Movie Review ~ Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three scouts, on the eve of their last camp-out, discover the true meaning of friendship when they attempt to save their town from a zombie outbreak.

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, Cloris Leachman, David Koechner, Halston Sage, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Director: Christopher Landon

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Before the screening I attended of Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse there was a more than five minute headache of a tie-in music video from DJ Dillon Francis.  Like a bad acid trip brought to life as a Nickelodeon cartoon in order to punish the wicked, the nonsensical bit of dead brain cell material had me eyeing the exit with a longing to run.  At its conclusion, I braced myself for impact for the feature presentation I assumed would be more of the same bizarre antics.

The good news is that the movie was better than I expected it to be, the great news is that you won’t have to sit through the heinous pre-show nuisance I was subjected to.  Make no mistake that Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse breaks zero new ground and comes off as a Frankenstein monster, a movie cobbled together from random bits and pieces of other films that no doubt had a great influence on the filmmakers.

Equal parts Superbad and Shaun of the Dead, the movie strikes while the zombie iron is hot with its tale of three scouts and an Amazonian stripper, ahem, cocktail waitress that battle an outbreak of the walking dead in their small California town.  It’s that rare movie that actually gets better as it lumbers onward, with each new bit of blood and gore introduced providing repulsion and metered hilarity.

It’s fitting the humor is so sophomoric seeing that our three scouts are nearing the end of their sophomore year of high school.  Ben (Tye Sheridan, Mud) and Carter (Logan Miller, The Bling Ring) have outgrown their scout days, preferring to focus on surviving high school instead of surviving in the wild. They’ve made a pact to tell their buddy Augie (Joey Morgan) and Scout Leader Rogers (David Koechner, Krampus) that their next campout will be their last, but any plans for a kumbaya send-off are interrupted when flesh eating fiends start to chase them down.

The old archetypes are present from top to bottom.  Ben is a the good kid, Carter is the horny kid, Augie is the roly poly kid that his friends are secretly embarrassed of, there’s also a slutty girl, a girl people think it slutty but really has a heart of gold (Sarah Dumont, Don Jon), a virginal beauty (Halston Sage, Goosebumps), a mean jock (Patrick Schwarzenegger), a cranky old lady (Cloris Leachman, The Wedding Ringer, chewing the scenery as if it were her last meal), and a Britney Spears loving derelict (oh, if only more movies featured this stock character, right?).

Under the serviceable direction of Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), the movie hums along at a decent pace, and at 93 minutes it takes it’s time to introduce the characters more than adequately before the bloodshed starts.  The special effects are appropriately gory with slow-mo shots of zombie heads exploding and, in one case, a zombie phallus being stretched like a rubber band. Throw in a few shots of zombie boobs and you’ve completed the cinematic dreams of every randy teenage boy that finds their way into the R-rated film.

While it doesn’t attempt to reinvent the genre, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse just wants to have a little fun and I think it gets the job done without hurting anyone.  Your tolerance for crude humor and zombie mayhem may be tested at times but taken for what it is, the film works almost in spite of itself.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Boy

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Synopsis: An American nanny is shocked that her new English family’s boy is actually a life-sized doll. After violating a list of strict rules, disturbing events make her believe that the doll is really alive.

Release Date: January 22, 2016

Thoughts: Though it’s not exactly headline silver screen news, let’s face it…dolls are damn scary. From 1978’s Magic to 1987’s Dolls to 1988’s Child’s Play all the way up through The Conjuring in 2013 and its 2014 spin-off Annabelle Hollywood loves to freak you out by turning what should be a harmless plaything into a vessel of terror.

There’s something rather old-fashioned about this first trailer for The Boy, another dolls are killers too thriller, that had me cautiously pencil it in as a film I’m looking forward to in 2016. It feels sophisticated with its English countryside setting that finds a nanny becoming increasingly convinced that the life-sized doll she’s been tasked with tending to is quite alive…and up to no good. There’s ample room for scares here and I’m rooting for this one to be more than your run of the mill bait and switch fright flick.

Movie Review ~ Jem and the Holograms

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a small-town girl catapults from underground video sensation to global superstar, she and her three sisters begin a journey of discovering that some talents are too special to keep hidden

Stars: Juliette Lewis, Molly Ringwald, Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Ryan Guzman, Hayley Kiyoko, Aurora Perrineau

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Though I found myself sitting through it often, I wouldn’t say that I was a huge fan of the Jem cartoon series that ran from 1985-1988. The animation was rough, the music was a little grating, and the focus on “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame” didn’t really register in my pre-teen consciousness. In the cartoon, Jerrica Benton is the owner of Starlight Music and, with the help of her holographic computer Synergy becomes Jem, a rock star singer taking the world by storm with her band the Holograms. They are often in competition with The Misfits, another all-girl band usually is up to no good and getting in the way of the Holograms success. It was fantasy entertainment to the tune of 80s girl group pop rock and it was nothing if not a pleasant distraction.

Talk of a big-screen Jem has been raging on for years and what was initially planned as an animated feature morphed into the live-action doozy that’s being released 27 years after the series ended. If you aren’t familiar with the cartoon you may be willing to give the filmmakers a pass in what is in the end another in a long line of failed female driven franchises. Banking on the success of Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Universal Studios enlisted director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Ryan Landels to produce a new take on Jem and it’s a miscalculated failure on nearly every level.

First off, this should never have been a live-action film. The appeal of the cartoon was the colorful world of fantasy and fashion the series nailed in its relatively charming low-budget way. The concept of a holographic computer creating images and scenes to protect its owner isn’t that far removed from the kind of animated offerings released by major studios today. Plus how often have we had an all-out rock cartoon, and a female-led one at that? If anything, a feature length cartoon of Jem should have found its way to theaters in the early nineties after the series has ended.

Landels hollows out the film down to its bare bones, leaving most of the names intact and switching the gender of the main antagonist. Jerrica Benton is a meek singer/songwriter too scared to go out on her own still living with her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott, Insidious: Chapter 3), and two foster sisters (Hayley Kiyoko and Aurora Perrineau). Times are tough and their guardian aunt (Molly Ringwald, Sixteen Candles) is in danger of losing their California suburban home, threating to split the tight-knit family apart. When Jerrica takes on the persona of Jem and records a late night acoustic song, Kimber uploads it onto YouTube where it becomes a viral sensation overnight, rocketing Jem to stardom.

This is when the movie first shows signs of jumping off the track. The sudden stardom of a YouTube superstar is something director Chu knows a thing or two about having helmed Justin Bieber’s film Never Say Never. There are definite parallels between Bieber’s swift rise and Jem’s quick ascent to pop culture icon, though I think Bieber released more than one song before audiences went totally wild. The film tries so unsuccessfully to have us believe that Jem causes a commotion based on one melancholy song that I half expected the entire movie to be a dream at the end.

Before they know it, the executive of Starlight, Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear, who is either brilliantly badass or crazed campy…I still can’t decide which) is guiding them through make-overs, pop-up concerts, and red carpet walks that leave the girls in a daze.   Erica’s son, Rio (Ryan Guzman, The Boy Next Door) is charged with watching over the band and, shocker, he develops a thing for Jerrica that threatens his relationship with his scheming mother.

Synergy is now a tiny robot, the kind you’d by at a Brookstone for Christmas and sell at your garage sale the next summer, and it presents the opportunity for the film to have one interesting nugget to keep audiences awake for the next 118 minutes (it’s so long…so very long). You see, before Jerrica and Kimber’s dad died, he left Synergy unfinished and the little bot wakes up when they enter Los Angeles offering clues to a treasure hunt of sorts. So while Jem is struggling with her newfound fame (the film takes place over the course of 30 activity filled days), Jerrica is on a personal quest to finish the work her father started.

Musically the film isn’t that memorable. While Peeples has a pleasantly sweet voice she lacks the overall presence and star power needed for Jem. Her big solo number comes across as Lady Gaga light, performing in front of limber back-up dancers (when did they rehearse?) that kept my attention more than she did. As a group, Jem and the Holograms aren’t that distinguishable from any number of girl groups populating the music landscape now. I kept waiting for The Misfits to make an appearance, challenging the girls to up their game in the music department. Sadly (and maybe spoiler alert?) there are no Misfits to be had and the group works their way through two generic sounding ditties. The overall message in Jem and the Holograms is learning to love yourself no matter what life throws at you or how scared you may be to show who you really are and it’s a worthy one…but it comes in such a neon colored empty bucket of a film that I wound up just wishing it was printed on a T-shirt. Chu fills the film with all kinds of social media interjections, randomly cross-cutting cinematic scenes with YouTube videos of undiscovered music acts. There are also a healthy number of testimonials from those personally affected by Jem discussing what her music means to them. I couldn’t tell if these were all scripted or if they were people actually honesty linking their personal experiences to Jem. It’s so heavy with current social media that in five or ten years’ time it will be looked at as a time capsule of the here and now.

I would have liked to see the movie either become a full-fledged musical (an impromptu a capella moment on a beach had potential) or be a period set piece with all the excess of the 80s. Instead, it’s a film in serious need of autotune.

Movie Review ~ Goosebumps

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager teams up with the daughter of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Greendale, Maryland.

Stars: Jack Black, Amy Ryan, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Jillian Bell, Ryan Lee, Ken Marino,

Director: Rob Letterman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Before YA fiction was solely developed as a target market for the next big cinematic franchise there were actual stories to be read.  I was a voracious reader when I was younger (who has the time now?) and I loved latching on to a series of books that I could develop a rapport with.  There was a certain safety in finding multiple volumes of a continuing story or interconnected adventures that made reading exciting.

I read a lot of R.L. Stine’s more teen centered fare when I was at the target age and his Goosebumps series was developed for a slightly younger crowd.  Short, sweet, and filled with any number of nightmarish happenings that didn’t feel all that scary, these were thin page-turners that helped prep youngsters to sleep without a nightlight and explore loftier fare as they grew older.  I went back and read a few of the early works in advance of the big screen adaptation of Goosebumps and found them to be energetic, creative, and breezy reads.  No wonder they’ve spawned several spin off novels, a T.V. series, and a handful of T.V. movies.

So the time had finally come to make a Goosebumps movie and the question was, which of the hundreds of stories to tell?  In a smart move, screenwriters Mike White and Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) mashed many of the memorable monsters together in one film, front-loading their movie with fan favorites and several of the lesser known creepies that Stine thought up over the years.  In a further meta-twist, R.L. Stine would actually be a central character in the film, with the plot involving the secretive author helping teens in a small town after they accidentally release a bevy of ghoulish delights that escaped from Stine’s library.

Director Rob Letterman has cast the film with a strong roster of young and old talent and the movie has a Jumanji-like feel to it that made it a perfect choice for an early fall evening.  I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the film for the first hour or so until some budget conscious special effects took center stage and the movie became less interesting with each passing oogy-boogy moment.  What starts as a pleasantly genuine mystery/adventure turns into another run-of-the-mill everything-but-the-kitchen sink kinda experience.

As R.L. Stine, Jack Black (The D Train) is mostly amusing until you realize that he’s on auto-pilot, recycling the same manic seriousness that is his fallback whenever he’s feeling less than challenged. Employing his strange British accent (the real Stine hails from Ohio) and wide-eyed double takes, Black at least believes every line he says and commits fully.  Still, I find myself longing for the actor to continue to take steps outside of his usual shtick…like his stellar work in Bernie shows he is more than capable of.

Dylan Minnette (Prisoners) is a nice all-American teenager next door, a big city transplant to the small town where his mother (an underused Amy Ryan, Bridge of Spies) is the new vice principal.  Living next door to Stine he becomes enamored with his daughter (Odeya Rush, The Gift) who has secrets of her own.  The comic relief of the film comes from Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) as Ryan’s flighty aunt and Ryan Lee (This is 40) as Minnette’s buck-toothed buddy.  Coming off as a young Don Knotts, Lee steals every scene he’s in, providing some genuine belly laughs along the way.

Though rated PG, this is one that parents should consider watching first before letting their younger tykes screen it.  I found the film to be fairly frightening and a little intense when the monsters get loose.  It’s one thing to read about these creepy crawlies but it’s another thing altogether to see them come to life on a very big screen (in 3D if you’re willing to pay for it).  Judging by the squeals and shrieks from the young audience I saw it with, parents will want to tread carefully.

Even with some misguided moments near the end, the film is welcome fall fare and nice counter programming to the scary adult offerings October usually brings.

Movie Review ~ Freeheld

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The Facts:

Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell

Director: Peter Sollett

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Why didn’t I like Freeheld more? That’s a question that hasn’t necessarily kept me up at night since the screening but it’s one that has stuck with me over the course of the last several days. As an advocate for equality for all and a sucker for a triumphant true story (not to mention a dedicated fan of Julianne Moore) I thought going into it that I’d emerge with a tear-stained face and strong sense of due justice…but instead I left dry-eyed and frustrated.  What should have been a slam dunk missed the net entirely.

The story of a lesbian couple fighting for equality regarding pension benefits has some mighty heft to it, so much so that it inspired the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name. In a solid, moving 40 minutes we met Laurel Hester, a 23 year veteran of the New Jersey police force battling terminal lung cancer and the system that says she can’t leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. As Laurel’s health fades and the odds stack up, a community of support forms around the women, changing the law in the process.

That’s a story! And the dramatization of that short should at least come close to the emotional impact the documentary had. Sadly, it’s a terribly clumsy affair that loses its footing early on and can’t rally enough to make it to a satisfying finish line. Though it features typical good work from Moore (Still Alice), Ellen Page (The East), and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), it has its share of performances painted with broad strokes, weakening the overall effectiveness of a movie that never feels organic or personal.

Most of the problem likes with Peter Sollett’s stodgy direction and Ron Nyswaner’s ham-fisted script. It’s especially surprising that Nyswaner stumbles as hard as he does considering her wrote the far more effective Philadelphia in 1993. That movie was about justice and this one is about equality but Nyswaner doesn’t seem to know the difference because there’s a lack of overall tone. One moment it’s a tender love story and the next it’s a camp-fest with Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) woefully miscast as a gay Jewish civil rights activist played like an even more amped up version of his character from The Office. Carell is so very bad that he overwhelms everyone whenever he’s onscreen, no small task when you’re sharing space with the likes of Moore.

It’s a film with dialogue that seems taken verbatim from a sensitivity training video or a pamphlet on the gay rights movement. The “bad guys” tote religious beliefs and incredibly general stereotypes, unmoved by any example presented showing that gay people love their partners just like everyone else, the “good guys” dole out mighty preachy sentiments about acceptance and equality. It just never feels honest, even though it’s well intended.

Another big problem I had was that I never bought Moore and Page as a couple. Both actresses capably portray their characters but we’re supposed to believe in their bond and I never did. So it made it harder to relate to the situation the real-life couple found themselves in. Instead it becomes a film about Moore dying before justice is served, instead of the struggle for equality that Hester herself wanted to be front and center.

It says something when the most memorable thing for me was the song played over the end credits.  “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and performed beautifully by Miley Cyrus and it’s the one chance the film has for an Oscar contention.

Is the film important to see?  Sure, if you’re wanting to have a larger discussion with someone on the continued fight for equality for all.  But as a dramatization of real life events that led to a landmark change in the law, it’s an overall letdown.

Movie Review ~ Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company, National Lampoon, from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage.

Stars: Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, Al Jean, Billy Bob Thornton, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, Judd Apatow, P.J. O’Rourke

Director: Douglas Tirola

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though I’ve watched quite a few of the big screen offerings boasting the name National Lampoon, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the bawdy, rule-challenging magazine that started it all. Those in the same boat as me will be well served to devote some time to Douglas Tirola’s Lampoon love letter Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon because it gathers nearly every living member that was a major contributor to the magazine and films, detailing how the magazine rose to record high circulation before crashing and burning near the turn of the century.

The ground-breaking publication had a 28 year run starting in 1970, born as an offshoot of sorts to the Harvard Lampoon, a chaste satire magazine that I’m pretty sure didn’t feature as many bare breasts as its wicked cousin. Attracting some of the best and brightest in young comedic talent, the magazine grew to phenomenal popularity in pop culture and found its players turning up on a radio shows, stage plays, and, eventually movies.

The timing seems right for this documentary, coming on the heels of the numerous retrospectives that surrounded the 40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live. Looking at the members of the National Lampoon that were eventually lured away to form the original cast of SNL, you get an even greater sense as to where they cut their satiric teeth before achieving the national spotlight every Saturday night.

It’s a fairly straight-forward documentary with good sound bites presented by people with names we recognize more for their behind the scenes contribution than anything onscreen. Though they are now older and (maybe) wiser, the wealth of timeworn photos show that in their heyday these people partied hard and produced a ribald humor magazine that was a counter-culture phenom of its time. It’s hard to know if such a thing could happen in this day and age, making the National Lampoon a time capsule of sorts for how things (and people) (and humor) used to be.

Movie Review ~ Goodnight Mommy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Twin boys move to a new home with their mother after she has face changing cosmetic surgery, but under her bandages is someone the children don’t recognize.

Stars: Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz

Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Here’s the good news. It appears that we’re in a new renaissance of horror films; films made to scare that don’t always involve a slasher hacking away at nubile teens or a monster from the deep chomping away at nubile teens. No, this is a time of the slow burn psychological horror, fright flicks designed to give you the fears while you’re in the theater but also keep you checking underneath your bed for days/weeks to come.

Now here’s the bad news. Not all of these movies are good and Goodnight Mommy is the latest case in point.

Perhaps I’ve seen too many horror entries to feel the kind of dread as someone who isn’t a fan of the genre might feel when confronted with the grisly happenings that go on in Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Austrian shocker. That may explain why I felt like I was being led along a paint-by-numbers canvas of a screenplay with the kind of twists and turns that feel also-ran. In fact, the big twist of the film is telegraphed so early on that I felt surely I had swallowed the red herring too fast and another rug was going to be pulled out from under at any time.

The handsomely shot film is set in an isolated country home and finds twin boys unsure of the woman they call Mother, a heavily bandaged woman that knows their names but also can’t recall important facts about them. Early scenes show the boys frolicking in the woods and nearby lake but when Mother arrives they are kept inside, trying to evade her cold glare and discover what lies underneath the bandages.

While the film begins as straight up psychological drama, its second act devolves into a gruesome set of torture sequences involving burnt flesh, cockroaches, and a host of other nasty deeds I can’t divulge. It’s a bit of a will tester, I’ll admit, but it’s so unpleasant that even telling yourself “It’s only a movie” doesn’t wash away the gritty grime you’ll feel when the credits roll.

As Mother, Susanne Wuest deserves some special prize for making it to the end of production without losing her mind. It’s a role of few words, and a remarkable one at that, requiring the actress to convey some air of mystery without using dialogue or facial expressions (she’s bandaged up for 75% of the film). I think it’s more to her credit than the screenplay that we empathize with her even while we question her intentions. Twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz have a raw honesty about them that works for their curious characters and the trio supports each other through Franz and Fiala’s more humiliating later scenes.

Goodnight Mommy first came on my radar with a much buzzed about preview that the internet proclaimed to be “the scariest trailer of the year” and they weren’t totally wrong. Unfortunately, after seeing the finished product I can tell you that the trailer is edited in a way to deliberately deceive the audience. A movie (especially a horror movie) should stand on its own and not fabricate scenes merely to get more butts in the seat or more chatter from film fans. It bugged me and it should bug you too.

Not as scary as The Babadook and not as original as It Follows, Goodnight Mommy is admittedly a cut above most of the US horror garbage dumped in theaters…but it’s one that doesn’t live up to expectations.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge — an army of undead zombies.

Release Date: February 5, 2016

Thoughts: Inspired by Jane Austen’s literary classic and Seth Grahame-Smith’s cheeky genre-bending spoof, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies aims to take full advantage of audiences love of period drama and the flesh hungry undead. This nifty first teaser opens like any number of Austen adaptations before seguing into more bodice/throat ripping action. I can’t tell how well the drama/comedy/horror will balance out but it’s sure to be funnier than 2013’s dismally dreary Austenland and scarier than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (also, by happenstance, adapted from Grahame-Smith’s novel). With a pleasant stable of young stars onboard like Lily James (Cindrella), Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows), Jack Huston (The Longest Ride), Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys), and Sam Riley (Maleficent) this one could be great fun…or a one-joke bit of tedium. I’m hoping for fun.

Movie Review ~ The Martian

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: At 77, director Ridley Scott has directed films across seemingly all genres.  Starting with his first film, 1977’s war drama The Duellists to his breakout hit Alien two years later, it was clear that Scott had something going for him.  Not that there weren’t stumbles along the way (1985’s Legend, 1992’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise) but for the most part Scott has exceled in drama (1991’s Thelma & Louise), historical epic (2000’s Gladiator) and even the occasional bit of fluff (2006’s charming A Good Year).  Still, sci-fi is where Ridley Scott has felt most at home and be it the aforementioned Alien, 1982’s polarizing Blade Runner, or even his more polarizing sorta-Alien prequel Prometheus in 20012 he always (for me) delivers the goods.

So it’s with great pleasure that I report that not only is The Martian the best film I’ve seen yet in 2015 but it’s Scott’s most appealing work in years.  Based on the hit novel by Andy Weir that’s been well adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), The Martian is one of those big crowd pleasing epics that audiences won’t see coming.  I’d imagine most people will turn up to see an outer-space action film starring Matt Damon (Interstellar) but what they’ll get instead is a full bodied, full blooded, blockbuster in the making that continues to impress with each passing twist.

I was worried that Weir’s first person narrative would be tough to adapt but Goddard has fleshed out not only our titular character but a host of his comrades along the way.  Now, characters that were intriguing on the page leap to life fully formed and ready to play a part in a rescue mission taking place several light years away.

Through a series of unfortunate events, astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead during an emergency evacuation of his team from their Mars outpost.  His captain (Jessica Chastian, Mama) and fellow teammates (Michael Pena, End of Watch; Kate Mara, Fantastic Four; Sebastian Stan, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Aksel Hennie, Headhunters) have no choice but to save themselves after it appears that Watney has perished in a harsh Martian sandstorm.

But miraculously Watney has survived, though it can be argued that his current situation is little better than his presumed one.  While he has enough food to last a little over a year, the next spacecraft isn’t scheduled to return for another four so he has to put his botanist skills to the test to make his own food supply while staying alive in a small habitat that isn’t designed to last as long as he’ll need it to be.

Back on Earth, a NASA authority figure (Jeff Daniels, Looper) has to deliver the bad news of a man dying on his watch but when a tech (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) notices some satellite images that suggest someone is still alive on Mars, he teams with the mission leader (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave) to devise a way to get Watney home.  This choice is mostly to rescue the stranded astronaut but also a tiny way to save face in the eyes of media scrutiny.

At nearly two and a half hours, your bladder may shudder in fear but make sure to go before the movie starts because you won’t want to risk missing a single second of the adventure this movie takes you on.  The running time flies by due in no small part to Scott’s skill as a director and Matt Damon’s bravura performance.  If we didn’t care about Watney or like Damon the film would have sunk faster than the other movies about Mars released in the past two decades (though I liked John Carter better than, well, everyone).

The Martian is a nice opportunity for Damon to show some nuance that sometimes feels lacking in his roles lately.  His is a powerful, mesmerizing performance and it should easily put him on the short list for Oscar recognition.  From Damon on down the cast is excellent.  I was wondering why Chastain would take such a ho-hum role, until a late in the game Hail Mary that I won’t spoil tells me exactly what attracted her to the part. Daniels is appropriately gruff, Ejiofor is galvanizing, and what a treat to see Kristin Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) as serious-minded media correspondent for NASA.  As the characters are introduced it felt like an abundance of riches and their presence makes the film that much more polished.

With the advancement of special effects it seems like anyone can make you believe that you’re in outer space floating weightless but there’s something truly incredible about the production design and visual effects on display here.  Seamlessly integrating green screen technology, it’s the first film in a long while where I couldn’t tell where the effect ended and reality began.  Couple that with Harry Gregson Williams’s gorgeously haunting score and exemplary cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and you have a film that’s a real stunner.

I can’t remember the last time I left a film so fully satisfied and, better yet, energized.  Rocketing to the top of Best Picture frontrunners, the film has all of the elements that could help it nab the top prize.  We’re pretty far off from the final nominees and the dramatic films seem to rise to the top of the pile but I’m going to be pulling for The Martian to find its way into the mix.  Don’t miss it and feel free to spring for the 3D too, the effect works well to give Mars a unique depth while letting computer read-outs pop out at you.  Seriously…not to be missed.