The Martian and Sicario

Ridley Scott's interplanetary Robinson Crusoe tale, The Martian, is a crowd-pleasing nail-bitter that borrows from Ron Howard's feel-good playbook -- maybe a little too much. Scott was once an edgy visionary (Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise, American Gangster) but this film is stylistically arresting but narratively safe, few surprises. In Scott's latest picture, Matt Damon plays a member of a six-person NASA exploration team on Mars who gets left behind by his fellow crew members because they presume he was killed in a violent storm. He indeed survived and must devise ways to keep himself alive and communicate with Earth. The film has a great deal of star power propelling it -- Jessica Chastain, Jeff Bridges, Chiwetel Ejiofor, head the cast -- but most of its bang is in the science that Damon's Mark Watney brings to bear on his otherworldly predicament. The film invests so much in the mechanics and in the international sensation the eventual rescue mission attracts that there is no doubt all will end well. Still, it's an entertaining ride. Recommended.

Denis Villeneuve's Sicario (Spanish for "hitman") is a thrill ride of another sort entirely and, in the end, a better film than The Martian, I feel. In it, Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, who is fighting the drug war in Arizona, with little to show for her efforts. She volunteers for a special interagency team to capture the Mexican drug kingpin whose murderous enterprise is spreading rapidly in the U.S. The mysterious crew is run by a tousled hot dog named Matt (Josh Brolin) who gets lethal assists from a dead-eyed enforcer named Alejandro (a wonderful Benicio Del Toro). Nothing about the operation feels right to Kate and when she brings in her partner (Daniel Kaluuya), he smells a rat, too. The truth is slowly revealed during agonizingly intense scenes, the staging of which are truly masterful because they suggest much more than they show. Villeneuve's Prisoners (2013) was an engrossing exploration of obsession and vengeance. Sicario contains those elements, as well, in its chilling, unblinking treatment of a war that seems to have no end -- only mounting casualties. Highly recommended but bloody.


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