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**