Movie Review ~ IT: Chapter Two


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Will Beinbrink, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Two years after IT: Chapter One took the late summer/early box office by screaming storm, we find ourselves in a similar situation upon the arrival of its sequel.  Like its predecessor, IT: Chapter Two is being released at the very tail end of a mostly bummer summer of sputtering sequels and non-starter indies.  At this point in the year, the hunger for something high quality that isn’t seeking Oscar gold (or is it?) but just wants to entertain is, I must admit, quite appealing.  Re-watching Chapter One in anticipation of Chapter Two, I was struck by how well that earlier film scooped up the audience into its spell and had high hopes the second chapter would continue with that same magic.

In my review of the first film I wondered why the studio didn’t have a little more faith in the property and shoot the entire novel back-to-back instead of disrupting its non-linear plot in favor of more straight-forward storytelling. Instead, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, still wary after a troubled start to the project when the original writer/director left, decided to test the waters by filming only the first of a planned two-part movie.  The film was a gigantic hit (rightfully so), made a few stars out of the kids, and almost immediately had fans compiling their dream cast for the follow-up that quickly got the greenlight.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club bested Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and most have moved away from the tiny town of Derry, Maine.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, The Three Stooges) is the only one that has stuck around, living above the library and keeping watch for any strange occurrences that might be tied to the evil he faced with his friends when they were tweens.  Receiving a fairly targeted message at the scene of a horrific crime that confirms his worst suspicions, Mike tracks down his long-lost pals who have all strangely forgotten the summer of the clown and they oath they made to return.

Overcoming his stutter and becoming a successful novelist and screenwriter, Bill (James McAvoy, Split) is more than happy to vacate the set of his latest movie where he’s having trouble getting the ending right.  Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) escapes her violent husband/business partner in order to keep her promise, while foul-mouthed stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins) leaves his tour and heads for Maine.  Eddie (James Ransone, Sinister) and Ben (Jay Ryan) have no problems getting out of their stuffy corporate jobs and away from the drone of their daily lives.  Only Stanley (Andy Bean, Allegiant) finds it harder to return for reasons I won’t spoil here.

When the gang has gathered back in their hometown and Mike levels with them about the evil that has reemerged, the memories come flooding back and it’s here the movie starts to fray. Up until that point, writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) and returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) have been pulling the rope tighter and tauter around the group, giving them all warning signs that danger awaits them all.  Once they all arrive, however, there’s a fracturing isolation that occurs which gives each person an individual mini sub-storyline to follow and the movie curiously goes slack.  Seems that Mike has found out a way to destroy the entity that has been feeding off of Derry residents for hundreds of years and he needs his friends to split up and gather a personal “artifact” from that summer that was important to them.

This gives each actor their own stretch of time to be the star of the film and not everyone uses their time wisely. Surprisingly, it’s the biggest stars that fare the worst with McAvoy whipping himself into an absolute frenzy at inopportune times, coming off as bug-eyed and hysterical instead of terrified.  Chastain is right behind him feasting on the scenery and she and Hader fight over which high emotional moment to gnaw on next.  (There is a serious campaign to get Hader an Oscar nomination for his work here and, while I’m a fan, that’s totally bonkers.  This isn’t even an Oscar-adjacent performance.) All three become, frankly, grating as the movie extends which makes the restrained and nuanced work Ransone, Ryan, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mustafa, seem even more welcome.  These character “adventures” feel like the chapters they are in the book, personal moments that have slight ties to the greater action but are largely drop-in and drop-out scenes.  The same scenario is repeated later in the movie when the adults get thrown into their own personal horrors.  What started in 2017 as a scary riff on Stand by Me turns into a tricky re-working of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

What’s really missed are the child actors from Chapter One and, though they have been brought back for this second installment they aren’t…quite the same.  Over the past two years the kids have done what kids do at that age: they grow.  Via digital scrubbing and voice modulating, the performances have been youth-ized and the results are often creepier than Pennywise.  You know the voice matches the actor but the face doesn’t look right so it’s all strangely out of whack.  Only Sophia Lillis seems to have escaped the airbrush and thus her performance feels the most grounded and real.  When the action switches back to the adults, you can see the work the older actors have done to match their younger counterparts and, for what it’s worth, the casting is spot-on.  I just kept wondering what would have happened if they waited 27 years to let these younger actors grow into their older selves.

As is the case with most sequels to horror films, the scares have to be bigger and more frequent and IT: Chapter Two definitely falls in line with expectations  The trouble with that is there is no build up to a scare almost anywhere in the movie.  Sure, there is some disturbing imagery and a few jolts but none come close to the satisfying and expertly orchestrated thrills elicited from Chapter One.  It’s like in Jaws.  Once you’ve seen the shark, you’ve seen the shark and it’s all about the attack from then on.  Now that we are familiar with Pennywise and have seen so much of him, there’s less menace to be had, even though he does bare that hideous maw with rows upon rows of razor teeth multiple times in the film.

There’s a fairly large amount of iffy CGI on display, as well. Though the protracted finale of the film features the most well-rounded effects of all, there are numerous nightmare creatures conjured up by Dauberman and Muschietti that are simply goofy to look at.  An abundance of grotesque creepies emerge from the darkness throughout the movie and few have the same impact of the simple image of Pennywise staring out of the dark at an unsuspecting child.  An effective (if extremely hard to stomach) opening sequence at a country fair and a later scene underneath the town bleachers are good reminders of how Muschietti can extend tension to its most enjoyable breaking point.

At 169 minutes, the movie either needed to be 40 minutes shorter or 60 minutes longer. Were it shorter, Muschietti could have trimmed up some redundant character bits in the third act that feel like extra padding.  Had it been longer, we could have spent some more time with the Losers Club and their lives outside of Derry.  There’s too little of their current lives shown to give us a proper introduction so we have to almost base our knowledge soley on what we remember from the original film.  What I do appreciate is Muschietti’s attention to small details from the book and within his vision of the film.  I’ll  have to give the movie a second watch, but there’s usually something not quite right going on in the background of scenes that most viewers won’t catch on the first viewing.  It’s also a nice touch to have Eddie’s nagging wife played by the same actress who was his mother in Chapter One.  There are also two very funny cameos, one in particular that had our audience cheering.

There’s rumors of a supercut that might happen that would combine both movies into one and I’d be fascinated to see how that would come together. I’d definitely recommend this movie, sequel flaws and long running time aside, because of the way it nicely concludes what was started back in 2017.  If only everything was done at the same time and the filmmakers didn’t have that extra year to get too zealous with their plans for IT: Chapter Two.

Movie Review ~ Dark Phoenix


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.

I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.

Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.

When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.

Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.

It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.

Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday.  I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more.  Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school?  Might be a good idea.

I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance.  I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here.  There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise.  Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.

The Silver Bullet ~ IT: Chapter 2



Synopsis
: Twenty-seven years later, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Thoughts: Back in 2017, Warner Brothers took a risky move by remaking Stephen King’s IT as a big screen endeavor. Though the television mini-series had unquestionably not aged well it still held a soft spot in the hearts of many a fan.  Thankfully, the gamble paid off and director Andy Muschietti (Mama) delivered not only a scary as hell horror film but one that also captured King’s nostalgic tones as well.  The performances were far above average considering that most of the kids were unknowns and that helped keep the tension up throughout.  Two years later comes the concluding chapter featuring the members of the Losers Club that have grown up and are revisited by a vengeful evil that has been waiting for them for many years.  The first teaser trailer is a doozy too, crafted mostly as a scene between Jessica Chastain (The Martian) and a creepy lady that lives in her childhood home.  I found myself slowly inching away from my desk as it went along not sure where it was taking me.  Here’s hoping this sequel seamlessly branches off the first film and ends with the kind of bang it deserves.

Movie Review ~ Molly’s Game


The Facts
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Synopsis: The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, Rachel Skarsten

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s some good fun to be had in Molly’s Game, a true story based on the bestselling novel that’s been adapted by award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin…but sadly the good time doesn’t last.  It’s not that Bloom’s life isn’t a fascinating character study because her rise and fall tale is so outrageous it’s hard to believe it’s all true.  There’s value in seeing a woman rightfully taking a piece of the pie in a traditionally male fronted field but under Sorkin’s sleepy eye as a first-time director he can’t find the same type of balance that’s propelled his previous screenplays into first-class features.

It’s easy to see what drew Sorkin and his star Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) to this project.  Bloom was a former skier on her way to the Olympics tragically sidelined by a freak accident just as she was coming into her own.  Having trained her whole life for this pinnacle, she’s untethered without much to fall back on.  Her father (Kevin Costner, Man of Steel) always pushed her but never truly supported her and by the time she winds up crashing on the couch of a friend in Los Angeles, Bloom isn’t sure where her life is headed.

Making ends meet by waitressing and running bottle service in a popular LA hotspot, she connects with a man that offers her an office job.  This day job turns into a lucrative gig hosting weekly poker tournaments for the very rich and very famous in the backroom of a unassuming bar.  Building relationships and getting on the job training with each passing hand, Bloom makes the leap to running her own ritzy poker game and that’s when she realizes how high stakes her cash flow business has become.  Running afoul of a famous actor (a nicely nasty Michael Cera, This is The End) looking to profit off of her hard work, she moves the game to NYC all the while keeping things on the up and up.

Forced into making an illegal choice in order to protect her bottom line, Bloom loses everything and then gets arrested by the FBI in their crackdown of a gambling ring she was involved with that, unbeknownst to her, had mafia ties.  Enlisting the aid of a defense attorney (Idris Elba, Prometheus) she doesn’t entirely trust, Bloom has to decide whether to tell the FBI all she knows and avoid jail or keep her secrets safe and pay further penalties for decisions that weren’t entirely hers to make.

Sorkin’s dialogue is, as expected, laser sharp and barbed with the best of intentions.  He knows his way around a tricky turn of phrase and his script is filled with his trademark quick wit.  If only it had also been populated with real characters.  Save for Bloom (aided by Chastain’s fierce performance), all of the supporting players feel like alien creations of people pretending to be human.  It’s fine when one character has a sharp comeback or humorous exposition but when each and every person is battling to be the smartest in the room it all starts to get muddy.

Elba is usually a slam dunk in movies but here Sorkin has cast him as a caustic man trying to play a father figure to Bloom as well as his own daughter that he regularly assigns reading material to.  Instead of being a lawyer passing judgement on his client, Sorkin has him upbraiding her for her actions like she’s being reprimanded like a child and that feels a bit icky.  Same goes for Costner as Bloom’s real father, a typically Costner-esque creation that’s cool to the touch and rather unlovable.  He shows up again late in the film for a sequence that was so strange in its composition I kept waiting for it to be revealed it’s all in Bloom’s imagination.

The good news is that Sorkin has finally done something he hasn’t been great at before…writing for a woman.  His male-heavy scrips for television and film have also felt like they were deliberately excluding the fairer sex so perhaps Molly’s Game was a chance for him to challenge himself.  Working with Chastain helps a great deal, even if the movie could have been tightened by a full 20 minutes if the aforementioned Costner scene had been trimmed and other flashbacks excised.

A decent hand of adult entertainment for those not ready to commit to the history lesson of Darkest Hour, the pitch-black comedy of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or those that find their screening of The Post is sold out, Molly’s Game might be created by a one-eyed Jack but it’s ruled by a commanding queen.

Movie Review ~ Miss Sloane

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the world of political power-brokers, Sloane takes on the most powerful opponent of her career and will do whatever is required to win.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow

Director: John Madden

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Miss Sloane is a timely political drama that has a stacked deck in its cinematic favor.  An Oscar nominated director and multi-award winning actors have been brought together with mostly good, but never great, results.  While that may sound like the movie overall is a disappointment considering the pedigree in front of and behind the camera, it has enough energy to rise above the scenes that enervate its forward motion.

Jessica Chastain (The Martian) plays the titular character, a sought-after D.C. lobbyist as ruthless in her pursuit of winning as she is about making sure her flame red hair is always tucked neatly behind one ear.  (At one point, I doubted she had two ears since we never saw the other).  As the film opens, Sloane is about to go before a congressional hearing to defend herself over accusations of impropriety, charges that could, if convicted, carry a lengthy term in prison.  Showing how the sleep-averse Sloane got into her current hot seat is what occupies most of the picture, tracing her path from a plum job at a high powered conservative lobbying firm to a grassroots boutique agency opposing a gun bill.

The parallels to David and Goliath are evident as Sloane and her recruits take on the big boys who begin to care more about derailing her than they do about pushing through their political agenda.  Sloane isn’t afraid to go up against her former employers, even if they already may know exactly what her next unscrupulous move will be.  Brief forays into high tech spy surveillance (what’s being done with cockroaches might make a PETA supporter reconsider squashing them on sight) and peeks into the upper pill popping Sloane’s personal affairs via clandestine meetings with a kindly gigolo (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers) thankfully break up the heavier moments with stale political rhetoric being recited expertly by Chastain and the rest of the cast.

The script from first-timer Jonathan Perera is very of the moment, even if it plays like the pilot of a new HBO series.  If you listen carefully, the entirety of the twists the film has in store are given away by one character within the first ten minutes but it’s buried so well by Perera that you don’t notice it until you’re walking to your car.  Director John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) maneuvers his actors well and keeps the film moving at a nice clip but at 132 minutes there’s probably a good ten to fifteen minutes that could be jettisoned in favor of a tighter running time.  While some may accuse the film of cheating in its final act, I’ll again point to Perera outright telling us what’s going to happen and then delivering on it.

As much as I like Chastian, I have to say that for the first twenty minutes of Miss Sloane I wasn’t sure what the hell she was doing.  Showing a ballbuster temperament on the surface without going very deep, I got worried that Chastain was using this as an exercise in overacting instead of layering in her performance.  Eventually, though, the actress tuned in and that’s when the film really starts to zip along.  Like the best complex characters, there’s not a lot of backstory given to how Sloane came to be how she is and that makes her one of the more interesting characters to show up in film this year.  The race for a Best Actress nomination is a tight one and Chastain might just find herself as one of the five nominees.

Supporting Chastain is Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Sloane’s boss at her new firm and Sam Waterson (The Man in the Moon) as her previous employer who sets his sights on destroying her completely.  Waterston may have more hair on his eyebrows than Strong has on his whole body but Strong easily bests Waterston performance-wise by underplaying expertly.  You can’t totally fault Waterston, though, because the first half of the film finds many characters shouting at each other…guess no one in Washington knows how to use their inside voices.  Though I’m a fan of Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), his terribly old-school New Yawhk accent only made me detest his already detestable character more.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast) and moon faced Alison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) are the lone prominent female roles and both are afforded showcasing scenes.  As the head of the congressional committee cross examining Sloane, John Lithgow (Interstellar) is his usual blustery self.

At the center of Miss Sloane is a debate over gun control that continues to be a hot button issue in this increasingly political climate.  Even as a work of fiction, Miss Sloane makes some interesting points about the current state of affairs regarding the NRA and the landscape of big business in our nation’s capital.  In setting out to tell this story, Perera and the cast aptly keep the conversation going without letting the movie be solely about that important issue.

An intelligent, well-read picture, Miss Sloane may be overstuffed and take some time to let its actress find her way but it winds up being a pleasing film with good intentions.  If it had been made as the first episode for a cable series, I’d be setting my DVR to record future episodes.

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Martian

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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.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: There’s a Mars curse in Hollywood and everyone knows it. Numerous films about the red planet have been released over the years and, save for the 1990 version of Total Recall, they’ve all been belly-up flops. True, it’s not as if these were great films to begin with…like the 2000 double-header of Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars and Anthony Hoffman’s Red Planet. John Carter was savaged by critics but it was better than it was given credit for.

Now here comes director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Blade Runner) with his bid to break the Mars curse and it looks like he may have cracked the code. Though the first trailer clocks in at an astounding 3+ minutes, it’s a brilliantly edited preview of the November release…giving us some idea on what to expect but not foreshadowing what’s to become of an American astronaut stranded on Mars.

Based on Andy Weir’s 2014 novel and adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), Scott has gone big with the visuals and cast. After sharing no scenes in Interstellar, I’m wondering if Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jessica Chastain (Mama) will meet up again in this space tale. There’s also Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment), Kate Mara (Iron Man 2), Sebastian Stan (The Apparition), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Sean Bean (Mirror Mirror), and Kristen Wiig (Girl Most Likely…).

The Silver Bullet ~ Crimson Peak

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Synopsis: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Thoughts: There are very few directors out there that I can say I have trust in and Guillermo del Toro is right at the top of the list.  Sure, his last effort was Pacific Rim a bomb-tastic and bombastic spectacle of effects and overly dramatic performances…but it still possessed a style all its own.  Our first, um, peek at del Toro’s gothic horror film Crimson Peak gave me the kind of warm feeling in my belly usually reserved for holiday festivities and anytime I catch Grease 2 on television.  Modern audiences aren’t exactly clamoring for a Victorian set haunted house flick but they could be in for the fright of their lives if the finished product lives up to this impressive teaser.  Featuring hot commodities like Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Tom Hiddleston (Thor), and Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) my interest is most definitely piqued.

Movie Review ~ A Most Violent Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Fans of the 70s and 80s potboiler crime dramas from the likes of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), Sidney Lumet (Serpico), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) will want to make time for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s well-constructed look at NYC before it became the Disney-fied commercialized metropolis that it’s morphed into over the last 30 years.

Chandor (Oscar nominated for 2012’s talky Margain Call before going almost dialogue free for 2013’s All is Lost) sets his gritty period piece right on the precipice of the Big Apple exploding into a year of murder and crime the likes the city had never seen. Though strolling through Times Square and the upscale posh surrounding boroughs may seem carefree now, don’t forget there was a time when NYC was not the place to be and violence ran rampant in select (and populous) parts of town.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Won’t Back Down) is in the heating-oil field running a business he took over from his father-in-law. Industrious and looking forward, Isaac’s Abel Morales is pursuing the American Dream and trying to owe as few people as possible in his quest to achieve it. We get the impression that he’s a different businessman than his father-in-law was, as Abel resists the urge to go with the flow but rather to control his own destiny. That doesn’t always sit well with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Lawless) who’d rather her husband assert dominance first and ask questions later.

After a series of violent hijackings of Abel’s fuel transportation trucks as well as escalating threats by his competitors with ties to shady dealings of the criminal underground variety, Abel must choose a path that will help him toward the future he envisions for himself and his family – but at what cost? There’s a lot of moral dilemma going on in A Most Violent Year, not the least of it involving the ultimate price of ambition. We know Abel is one of the good guys so we’re brought to the edge of our seats with interest when everyone around him seems to be nudging him toward ever darker solutions to his problems and wondering when/if he’ll break.

Isaac carries the weight of the film on his broad shoulders with a quiet ease, suggesting the internal struggle more than making a show of it on the outside. The stakes are high and though we never see him break a sweat, inside you know his heart rate is sky-high. With her platinum Dorothy Stratten/Galaxina hairdo and a manicure that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond femme fatale, Chastain’s the Lady Macbeth of the film. Wise enough to know that the character could come off one-dimensional; Chastain gives Anna a valued aura of mystery so we’re never quite sure what her endgame is.

It all builds to a satisfying and necessary ending, one that rides the razor’s edge of being both too pat and ever so slightly ambiguous. New York wasn’t yet close to getting its make-over so we know what lies ahead for our characters, even if they think they’ve got it all figured out. This is a velvety piece of old-school filmmaking, very worth your time.

Movie Review ~ Interstellar

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Most of the reviews for Interstellar are going to focus on the fact that it’s a let-down to what we’ve come to expect from director Christopher Nolan.  Destined to be held to the impossibly high bar he set for himself with his trilogy of Batman films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), you could say that he really only has himself to blame for critics and audiences alike coming to expect a certain need to be filled with each Nolan epic.

While I agree that Interstellar may not be the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the new millennium as many thought it would be, I still marveled at the sheer magnitude of innovation surrounding the film.  I applaud its commitment to science, cinema, and humanity – it’s why I left the screening with a spark of ebullient respect that literally kept me up tossing and turning in bed as my dreams were filled with wormholes, theories of relative time, and all those failed physics tests of my youth.  Yet, as I continued to think on Nolan’s film as a whole, I found enough fault in the melodramatic moments Nolan and his brother Jonathan have unfortunately wedged in that overall my jovial enthusiasm for the movie faded…and faded fast.

In a distant future, our crops are dying and our prospects look grim.  Single father and retired pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club) lives on his farm trying to do best for his children.  Guided to a secret government facility by a series of events I won’t divulge here, it isn’t long before Cooper is blasting off into space with a two pronged mission to find a new world to inhabit and save the human race.

That’s a heavily oversimplified rundown of the first hour of Nolan’s three hour trek into universes beyond our reach and it’s this earthbound time at the front of the picture and the final hours that kept restraining the journey from really rocketing into the oribit I wanted it to.  There’s a manipulative feeling to what the brothers Nolan have constructed, with attempt after attempt to tug at the heartstrings of viewers.  What they failed to include, however, is a set-up that allows us to be attached emotionally to anyone enough to be moved by their fight for survival.

The film is best when it’s floating in space because that’s when the artistry begins to take form and all cylinders start to fire.  Projected on an IMAX screen and making full use of an immersive sound design (my teeth are still rattling), Interstellar could come across feeling like an entertaining school lecture with its long monologues describing time travel and explanations of the effects of relativity.  Thankfully, Nolan finds a balance in keeping audiences up to speed without boring them (or dumbing it all down) with textbook-ish dialogue that only a multi-PhD professor would grasp.

An impressive, Oscar recognized cast (2 nominees and 4 winners…5 if you count a surprising cameo) make the most of Nolan’s multi-layered script.  McConaughey’s a bit of an odd duck as our hero lead.  Adept at wearing his emotions on his sleeve, I found myself craving for a shot of the actor that didn’t show him with his eyes welled up with tears.  Cool headed when trouble arises, he still cuts the appropriate swath of an All-American dad just trying to get home to his kids.  Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) has never been a favorite of mine but the break she took after her Oscar win has given the actress time to reacquaint herself with a grounded acting style and she largely succeeds in her role as a brainy, all-business counterpart to McConaughey’s cowboy cavalier.

Rounding out the cast is Michael Caine (Now You See Me) as Hathaway’s father and McConaughey’s mentor and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) playing a scientist with a link to McConaughey, alongside Wes Bentley (Lovelace) and David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas) as fellow explorers onboard the shuttle.  Caine has a long history with Nolan but here the role he’s been given is so clearly designed as a plot device that it’s hard to form an honest opinion of the performance.  Chastain fares better, considering she’s saddled with a hefty amount of the problematic moments in the final third of the film.

Less complex than Nolan’s trippy Inception and lacking the emotional attachment of 2013’s better (and shorter) Gravity, Interstellar is a film I can imagine getting less interesting with repeat viewings.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll see the movie again in 70MM on the largest screen I can find because the movie looks absolutely incredible…but I’m not sure all the additional viewings in the world can excuse some major cracks in Nolan’s ambitious rocket-ship.