November 2015 Media Round-up (Movies, Pt. 1)


The Martian (2015)

I was worried that I wouldn’t be into this since I’m not really one of those Fuck Yeah Space people, but man, this was so good. So many Feels were induced1; so many tears were shed. I don’t know—I’m sure this has been/will be said to the point of cliche, but The Martian is a movie celebrating Humanity/the Human Spirit/etc. and that somehow really gets to me, emotionally, in the context of fiction2, even though I’ll be a huge asshole about it in real life.

It seems notable that there weren’t any human villains. The closest we come is the Jeff Daniels character, but that’s mostly just because I find Jeff Daniels’ face and mannerisms super punchable at all times (thanks, The Newsroom). Still, none of the choices that he made were unambiguously bad or evil or anything; they were mostly reasonable and justified calls given his position in the bureaucracy. Obviously, given the narrative structure of the movie, we’re biased to be pro whatever choices will get Matt Damon back to Earth, but considering the expenses and risks involved with space travel, it’s not that clear-cut. You can certainly understand the different viewpoints without assigning the positions of Good Guy and Bad Guy.

It’s kind of rare to watch a movie where there aren’t really any personal conflicts or malevolent forces (random accidents of nature are just…indifferent). And I’m so glad no one died—it seemed possible that any of the crew members3 could die on the rescue mission to shoehorn in some tragedy and make it so that their decision to mutiny was not completely validated—but they didn’t! I don’t care how realistic or not that lack of consequences is, a truly earned happy ending can be so powerful.

There’s this relevant xkcd comic from a while ago; I’ve never seen Apollo 13, so the reference was a bit lost on me, but that description made me really doubt whether I would like The Martian, because, again, I am pretty non-enthused about the whole Space thing. A more relevant comparison for me, it turns out: if you like the scenes in Breaking Bad where Walter uses his scientific background to engineer solutions to seemingly impossible problems using limited materials and Jesse is like “yeah, bitch! magnets!” then you’ll probably like The Martian, as Matt Damon’s character represents the best of both worlds, in terms of ingenious engineering and delightful colloquialisms. In general, the dialogue in The Martian is just so good. Because, I mean, unlike what a lot of movies and TV shows will have us believe, scientists don’t always speak in formal language. Having the characters speak colloquially goes a long way in making them feel human and thus making the audience give a shit. In particular, that Elrond discussion was golden.

Here is a thing that I didn’t really think about when watching, but saw mentioned in the AV Club review of the book on which the movie is based:

The Martian manages to have a good excuse for having a hero who can solve almost every problem while still being hilarious: NASA had the luxury of only sending geniuses that can stay in good spirits while floating in space for months.

Which, right, that is such a thing. I don’t know what I want to say about it, but it seems worth mentioning. Damon’s character is alone on Mars for, like, 500 some days? Over a year. And it’s unclear how much media he has access to (disco music and Happy Days, at least), but god that must be so fucking boring. And yet, given that, had the mission had been successful, the journey back to Earth would still have been several months in a ship with the same handful of people, NASA must have specifically selected people to be able to handle long periods of time without much sensory input without going crazy.

Also: glad they didn’t feel the need to give Damon’s character a wife and kids or a fiancée or something at home. Or even to show his parents. It would have felt like a sort of cheap emotional ploy to make his experience more tragic, and I could easily see a lesser movie cutting to scenes of the sad wife and cute children whom he can’t see. And it definitely wasn’t necessary—it’s very clear that, yeah, this dude’s situation blows. He’s handling it way better than the average person, but there’s no doubt that it blows, and that’s more than enough reason for him to want to get back to Earth.

Finally: ABBA. Oh my god, that use of “Waterloo” was glorious.

Burnt (2015)

One would probably be better off just rewatching the short-lived TV show Kitchen Confidential, which also stars Bradley Cooper as a bad boy chef making his career comeback after recovering from various addictions. Perhaps a relevant question is: why does Kitchen Confidential work when this doesn’t, considering the similarities?

Kitchen Confidential focuses more on the ensemble cast—certainly, that’s easier to do over the course of 13 episodes than in a 2 hour movie, but given that Burnt was initially titled Adam Jones (the name of the protagonist), it probably never was intended to be an ensemble-focused movie. The recruitment montage was fun, when it seemed like Burnt might be a chef version of Ocean’s Eleven, but then we kind of forget about everyone other than Adam’s love interest, Helene (Sienna Miller).

The treatment of Adam Jones and his issues. Again, Jack Bourdain, Cooper’s character in Kitchen Confidential, had a similar backstory of addiction and womanizing that he’s trying to make a comeback from. And yet, he’s somehow more likable there, because he’s not as apologetic about it. Or something; it’s actually really hard to say. Burnt‘s attempts to psychoanalyze Adam and attribute his addiction issues and perfectionism to his difficult background and early success make him somehow less likable to me, even though the goal there is to make him more sympathetic? The psychological insights from Emma Thompson’s character are super unsubtle writing, although that is kind of the point of therapists, I guess.

It also brings up some of the same issues as Whiplash or Steve Jobs, with the whole “how much assholery are we willing to tolerate for genius?” thing. The answer in Burnt appears to be: all of the assholery4. Whereas I think in Kitchen Confidential, the answer was slightly different. It might just be nostalgia goggles, but I remember the characters in Kitchen Confidential as being more willing to push back against/call out Jack’s assholery, which made it more tolerable.

The romance aspect of Burnt is also kind of, well:

I don’t super love the gender commentary going on with Adam being driven to abandon his partying ways by his career failure vs. Helene abandoning her partying ways because she had a kid.

What even was that scene with Adam and Helene’s kid and the birthday cake? What was that trying to get across? Because it was very long in a way that felt like it was meant to be significant, but I’m ultimately not sure what the point was.

I don’t know, the romance felt very much—they’re going to fuck because they’re the male and female leads of this movie, but does that relationship actually make sense once you analyze it beyond the physical? Can she really get over the tactics he used to get her to work for him—using his connections to get her fired from her old restaurant—and his initial (ludicrously harsh) treatment of her as his employee? And the fact that he refuses to give her the day off for her daughter’s birthday with the justification that she’s just too good at her job and good people become “indispensable?” And that he’s probably not even in a good place, mentally and emotionally, for a relationship right now? And that it’s certainly not good for workplace dynamics if it goes wrong? It’s not like Cooper and Miller have so much chemistry that you, the viewer, need to see them make out because the tension is just so unbearable; this is a case where it would have been legitimately refreshing to see them just end up as friends, because they’re similar and have a good repartee w.r.t. coming up with dishes and shit, but not anything more.

Okay, so Adam’s main goal throughout the movie is to earn his third Michelin star. About midway through the movie, the Michelin men come to his restaurant, but one of Adam’s chefs, Michel (Omar Sy), sabotages the dishes presented to the Michelin men as revenge for something Adam did to him years before. Adam then goes on a bender and ends up trying to suffocate himself with a freezer bag in his rival Reece’s (Matthew Rhys) kitchen, but Reece saves him5 and validates his ego by telling him that he’s the better chef. Adam makes peace with the whole incident, only for it to be later revealed that the supposed Michelin men were just two dudes. And when the real Michelin men come, he decides to treat it like any other meal and—it’s implied in the wordless interaction between him and Tony (Daniel Bruhl)—succeeds in getting his third star.

Anyway, when the sabotage happened, my thoughts were:

  1. OMG, that is such a dedicated revenge plan, props Omar Sy character
  2.  It would be a pretty ballsy move on the movie’s part, to just not have Adam get his third star by the end.

So it felt like a bit of a cop-out to have the emotional impact/learning experience of failing only to reveal that it didn’t actually matter and Adam Jones still gets to win in the end. I suppose it would also be pretty cliched to have him not get the star6, but realize that there are More Important Things. So I don’t know what the non-cheap solution would be, but then again, I’m not a professional screenwriter, am I?

My main takeaway: if we want to stick to the hyper-competent professionals with personal demons angle, I would like to see the Michael Mann version of Burnt.

1. Especially during the “Starman” montage. Is it super predictable to use David Bowie in this type of movie? Yeah, sure, but who cares? It’s so fucking effective. Partially because of the song and sequence itself, but also—and I assume this was completely intentional—because it forces the audience to think about “Space Oddity without being so on-the-nose as to actually go there. ^
2. See also: The scene in The Amazing Spider-man where NYC’s crane operators all spontaneously coordinate to help Spider-man get to OsCorp in time to save the city. I am maybe tearing up a little just thinking about it. ^
3. Well, Matt Damon couldn’t die, probably, because that would be too much tragedy, but Sebastian Stan? Maybe. ^
4. Although do we actually buy that Adam’s a culinary genius? Certainly, his rival, Reece, saying so means something, but there’s also the whole thing with his old-fashioned tastes and questionable management practices, so: who knows. ^
5. Which, okay, I found touching,because I am a sucker for rivals turned friends. ^
6. Unclear how the Michelin system works, but do you only get one visit from the Michelin men per restaurant or what? Could he not just get his star some other time? ^


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