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‘The Martian,’ Titans And Hitchcock

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All the hype this week is focused on "The Martian" (opening Oct. 2 throughout San Diego), but there are plenty of other film choices for this weekend.

The Martian, Titans, and Hitchcock

Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, I’m Beth Accomando. My film review is a day late because I wanted to catch a screening of Attack on Titan to include in this week’s film round up.

But first let’s start with the week’s most hyped film The Martian.

CLIP Trailer… surprise…

Summer may have ended last month but The Martian provides the perfect film to transition out of the summer season of big, noisy popcorn tentpole movies and into the Oscar bait season when studios release what they think will be their serious contenders for awards gold. The Martian is definitely being packaged as awards material but it still has a little summer irreverence and sense of fun so it doesn’t feel too weighty and somber. It’s a film with epic interplanetary scope, some A-list stars, yet it still manages an oddly breezy style that makes it easy to watch.

The film is based on Andy Weir’s debut novel. Weir attended UCSD and studied computer science, and has claimed to have a lifelong love of science. His novel is written as lob entries and the first line of the book is “I’m pretty much fucked.” Of course that’s not where the film starts. It has to start big as a storm hits the surface of Mars, forcing a NASA team to abandon its mission and leaving astronaut Mark Watney for dead. But he’s not dead. He’s just got a few challenges.

CLIP Do the math

The Martian is a film fueled by a passion for science and a confidence that every problem has a solution. The great thing about the film and its undeniable appeal lies in an optimism rooted in the joy of science. And what’s exciting about its enthusiasm is that it could inspire a new generation of scientists. But the film serves up an odd mix of science and Hollywood. I’m not a scientist but I have read that many scientists do appreciate that the science is well done. The Hollywood part comes in how the science is glossed up and sped up. Science tends to take time and so does anything you do in space but the film, knowing our fast food appetite, quickens the pace of everything. I will give director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard credit for at least having character mention the fact that messages to and from Mars are by no means instant but once that fact is established, the editing certainly makes it seems as fast as texting. So while I have an issue with the pace of the narrative, I understand that it’s a necessary thing in order to make the film more entertaining and to fit in as much as they did from the novel.

The other oddity about the film is that all the excitement is focused on bringing Watney home, of getting him off of the planet Mars. There was a time when sci-fi movies were more interested in getting to a planet or the moon, now being on another planet seems rather blasé and requires rescuing. The reason I point this out is that there was an interesting piece on Motherboard by Lisa Messeri, an Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. She writes about the irony of The Martian opening just after NASA announced evidence of intermittent flowing water on Mars. The irony being that while the media was wildly excited about the science fiction of The Martian, it was decidedly indifferent to the science facts. She poses these questions: “What are we to make of the collective disappointment regarding actual Mars science and the collective excitement for cinematic Mars fiction? Moreover, how should we understand NASA’s drive to excite us about the journey to Mars while The Martian focuses on the journey home?”

Valid points. They don’t detract from the entertainment on the screen but they are points worth considering.

And my final point about The Martian is that while the science is great fun the film’s too slick and cheery to capture the reality of being alone on an inhospitable planet. This is a case where a big budget and a big cast of stars actually hurts. Less would be more in a story about one man’s solitary struggle to survive. I wish director Ridley Scott – who’s been to space before for Alien and Prometheus -- had taken his cue from the small indie sci-fi films Moon and Europa Report rather than from the Hollywood endeavors Gravity and Interstellar. Or going further back in time to a film like Silent Running, in which botany also played a role. The Martian misses getting a gritty sense of how lonely and isolated Watney must feel, and how challenging survival over many months is. Matt Damon plays Watney and the film waits till the third act to show any negative side effects from eating little more than potatoes and being malnourished.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about flaws in the film and I think that’s because it does some things right and comes close to being more than a glossy Hollywood genre film. SO my point is that it could have been better but as it is it’s still an engaging work of science fiction and science fact.

Now for a quick look at some less mainstream offerings around town.

Attack on Titan Part One is a live action adaptation of the highly popular anime of the same name. Fans have been eagerly but cautiously awaiting the live action features and reaction has been mixed. I loved that at the screening at Reading Cinemas Towne Square dozens of fans stayed after the credits to argue about whether the adaptation worked or not. Some complained about missing or changed characters, others about plot alterations that they feared would cause problems down the road. I’m in the middle of watching season one of the anime and I feel like the less you’ve seen of the anime the more you may be able to enjoy the live action films. The effects are a mix of impressive to annoyingly bad CGI, and the story places more of the melodrama in the foreground (which is the complaint I also have about The Walking Dead). The story serves up a world where humans are on the verge of extinction because of titans roaming the planet and devouring up tasty human morsels. The film may lack some of the imagery of the atom bomb that is often found in Japanese sci-fi but the level of devastation is on par with what Japanese people witnessed when the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There’s enough of interest in the live action Attack on Titan to make it enjoyable on the big screen but I urge anyone to check out the anime. Part One screens one more time on October 7 and Part Two screens later this month at Reading Cinemas Town Square and Ultrastar Hazard.

October also brings a lot of Hitchcock. Reading Cinemas Town Square brings back a showcase that it has dubbed HITCHCOCKTOBER so look for Hitchcock films each week beginning with Shadow of a Doubt on Oct. 4. Hitchcock also makes an appearance this weekend at Cinema Under the Stars with Cary Grant and Ingred Bergman in Notorious.

The sequel to the indie horror film Contracted screens late night Friday and Saturday at the Digital Gym Cinema. And note thet the TBT Horror Showcase that was to have started this week has been pushed to later this month with the Edgar G. Ulmer 1934 classic Black Cat kicking off a fall series on Oct 22.

Halloween month also brings the second annual Silent Screams at the Whaley House, a series of rarely seen but terrifyingly good silent movies screen on Wednesdays at the Whaley House Theater. Ghosts may or may not be present. On Oct. 7 you can see the 1926 Waxworks from German filmmaker Paul Leni. functioned as both director and production designer for the Caligari-esque

Also noteworthy is TCM’s Friday horror programming and month long tribute to trail blazing women.

And finally, The Big Lebowski is the midnight movie at the Ken Cinema this Saturday and the Hong Kong film Saving Mr. Wu opens today at the AMC La Jolla.

That’s it for this edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. Today kicks off my month long interviews about different aspects of horror so look for an archive interview with Clive Barker as well as episodes on Re-Animator the Musical, The Psychology of The Babdook and finding out what some of the first films that scared people are.

So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place