movie’s most ecstatic visual moments, when they dance together to a Motown tune in the gravity-free atmosphere of the spaceship en route to Mars. But De Palma fans will also recognize his trademark image – the character who watches in helpless anguish while someone, usually a loved one, is destroyed before his or her eyes – from The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Casualties of War and Mission: Impossible. Woody’s demise may be the most strangely poetic version yet of a motif that amounts to an obsession: Robbins’s face turns, magnificently, to cracked granite.

"The tragedy that divides Woody and Terri echoes, of course, the loss of Jim’s wife Maggie, whom we see only once, in a video (played, touchingly, by Kim Delaney) their friends prepared when they were chosen to helm the Mars mission. Jim watches it on a monitor in the ship when he winds up traveling there without her. It’s a double-time frame sequence – the video contains images from this joyous time interspersed with earlier ones from the McConnells’ wedding. I might not have made this connection had I not just rewatched The Fury, but the visual dynamic of an image embedded within another image and two sets of observers recalls the scenes in that movie where Amy Irving is caught in a psychic link with a besieged Andrew Stevens while someone else – who can’t see what she sees – tries to communicate with her. This is a visual notion with amazing emotional resonance for these stories of loss. In The Fury, Irving’s Gillian longs to meet the boy who shares her freakish psychic gifts; her separation from him, except in these imperiled visions she has no power to alter, underscores her isolation from the rest of the world, from the people she loves who don’t share her abilities. And when she finally does get close to him, it’s too late: he’s already destroyed. The video that brings Jim’s wife back to him, if only for a few minutes, is a trick of technology that is finally just a reminder of the uncrossable distance between them. He can replay this moment of happiness and relive not only his loss but also his bafflement: here they are at the peak of their lives together, anticipating a future that, though neither knows it, will never come to pass. In the video Maggie makes a toast to them standing at the threshold of a new world, but mere months later she was sick and he stood on the threshold of life and death, watching the most important person in his life fading away from him. De Palma gets at this idea in another way, too. The transmissions the first Mars crew sends back to earth have a twenty-minute delay. Back at home, Jim and the others watch as Luke and his companions, full of good humor and optimism, light a candle in a slab of cake to honor Jim’s birthday before setting out across the sand to explore the structure. The NASA observers have no way of knowing that even while they’re watching this transmission, twenty minutes after Luke sends it, his crew is being torn apart."

(Thanks to Hugh!)

Posted by Geoff at 11:59 PM CST
Updated: Saturday, December 7, 2013 12:07 AM CST
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Sunday, October 6, 2013
Armond White at City Arts has posted his review of Alfonsso Cuaron's Gravity, and is sour on what he sees as Cuaron's "glib cynicism," left over from the director's Children Of Men, unearned Kubrickian sense of "intellectual contemplation and wonder" (in Gravity's opening-image evocation of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Cuaron's "fashionable" anti-religious "sop to the hipster market". White then contrasts Gravity with Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars and Walter Hill's Supernova:

Too bad Gravity’s fanboy audience is conveniently ignorant of richer space dramas like Walter Hill’s sexy-scary Supernova and Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars (remember that astoundingly witty Ennio Morricone score?) which entertainingly combined psychological and visionary pondering with sci-fi agape. Hill advanced the genre with tense, erotic, metaphysical characterizations. Nothing in Gravity compares to Mission to Mars’ extraordinary orchestration of passion and dread among a team of astronauts attempting to forge a lifeline in outer space. DePalma created an unforgettable, breathtaking sequence of love and loss. His great tragic humanism was more powerful than Cuaron’s tepid “hope.”

Posted by Geoff at 11:59 AM CDT
Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 12:01 PM CDT
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Thursday, October 3, 2013
Writing from the Venice Film Festival last month, Stephanie Zacharek posted a review of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity for the Phoenix New Times, calling Cuaron "one of our greatest living directors." Zacharek states, "I'm thoroughly sick of 3D movies and I would have been happy to never have to look at one again. But I wasn't prepared for the way Cuarón uses it to explore both wonder and despair, in Gravity. Forget stretched-out blue people, Peter Max-colored flora and fauna, and explosions comin' at you: This is what 3D was made for."

Zacharek compares Gravity to Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars, as well as to Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, the latter of which she calls "superb." Here are the last three paragraphs from her review:

Gravity is both lyrical and terrifying, and sometimes Cuarón even merges the two, sending us into free fall along with his characters. No space movie arises from a vacuum, and the obvious comparative pulse points for this one include The Right Stuff and Brian De Palma's sorely underloved Mission to Mars. The Right Stuff isn't so much about space as about the space program, but Cuarón — who co-wrote the script with Jonés Cuarón, his son — captures the mingling of duty and curiosity that motivates any human being who actually makes it into space. And Cuarén, just as De Palma was, is alive to the empty-full spectacle of space and to the workaday poetry of the words astronauts use to describe it. At the time Mission to Mars was released, detractors made fun of the allegedly stiff dialogue. But have you ever heard astronauts — who are usually men of science, not Iowa Workshop grads — speak when they get that first long-distance view of planet Earth as a glowing orb? They grab for the simplest words, which are often the best...

Cuarón is even more of a romantic than De Palma, if such a thing is possible. He finds all kinds of ways to link survival in space with life on Earth. There, as here, anyone might have reason to feel loneliness, despair, fear, or exaltation, and homesickness — for a place, a person, a planet — is universal. Incidentally, the first person who tries to tell me Gravity is "unrealistic" or "implausible" is going to get a mock-Vulcan salute and a kick in the pants.

Given the amount of balderdash we have to swallow just to get through a typical summer movie season, taking a small leap of faith and imagination with Cuarón should hardly be a problem. Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.


The New Zealand Herald's Dominic Corry also brings up Mission To Mars in his review of Gravity:

[Cuarón's] Children of Men famously features a bravura action sequence during which the camera maintains a single shot for almost four minutes without cutting. It's one of the coolest action scenes in cinema history, and when word emerged that Cuarón would be employing similar techniques in Gravity, film fans the world over rubbed their hands together in delight. Gravity isn't all long tracking-shots, but they make up the majority of the film, and enhance the tension to no end.

One of cinema's biggest proponents of the extremely long tracking shot is Brian De Palma, who I wrote about last week. Long tracking shots are a cool idea, but can be very difficult to pull-off without calling attention to the filmmaking. Hitchcock was a fan too; as was Robert Altman; but De Palma's voyeuristic style always best suited the technique in my mind - until Children of Men came along, that is.

Brian De Palma was also behind a widely-derided (but secretly awesome) film which now stands as a noteworthy antecedent to Gravity - 2000's Mission To Mars.

There's a full-on sequence near the beginning of the film which involves a space walk and a desperate attempt to grab on to a satellite. When details about Gravity started emerging, I hoped that it would be a movie-length version of this scene. And it is. In the best possible way.


Posted by Geoff at 1:19 AM CDT
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013 1:20 AM CDT
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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Posted by Geoff at 8:01 PM CDT
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Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek finds Ridley Scott's Prometheus a bit too tasteful, overcomplicated, and ultimately lackluster. "You can practically hear Prometheus groaning under the weight of its ambitions," she muses disappointedly, adding, "it’s a far cry from the sound Scott was going for, the music of the celestial spheres." Her review includes some spoilers, but none in the following excerpt, in which she compares Prometheus to Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars...

Scott is trying to make sure Prometheus is about something, and his ideals may have distracted him from the more prosaic task of just getting on with the storytelling. When Brian De Palma presented, with Mission to Mars, a much more passionate, and more narratively sound, version of this sort of interplanetary spiritual idealism, it was treated as a “bad” science fiction movie. Prometheus, on the other hand, is tasteful even in the midst of all its squirm-inducing gross-outs, and that’s a liability: It’s impossible to have tasteful passion.

Meanwhile, De Palma a la Mod reader Sergio posted on another thread: "I just saw Prometheus and it really is a lot like Mission To Mars, and not just because they are both channelling Kubrick's 2001. Most of the action beats and story beats are pretty much the same, as is the subtext of the movie, too, about aliens seeding earth. There's even a 'Face' ..."

Posted by Geoff at 6:39 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 12:21 AM CDT
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