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The Martian Kicks Off the Fall Movie Season

2015 has been a good year for movies thus far. I haven’t seen any one film that has blown me away like “Boyhood” did last year, but there has been a greater quantity of really effective and diverse films across various genres.

Among the best films I’ve seen so far this year, you have horror (“It Follows”), sci-fi (Ex Machina), comedy (Trainwreck), action (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) and even animation (Inside Out).

But now we’re getting into the part of the year where studios logjam the big releases and standout films are being released seemingly every weekend.  I thought the first one to kick off the season would be Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger biopic “Black Mass” a few weeks ago but that turned out to be a fairly paint-by-numbers gangster film that was ultimately pretty empty-headed.

Instead the fall season truly kicked off this past weekend with the release of “The Martian”, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. Based on an acclaimed novel by Andy Weir, “The Martian” is set in a near future in which NASA is undertaking manned missions to Mars, but this is not whimsical science fiction. “The Martian” is very much reality-based and devoted to using hard science to propel the plot forward.

When Damon’s Mark Watney, an astronaut/botanist mistakenly left behind on the Red Planet by the rest of his crew, is faced with another in a series of seemingly insurmontable problems in his quest for survival, he sums up the ethos of pretty much the entire film by gritting his teeth and saying, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

In calling this a science fiction film, the word “science” should be in all capital letters. The problems Mark and NASA are faced with in negotiating his survival and return to earth are laid out in detailed scientific language and it’s never unclear that these are all extremely, extremely intelligent individuals being portrayed.

That said the technical talk never gets in the way of comprehending the plot and it’s often punctuated by an effective sense of humor. Considering he’s isolated on a remote planet with little hope of survival, Mark somehow manages to keep a lightness about his situation. In particular, a number of laughs are mined out of the fact the only music Mark has to listen to on Mars is disco tracks left behind by one of the crew members, and he often passes the time by watching “Happy Days” reruns.

Whereas a similar film in terms of predicament like “Cast Away” is pretty much a one-man show with Tom Hanks at the center, “The Martian” finds plenty of time to spend with the NASA employees working to bring Mark home, including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig, as well as the crew that mistakenly abandoned Mark, led by Jessica Chastain as the mission captain.

But to be clear, this is Matt Damon’s film to carry and he gives one of his best performances. The charisma and charm that have made him a movie star are on full display, but he is equally effective in portraying Mark’s steely resolve to survive as well as his vulnerability when he realizes all of his intelligence and determination may not be enough to keep him alive.

“The Martian” is a winner, but it’s hopefully just the first of many great films to hit theaters over the next few months. Here are some of the others I’m most looking forward to seeing:

Steve Jobs (Oct. 9 limited, Oct. 23 nationwide)

HBO’s “The Newsroom” notwithstanding, Aaron Sorkin is one of the best writers currently working. Few other writers, only Quentin Tarantino comes to mind immediately, can claim to have as clear a voice in their writing as Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing” and an Academy Award winner in 2011 for “The Social Network.”

He’s back again in 2015, having penned this much anticipated biopic about the late Apple czar, played by Michael Fassbender, and with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels in key supporting roles.

Instead of a traditional birth-to-date biographical film, “Steve Jobs” reportedly focuses exclusively on three crucial moments from Jobs’ adult life – the launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984, the debut of Jobs’ NEXT computer in 1988 following his dismissal from Apple and the launch of the iMAC in the 1998 after Jobs returned to Apple – split into 40-minute or so vignettes. All three segments will also reportedly deal with the common thread of Jobs’ strained relationship with his daughter, who he denied paternity of for years. Early reviews for the film have been glowing, so this could be a standout film to look out for.

Spotlight (Nov. 6)

Arguably the film with the most critical buzz entering the fall season is Thomas McCarthy’s “Spotlight.” Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and John Slattery, “Spotlight” is set in the Boston Globe newsroom in the early 2000s as a group of investigative reporters began uncovering the depth and breadth of the Massachussets Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.

As a former newspaper reporter, it’s always nice to see the press take center stage on film. “All the Presidents Men” is one of the greatest films ever made in any genre and more recently, “State of Play” (which also starred McAdams) was a well-made depiction of the newspaper business.

“Spotlight” premiered to rave reviews at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, and is already earning significant Oscar buzz. As the word of mouth intensifies, it’ll be interesting to see if it is struck with any of the backlash that usually hits films based on real events, in particularly one that focuses on negative aspects of the Catholic Church.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dec. 18)

There are many films to look out for this fall, but everything runs second to not just the most anticipated film of the season, but the most anticipated film of the year. It’s hard to overstate how much this film is going to dominate the pop culture landscape over the next few months.

Based only on the prequel films directed by George Lucas several years ago, my own enthusiasm for the film series’ continuation would be lukewarm, but there’s pretty much one reason I’m sincerely looking forward to “The Force Awakens”:

JJ Abrams.

With the creator of “Lost” and director of “Super 8” and the “Star Trek” films at the helm, I’m not just optimistic this could be a solid reboot of the series, but one of the best films of the year. Set 30 years after “Return of the Jedi,” the new film will indeed feature Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), but the focus rightly appears to have shifted to a younger generation of protagonists, played by newcomers John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac (who really shouldn’t be an unknown anymore at this point, but he definitely won’t be once this film is released). Add in Adam Driver as the film’s antagonist, as well as an apparent commitment from Abrams to limit the CGI and focus more on practical special effects, and this could be something special.

The Revenant (Dec. 25 limited, Jan. 8 nationwide)

It’s almost laughable at this point that Leonardo DiCaprio has never won an Academy Award. From “The Aviator” to “Revolutionary Road” to “The Wolf of Wall Street” it seems he should have been properly recognized somewhere along the way, but it hasn’t happened yet. That may change soon if the buzz and trailers for “The Revenant” are any indication.

DiCaprio stars as 1800s fur trapper Hugh Glass, who is mauled by a bear while on hunting expedition. Robbed and left for dead by his companions, Glass sets out to get revenge on the men who left him to die, led by Tom Hardy (a.k.a. Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises).

On the surface, the film sounds like a standard action film set in the Old Frontier, but the imagery from the trailer looks stunning and it’s hard to question the talent associated with the film, which is, oh by the way, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a recent Oscar winner for “Birdman.”

The Hateful Eight (Dec. 25 limited, Jan. 8 nationwide)

Since his breakthrough with “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, writer/director Quentin Tarantino has released just five films in the ensuing 20-plus years (not including the “Death Proof” half of “Grindhouse”), so any time he has a new project coming out, it is an event.

“The Hateful Eight” appears to be no different, with an all-star cast and Tarantino releasing the film in 70mm, a format rarely seen in today’s theater landscape.

Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the film centers around John “The Hangman” Roth (Kurt Russell) escorting Daisy “The Prisoner” Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to face charges for murder. Delayed by a blizzard, they are forced to wait out the storm at an inn, where they encounter several more mysterious strangers, including those played by Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen, and trouble ensues in the constricted confines. A film where the action is limited to a single location is usually a tricky proposition, but with a writer on the level of Tarantino, a dialogue-heavy script could turn out to be a masterpiece.
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