Friday, December 18, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The good news is you don't really need to watch the original Star Wars films in order to follow along with this film. But then honestly, why wouldn't you have seen the original Star Wars films?

Star Wars is really an amazing franchise, starting in 1977 with the very first film. Can you imagine watching that in its inception? All these years later, you're still in awe of the characters, the story, the effects, the set pieces--the whole universe. The sets don't even look that different in this one than the ones from the '70s. Yet, we're still in awe.

Without giving too much away, Star Wars: The Force Awakens revolves around the First Order (the dark side) trying to control the galaxy while racing against the Resistance (the light side) to find the disappeared Luke Skywalker. The film mixes old characters with a band of new characters--characters that you're going to love--and doesn't stray from what was so charismatic about the original movies.

The film truly has that classic feel to it--from the scene cuts to the camerawork to the dialogue. This isn't your Marvel movie, folks. In fact, it makes us rethink what exactly we love about those films to begin with. I mean, we have Star Wars back now. What more could we want?

But there is a different kind of levity brought here that we actually may be able to actually thank Marvel for. It's not too much, but the perfect amount. In the originals, they would have never dared make light of any scene involving Darth Vader, but here we are given one surprising, yet heedful laugh during a bit that involves the neo-Darth Vader, Kylo Ren--who is just as bit of creepy and sinister as Vader.

The newcomers, John Boyega as an ex-stormtrooper, Finn, and Daisy Ridley as a orphaned scavenger, Rey, will have no problems being the new faces of the franchise. Their characters have a lot of depth already, with much more yet to be explored.

Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo, and he's better than he's ever been. His performance is actually award-worthy. I mean, just give the guy an Oscar already (he's only had 1 nomination ever--seriously).

And what is Star Wars without a couple twists? The ones that we're given are great, and you know they're stringing you along for more. They don't answer every question in this film. They answer a lot, but still leave you talking afterwards and speculating. It teaches us to be patient and we're surprisingly okay with that. The film doesn't give in to the immediate gratification that the Avengers culture usually demands.

It runs at 135 minutes, but feels no longer than 100. The pacing is basically near-perfect, which attributes to it's deceptive length.

I truly didn't want it to end. It's the year's best film and perhaps the best one I've seen in at least 5 years. It gave me the happy chills about eleven different times. I can't even begin to explain how good it is. I guess you're just going to have to see it for yourself. Who am I kidding? Everyone's about to watch this movie. But that's Star Wars for ya.

Twizard Rating: 100

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Spotlight (2015)

Journalism can be a hard topic to cover in film without adding a bunch of unnecessary drama to make it interesting. But Spotlight has the benefit of a great script with very natural dialogue. Nothing here feels forced of feigned. It immersively chronicles the Boston Globe's long-time investigation into the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal.

As a guy who grew up in the Catholic Church, it isn't easy watching this film and knowing that it's the Catholic Church who is to blame. But like any place where you have people in a position of power, you're going to have those who abuse that power. The Church is no different. And just like not every cop is racist and not every black person plays basketball, not every priest is a child molester. Although I was an alter server as a child and luckily never experienced or heard of anyone personally who suffered through this tragedy, I do shake my head at those who tried to cover it up.

Although the sex-abuse issues were nationwide, the film focuses mostly on the staggering numbers in the Boston Archdiocese. Catholicism in Boston has been known to be more of a culture in that city than most other places in the country. Their dependence and wholehearted belief in the Church made for a much easier target for predators. It's one thing to idolize God and hold true to your religious beliefs, but it's another to idolize other human beings. To idolize is to believe that one is not capable of fault. Well, the people of Boston held true, more than anyone, that these priests were godlike figures who could do no wrong. It was a sentiment that exuded from everywhere in that city. In California, where I live, I've never experienced anything quite like that in the 26 years I've spent as a practicing member of the Catholic faith. Not to say that these priests aren't expected to lead a holier life than most of our own, but then we look back to that whole abuse of power thing.

As for the movie, it's very well done. The acting is superb. Director, Tom McCarthy, gets the very best performance out of each of his actors. Especially Liev Schreiber, who does his best Steven Wright impression, always remaining soft spoken, yet intimidating. He never overplays his character, which isn't necessarily easy for an actor to do.

Mark Ruffalo is perhaps the biggest standout. He's an absolute phenomenon here. He commits so much to every one of his character's idiosyncrasies that it's truly hypnotizing.

The script is also great, doing well to explain and give background on a lot of the more convoluted details of the story. It can, however, be hard to follow all the names that are being spewed at you, remembering who everyone is. The story moves along briskly with only a slight thinning out for about 10 minutes towards the end.

But the one thing that Spotlight does pretty poorly at is depth, almost as if it's deliberately trying not to have any. It's anything but a character study. There's a lot of implied background for the characters, but you can't help but want a little more. Even in the macro sense, it has several perfect opportunities to explore the psychology behind these child molesters, but the film never really takes advantage of them, thus leaving a few scenes feeling unnecessary.

Despite making unbiased claims, the film does have a bit of an agenda of its own. It tells of certain characters' stated struggles with their faith, although they had already admitted to being lapsed. While it never shows how the Church's scandal would affect actual churchgoers.

Although I'm not commending any of it, I know why Cardinal Law chose to cover up all of those scandals. When you have a society that is full of ignorant people who constantly generalize everything, then you are going to have other people who try and cover up these instances in fear that the general public will, indeed, generalize. And so it happened anyway. Those who aren't Catholic go into this movie and may look at the Church in a negative light. But like I said, people love to think in absolutes. I, myself, don't idolize anyone, but can totally recognize that these are definitely horrible tragedies to be ashamed of.

Twizard Rating: 94

Quick Movie Review: Trumbo (2015)

Dalton Trumbo, known for penning such classic films as Roman Holiday and Spartacus, had a knack for drama--in both writing it and living it. He was a quirky character who always spoke his mind in spontaneous phrases--a feature that is satirized a few times in this film.

Trumbo stars Bryan Cranston in the title role and details his career starting in 1947 as a successful screenwriter, and then subsequently a blacklisted one for his support of the Communist party.

This film comes from all sides of the situation. It shows how Trumbo has it easy compared to his actor counterparts, as they can't hide under another name like he can. It also doesn't directly blame any anti-communist believers' fears, since they're just a product of American propaganda, but it does show them as being porous in logic.

It also shows the struggle Trumbo begins having with his own ego and how his political stances get fewer and far between. His family life with his wife and kids takes a toll as well. But the film reveals an amazing glimpse of a great man who means well, but simply loses his way and his intent due to his attempt at proving himself to the ignorance that surrounds him--an understandable evolution. Cranston details this development seamlessly throughout the film in a way that makes you not realize it happens after the fact.

For the most part, the pacing is pretty consistent. It starts quickly and doesn't waste much time with setup. Throughout we get so many scenes that it almost feels rushed, but retains its sanity enough so that it only comes off as paralleling the turbulence of the era. Every scene jumps to the next so briskly. However, there is one point in the film, about 3/4 of the way through, where Trumbo develops a relationship with director Otto Preminger. Not that this portion of Trumbo's life isn't important, but most other scenarios are shown to us as if through a slide projector, while this particular instance is given so much screen time that it becomes a distraction. It slows down the film so much for such a minimally significant part in the story. But once again, it's only noticeable because of the juxtaposition of it to every other portion of the film. Just a minor hiccup.

Diane Lane plays Dalton's wife, Cleo, the rock that Trumbo leans against for support and who makes him see his actions. Louis C.K. does a great job as the fictional character Arlen, Trumbo's contemporary, who is also blacklisted and imprisoned for his beliefs. He provides a great straight man to Trumbo's eccentricity, making the audience realize his actions. Actor Edward G. Robinson is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who works well physically, but lacks every bit of Robinson's timbre and trademark voice inflections.

The film isn't ridiculously long, but rightfully feels like it is. You don't feel like anything is left out of the story, but also don't feel as though you are told too much.

Trumbo does well to shine a refreshingly positive light on communism at its purist form, educating a brand new audience, making them think about its ideals in reference to our world today.

Twizard Rating: 97

Quick Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea is approached by audiences as an epic film that faces off a man and a whale. And while that's partially what happens, it's not the whole story.

The Ron Howard-directed film is one half good movie, one half less good movie. Fortunately for him, the good half is the latter half, so it's what we are left with. But the first hour of this film drudges along extremely slowly. Taking place in the 1820s, the characters speak in an archaic verbiage, heavy on sailing terms that mostly go over our heads. Sure, it gives the film a more genuine feel, but also provides us with a bit of a snoozer before the action actually starts happening.

For those of you who don't know, In the Heart of the Sea is about the real-life story that inspired Herman Melville's famed novel Moby Dick. The film begins in 1850 as Melville (Ben Whishaw) pays an unwanted visit to Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving crew member of a whaling ship, the Essex, which is said to have been destroyed by a giant whale 30 years prior. Much to Nickerson's protest, he tells the story to Melville about how he was a 14-year-old orphan on this boat, lead by Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth)--the true protagonist of this film. The strangest thing may be the fact that Nickerson recounts literally all parts of the story, including bits that he wasn't even present for.

Some background: Back before humans drilled the earth for oil, they would use whale oil for lighting and electricity. Men would go out to sea for months at a time in order to bring back hundreds or thousands of gallons of oil. In this case, they were at sea for 2 years.

The film jumps back and forth between 1850 and 1820 showing multiple character dynamics and relationships--most importantly the one between Chase and Pollard, and between Melville and Nickerson.

But the people come to see a film about Moby Dick--the legendary whale who is chased by Captain Ahab--in this case Pollard and Chase. Unfortunately, we don't get to see the whale until an hour into the movie. Before that is a lot of setup, which would have been okay if the setup had been more interesting. 1997's Titanic also features a lot of drama before the action happens, but there's also a lot more tension leading up to it. And this film doesn't have the added benefit of being very charismatic, aside from what the giant whale brings. It takes itself a little too seriously, only giving us maybe two real shards of levity throughout.

I understand that In the Heart of the Sea is supposed to be a disaster film, but seeing that the disaster only accounts for a third of the movie, I think they could have afforded to give us a few more laughs here and there.

With that said, I was actually pretty moved by this film. I found it's overall messages very poignant and thoughtful. The movie showcases some important themes of animal hunting, prejudice, entitlement, and big business integrity--all of which are still relevant in today's world, and perhaps the most powerful things about this film.

The latter part of the film is very memorable and the effects with the whale are incredible. I left the movie satisfied by the second half, but was hoping for a first half that I don't have to skip over when I watch it again.

Twizard Rating: 84

Quick Movie Review: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

I survived the Star Wars Holiday Special. If you've ever hear word that it's terrible, that's no exaggeration. It's a TV movie, but I use to word "movie" loosely. About 10% of it is actual coherent plot. The rest plays out more as a variety show with pointless segments and musical numbers scattered randomly throughout.

The overall premise follows Chewbacca's Wookie family as they wait for him to return home for Life Day (the Wookie version of Christmas), but he is nowhere to be found. We, the audience, know that he is battling TIE fighters with Han Solo on his way home. Additionally, the Galactic Empire is searching homes for members of the Rebel Alliance.

Because there's such little plot, and it's a very simple concept, it shouldn't be this hard to understand what's going on in the movie. It doesn't help that none of us speak Wookie (even the characters in the movie can't understand what they're saying). The scenes without any humans, which constitute the majority of the special, are incomprehensible and borderline unwatchable. According to writer, Bruce Vilanch, he had wanted many of these scenes cut due to the fact that the audience can't understand the Wookie language. George Lucas insisted that they remain. Turns out Vilanch was right, as it's not only incoherent, but in a holiday special that's supposed to be jovial, we can't even smile or laugh at what's happening. But I'm not sure it would matter anyway, as even the jokes that are told by humans have terrible delivery.

Even the music numbers can't be looked at as a pleasant break from the insipid journey through the Star Wars universe. They're extremely plodding and lack any real character besides being hypnotic. At one point, Diahann Carroll performs some odd erotic piece which may make this the most uncomfortable holiday special in history--along with the most boring. I think when they torture prisoners they make them have to stay awake through the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Lucas couldn't even get all the characters in the same room together. Every major actor's scenes are filmed remotely, except for Harrison Ford's. It's a film that is said to feature Darth Vader--even though he literally only gets 4 seconds of screen time (which I'm pretty sure was just a cut scene from A New Hope).

The only highlight is an animated short halfway through that features the first on-screen appearance of Boba Fett. And that's not all, the storyline is pretty good also. It makes you wish that the whole special was just animated.

The Star Wars Holiday Special wouldn't have been nearly as bad if it was only an hour maybe. But 90 minutes is just ridiculous (2 hours including commercials). And you can't say that it's even bad in a funny way. It's just flat-out painful. I love Star Wars as much as the next guy, but there's no wonder why George Lucas wanted all of these destroyed.

Twizard Rating: 32

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Quick Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

You can't blame Pixar for anything really. It's tough to find things, but honestly they're there. I think with The Good Dinosaur, the studio's biggest pitfalls are what have made them become the powerhouse that they are today.

The film follows Arlo--the runt of the litter of talking dinosaurs--as he tries to discover what his true mark on this earth is. After a series of events finds him extremely far from home, he must figure out his way back with the unbidden assistance of a feral child, Spot, who is actually inadvertently responsible for a few tragedies in Arlo's life already.

With that said, The Good Dinosaur is the most Pixar-iest Pixar movie thus far. So much so that it's becoming increasingly more obvious what they're doing and why they're doing it with each film that comes along. And more than any, this one follows all of Pixar's signature moves: the long journey home, the unlikeliest of friends, the seldom-present antagonist. And then they include their signature Dumbo effect, where they just hand you a character who is so cute that you can't help but love them--and, in turn, the movie.

This one's a "journey home film" in the strictest way possible--not really playing around with that concept a whole lot like they do with Toy Story or Wall-E. Of the 16 films made by Pixar over the last 20 years, I'd say all but three of them are about the characters finding his or her way back home. And I understand why, because it's easier to find conflict. Throughout the film, there is mishap after mishap, without much room to breathe or develop it's own organic voice. I wouldn't say it's predictable, but it does have a tendency to be by-the-numbers a bit. 

It also may be the weirdest Pixar movie to date. In one scene, we see Spot literally rip the head off of a live bug that's the same size as he is.

But it's not to say that I didn't like this movie, because it's actually very pleasant. I mean, he humor is just middle of the road--I probably laughed the least amount out of any Pixar film. But I was also smiling throughout a lot of it. Also, the visuals are spectacular--a triumph in its own right.

The depth of the characters are another highlight, as they are relatable to both children and adults. Arlo is likable, but not Disney perfect. He shows hints of selfishness and stubbornness, which round him out well.

You'll hear pleasant echoes of City Slickers, which is perhaps the movie's most unique quality. It's not as tight nit as you would expect. It starts off painfully slow, but mostly picks up after about 30 minutes. Also, there is not a lot of tonal balance found. It makes jarring leaps between comedy and sheer terror in a few instances.

We see your road movie, Pixar. We're just curious if you're using it as a fallback now. Try moving away from it more often. 2012's Brave was awesome. It felt like one of the most unique films to come out of that studio.

While The Good Dinosaur is actually a really good movie, and I like it way better than Inside Out (yeah, for real), I still think that Pixar can do a whole lot better. At least with this film I can watch it multiple times and not get frustrated doing so.

In staying the same, it's safe to say that Pixar has devolved a little bit with The Good Dinosaur, but nonetheless, it's still way better off than what most other studios serve up as their animated offerings.

Twizard Rating: 91

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Quick Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)

Maybe not exactly the way you'd like to top off the Hunger Game series, but in a franchise where only 50% of the movies were great, does it really matter? The sad part is this didn't have to be the case. If Mockingjay hadn't been spliced into two separate chapters, we would have looked at this series with only one below par entry. But now there are two.

Obviously Mockingjay Part 2 is better than Part 1 in every way possible, except for being a good substitute for sleeping pills. But this film is the ending, which we'd like to see be a little bit better.

At least if it's been a year since you've watched the last Hunger Games, there isn't much that you have to remember because nothing really happened. Basically, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) goes crazy and strangles Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). And in this film, Katniss et al are on a mission to attack the capital and kill Snow (Donald Sutherland). Snow expects all this, so he sets up some traps for them along the way--the highlight of the film.

Perhaps the most obvious pitfall in this movie is the tortured Katniss. Now, it isn't Lawrence's fault. She plays the part convincingly, but so much so that it almost hinders the film altogether. She comes off as lackadaisical and it really slows down the movie. It's a shame though. All that depth they spent time heavily building in the previous films is wasted away in this one. She acts like a zombie the entire time--save for one powerful moment about ten minutes in when she's intensely talking to a man who's pointing a gun at her head. After that she's all but absent.

What made the first two Hunger Games so good is that it separated the series from the rest of the YA genre. It was unique to itself. But a third of the way through this film, beginning with Katniss and her friends' journey to the capital, it turns into every other dystopian teen movie--mutant creatures and all. There's nothing original about it. There's no moral struggle. There's nothing making us feel like anything is at stake. And there's really no point.

At this movie's best, it still knows how to build tension and suspense with its action scenes--a trait last seen long ago somewhere in the 2nd film. The effects and visuals are great like always, and I appreciate the "game board" aspect being brought back too. I just wanted the film to be a better conclusion to the series.

But there is still an unresolved love triangle coming into this film. Will Katniss end up with Peeta or Gale (Liam Hemsworth)? I know this is necessary in many films directed towards teenagers, but here it's not only unnecessary, but it gives the series less credibility--especially considering the forced nature of the conflict. There's never anything really separating the two guys. She has no real reason to choose one over the other, which then forces a decision to come down to mere physical preference--a trait that openly welcomes a younger, more naive demographic--the demographic that will rid this movie of all credibility. In most love triangles, the two lovers are opposing archetypes--Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton's characters in Fight Club, and even Edward and Jacob in Twilight--but here, the two men are basically just the same nice guy. We never feel like she can realistically make a decision. We can't either. And I think the filmmakers knew this, which is why they abruptly give us a reason not to like one of them with about 10 minutes left in the entire series. It's really the first sign of differentiation between the two male leads. And so it goes, the decision is pretty much made for Katniss. But it has to be, seeing as they're the same person, which makes everything that happened in the previous four films feel like a total waste of time.

In Harry Potter, the series never focuses too heavily on the romance between the characters. While Mockingjay Part 2 is still deeper than most other YA films, the love triangle distracts from the overall point of the series, which is the last thing you want as the franchise wraps itself up. It was just too strong in this one.

As the film ends, it never really climaxes--it just tapers off. Oh yeah, we get a betrayal from a character which no one cares about since the character just got introduced to us in the last movie and we got no time to get to know them. There's no sense of shock or betrayal that a good twist would have given us.

It seems like I hate this installment, although it's actually entertaining--much unlike Part 1. But overall, the film is way too into itself, presumably due to the hype that it's gained since its inception back in 2012. As a standalone movie, Part 2 has all the thrills you would need, but in the context of this series it makes us realize that we would have been fine wrapping it up after the 2nd film.

Hey, at least I wasn't falling asleep.

Twizard Rating: 67

Quick Movie Review: The Night Before (2015)

The Night Before is as flippant and goofy as any Seth Rogen helping, but just like every Christmas movie, it's deeper than meets the eye. It's about something more than Christmas. Christmas is just the nucleus that helps give significance to a story about self-discovery. And even Rogen's irreverent humor can't change that.

The film follows three best friends, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Chris (Anthony Mackie), and Isaac (Rogen), who get together every year on Christmas Eve to raise a little hell. The tradition started years earlier following the death of Ethan's parents. This being the last year of feral fun for the guys, seeing as they are grown-ups now with increasing responsibilities, they try to make it the best one ever.

There's not much to the plot other than a very generic concept, but that's not why our butts are in the seats. We really just want to see Rogen and company's antics as they run uninhibitedly throughout Manhattan.

While it seems at times like this movie serves as just another excuse for three actors to mess around  while making a movie for us to sit and watch for 101 minutes, that's what these romps are all about. We like watching them simply have a good time. We want a night like this where crazy things happen and we can talk about for the rest of our lives. These films serve as vessels for us to live vicariously through. And we're okay with that. It's an added bonus that it happens to have the backdrop of everyone's favorite time of year; a time of year that we romanticize more and more as we grow older--mostly because we long for that childlike innocence and simplicity of our youth. And it's interesting to witness amidst the crudity of a Seth Rogen film.

If nothing else, this film proves once again that Rogen can make anyone funny. His humor is contagious and motivates others to match his wit. On an unrelated note, Michael Shannon nearly steals the show as the spectral Mr. Green. He's mysterious and totally believable as the older scraggly pot dealer who keeps these guys continually paranoid throughout the film.

The film isn't perfect. It has its slower moments, but those also happen to be when the narrative picks up and we aren't as concerned about sustaining our laughter. Some plot devices show up merely for comedic effect and don't contribute much to the movie, but that's okay because it's that kind of comedy. And although this one doesn't get a pass to break all the rules, the filmmakers have crafted that type of movie.

There's a final realization copout that's forgiven with the satisfactory ending that follows, but the beauty of this movie is the chemistry of the core cast, which occurs through the empty script and heightened improvisation.

It's a good Christmas movie. It's not for the whole family, but it's a more unique addition to the genre. One that's definitely worth multiple viewings.

Twizard Rating: 84

Quick Movie Review: Spectre (2015)

A lot of times this happens in a film series. The film following the standout best usually faces the most quibbles. But in a franchise that boasts 24 installments, the juxtaposition of any previous entry should hardly make a difference.

9 years ago, Daniel Craig and the James Bond "estate" embarked on a renaissance of the franchise. It got revitalized and was able to sustain 2 of the best Bond films to date (Skyfall and Casino Royale). But Skyfall is such a good overall film that I think many casual fans forget what a Bond film used to be. And the few that don't like Skyfall complain that it doesn't have a Bond feel to it. However, Spectre, which is beat-by-beat as much of a James Bond film as Thunderball, gets criticized for doing just that.

In Spectre, Bond (Craig) tries to uncover a secret organization after receiving strange hints of its existence. He travels to different locations, off the books at the disobedience of his boss, trying to solve this mystery.

Let's start off with the criticisms here. Exploiting a plot twist isn't much of an art--although sometimes films overshoot the importance of the twist. But other times the twist is so enormous that it isn't exploited enough. This is one of those times. Possibly the best twist you can get in a blockbuster action film is merely played off nonchalantly to the audience. We're into it more than the filmmakers are, and that's an anticlimactic feeling.

Spectre also lacks the individual tone specific to the film that Skyfall and Casino Royale have. We like to be able to identify each Bond film with its own characteristics, but outside of the underlying theme, there really isn't one.

That underlying theme I speak of is the social commentary on "big brother". While it's ever so relevant to this day and age, it's also all but overplayed in films. But perhaps the most overlooked topic in this movie is the subliminal allusions of gun violence. The filmmakers are constantly, albeit subtly, pointing out ironic contradictions involving this topic.

I really like what they're doing here with the macro storyline of the revamped Bond series. It's moving along nice and slow and unforced--as opposed to the unmemorable and perfunctory subplots of the Avengers series. Gone are the days where we can just watch whatever Bond film in any order we want. Now we have to keep tabs and remember what took place in the previous installments. But these Bond films do it in a way where you don't have to keep track of too many details and can just relax for the most part.

Spectre may be by-the-numbers as far as Bond films go, but it's perhaps just what we need following the plot-heavy Skyfall.

Twizard Rating: 92

Quick Movie Review: The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

Vin Diesel's charisma may not be enough to save a movie that is this pedestrian. A rough script is one thing--I men, Diesel has been known to take a couple--but at it's best it's just a stylistic exposition with too many rules built into the film universe.

Full of plot holes and convoluted details is The Last Witch Hunter, a tale about a man (Diesel) cursed with immortality by a witch in the middle ages, only to ward off the same evil 800 years later in New York City.

I applaud the film for a couple of clever plot twists that keep the audience involved and attentive, but I constantly feel like I'm playing catchup with everything else. It will give us a motif or a totem to remember early on and then refer to it much later, after not mentioning it in between, assuming that we remember its significance. More or less, the plot is simple enough to follow. But the confusing details surrounding the events feel included to stretch out the premise.

The Last Witch Hunter is attractive stylistically as it utilizes some cool props and spells, but the use of CGI--albeit few and far between--reminds us that we're watching a movie.

The film tries creating depth for our lead character by showing us flashbacks of his wife and child. But the only thing is they serve no purpose to the story--literally. It's forced and keeps the movie untrue to itself, reminding us even more how little depth he has. We really just want to see Diesel go around hunting witches--as the title describes.

Another sign of forced-depth is the use of trite dialogue that merely sounds good in the moment, while having no real meaning or relevance to the premise.

The Last Witch Hunter isn't a boring movie at all--perhaps is strongest trait--but after it's finished we long for a better understanding of what we just watched.

Twizard Rating: 69

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Quick Movie Review: The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Growing up on Charles Schulz' Peanuts gang gave me somewhat high expectations for the new movie. Fans of the Peanuts have always loved the relatable characters and the warmth of the themes that resonate throughout each image. So if you're like me, I can guarantee that you won't be disappointed.

It's been 35 years since the last theatrical Peanuts film, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back) hit theaters, and the first since Schultz' death back in 2000. But written by Schultz' son and grandson, it's easy to see that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. It keeps with the spirit of the original works while bringing a modern animation style. And thankfully, that's about the only contemporary feature that this film has. They do a great job of not modernizing the content too much. It doesn't succumb to fart jokes or modern frivolities. There are no cheap gimmicks to get laughter. It's just a classy adaptation of the classy source material we grew up loving--even featuring echoes of Vince Guaraldi's trademark compositions.

The Peanuts Movie revolves around everyone's favorite underdog, Charlie Brown, and his quest to get the new girl to think of him as more than a klutz. He wants her to see him as cool and popular. All the old characters are present here. There's a subplot that is shown interstitially throughout the film featuring Snoopy imagining that he's flying his plane, trying to rescue his love, Fifi, from the Red Baron.

It's a simple love story, but that's what Peanuts does so well. They provide us with grandeur lessons through straightforward means. In this case Charlie Brown learns about confidence, being true to himself, and perseverance--lessons that can have just as much impact on the adults watching as it does on their children.

What the movie does best is provide so much depth to Charlie Brown's character without straying away from the already established depth that we've known him to have throughout the years. It doesn't try to reinvent the characters for a modern world--it appropriately fits this storyarc into the Peanuts canon without disrupting it. 

The only time the film slows down is when the Snoopy storyline comes to a close and finishes with a somewhat lengthy finale. The subplot is actually a fun addition to the movie, since each segment only lasts about 45 seconds, but the climax of it all runs for about 4 minutes and slightly takes away from the momentum of the film.

However, this is only a minor hiccup in an otherwise fantastic film.

The Peanuts Movie truly has an old soul as far as movies go--especially of the family variety. It proves, once again, the timelessness of Schultz' beloved characters.

Twizard Rating: 95

Quick Movie Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)

What's Spielberg without war? He continues pushing out film after film involving some war story and somehow we can never get tired of it. We never feel like he's beating a dead horse. It's because the man encapsulates the classic ideals of cinema, and one of the last of his kind to do so.

Spielberg's way of directing is the kind that invites you to come aboard, but never forces you to. He doesn't beg for your attention--you just can't help but give it to him--sometimes without even realizing.

Bridge of Spies is a story about espionage, human rights, societal opinion, understanding your enemy, and American pride all wrapped up into one. It's at its very best when themes conflict and contradict with one another--which happens all throughout.

Taking place in New York in the 1950s during the Cold War, it stars Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer chosen to represent captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Obviously, Donovan becomes one of America's most hated men, meanwhile developing a friendship with Abel and truly understanding his life and choices. Then tables are turned as now the Soviets have captured one of our own spies and Donovan must use Abel as leverage to trade back what is ours.

Bridge of Spies constantly reminds us that at our worst we are still better than the Soviet Union. It acts as a good reminder of our humanity, even during the times that are most bereft of it. Perhaps it even satirizes our willingness to change our minds. While our viewpoints may be skewed at times by the media or even the government, it reminds us that we never quite know the whole story--although we're wholly convinced that we do at times.

The first third takes place in America--presumably on purpose. It's a little darker than many other period pieces may depict it as--say even this year's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.--obviously a very specific perspective of the era. Then the last chunk of the film features the most depraved East Berlin. But the thing is, here we don't see it as any exaggeration. It's exactly how we've always envisioned it during that time. That's how it was--glum and depressing--another reminder.

Spielberg uses juxtaposition to its finest potential, transitioning between scenes of Americans and Soviets--an American spy going to sleep in his cell after being tortured by Soviet soldiers cuts to Abel, the most hated man in America, being woken up respectfully by American prison guards.

I will say, however, that there is something missing with the absence of a John Williams score in the film, but Thomas Newman's style fits nicely with the project adding the right amounts of emotion.

The film adequately captures the misinformed fears of the early Cold War and uses them to get its points across. It's last reminder, and perhaps its strongest, is that you never know the whole story. When you stop thinking independently you begin allowing others to control you--much like the Soviets tried doing. It's crazy. Our fear was inadvertently becoming what it so desperately tried to avoid.

How can you not love Spielberg? He brings magic back into the movies when we feel, at times, it may be gone forever. Bridge of Spies is superb--one of the year's best. This is why I go to the movies.

Twizard Rating: 100

Monday, November 2, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Don't Look Under the Bed (1999)

I've detailed in previous posts my feelings about the current state of children's television. And while the Disney Channel is the main culprit, I do long for 1999 again when Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs) were at their peak. Sure, they were cheesy and full of head-scratching character decisions, but we loved them anyway because the protagonists were just like us.

Don't Look Under the Bed follows Frances (Erin Chambers), a teenage girl living in a small town where, one day, strange things start happening. Dogs are on the roof, the high school's pool is filled with gelatin, and the letter "B" is spray painted all over town. Everyone is convinced that it's Frances who's pulling these pranks, but she befriends Larry Houdini (Ty Hodges)--an imaginary person who only she can see--who informs her that the Boogeyman is framing her. So she tries to figure out why he seems to have a bone to pick with her.

The film is full of twists and has some fun scenes that actually hold up fairly well considering the age of the movie and the target demographic.

Not that it's not without a little schmaltz, but believe it or not, compared to its counterparts, Don't Look Under the Bed isn't terribly cloying at all--possibly due to the fact that it's directed by Kenneth Johnson--the creator of The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk TV series. Whatever the reason, if you saw this movie as a child, chances are it stuck with you.

It's Disney Channel's only PG-rated DCOM--and for a good reason. The scenes with the Boogeyman are seriously creepy. They still haunt me to this day. However, they never make the film lose its youthful essence. Rather, it may be more appealing since it fails to insult its young audience. There's a good enough balance between the macabre and the jovial to maintain its fun nature.

The issues it deals with may not be the deepest, but it's no Dude, Where's My Car either. The themes include deep-rooted denial and growing up too fast. It gets its point across without feeling overly preachy. And even older audiences will find the intrinsic emotions relatable and may cause them to conjure up fond memories of their own childhood--much in a Toy Story type of way.

In the last 15 minutes, the characters venture into Boogeyland, which is a real highlight to this movie. The world that the filmmakers create is so spooky and detailed that we feel like we're there too. We wait throughout the whole story to find out where the Boogeyman goes when he's not creating chaos, and the answer definitely lives up to our expectations.

The film's biggest pitfall is its lead actress. She's alright when she's just conversing with other characters, but as soon as she shows any kind of grand emotion, her conviction is nowhere to be found.

But the plot holes are scarce and mostly towards the beginning, so we grant it forgiveness during its final act--which may the single greatest ending to any DCOM. In Don't Look Under the Bed the characters have a lot to lose, and while so many others of its kind take the easy way out, this one really works for it.

Twizard Rating: 84

Friday, October 23, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Jem and the Holograms (2015)

Nowhere in the film rule book does it require a girl empowerment movie to be cheesy. Cliche I suppose, but not cheesy. But I can't hate on Jem and the Holograms for trying. If you're not familiar with the source material, this movie actually stays fairly true to the spirit of the original '80s cartoon--laughable dialogue and all.

In the film Jem (Aubrey Peeples) and her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) are sent to live with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and their two foster sisters after their father passes away. Before he died he was working on Synergy--a mysterious robot device that he never completed. The girls, minus Jem, all play music for fun at the house. Jem has stage fright and, despite her sisters' mediocre attempts, doesn't want anyone to hear her songs or her voice. So one night she records herself singing in her bedroom with the door cracked--not a quiet performance, but one sung at full volume. So cue the sister standing outside of Jem's room secretly listening. That night Kimber uploads the video to YouTube behind Jem's back and somehow it receives thousands of plays before morning and Jem gets an offer from famed record mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis). While Lewis' presence immediately increases the entertainment value of the movie, it doesn't diminish the ridiculousness of the premise. Raymond agrees to sign Jem to the label. She also agrees to sign Jem's sisters as her backup band without hearing them play a single note.

The notion of overnight success is highly embellished here. The song that Jem sings in the video is the weakest one in the whole film, and with the excess of amateur singers on YouTube, what makes her's standout above the rest to garner her national news coverage? It's trying to inspire, I get it. I just think that these unrealistic results that kids witness in film, and mostly television, is raising their expectations along with their disappointments. It's an argument for another time, but Disney is doing plenty to accomplish these results. We don't need it elsewhere.

Sure, the movie's trying to send a message to young girls, which is fine, and it gets that message across easily, but it does so with too much conviction. Promoting empowerment for women is perfectly fine, however, it would have been nicer if they didn't alienate everyone else in the process.

After the girls move to Los Angeles, Jem discovers that the Synergy robot her dad created is coming to life and that he left pieces for her all over the city so that she could finish Synergy. The pieces include messages directed towards Jem in order to help her achieve her goals, which he had no inkling of when he died because she was 6. It's a surprise Kimber doesn't have mad jealousy issues since everything their father left behind is directed towards Jem specifically. In fact, the entire time it's barely stated that Kimber and her father even knew each other. Also, the girls' mother is literally never mentioned even once in this movie. I guess she was unloved.

Oh, and throughout the whole film is Raymond's son, Rio (Ryan Guzman), who is in charge of keeping an eye on the girls around the clock. He's present in almost every scene following his introduction into the movie. He's even there when it's most unnecessary for him to be. He and Jem's infatuation-turned-relationship is forced upon us the entire time. His overuse for the target demographic's approval is evident. It gets to the point where the audience is unanimously recognizing this and laughing each time the character appears on screen. For instance, there's a pretty emotional scene where Jem is watching an old video that her father records for her before he dies. She's crying and the audience is possibly realizing their investment in her character. But instead of Jem's sister being present, sharing the experience with her, Rio is there to comfort her. We begin to forget that he's there until after the video when he goes up to her and rubs her back--presumably to get a happy sigh out of its naive and artless audience. They could have used that moment to really build upon the sisters' relationship, but instead sacrificed that in order to get a cheap reaction.

Another thing, the film runs a little long--almost 2 hours. There's a scene where Jem makes her sisters mad and they break-up. Then literally 3 minutes of screen time pass and they're back together again, which I suppose may make slightly more sense if the film was about 25% shorter.

Despite my scathing feedback, the film doesn't do everything wrong. It soars high in the sound department. The songs are catchy and the filmmakers do something really creative by using viral YouTube videos as background score throughout various scenes.

But at its most enjoyable, we are constantly reminded that Jem and the Holograms takes itself too seriously and is too cool for its own good. The dialogue is so self-aware that it just adds to the film's impracticality. Despite a couple of good bits and some scene stealers by Lewis, it's mostly broad humor set to indulge young girls, and it's obvious. It does very little to appease parents bringing their kids to the show, when they're the ones who best remember the source material and are perhaps most excited about this adaptation. The best scene is during the end credits, which brings the darker side from the original show and shoots a nice wink towards fans.

The music is good and the film has its entertaining moments, but overall Jem and the Holograms panders its target demographic a bit too much for it to be glorified by anyone else. It means well and I credit it for staying fairly true to its source, but it may have served better as a Disney Channel movie.

Twizard Rating: 54

**Review can also be found at Mxdwn Movies**

Quick Movie Review: Pan (2015)

This may not exactly be what you had in mind after waiting 12 years for new Peter Pan film adaptation, but who's to say we needed one in the first place? The truth is, a couple years ago Once Upon a Time provided us with a really intriguing story arc based on the J.M Barrie play and book.

What we get here with Pan seems somewhat unfinished. The effects echo Spy Kids but lack its intent. But the vision is there amidst the oddities.

It's an origin story about how Peter Pan's legacy comes to be. Taking place in England during World War II, Peter, played by Levi Miller, gets kidnapped out of his orphanage by Neverland pirates. Throughout the film he is trying to discover what has happened to his mother and starts to uncover a prophecy that has him at the center.

We also see how he and Captain Hook meet. They are friends fighting for the same cause, and there is no sense of tension between the two in this story. Hook is played by Garrett Hedlund, who I'm not sure was the best choice for the role. But that could be director Joe Wright's fault too. Hedlund, whom I've liked in his previous films, just didn't fit here. He had Hook pinned as a Han Solo-esque hero, but if Han Solo delivered each line like a gravelly baseball announcer.

A highlight of this film was Hugh Jackman in the role as the antagonist, Blackbeard, who is the one in charge of the kidnappings. He enslaves children to mine for fairy dust so that he can stay forever young. Many of these details are too convoluted for a film aimed towards kids. It's also a dark story in its details. One scene features the massive death of hundreds of fairies at the hands of Blackbeard's men's blowtorch.

On a side note, as these thousands of kids come out each day to greet Blackbeard they are, in unison, singing famous rock songs, such as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." It doesn't make any sense, but neither do many of the weird subtle details of this film.

As particular as these nuances are, the filmmakers seemed not to care about the actions sequences being original or the sword play feeling realistic. Albeit it's a kids movie and they probably don't notice anyway, however they probably also wouldn't be able to identify "Blitzkrieg Bop" either.

But I have to give the film credit for sticking to its vision, however strangely specific it may be. Also John Powell's score compliments the unique feel well. And despite the scattershot direction and dialogue, there are surprisingly no serious plot holes.

It's always interesting to get an origin story and the story itself was imaginative, but it's too bad that we probably won't get to see a sequel that details the falling out between Peter and Hook. And honestly, it would probably have been a pretty good movie.

Twizard Rating: 74

Quick Movie Review: Goosebumps (2015)

I've never really been quiet when it comes to the lack of live-action family films these days. Growing up in the '90s there were a plethora of them. Over the past decade or so there has been a steep decline in this sub genre with studios opting to make animated films instead. It's somewhat understandable since they're more reliable when it comes to making a profit, as seen by the success that Pixar and Dreamworks have had. But there's just something to be said about watching actual people on screen deal with their problems. Especially as children, it kindles our imaginations because if we see it happening to them, it could happen to us too, right? And when done correctly they can really be memorable.

While this film is only partially animated, it takes place in the real world with live-action humans. In Goosebumps, the motion picture based on R.L. Stine's enormously successful children's book series of the same name, Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mother move to the suburban town of Madison, Delaware. Zach gripes a lot about there being nothing to do in his new city until the mysterious homeschooled neighbor girl (Odeya Rush) befriends him and he develops an interest in her. One night he's led to believe that she may be imprisoned by her own father, a fictionalized version of R.L. Stine himself (Jack Black), and sneaks into her house. He discovers a bookshelf full of Goosebumps manuscripts which he decides to explore. Opening the first story releases a 10-foot tall abominable snowman who starts wreaking havoc throughout the town. Eventually, one by one, each story gets opened up with the books' respective monsters coming to life trying to kill their creator, Stine.

Some may consider it a bad thing, but this movie does a great job of not holding back any scares. Adults shouldn't have too hard of a time--although certain monsters may tap into your own personal phobias--but it will definitely haunt many children. But that's what makes Goosebumps so appealing. It keeps the visuals acceptable, but never tones itself down. When I was little we had the anthology television show Are You Afraid of the Dark? which still creeps me out as an adult. Goosebumps is frightening, but it's a harmless scare. It provides us with the same macabre tone of the novels--probably much to the dismay of some of the parents.

It gets most of the character background out of the way early on in the first third of the film, which gives itself room to run free for the last hour or so. However, it lets most of that information sit idle for the rest of the film--some of which never really gets revisited.

The movie hits its stride about 20 minutes in when we start witnessing Stine's creepiness first hand and the books start coming to life. We are dying to know why it's happening and how to stop it, and that information may be given away a bit too easily. But not to worry because, in true R.L. Stine fashion, we still get our fill of twists throughout.

What this film does really well, albeit stylistically inconsistent at times, is make us laugh. The humor works well on both adult and kid levels. It's really a funny movie and it does so without becoming too irreverent. We still feel like something's at stake, but the jokes help to lighten to the tone on the scarier elements of the film. I think one reason why live-action family films have failed in recent years is because filmmakers have lost touch with what makes kids laugh. They know kids want to see something really outrageous that they would only be able to see in animation, but I think this film may be on to something by aiming the jokes back up to the grownups and not dumbing them down. It doesn't fall back on cheap slapstick or fart jokes to get laughs--it's gets them with some pretty solid comedic timing and by finding cleaner versions of the humor that's popular in recent R-rated comedies.

Goosebumps may not be a Best Picture nominee, but it's extremely enjoyable and acts as a great tribute to R.L. Stine's famed franchise. It elicits our imagination and does so through the medium of literature. And there is also a nod to Steve McQueen's The Blob, which is one of my favorites.

Although I would have liked to have seen just a handful of stories explored in depth rather than all the stories being briefly touched upon with highlights on maybe 3 or 4, I'm sure the future sequels will do a better job focusing in on one or two stories. Despite the slightly rocky pacing and the minor, yet sloppy, plot holes, Goosebumps will please fans of the book series and will bring adults back to the days when their imaginations weren't so jaded. Hopefully the success of this film will help set the trend for a return of live-action family films.

Twizard Rating: 87

**Review can also be found at Mxdwn Movies**

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Phantom of the Megaplex (2000)

Nowadays children's television--not the least of which, television movies--are targeted to kids in a very different way. We see kids having extraordinary abilities and powers that set them above normal kids, and much of what's available now creates unrealistic goals for the children watching it. Gone are the days where they can watch TV and see people just like them--people who dress like them, act like them, and have similar problems. Everyone's world on TV is perfect now, which heightens kid's expectations for their own worlds.

With that rant aside, Phantom of the Megaplex came out on the Disney Channel in 2000--still running off the fumes created by the '90s children's television boom. At that time, the Disney Channel was now a network available in non-premium cable packages and had been coming out with quite a lot of original programming to compete with Nickelodeon, Fox Kids, and the like. That year, they peaked their Disney Channel Original Movie--or DCOM--production at one movie per month--the only year to date with that frequency. The years before and after gave us 8 and 10, respectively, but compared to recent trends of releasing as little as 1 DCOM in a year, even 8 gave us plenty of options. We weren't seeing the same couple of films all year long, and we were appreciating the ones we saw when they were broadcasted.

Amidst the plethora of releases in 2000 was a Halloween-themed movie Phantom of the Megaplex, which follows a 17-year-old movie theater employee who is about to experience the craziest night of his life as the megaplex he works at is having their first red carpet premiere. Meanwhile, everything seems to be going wrong and he, along with his two younger siblings, must try to figure out who or what is causing the chaos in order to save the premiere.

Within the movie, there are several "movies" talked about and shown intermittently inside the theaters. It creates its own meta world of movies within the film universe, along with acknowledging a few masterpieces of old cinema.

This movie is far from being a technical masterpiece itself, but if you take it for what it is you will see a different experience altogether. It never tries to be perfect, which considering the alternative is fine by me. Once you get past the corny tendencies that were so common in low budget post-'90s TV movies for kids, you get a pretty entertaining film.

The pacing is a little slow in the beginning, but carries on just fine after about 20 minutes in. It provides us with a fun mystery to solve, along with the characters, and does a good job of masking who the actual phantom is.

The main issue this movie faces is that there's never really anything at stake other than the ruining of a film premiere and maybe the fate of the characters' jobs. Nobody's life is threatened, or even feels threatened. It's all just really mysterious more than anything else.

Also, the motives of the person responsible for all the mayhem don't make much sense and are brushed off once explained.

But this film is filled with some really good messages and pays great homage to the classics of the silver screen, as well as to cinema in general--a theme that is seldom, if ever, delivered to this demographic.

Phantom of the Megaplex sparked my own love and passion for movies when I first saw it in 2000 when I was 11. It inspired me to want to see all the classics and watching it again now helps to remind me of why I started loving movies to begin with. It's a movie I think of often whenever I may doubt my passion. Although I feel lately that film has undergone a lot of change and while I'm not a fan of modern trends in cinema, Phantom of the Megaplex rekindles the spirit of what movies should be--magic. It romanticizes cinema for me every time I watch it, and making it available to kids now will hopefully do the same for them and make them yearn for the days gone by.

"If you pay attention, movies can teach you about life." --An actual line from a made-for-TV movie for kids.

Twizard Rating: 79

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Quick Movie Review: The Martian (2015)

You can't really call this a sci-fi movie, since these events in it could actually happen, and may happen before the end of our lifetime. But the truth is The Martian isn't based on any true story yet--although I kept having to remind myself of that. Of course it would all be more impressive and meaningful if it were--like Apollo 13 for instance. It's this odd "not quite sci-fi" aspect that makes Ridley Scott's newest project a little different. It's easy to accept the different script beats when we're watching a film where we're encapsulated so much by the unique concept and universe, but when viewing something that COULD be real yet isn't, we may be likely to say to ourselves, "Hmm, I wonder why the filmmakers chose to do that." Not to say that The Martian is predictable, but it does lack a certain "so crazy that it has to be true" element--because it's not true, and it's really not crazy if you think about what we could accomplish in the next 50 years or less.

The Martian is a film about a manned Mars mission where a series of events lead 5 crew members to believe that their sixth member (Matt Damon) is indeed dead. They leave him behind and head home. Meanwhile, NASA discovers that Damon's character, Mark Whatney, is actually alive, but they can't afford for his crew to turn around and get him because they wouldn't have enough resources to elongate the trip.

It's a star-studded cast featuring, alongside Damon, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, et al. The acting is terrific, and on a technical level this film is nearly perfect.

It may not take enough risks for some of the more macabre members of the audience, but it never bothers me as it's refreshing to get some representation of yesteryear in film. It's pretty Spielberg-esque in the sense that it's not very dark and nothing truly unpredictable happens--since, really, we haven't enough knowledge in order to predict what would happen. It's a subject that not many laypersons know about. But (spoiler alert) there aren't any surprise alien encounters or anything like that. Given the limited information we have, we can foresee certain possibilities ahead of time. But The Martian is such a unique film that we love every minute of it. We live so vicariously through Damon's character that it makes the journey feel so much more real.

Some of the banter between scientists becomes pretty heavy, but I applaud it for making the situations understandable without dumbing it down.

It's just a pleasing film to watch and has a classic cinema quality to it. It's a little long at nearly 2 and a half hours, but it never seems to drag, and the length serves to emphasize the perenniality of Whatney's marooning.

It's one of the best films of the year, and one of the most well done movies you'll see in recent years. It will be hard to find someone who doesn't recommend this one.

Twizard Rating: 100

Monday, October 5, 2015

Quick Movie Review: The Haunted Mansion (2003)

This is a good example of a film where the premise is promising, but the outcome doesn't really deliver. It's actually a great kids film, but the only problem is that some scenes may be too scary for kids. Adults, on the other hand, will find the movie pretty unfunny. With Eddie Murphy in the lead role it should be way more laughable, but there's maybe one good chuckle in the whole movie.

Nonetheless, it's intriguing in the sense that it takes place in a mysterious mansion and much of the plot being uncovered when real estate agent, Jim Evers (Murphy), and his family get trapped inside after Evers gets asked to represent the home on the market. Little do they know the mansion owner has his own agenda and secrets to hide.

It's an obvious vehicle for Disney to promote their ride of the same name. Not that we always mind it (e.g. Pirates of the Caribbean) but when a premise is stretched thinly and the film still only comes in at under 90 minutes it's safe to say that they don't have much to work with. And with a ride that has so much potential for a brilliant story, we get stuck with a film that doesn't really live up to expectations.

Although large portions of the film lack any substantial plot development, it's enjoyable to watch the family explore and discover the secrets that the mansion hides. But the information that we get is received in clumps at a time. I won't give anything away, but there is a curse involved in the movie and the details of said curse are highly convoluted and evoke so many questions to the viewer that the film loses a lot of credibility in the process.

But the set pieces are great. The filmmakers do a good job replicating the feel of the ride itself. Children will be awed by the mystery of the whole story and even though they may not understand certain plot details, it will definitely spark their imagination.

With a better script I would love to see Disney try this one again. Not that we can't like 2003's Haunted Mansion for what it is, but it's nowhere near having a "modern classic" status.

Twizard Rating: 67

Quick Movie Review: Addicted to Fresno (2015)

"Siblings can really sink each other." Not words commonly heard or realized often, but perhaps ones that can be true given particular circumstances. It's a theme that rings factual throughout this film, however unrealistic the scenarios.

Addicted to Fresno follows two sisters in Shannon (Judy Greer), a seemingly recovered sex addict who has very little moral compass, and Martha (Natasha Lyonne), an eternal optimist who is always going over the top to help her sister with her issues and devotes very little attention to her own well-being. The two work as maids at a local hotel in their hometown of Fresno--a city where not much happens and the people there hate it yet can't seem to get out. Shannon's antics come to a nadir when she accidentally kills a man. She and her sister attempt to escape the mess, which will prove to either help or harm their already rocky relationship.

It's definitely an anti-sibling movie--or at least it wants to be. I think mainly it strives to show us that the world is not as black and white as we have been brought up believing. Society tells us that as long as we hold on to family we'll be okay in the end. But sometimes they're the ones holding us back.

The small town trope plays on the whole "being held back" theme. The girls are two complete opposite personalities, yet they both manage to become complacent in a city that doesn't offer much for either of them.

The film is never hilarious, but does a good job of keeping the tone jovial throughout with some black comedy nuances and some enjoyable sequences thrown in, like a 13-year-old bar mitzvah boy performing a highly vulgar song filled with Jewish puns in front of his gasping relatives.

We get some nice scenes from the supporting cast as well, including Fred Armisen as Gerald, the owner of a pet cemetery, who doesn't get nearly enough screen time, and Aubrey Plaza as Kelly, Martha's personal trainer, who gets plenty of screen time but is mostly underutilized. Solid scenes from Molly Shannon, Malcolm Barrett, and Kumail Nanjiani are mostly what make this film watchable. The timing of the two leads compliments their chemistry very well, but they are given very little in terms of laughable material. I understand that it's supposed to be somewhat of a black comedy, but it never fully commits. It's not obvious enough and most people may just chalk it up to being unfunny. The storyline is intriguing enough and I like most of the decisions that it happens to make, but if we're going to be sitting down to view a comedy we need to know what we're watching.

Although a little uneven in terms of comedic tone, the laughs are there if you know where to find them. The story is one that hasn't really been told in quite this fashion before and the themes are relatable regardless of the impractical lengths of which it chooses to showcase them by. It helps that both characters are deep enough to attach ourselves to. It's not a terrible film by any means, it just speaks to a very specific crowd. And since its role as a comedy wears a bit thin, we may be tempted to dismiss the story as merely trivial.

Twizard Rating: 74

**Review can also be found at Mxdwn Movies**

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Black Mass (2015)

Black Mass is the best kind of biopic. One that tells a very specific story. It doesn't just exist in order to tell about a person for the mere sake of retelling their life story. We've all seen those before. At the end, you say to yourself that you feel like you know the person, but you're not really sure why you needed to learn about arbitrary snippets from their life.

This film is about Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), a Boston crime lord, whom you can assume had some acquired some fairly heady anecdotes over the course of his reign. But Black Mass doesn't just start from his childhood. It focuses mainly on the latter half of his life--after he was already established as a feared man in the city of Boston. The film details how he becomes an FBI informant who helps end the Mafia invasion in his territory of rule. But it never really paints him as a saint. In fact, it shows him more as the villain he is. One who is ruthless and merciless and only cares about his own power. Towards the beginning, before a series of events happen that takes away most of the people he cares about, we see flickers of a loving person. It's after that when he becomes a monster.

There is a secondary lead, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who works for the FBI but also grew up with Bulger. He has always been enamored with the criminal and secretly wants to be like him. He is in denial. Things start to change in his life when the FBI becomes fed up with Connelly always creating excuses for Bulger--a trend that may prove to work against him rather than for him.

But Black Mass never chooses a protagonist for us. We root for certain characters, but then realize that they all may very well have faults of their own that make them unrootable.

Depp is seriously phenomenal in his portrayal of Bulger. It may very well be his best performance in years, maybe ever. You forget it's him because it is so far gone from the typical roles that he takes on.

The film is gripping from beginning to end. It proves how there are different levels of nefariousness and depicts Bulger's second tier of villain perfectly.

Twizard Rating: 97

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Fading Gigolo (2014)

I can't say that there's much to love in Fading Gigolo. Maybe it's because I can't relate. A quarter-life-crisis, sure, but not a midlife one. But to say that the movie is bad would be largely incorrect. The film, for the most part, is harmless. It's a sex comedy for older men, but it doesn't do much to offend. It even purposely keeps it classy by pervading lounge jazz in the background the entire time. In fact, there's not a whole lot of silence in the film, now that I think of it.

Fading Gigolo stars John Turturro, who also writes and directs, as Fioravante, a florist who becomes strapped for cash and is counseled by his good friend, Murray (Woody Allen), into becoming a male prostitute while Murray manages him. Turturro plays his character as a man of few words, and Allen--well--plays a version of himself of course. This time, his normal insecure idiosyncrasies take on a slightly more sordid personality.

Narratively, it starts up quickly, but meanders a bit after the first 30 minutes or so. One of its biggest weaknesses is the dialogue, which is very stiff when any character besides Woody Allen is speaking. It's not so much the verbiage, but the characters' rote delivery of it. The banter between Turturro and anyone else (sans Allen) feels routine and phony. It's actually painful at some points.

The highlight would have to be Woody, who provides us with the comic relief amongst otherwise arid characters. Not that they don't have depth--they're just all written as very laconic.

It takes some odd turns here and there, and doesn't quite seem to know where it wants to end up. There are some brief touches of surrealism throughout which actually give the film much of its character.

But overall, it's a movie that has a purpose. You have to commend it for trying to reach a certain audience--one that isn't so often approached.

Twizard Rating: 72

Friday, September 18, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (2015)

Besides the several plot holes--which I now know come standard in a Maze Runner film--the main reason why I didn't love the first Maze Runner as much as I could have was because it ends so abruptly. It leaves us hanging with little-to-no answers. But if I had the opportunity to watch the sequel directly afterwards, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. The first installment is really enjoyable. They keep you stringing along with this giant mystery, and the process of getting you there is creative.

The sequel, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, answers a lot of questions posed in the first film, but keeps enough hidden to make us want to know more. This film takes place just after Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and the rest of the Gladers have escaped from the maze. They are taken to what they think is a safe haven. They don't know what to believe after they discover weird things happening behind closed doors. After escaping, they must figure out what the next step is while they try to survive the elements of nature, along with mutant humans who are trying to eat them.

Although enjoyable, the first film features a lot of talking and standing around, which makes its charisma all the more impressive. Maze Runner: Scorch Trials is none of that. It is constantly moving. It's a road movie, really. And the tone is different from the first, too.

The plot holes in this one, while not necessarily as detrimental to the end result, are still distracting enough to take notice of during the movie. However, there is one that may partially unravel the final 15 minutes of the film. Don't get me wrong, the filmmakers sure know how to keep the audience involved, but sometimes it borders on manipulative. Certain situations are included that unnaturally move the story in a certain direction.

If it weren't for the rampant porousness and the directorial mishaps that led to it, this would have been one of my favorite films this year so far. However, I still loved the movie. After the last Hunger Games installment, this Maze Runner series is becoming my new favorite young adult post-apocalyptic film franchise. 

Twizard Rating: 87

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Quick Movie Review: A Walk In the Woods (2015)

There are many movies that come along that we like the idea of better than we actually like. While A Walk In the Woods isn't the most prime example of that, it is still an example.

Two septuagenarian friends take it upon themselves to hike the Appalachian Trail--a 2100 mile trek through the mountain wilderness. After attending a funeral of a friend, the cynical writher, Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), is faced with a late-life crisis. He is compelled to take the journey of a lifetime, but can't find anyone to go with him. Finally, he gets a phone call from a long lost friend, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), with whom he has purposely lost touch with. Stephen is very rough around the edges and doesn't know when to draw the line most of the time (telling Bill's grandchildren about a sexual exploit that Bill experienced in his youth). With everyone objecting to the idea of them going on this excursion--especially Bill's wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson)--they are motivated even more to take the trip and prove their youth.

Never is it apparent that the movie isn't great, until the end when you realize that nothing really happened. Before that you just keep waiting for that moment when the whole thing clicks. But there just isn't nearly enough conflict, and at no point do I feel like their lives are in danger. You start off thinking that the characters have a lot to lose--such as their lives--but when it's over you question why you even thought that.

The script is just about as transparent as its characters. Towards the beginning, Bill and his wife are attending a memorial party and Bill wants to leave. Catherine tells him that he should stay and try talking to people. But Bill responds with, "I don't like talking to people." But why? They've been married 40 years, shouldn't his wife already know this? It was obviously added to inform the audience, but we aren't that dumb either. We can clearly see that his character is curmudgeonly.

This film was originally supposed to star Paul Newman alongside Redford. Sadly the film didn't get made in time. But we can't complain about Nolte's antics gracing the screen. Not that the two leads play anyone other than themselves, but it's still refreshing to watch.

They do have a fun chemistry and there are some scenes that are pretty enjoyable. It's a completely harmless movie--which, much of the time, is its downfall.

You really want to love this film, but it just feels like an excuse for the actors and crew to film a movie in the Appalachians. However, with that said, it's never a bad watch, and one I could even see again.

Twizard Rating: 71

Quick Movie Review: We Are Your Friends (2015)

We Are Your Friends is about a young amateur DJ, Cole Carter (Zac Efron), who is trying to pursue his dream of performing on the big stage. He, along with his three best friends, are also dealing with the reality that they need an actual steady income in the meantime. Carter happens to befriend a world famous veteran DJ, James Reed (Wes Bentley), who takes him under his wing and mentors him. Things get complicated when Carter becomes attracted to Reed's girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski).

First off, I would like to say that I am an aspiring musician. I'm a part of a songwriting and production team who, up until recently, hasn't seemed to be getting our career off the ground. There's a lot of push and pull. When you have big dreams and talent, you're not always guaranteed easy access to the fame and fortune. I once had someone tell me that getting your foot in the door is easy. The hard part is getting through the door. I like We Are Your Friends because I completely relate to it. But the film's biggest downfall is that not many people will.

Unless you live in Los Angeles and surround yourself with the electronic music scene, you probably won't have any affinity towards this film. You actually might hate it. You might think that it's filled with a wealth of self-importance--like it's placing their whole music subculture on a pedestal. Why should you think this is momentous when there are much more significant things people could be aspiring to? Much like when you watch rich kids whine about not getting the exact sports car that they want. So what if you don't become a famous DJ? Well, the best part about this film is it touches on those exact themes. It acknowledges that there are more important things in life than being famous. I've learned this myself through struggling with my own career. You have to learn to enjoy the process as well as where it gets you. If you lose yourself on the way there, then why does all this other stuff matter? Some may say that it still does. That when you get the money and the fame and the power, that nothing else matters. But are those people truly happy with themselves?

But I know I haven't really touched upon the film itself. The script could be better. It lacks some conflict and a lot of the movie is predictable. Filled with situations we've seen before. But it never strays away from its purpose. Its esoteric nature may be another turnoff for some, but it gives us a lot of information about the topic in a way that's not overwhelming. It sort of reminds me of Cocktail--another film that I happened to like way more than the critics did.

It does borrow a lot, dramatically, from films before it, but the music themes are what set it apart. Reed quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson by saying "Imitation is suicide." It makes sense. He who tries to imitate someone else loses sight of their own identity. As much as We Are Your Friends strikes a resonant chord for me, and will with many others, sadly most will chalk it up to just being derivative.

Twizard Rating: 84

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Quick Movie Review: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Satire films are difficult to review. Do we judge them simply based on how well-written the jokes are? Or how good the story is? Already, they have to be given a handicap because there are some aspects of ordinary film that, by nature, they usually don't possess--like character depth or a traditional narrative.

But on top of it all, they're supposed to be funny. And while this one may not be laugh-out-loud for everyone, it definitely has its moments. The style of humor is consistent. It never tries to be something it's not. And for those who enjoy its irreverence, they will get a lot out of this one.

Wet Hot American Summer takes place on the last day of camp, during the summer of 1981. But instead of it being about the campers, it's about the counselors and how they all try to make the best of their final 24 hours.

With a cast that reads off more like a very odd Garry Marshall holiday-themed film, one would think that this was the comedy event of the year (consisting of Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Molly Shannon, Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Ian Black, A.D. Miles, et al). But unfortunately, most of the talents went underutilized and nobody gets nearly enough screen time.

And despite this being a summer camp themed movie, there are not a lot of archetypes. The characters are all pretty much the same type of stupid, with not much varying in personalities.

There are some really clever bits, but it's mostly just a massive compilation of jokes without any real overarching linearity. It resembles some sort of modern-day Airplane! but even Airplane! had us invested in how it would end.

But oddly enough, the movie's best moments all involve the kids in some way--although the film is meant to be about the counselors. And the highlight is the penultimate scene at the End of Summer Talent Show, where we are treated to an MC that echoes a demented Henny Youngman.

As much as I laughed, I was hoping this movie would be something a little different. With not a lot of good coming-of-age summer camp movies out there to choose from, Wet Hot American Summer misses an opportunity to really touch upon the nostalgia of going to camp. There are some really great scenes and story arcs that it doesn't capitalize on.  As a former camper-turned-counselor, a lot of my own memories from growing up happened at camp, and I just wish that the filmmakers weren't so concerned with making it a satire. It's not like there's some overindulgence of these type of films for a satire to be warranted. It has the ingredients of a really great, meaningful film, but sacrifices this for the sake of irreverent jokes--albeit a few, I admit, I laughed at.

Twizard Rating: 68

Monday, August 31, 2015

Quick Movie Review: American Ultra (2015)

American Ultra is about a stoner, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), whose only concern in life is when to propose to his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Then one day he discovers that he may be of pretty significant importance to the CIA, as they attempt to assassinate him. But then his previously unrealized skills kick in and the government gets more than they bargained for as Mike is singlehandedly dismantling their entire strategy.

The acting is decent for the most part. While the director gets the right amount of laughs out of the jokes, he could have inspired some of his actors a little more. Eisenberg is just fine, but at times Stewart seems as if she's just going through the motions--regardless of the exuding chemistry between her and Eisenberg.

American Ultra keeps us guessing and you're never sure what's really going on--which isn't a bad thing. It's actually exciting. It doesn't waste too much time with background stories or the world outside of the 3-day-period shown in the film, but in the end, it doesn't really matter. The dialogue is really well thought out and realistic. The fusion of the black comedy and action genres is fun. Any time someone gets a product that they believe is too different they automatically degrade it. But with American Ultra, it's refreshing.

This movie works on so many levels, with a tone that is very unique--especially compared to most films we get nowadays. And clocking in at a mere 96 minutes, it's the perfect change up from the typical 2 and a half hour vanity projects that seem to keep projecting on our screens as of late.

Twizard Rating: 92