Tag Archives: Michael Peña

Hey, Mr. Spaceman

Super-smart astronaut survival yarn will leave you cheering

The Martian

Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Directed by Ridley Scott

PG-13

Super-smart, sharp-witted, funny, dramatic and moving, The Martian is a gripping, gorgeous, geeky, high-tech, big-screen adventure-survival yarn that will leave you cheering.

When a brutal, blinding surface dust storm causes a group of scientist-astronauts to abort their Martian expedition after only a few sols (days, or solar cycles), one of them gets left behind, lost and believed to certainly be dead. But after the Ares III blasts off and heads for home and the Red Planet dust clears, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) revives, wounded but very much alive.

NASA and his crewmates have no idea he survived. He has to find some way to let them know, some way to stay alive, and some way to keep his hopes from fading—knowing that it could take years for another mission to mobilize and reach him.

What to do, what to do?

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his           ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet.

“In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m gonna have to science the s— out of this,” Watney says into a camera, in the video log he begins filming as a high-tech diary.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Watney “sciences” how to grow his own food, rig up a communication device, make water and generate heat from radioactive material. One of the coolest things about The Martian is the way it makes knowledge hip and cool, how Watney’s process of discovery and learning and figuring things out are integral parts of its plotline.

Kristin Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Back on Earth, the world becomes transfixed with the man marooned on Mars. NASA officials (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean) race to figure out how to reach Watney before he runs out of time and resources. America’s competitors in the space race on the other side of the world, the Chinese, offer their top-secret technology to help. And once Watney’s crew mates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan) find out they’ve accidentally left him behind, they’re willing to spring into action, even if it means staying in space for another year or longer.

Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to space or the future, from Blade Runner and Alien to Prometheus. But there are no bioengineered androids, ancient astro-gods or acid-drooling space creatures anywhere to be found in The Martian—just real people, working together, using their heads, solving problems, focused on one man 50 million miles away and united in a single goal: to “bring him home.”

And despite its big ensemble cast, gorgeous special-effect space shots and marvelous, desolate red-orange Martian landscapes, this is Damon’s show. He is The Martian, and he sells every minute of it in a bravura, mostly solo performance that radiates humanity and humor, and shows the amazing, odds-defying things that science—and brainwork, and dedication and teamwork—can do.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Rocky Road

New ‘Vacation’ a raunchy retread of a comedy classic

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Vacation

Starring Ed Helms & Christina Applegate

Directed by John Frances Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

R

Thirty-two years later, it’s time for another Vacation.

The first one, for those of us who remember it fondly, was National Lampoon’s Vacation, and starred Chevy Chase in the now-classic tale of a family’s cross-country misadventures on their trek to visit the wacky theme park Wally World.

The “National Lampoon” is gone from the title, but the basic structure remains in this raunchy reboot. Ed Helms stars as Rusty Griswold, the now-adult son of Chevy Chase’s character. Rusty wants to recapture the memories of his childhood by giving his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two kids the same vacation experience he had as a youth.

His idea: Pack up the fam and head to Wally World!

“You just want to redo your vacation from 30 years ago?” asks Debbie, doubtful.

“The new vacation will stand on its own!” declares Rusty, rarin’ to go.

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Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo

If only. Everything about the new Vacation invites comparison to the old—and not for the better. The setup is the same, gags in the new movie are throwbacks to the original—a sexy babe in a convertible, the Griswolds’ uncool monstrosity of a station wagon—the peppy “Holiday Road” theme song from Lindsay Buckingham opens and closes the show, and Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, his co-star in the 1983 Vacation and three sequels, make appearances.

The new Vacation has moments of mirth, yes, but the most distinctive “stand” it takes, alas, seems to be in its determination to get dirtier, darker, grosser and more all-around ickier than any Vacation before. When the Griswolds take a dip in what they believe to be a natural hot springs and it turns out to be something much nastier, you’ll giggle, but you’ll also gag. And you’ll only get cold chills when a creepy truck driver (Norman Reedus from TV’s The Walking Dead) explains why he keeps a dirty teddy bear tied to the grill of his rig.

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Chris Hemsworth

At a stopover in Texas to visit Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann) and her cattleman-stud husband, Chris Hemsworth hams it up with a prosthetic body part that can barely stay in his jockey shorts (and doesn’t, later). Rusty’s youngest son (Steele Stebbins) continuously pelts his older brother (Skyler Gisondo) with sexual putdowns.

Pop-up appearances by a host of celebrity guests—Charlie Day, Keegan-Michael Key, Nick Kroll, Michael Peña, Collin Hanks, Ron Livingston—are brief zaps and zings of gonzo electricity. And they’re the best things about the movie, which forces so much indignity and so many crass jokes upon its headliners, and which has so little of the wildly subversive sparkle that made its predecessor a classic.

It took two directors and a pair of writers to roadmap this rocky retread. It’s just too bad that, after all these years, it gets such disappointing movie mileage.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Tanked

Gutsy, grimy war flick drives home the horrors & haunts of combat

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena;Jon Bernthal

Fury

Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman & Shia LeBeouf

Directed by David Ayer

Rated R

War is hell, and this gripping WWII battle drama brings you about as close to the angry, anguished flames as anyone would ever want to get.

Brad Pitt stars as Sherman tank commander “Wardaddy” Collier, leading his battle-weary crew across Germany to finish off Hitler’s forces in early 1945. Wardaddy’s tank is nicknamed “Fury,” with its name written in white paint along its barrel.

Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt is the commander of the Sherman tank nicknamed “Fury.”

Even though the war is almost over, the Nazis are desperate and determined to fight to the end, they greatly outnumber the Yanks, and their tanks are bigger, heavier and better fortified.

“Why don’t they just quit?” wonders an exhausted senior officer, who’s just learned of the slaughter of his men by a pocket of heavily fortified, entrenched Germans, who mowed them down in an open field. “Would you?” responds Wardaddy.

Indeed, the “would you?” question hangs heavy over much of the movie, as Wardaddy and his crew confront situations that force them to make instantaneous life-or-death, kill-or-be-killed decisions, and mounting atrocities become everyday occurrences. “This ain’t pretty,” explains grizzled Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) to the tank’s newest team member, wide-eyed Norman (Logan Lerman), who’d never seen combat until assigned to Wardaddy’s command. “This is what we do.”

Lerman’s character becomes the audience’s surrogate, as we share his shock, his revulsion and his reluctance to relent to what seems like madness. We wonder how much we could see before it starts to “do” something to us. We wonder what we’d do with our finger on the trigger of a turret-mounted machine gun, if we could kill other people on sight, without question, without pausing to think about who they are, what they might be planning to do, or what’s right and what’s wrong.

Michael Pena

Michael Peña plays “Gordo” Garcia.

Wardaddy’s crew also includes Mexican-American “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Scripture-quoting “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), who sings hymns to pass time and prods his tank mates to think if “Jesus loves Hitler.”

Writer-director David Ayer, whose other work includes Training Day and End of Watch, makes us feel every cramped, claustrophobic inch of Fury’s crowded interior space, a dreary metal dome where Wardaddy’s crew barely has room to move—or breathe, or bleed. The landscapes are all mud and muck; faces are dirty and grim; violence is intense; fear is everywhere.

We’ve seen other war movies, certainly—they’ve been a Hollywood staple for decades. But I can’t remember another movie—and certainly not another contemporary one—that’s taken such a hard, gritty, gutsy look at World War II tank warfare. There’s nothing glamorous or glorious about the battles, or the war, depicted in Fury. It’s tough, rough stuff, hard going, and—indeed—it “ain’t pretty.”

But it’s raw, it’s powerful and it sticks with you, especially in a scene when the crew rolls into a German town square, where a little bit of everything occurs. That square becomes a microcosm of war itself, and how it compresses and contorts the world, like a busted telescope with a smudged, shattered lens: life, death, love, hate, past, present, future—they’re all there, and then they’re not, gone in an instant, goodbye.

You won’t be cheering when Fury ends. But you’ll be thinking.

—Neil Pond, American Profile and Parade Magazines

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Do The Hustle

A sprawling, swirling period-piece parable of swinging ’70s greed

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

American Hustle

Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence

Directed by David O. Russell

R, 138 min.

“Some of this actually happened,” a placard playfully informs us at the beginning of American Hustle, director David O. Russell’s swirling, swinging tale of a pair of con artists in testy, zesty cahoots with an FBI agent to catch even bigger prey in the 1970s. It’s loosely based on the FBI’s real-life ABSCAM sting of the era, which ensnared several high-ranking politicians in a bribery and corruption investigation.

Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time Bronx con artist who’s made out pretty well in forged art and bogus loans. But his graft really kicks into high gear when he hooks up with Sidney (Amy Adams), a former stripper who sees a way to broaden their scams—and pave the way to a much bigger, richer life for them both.

But hold on: Irving’s a married man, and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is a real suburban scrapper.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley CooperRichie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the hyper-adrenalized FBI agent eager to make his bones who brings down both Irving and Sidney, then uses them to make an even bigger sting, an elaborate affair that eventually includes a fake sheik (Michael Peña), a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), a slew of politicians and the mafia.

The movie is a deep, delicious dish of late-’70s detail, from the music to the clothes to the hair—and oh, the hair! Bale’s character sports one of the most outrageous comb-overs in the history of cinema, and agent DiMaso reveals that his teeny curls don’t come easy (or natural).

Amy Adams;Jennifer LawrenceBale is always fascinating to watch as he burrows into a role, but Adams and Lawrence bring the heat that makes this sexy story sizzle. And Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) juggles his ensemble of complicated, conflicted characters with an orchestral touch that often recalls the mastery of maestro Martin Scorsese—especially in a Goodfellas-esque casino scene with a gaggle of Las Vegas mobsters….and a very special surprise cameo.

It’s all hip, humorous, sad, edgy and immensely entertaining, this sprawling period parable about a group of gaudy, needy, greedy people who aren’t who they purport themselves to be—people with fake tans, fake nails, fake hair, fake lives, people who aren’t “real,” who are always conning somebody, everybody, each other, even themselves.

As Irving says, there’s “a lot of grey” in the muddled middle ground between good and bad, right and wrong, between the forger and the artist, in a world where it seems that everyone’s on the make, on the take, on the hustle, on the scam. Especially when, as Lawrence’s character says, all you’ve been dealt in life are “poisonous choices.”

When that happens, as Russell’s outstanding American Hustle suggests, all any of us might do is whatever it takes to survive.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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