The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

What's it about? On a manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left for dead after an accident. Now he must find a way to survive alone on the planet until NASA (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain and others) can figure out a way to rescue him.

Is it any good? HOLY SHIT!! SOUND THE KLAXON!! Ridley Scott has only gone and made a good film, after many, many years of sub-standard fare. What's the difference this time? He's paid attention to the story, that's what, trusting in Drew Goddard's screenplay which has streamlined Andy Weir's catchy, but patchy, novel into a ripping yarn. In particular, the rather irritating, smart-alec Watney of the book has been softened into a much more likeable character, helped by Damon's appealing turn. Still smart, but not as alec-y, he's now someone I wouldn't begrudge being rescued, whereas I'd have left the Watney from the book to his fate. See how much he jokes then. Anyway, even if his storytelling was suspect, Scott's eye for a good shot was never in doubt and here we get some stunning Martian landscapes (actually the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan) and some always-fun zero gravity scenes to marvel at. In the end, it's not quite up to Apollo 13 or Gravity standards, and plays suspiciously like Cast Away in Space, but hard not to like a film that celebrates science and disco music and spuds as much as this does.

Anything else I should know?

What does the Fonz think? It would be unethical for the Fonz to review this film as he actually guests stars in it. Therefore I called in my good friend Marvin the Martian as guest reviewer

What does Marvin the Martian think? This makes me very angry, very angry indeed.

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

What's it about? During the Cold War, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) represents captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court, only to find himself tasked with negotiating the tricky exchange of Abel for the US pilot Gary Powers, who has been captured by the Soviets.

Is it any good? Everything about Bridge of Spies screams quality. The storytelling is crisp, the photography is immaculate, the recreation of 50s/60s Brooklyn and Berlin is superb and the lead performances quietly assured. Make no mistake - it's a confident, good film, the sort of film Spielberg can apparently make without even raising a sweat. And yet, it all feels a bit pedestrian, to be honest. Primarily, we never really get a sense of a genuine relationship between Donovan and Abel, which undermines the tension and impact of the climax. As with Amistad and Lincoln, Spielberg's reverence for the American Constitution, and the dedicated men who uphold it, is all very worthy, but it makes for rather straight-laced viewing. Frankly, 'good man does good thing for good reasons' is a fine thing to celebrate, but it doesn't sell many papers now, does it? I'd prefer see a little more ambiguity and cynicism in my Cold War spy films. Where I went in wanting to see a high-stakes, duplicitous game of poker, I instead ended up with a civilised, straightforward game of, well, bridge.

Anything else I should know? Back in the Cold War I was working as an archaeologist and was having trouble identifying an Egyptian mummy I had unearthed in Cairo. A soviet friend offered to help and called in some KGB pals of his. A few hours later, they came to tell me that the mummy was called Amenkhotep II and had lived around 2345BC. 
Impressed, I asked ' How did they find that out?' 
'He confessed.' replied my comrade. 
*pause for laughter*
Turning to the KGB to thank them I said, 'Would you like a drink to celebrate?'
'We ask the questions here, my friend. To the gulag with you!'
*pause for no laughter*

What does the Fonz think? Set partly in Berlin, but didn't really take my breath away.
*pause for no laughter*

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2016)

What's it about? It's the real-life story of how several investors, including reclusive Michael Burry (Christian Bale), angry Mark Baum (Steve Carell), slick Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and retired Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), made a fortune by betting on the housing market collapsing in the mid-2000s.

Is it any good? The Big Short does two things very well. Firstly, it makes all the financial skull-duggery of the last few years accessible to a lay audience, primarily through regular moments when the characters (and various guest stars) break the fourth wall and tell us directly about the nuances of CDOs, sub-prime mortgages and other financial tricks. Although these explanations are undoubtedly simplified, they work well enough to grasp the core principles, allowing us to understand exactly how people made and lost so much money during the economic meltdown. It's slightly gimmicky, but I quite enjoyed the blackly comic nature of these scenes, which illustrate the horrible absurdity of the circumstances which led to the crisis - it's so mind-bogglingly scandalous, if you didn't laugh, you'd cry. 

Secondly, it manages to get us to root for unlikable characters who fundamentally profited from the misery of others. They certainly aren't depicted as 'good' guys, but by selecting characters who were effectively outsiders in the industry, they become our amoral compass, people who at least seem less bad than the rest of the banking sector. And, whatever the moral stance on their actions, the film reflects the fact that these were smart guys who ignored the status quo, did their research, identified the opportunity and took a ballsy gamble which paid off, even as they become increasingly appalled at the lack of regulation and responsibility in the system the populate. Certainly there was luck involved, but fortune (literally in this case) does favour the brave, although it's probably easier to be brave with other people's money than your own. 

And therein lies the crux of the film. Were these guys hypocritical parasites who just got lucky when their reckless gamble paid off? Or did they just play the game well, even though it was rigged against them? The film can be read either way and thus ends up being both entertaining and thought-provoking. If it were you, would the chance of making millions out of a corrupt system be too tempting? Or could you do the 'right' thing? Or would you even be allowed to....? 

I don't trust you. What do others think? Surprise front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars, with favourable comparisons to the likes of Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street. It has also been good for author Michael Lewis, who wrote the book it is based upon. In an interview here, Lewis discusses how he was careful not to make 'heroes' out of his subjects, even though they were collectively outraged by the criminal activities of the banks and bankers around them. Naturally, others here and here have been quick to quesiton the fact vs fiction of both book and film, whilst others have questioned the morality of lionising such sordid characters at all.

Anything else I should know? Five years ago, I reviewed another Adam McKay film, the patchy comedy The Other Guys, and I remarked at the time on the strange financial statistics credits sequence which seemed out of step with that film. "...struck me as a remnant of a more satricial film about the cause of the global economic crisis" I trumpeted at the time. And lo, it did come to pass. Maybe I should have bet on it happening. In fact maybe I could make it on Wall Street!!

*Picks up phone* 
Hello! Buy me $50million shares!! And send over the hookers!! 
*Slams phone down. Snorts coke. Becomes an asshole* 

What does the Fonz think? Play Your CDOs Right

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

What's it about? Based on real events, it tells how the Spotlight team of investigative journalists (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdamas and Brian d'Arcy James) at the Boston Globe newspaper broke the story of how the Catholic church systematically covered-up evidence of child abuse by priests in the Boston archdiocese.

Is it any good? A worthy and worthwhile film about an important subject, a clear-eyed, clearly told account which should be seen, if only to keep reminding people about the despicable actions carried out by various church leaders, in Boston and across the globe. This is not a hysterical, over-wrought film, though. Spotlight is unapologetically unhurried in its manner, the drip-feed of information allowing the storytelling to be the focus, rather than the actors, although they are all excellent in their roles, as they slowly come to terms with their revelations. All The President's Men is the obvious comparison, but this is a more low-key affair and director McCarthy has a more perfunctory approach to the material. The understated, televisual style means a better comparison would be Series 5 of The Wire (clearly an influence on McCarthy, who played a newsroom reporter in the show), which both celebrated and lambasted journalistic integrity and media responsibility. Here too, uncomfortable questions are quietly raised about how both individuals and society were complicit in allowing powerful institutions to carry out scandalous horrors right under their noses. Despite this, Spotlight isn't a particularly emotional, or even an angry film, even though it has every right to be. Instead, it's deliberately and appropriately matter-of-fact in simply depicting the events and warning us to be vigilant against our own complacency and apathy. Because, as the film suggests, and the sobering end captions show, this could have happened to anyone, anywhere. Let's hope the success of the film helps it from ever happening again.

Anything else I should know? At the time of writing, it's currently joint favourite with The Big Short to take home Best Picture at the Oscars in a few weeks time. Naturally, the success of the film has sent people scurrying off to read about the real journalists involved in the investigation. Now you can too, as the reporters write about how they felt upon seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Elsewhere, you can read a brief summary of how dramatic license was taken with the real-life events and time-line without losing the integrity of the story. Also, the Catholic church has an awful lot to answer for. But then, you knew that already.

What does the Fonz think? Feckin' priests.

Pluto (Shin Su-won, 2013)

*Watched as part of the Asia-thon 2016 Film Project*

What's it about? An academically gifted schoolboy (Sung Joon) is found dead in the woods and suspicion soon falls upon one of his classmates (Lee David). But, as the police investigate, flashbacks reveal there's more to this than first meets the eye.

Is it any good? A pretty good drama with appealing performances from the young cast which helps keep the interest high throughout as it assuredly flicks between past and present in revealing the events surrounding the boy's death. It does fizzle out a little as it reaches a rather low-key climax, seemingly a little unsure of how to balance the tense, thriller elements of the movie with the more philosophical themes which inform the film's title. Nonetheless, director Shin Su-won (a former teacher whose experience helped shape the tidy script) has still fashioned a scathing social commentary on the ultra-competitive nature of the Korean education system and the effect it has on the pressurized students in this dog-eat-dog environment. The real-life footage of exam-related hysteria played over the end credits rather disturbingly reveals the events depicted in the film might not be all that far-fetched.

I don't trust you. What do others think? You mean my review isn't good enough for you? I don't think I could handle the rejection if people don't like this. But some of those other reviews do look far better than mine - maybe I'll just copy theirs....

Anything else I should know? The Asia-thon 2016 Film Project is my New Year's resolution to watch more films from the Far East, a project which is both laudable and insufferably pretentious. A full list of films viewed can be found here.

What does the Fonz think? Worth studying.