At The Movies: The Martian; Sicario

If you were thinking of going on a movie-watching binge this weekend, you have impeccable timing.

In addition to the excellent “The Walk,” which opened Wednesday in IMAX theaters, two more stellar movies debut this week — the sci-fi adventure “The Martian” and the gritty crime thriller “Sicario.” You won’t go wrong with any of these choices.

The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott and based on a novel by Andy Weir, “The Martian” stars Matt Damon as an astronaut struggling to survive on the desolate red planet until help can arrive. Unfortunately that may take a couple of years.

During a manned mission to Mars, a sudden storm forces the crew to make an emergency departure. As they attempt to return to their ship, astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is struck by debris and tossed into the maelstrom. The ship takes off, with the crew believing Watney dead.

The Martian Launch One SheetWatney wakes up the next morning half covered in sand and totally alone. He makes his way back to the base camp to consider his options. He cannot communicate with his crewmates or Mission Control back on Earth. There is plenty of food, but not enough to last until the next Mars mission, several years away. In order to survive, Watney is going to have to figure out a way to grow crops in the inhospitable Martian soil.

Fortunately, Watney is an expert botanist.Unfortunately, he has many other challenges before him.

Meanwhile back on Earth, someone at NASA notices activity on Mars. Realizing that Watney is alive, NASA’s big brains start working out ways to rescue him, or at least get him supplies until help can arrive.

“The Martian” is smart, funny, beautifully filmed and totally engrossing. Watney’s never-say-die, always-work-the-problem attitude keep the story moving despite the desolate, seemingly hopeless situation. Also working the problem on other fronts are the scientists at NASA, led by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Bridges), and Watney’s crewmates en route to Earth, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). The cast is first rate and Hungary does a nice job substituting for our red neighbor in space.

The movie is a little over two hours but you may start to feel like you’ve been abandoned on Mars before the final act finally gears up. The rescue involves a lot of over-the-top space theatrics that kinda go too far for a film that up to that point had been pretty well grounded.

But I can forgive the last-minute action overload when everything else has been so good.

Sicario

 “Sicario” looks like a movie about the war on drugs at the U.S./Mexico border, and yet the title word, we are told, is translated as “hitman.”

So is this a thriller about the drug wars or a hitman movie? It may take you to the end of the movie for the answer to become clear. But it’s worth it when it all comes together.

Sicario-Poster-8Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macy, an idealistic FBI agent who is tired of cleaning up messes on the border and not seeing any progress. After one particularly appalling incident she’s approached by cheerful-yet-enigmatic government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver wants Macy to join his elite task force that is going after one of the big drug lords.

Joining them on the mission is Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro), a mysterious “consultant” who has some dark issues in his past that have brought him to this point.

Graver and Gillick will do whatever it takes to get the job done, including torture. This doesn’t sit well with Macy but she doesn’t have a lot of say in the matter.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve,  “Sicario” is a clever, violent, taut crime thriller. Unlike some films of this type, the story doesn’t get so mired in twists and turns that you can’t follow it. And while it’s a slow burn for a while the movie really picks up momentum and tension once the task force makes its final play.

Mostly the film is bolstered by dynamite performances from its three leads. But while Blunt and Brolin deliver strong performances, it is Del Toro who steals the show. While he’s almost a background character in the beginning, the story really turns on him by the end.

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