Humane ‘Martian,’ wearying ‘Walk,’ powerful ‘Sicario’

FS, Contributing Writer

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In Ridley Scott's new film, "The Martian," Matt Damon stars as an American astronaut stranded on Mars following a manned mission. Photo courtesy of Popcorn and Balderdash.

“The Martian” (wide release)
Ridley Scott’s new extraterrestrial adventure couldn’t be more different from his earlier outer-space chillers: “Alien” (1979) and its prequel “Prometheus” (2012). The film aims for charm rather than fear as it contrasts the struggles of the American astronaut on Mars with the efforts of the NASA ground crew as they devise a rescue plan.

That it succeeds is largely due to Matt Damon’s performance. Playing a nerdy botanist who employs MacGyver-like skills to grow potatoes in Mars’ arid soil and uses parts from an out-of-service Rover to reestablish communications with earth, he makes an affable hero with whom you can’t help but empathize.

The large supporting cast of his fellow crewmen and the folks back home who work to get him back safely are also excellent, but their fine ensemble work would mean little without Damon’s firm but genial performance.

The special effects are unobtrusively superb, and Scott creates genuine excitement in the final reel depicting the rescue mission, though some of the dramatic reversals challenge the plausibility of what’s more a science-fact than science-fiction story.

Ultimately, the essential humanity of “The Martian” — the astronaut’s indomitable will to survive and his colleagues’ determination to do whatever they can to save him — is what makes Scott’s latest outer-space journey so engaging.

“The Walk” (wide release)
The last 20 minutes of Robert Zemeckis’ film about Philippe Petit, the French funambulist famous for stringing and walking on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, are visually amazing, especially in 3-D on a huge IMAX screen. People afflicted with vertigo should prepare themselves.

The first 20 minutes, which portray the challenges Petit and his cadre of friends faced in getting their equipment to the rooftops of the still-unfinished buildings, while avoiding security guards, are also well-staged.

But the middle 80 minutes are an overly cutesy account of Petit’s life prior to coming to New York to realize his dream. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, complete with an atrocious French accent, gives a brutally broad performance as master circus artist, Ben Kingsley, with an even worse accent, teaches him the tricks of the trade and narrates Petit’s life story with an egomaniacal relish that’s intended to be delightful but quickly becomes grating.

The result is that you have to sit through what amounts to an annoying feature before getting to a technically remarkable short film.

“Sicario” (wide release)
Never has the U.S. war on the drug trade been portrayed — and scrutinized — with greater intensity and thoughtfulness than in this remarkable film from Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”).

The movie portrays a special mission to disrupt the cross-border smuggling of a Mexican cartel. The plan involves compromising the gang’s money-laundering operations, assaulting one of its tunnels and tracking down the cartel’s mysterious leader.

This is all revealed gradually, through the eyes of a naively idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) picked to join the team by its jovially ruthless commander (Josh Brolin). The neophyte serves as our surrogate, and the audience comes to realize the darker reality of what’s happening just as she does.

“Sicario” has its share of hair-raising action sequences — a gun battle at a border crossing, a nighttime assault on the smuggler’s tunnel and a tense drive to the cartel’s Mexican headquarters. The poignancy of a thread involving a Mexican policeman and his son balances the high action.

Most disturbingly, however, the film suggests that the line between the good guys and the bad ones in this seemingly never-ending war is not nearly as clear as one might believe.

As with “Prisoners,” Villeneuve has crafted a brilliant procedural that’s ultimately as provocative as it is dramatically compelling.

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