Review of “Morgan”

Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is a corporate troubleshooter sent to evaluate a unique program. Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the project. While being only five years old, Morgan is the size of a teenage girl. Her DNA is a mixture of human and synthetic and her brain contains nano-sized robots that have altered its development. She has precognitive abilities and is extremely strong and fast. A team of scientists has been working in secret on the project that led to Morgan for seven years in a house located deep inside a forest. Morgan used to be allowed outside but a behavioral scientist named Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie) took Morgan beyond the boundary of the compound and lead researcher Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) put an end to her field trips. Morgan is kept in an isolation cell and monitored by a rotating group of researchers. One of those researchers, Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), brought Morgan her lunch and decided to eat with her inside the isolation cell but Morgan attacked her, stabbing her several times in the eye. This has led the corporation that is funding the research to send Weathers to oversee an evaluation of the project, including a psychological examination of Morgan by Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), and determine if it should be terminated.

There’s a good movie to be made out of the ideas in “Morgan.” Sadly, the movie I saw wasn’t it. It’s not terrible and there are good performances from Kate Mara and Anya Taylor-Joy but there are some odd choices made by some of the characters as the story progresses and there were a great deal of unanswered questions that nagged at me while I was watching the film.

“Morgan” takes a familiar concept and explores it fairly well. All the scientists see Morgan as a child trying to figure out her place in the world while Weathers sees Morgan as an “it” and something that can be discarded like a defective piece of plastic. That conflict is central to the plot and kicks off the carnage that makes up the last 30 minutes of the movie. My main problem with this part of the film is the willingness of the scientists to ignore all of Morgan’s past deeds and refuse to do what is necessary. One of the team even has a high-powered rifle pointed at her chest and still delays shooting long enough for Morgan to disarm him.

This is the same problem I have with most horror/thriller movies where characters make decisions that clearly go against their own best interests and what they know to be true. This logical misstep wasn’t in evidence during “Don’t Breathe” as even when the characters made a decision that kept them in peril it made sense and they didn’t hesitate to take action against their enemy although it wasn’t always as effective as they would have wanted.

“Morgan” is a victim of lazy storytelling. We’ve seen many of the ideas in the film in other better movies but here the script seems to be taking a “cafeteria” approach by picking certain elements and ignoring others. The script is trying to make a point about man’s arrogant belief that he can control nature but that gets lost in all the stupidity and carnage.

The movie also isn’t shy about telegraphing a twist that is revealed late in the film. Again, this is lazy storytelling since, in order for it to be a true twist it shouldn’t be painfully obvious early on. One particular shot in the film gives the surprise away with all the subtlety of a high rise building being imploded. It screams, “Hey! Look at this! You think this implies anything important about what’s coming later?!” While the specifics of the twist aren’t given away, the basic idea of what’s going to happen is clear.

There are things to like in “Morgan.” Kate Mara and Anya Taylor-Joy give intense and uncompromising performances. Taylor-Joy is given a particular icy look with her makeup and hair that give her character an otherworldly appearance. She is different on the inside and that is reflected on the outside. Mara is a no-nonsense business woman with a penchant for cutting through the niceties of everyday conversation and not worrying about hurting people’s feelings.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, some very good fight scenes exclusively between female characters. While it is never directly stated, Morgan appears to have been created as a living weapon as she is well versed in hand-to-hand combat and very good at turning everyday items into weapons. She has increased strength and endurance and is usually coldblooded in dealing with an enemy. Weathers is also good with her fists and with a weapon as well. These two duke it out on at least three occasions in the film and each one is intense. The research team’s physician is also good at fisticuffs. This comes from out of nowhere and feels again like lazy storytelling and a way to keep the plot moving forward.

“Morgan” is rated R for some language and brutal violence. When there is violence in the film it is usually bloody, sometimes very bloody. The movie starts with Morgan’s attack on Dr. Grieff and, while not bloody on film, the sound effects used are rather suggestive of gore. Foul language is scattered.

“Morgan” has some very interesting ideas that get bogged down in thriller clichés. It wants to be a creepy look at Man playing God but eventually turns into a predictable and nothing more than average monster movie. It isn’t the worst way to spend 90 minutes in a darkened, air-conditioned theatre with some good performances and fight scenes but it could have been a great deal better.

“Morgan” gets three stars out of five.

There’s a wide variety of movies opening this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Disappointments Room—

Sully—

When the Bough Breaks—

The Wild Life—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “The Martian”

Botanist and astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a six-person crew exploring the surface of Mars as part of the Ares III mission. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is informed by crew member Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) of an approaching dust storm that has intensified since the last weather update and may cause their return vehicle to topple over. Lewis orders the crew to head to the launch vehicle and prepare to return to their mothership Hermes in orbit. As they walk from a habitat module to the return vehicle, a piece of equipment is picked up by the wind and strikes Watney with such force that it carries him away from the others. Unable to see him in the blinding storm and receiving telemetry that his suit has been breached, Lewis makes the decision to leave him behind since it appears he is dead. The crew launches and begins the nine month trip back to Earth. Watney wakes up, injured but alive. He returns to the habitat and assesses his situation. He can’t contact Hermes or NASA since his communications equipment was destroyed in the storm. He is in a habitat designed to last 30 days with a limited food and water supply and he’s looking at a minimum of four years before the next mission is scheduled to arrive. Watney begins thinking of ways to extend his food and water supply. Back on Earth, Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) to use satellites orbiting Mars to look at the Ares III landing site but Sanders refuses fearing images of Watney’s body on the surface would turn public sentiment against the space program. Kapoor asks an operator in Mission Control to redirect a satellite to look at the Ares III location and notices a rover has changed locations. NASA realizes Watney is alive and begin working on plans to send him supplies. Using his remaining supplies and repurposing the equipment to which he has access Watney does everything he can to stay alive and have the best chance at rescue.

“The Martian” is more than a science-fiction movie. The story wouldn’t be hugely different if the setting was in the wilderness and a lone character had to figure out how to survive with just his wits and limited supplies. While the potential wait for rescue would be significantly shorter, the basics would remain the same. That’s what makes “The Martian” a movie that appeals to those that like sci-fi and those that don’t, as shown by the large take at the box office. It is a film that focuses on one man’s struggle to survive in an environment that has several different ways it can kill him. While the locale is out of this world, the struggle is completely relatable.

Matt Damon is such an everyman he easily fits into just about any role. From a troubled mathematical genius to an amnesiac super spy to a stranded astronaut, Damon finds the humanity in all his characters no matter what insanity might swirl around them. His work in “The Martian” is no different. Damon plays Watney as a brilliant man, cool under pressure, but not someone that doesn’t have doubts about his chances from time to time. The strain of being alone takes its toll on Watney and Damon unapologetically shows us his fear and anger. It’s a brilliant performance on which the entire movie rides.

That isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t given a chance to shine. Large chunks of the story take place on Earth and on board the Hermes. As the characters deal with the pressures of figuring out a way to save their stranded comrade and the guilt of having left him behind, we see the kind of political, personal and public relations decisions that go on behind the scenes. There are hard choices that have to be made and difficult calculations on the worth of one man’s life. Is the risk of saving Watney worth the cost in materials, manpower and possible bad PR? It’s the kind of questions the real space program hasn’t had to answer publicly but I’m sure discussions about all the possible outcomes of missions have led to some heated debates. It’s that sort of real-world consideration along with the excitement and tension that make “The Martian” such a grounded story for a sci-fi movie.

“The Martian” is rated PG-13 for injury images, brief nudity and some strong language. We see Watney’s injury and his self-surgery to repair the damage. There are a couple of views of Watney’s bare backside. Foul language is widely scattered but the film does use its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”

“The Martian” is based on a book of the same name by Andy Weir. According to an interview in the podcast “SciFi Geeks Club,” Weir says screenwriter Drew Goddard consulted him on certain aspects of the story and the movie is about 95% faithful to his book. That is almost unheard of in making books into movies. That kind of adherence to the source material may play some part in why “The Martian” is such a great movie. It doesn’t dumb down the science and it keeps the characters grounded with real emotion along with humor to keep the threat of impending death from making the movie too grim. It is well worth your time and money whether you enjoy science fiction or not.

“The Martian” gets five guitars out of five.

This week, there is only one wide release film and that’s the prequel story of Peter Pan. While I may see that visual effect extravaganza, there are some smaller films that look interesting as well. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Grandma—

Hell and Back—

Learning to Drive—

Pan—

Pawn Sacrifice—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Fantastic Four”

A troubled past doesn’t guarantee failure. Films like “Titanic,” “Jaws” and perhaps most famously “Apocalypse Now” are just a few films that were created in turbulent environments. Whether the trouble was a conflict between the cast and the director, the director and the studio, between cast members or some other configuration, good work still came from what could have potentially been a disaster; however, some productions, like “Alien 3,” “Cop Out” and “Waterworld” are doomed to failure when egos and power struggles get in the way of making an enjoyable bit of entertainment. The latter appears to be what happened to Fox Studios’ “Fantastic Four” reboot.

As a child, Reed Richards (played as an adult by Miles Teller) dreamed of building a matter transporter…and he actually succeeded thanks to parts provided by his friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) from his family’s junk and salvage yard. Reed considers Ben his best friend and good luck charm. Reed is discovered at a high school science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and invited to attend is institute of gifted young people in the Baxter Tower in New York City. Ben stays home to work in the family business. Dr. Storm also has a son named Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) who is a brilliant mechanic that prefers to spend his time tinkering with his car and running in illegal street races than in a lab. A crash that totals his car forces him to work for his father in the lab. Dr. Storm is working on an interdimensional transporter and believes Reed can push his research over the edge. The project was started by Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a brilliant but troubled scientist who has some less than pleasant history with Dr. Storm and they no longer work together. Dr. Storm gets his funding from a shadowy board of directors with ties to the government led by Harvey Elder (Tim Blake Nelson). With Reed on board and Victor back in the fold largely because he loves Sue, the interdimensional transporter is perfected. Elder wants to turn the project over the NASA and the government but Dr. Storm wants to keep the project in house and under his control. After a few rounds of drinks, Reed, Victor and Johnny decide to take the transporter for a test spin on their own and Reed calls Ben because he was there for the earliest experiments in the garage and wants his good luck charm to come along. Ben agrees and they are soon teleported to another dimension. It’s a barren world with storm clouds overhead and pools of glowing green liquid. Victor puts his hand in the fluid and can feel the energy coursing through it; but it also causes a chain reaction that is causing the ground beneath their feet to come apart. Victor is engulfed in green flames and falls down a cliff. The others run to the transporter pod to go home where Sue is trying to initiate the return sequence. Fire engulfs Johnny, Ben is encased in rock, Reed is bathed in unknown energy and Sue is hit with a blast from the other dimension when the pod reappears. Each is endowed with unique powers and abilities.

While far from being a great movie “Fantastic Four” isn’t as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score of 9% might imply. The introduction to the group, their transformation and dealing with their powers is actually pretty good. You get a good idea of the personality of each main player and the conflict between Victor and Reed gets an understandable foundation. It is the part of the story where the four put their powers to use where the train goes off the rails.

The whole structure of the film feels flimsy and unfinished. The set up to what should be the super showdown is incredibly long when compared to the finale which feels like it plays out in about 10 minutes, if that. What appears to have been planned as a two hour plus film is over in an hour-40. While many comic book movies are too long, “Fantastic Four” isn’t long enough as we are shown huge amounts of history and preparation leading to an ending that is anti-climactic. Granted, I think everyone knows the good guys are always going to win in the end of a superhero movie but it shouldn’t feel like the kind of role-playing game I used to participate in as a child with my friends when, after one of us had been shot with the death ray or whatever the evil scheme entailed, we popped right up, saved the damsel in distress and put the villain in his place.

“Fantastic Four” director Josh Trank made an impressive debut with his first studio film “Chronicle.” The story of three high school kids who gain powers from a mysterious alien artifact was a low-budget, found-footage gem. The story was great, the effects were good and the whole thing worked together for a wonderfully enjoyable time at the movies. That film got him the “Fantastic Four” gig but something happened that turned what should have been a dream into a nightmare. Trank can be heard on the Kevin Smith podcast “Fatman on Batman” giving a thorough history of his early life, how he became a filmmaker and the process of making “Fantastic Four.” It takes, coincidentally, four episodes to tell the whole story. Nowhere in those four episodes, about six hours of content, does Trank complain about the making of “Fantastic Four” or Fox executives; however, on Thursday, August 6, Trank tweeted the following: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” Trank quickly deleted the tweet but it was of course screen captured. While vague, this tweet seems to be saying the film was interfered with by Fox executives and turned into something other than his original vision. There is of course another side to the story that suggests Trank may have been in over his head and/or was difficult to work with. The truth lies somewhere in the middle with enough blame to go around for both sides. The product of this middle ground is a movie with an odd structure, average at best special effects, a villain that doesn’t make much sense, has odd motivations for his evil plan and a story that starts out fine then turns into a mess at the conclusion.

“Fantastic Four” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and language. We see a couple of characters engulfed in flames. One character causes people’s heads to kind of explode. We see a splash of blood on the wall behind them. There is a fight where giant boulders are used as weapons. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Josh Trank’s tweet, the troubled production and the poor box office showing of “Fantastic Four” may put the director in movie jail for a period of time. Movie jail is when filmmakers can’t get a job after what is perceived to be a failure on their part. Trank will likely survive just fine in the wilderness of independent filmmaking where he can be fully in charge of the production with little to no interference. But that leaves us to wonder just what kind of “Fantastic Four” the director had in mind. Will we ever see it? Will there ever be an entertaining version of Marvel’s first super team that isn’t a cartoon? Are Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing just too tough a nut to crack? Should Fox make a deal with Marvel like Sony did with Spider-Man and share the movie rights? Speculating about all this is far more entertaining than watching the movie, as this “Fantastic Four” may actually be worse than the dayglow colored version we got a decade ago.

“Fantastic Four” gets one star out of five.

The music that spoke to one generation and frightened another and a TV to film crossover open in theatres this week. I’ll see and review at least one of these.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—

Straight Outta Compton—

Follow me on Twitter (I try not to be too controversial) @moviemanstan. Send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.