Quick Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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A lot has changed since the first Harry Potter film was released in 2001. Heck, a lot has changed since the LAST Harry Potter film was released in 2011. The franchise helped change our modern interpretation of what a film series can be. And this prequel spin-off is proof of that. While this isn’t a Harry Potter movie, it’s part of the same world.

In the 15 years since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, blockbuster films have become consistently good. Critically acclaimed. It’s not just popcorn entertainment anymore–we have higher expectations. And as the blockbusters strive for the quality of the more highbrow indie offerings being nominated for Oscars, they begin resembling them in a way.

The Harry Potter films, especially the first few, had a sort of snappy storytelling to them. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does not. It’s much slower like the later films in the previous series. Yet, the difference is, this is the setup to the next four films. By the time we got to the last few Harry Potter movies, we weren’t exactly looking for a brisk narrative. And I was hoping for this in Fantastic Beasts–albeit, probably unrealistically.

Set in 1926, an English wizard, Newt (Eddie Redmayne), comes to America for McGuffin-like reasons (and unclear, at that). He gets into some trouble as some of the fantastic beasts escape from the suitcase where he’s keeping them. As this is happening, he gets mixed in with a normal non-magical human, Jacob (Dan Fogler).

Other assorted things happen that are appealing to the audience. We get to go inside this magical suitcase and see dozens of unique creatures in this new expanded universe. It’s really cool and aesthetically pleasing.

The movie is long and not enough happens to truly justify it. Instead of using the time to thoroughly explain some of the overarching story lines, the filmmakers spend it drawing things out. Perhaps because they feel like they have to.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is great. It’s thoroughly enjoyable. It does most of the things a good film should do. While the storytelling isn’t quick, it’s still very even.

This is what director David Yates is good at, as evident in the last four Harry Potter films he directed. Though Fantastic Beasts is missing the magical world that is Hogwarts, Yates knows how to bring alive New York City in the ’20s and make it feel magical.

You will most likely enjoy Fantastic Beasts. If for no other reason than the fact that it’s the ingress back into the beloved world of Harry Potter.And Easter eggs are scattered all around. Just don’t go into it with the same expectations as its predecessors.

Twizard Rating: 93

Quick Movie Review: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (2016)

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As I’ve said a thousand times before, the lack of live-action comedies for the younger members of our society saddens me. In the ’90s, when I grew up, you couldn’t get away from them. It was awesome. But nowadays, pre-teens’ only options for movies are of the superhero variety. Or some other big budget franchise. Unless they merely want to watch animated films with characters that aren’t human. And I’m not knocking computer animation. It’s just that during a time when empathy is getting further and further away, it’s nice for kids to see “tangible” characters that they can actually relate to.

And there have been some good live-action options for kids semi-lately. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, for example, was perfect. But many others dumb themselves down for children. And when this happens, you lose the parents as well.

Middle School isn’t like that. It’s full of quality humor and an engaging storyline that will find both kids and adults laughing out loud–the latter might even be surprised with how much they like it.

The film follows Rafe (Griffin Gluck), a middle schooler who’s been inexplicably kicked out of his previous two schools. His active imagination, along with problems with authority, get him into trouble. Especially at his new school, where the principal (Andrew Daly) acts as a warden, creating asinine rules. The kids aren’t allowed to talk in the hallways, wear colorful clothes, or even draw pictures.

Rafe isn’t having any of this nonsense and wages a war with his principal in a Home Alone-type of way. It’s highly entertaining seeing what he comes up with and how his life progresses with those around him, including his best friend, Leo (Thomas Barbusca), his sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), and his cool insouciant teacher, Mr. Teller (Adam Pally).

And with the quality talents of Rob Riggle, who plays Rafe’s borderline-abusive future stepfather, and Daly, Middle School has humor for young and old.

Yeah, the script has some issues with a couple of jarring tonal shifts, but it also refreshingly surprises us when we least expect it.

I have a hard time knocking a film that does its job. It never talks down to kids–in fact, it gets kids all too well. There isn’t some over-exaggeration of how much they use their phones. Even the banter feels lifelike. It speaks to adolescents who are at that “middle” stage between childhood and responsibility-hood. It’s a fun time that most of us took for granted. But Middle School pleasantly brings us back so we can live it over again with Rafe–in a stunningly committed first-person narrative.

This film isn’t just going through the motions, folks. There’s a lot of genuine intent throughout. Plot points and jokes that are obviously very well meditated upon. While sitting and watching this movie, I legitimately thought to myself, “This isn’t just a moneymaker for them–they actually want it to be good.”

Even if it were among the other classic live-action kid films of yesteryear, I would still go out of my way to watch it. I wish I had this movie when I was growing up. But at least I have it now.

Twizard Rating: 89

Quick Movie Review: Tower of Terror (1997)

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Fun Fact: This is the first film based on a Disney theme park ride.

I remember watching this movie on TV as a kid and loving it. But I’ve discovered, upon recently rewatching other Halloween movies from my childhood, that many times they’re not as good as I used to think. So naturally, I had the same concerns with 1997’s made-for-TV movie Tower of Terror.

And at first, I thought my worries were coming true. The film does a poor job when trying to force character depth. The dialogue gets clunky and self-aggrandizing. The film doesn’t truly shine until it happens organically.

Steve Guttenberg plays Buzzy, a former newspaper writer, who has lost all his credibility after a story he published turned out to be fake. So he turns to writing tabloid stories instead. He’s approached by Abigail Gregory, an old lady who claims to know how child actress Sally Shine (Lindsay Ridgeway), and others, disappeared one night back in 1939 at the Hollywood Tower Hotel. She claims that Shine’s nanny used dark magic to trap the young starlet’s soul in limbo. Guttenberg thinks he might have a story on his hands and visits the abandoned hotel to investigate.

Guttenberg lacks a convincing performance, but he still gives us some nice wit. As the movie’s lead, he’s affable enough. But it’s the others around him that shine a little more. Kirsten Dunst as his niece, Anna, provides solid support, but the five actors who play the hotel’s ghosts give us some of the film’s best moments.

What the movie does best is craft a fine mystery surrounding the strange 1939 accident and makes us care about its victims–who are all minor-to-supporting characters–but it just fails to keep us interested in its actual leads.

However, it’s truly a fun Halloween movie. One of my favorites for this time of year. Kids will love it. It’s not too scary, but eerie enough to pique their interest. And it holds up pretty well, giving adults a very cool story to follow with blindsiding twists. It’s definitely as entertaining as I remember.

Twizard Rating: 89

Quick Movie Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

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I feel like I’m dreaming each time I watch this movie. It’s one of my favorites and has meant a lot to me in my life.

Definitely one of a kind, due to it’s adamant surrealism, it appeals to both kids and adults.

The elusive Wonka chocolate factory is holding a worldwide contest so that 5 lucky winners can finally get a glimpse inside the factory walls and win a lifetime supply of chocolate.

It’s supposed to take place in America, but maintains an industrial European feel. Charlie Bucket, our protagonist, lives with his mother and 4 grandparents. They’re very poor, and rely on Charlie’s paper route money to get by. Which is why Charlie wants, more than anything, to win this contest.

Anyone who’s ever known they wanted something more than anyone else in the world can relate to Charlie’s childlike desire to win Wonka’s contest. It may seem frivolous, but that only highlights Charlie’s desperation. He can only imagine luxurious things. And that ingenuous mindset is what just may give him what he needs.

The film enraptures you within the first 35 minutes, before we even get inside the magical factory. And once we’re in, the film ascends to a whole new level. So full of unique ideas and concepts. Set pieces that made people depressed about the movie’s fictionality long before Avatar’s ever did.

And Willy Wonka, himself, portrayed by Gene Wilder, is a marvel. No other man could have given us such a brilliant performance. He’s sweet, he’s creepy, he’s sincere, and he’s mischievous. Roald Dahl’s original 1964 novel could be adapted for film one thousand times over, yet Wilder will always remain exclusively synonymous with the role.

Oh yeah, and the music is phenomenally perfect.

For being a “flop” from 1971, this film holds up better than most, if not all, of its contemporaries.

Twizard Rating: 100

Quick Movie Review: Sully (2016)

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I was initially wondering how they would make a 30 minute event into a full-length feature. But then I remember, this is Hollywood–they can do whatever they want.

Sully is based on the true story of 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson” where Captain Chesley Sullenberger had to safely land a plane after a flock of geese flew into both engines, causing them to fail.

The event was traumatic enough, but this film mostly details the airline investigation following the incident. Director Clint Eastwood wisely circles the narrative around, sprinkling the action amidst the drama, keeping the pacing up and saving us from having to experience a long, uninterrupted National Transportation Safety Board hearing.

Throughout the film, Sullenberger is seen interacting with his wife, played by Laura Linney, on the phone. It’s an interesting choice not to have them face to face in person. I’ve struggled to find a good reason why. Perhaps keeping them apart is to emphasize the film’s “delay is better than disaster” theme. Or maybe it’s to distance Sully from his family and show how he just longs to be home, creating irony around how he was nearly never to be home again. Or it might just be an interesting quirk that Eastwood decided to include. Whatever it is, it’s unique and adds to the film’s appeal.

Perhaps the only thing that’s distracting, though, is Linney’s acting. It might seem like it’s good on the surface. She shows a lot of emotion, yet is strong when she needs to be, but her delivery is just so off much of the time. It’s not believable. It feels like she knows she’s acting and is trying her best to sell it. Maybe it’s because she was acting into a phone the whole time.

But that’s a minor setback. The film is uplifting, just like the 2009 event itself. It gives us a glimpse inside the mind of an American hero. A normal, everyman who lifted our country’s spirits during a time when we really needed it. The film doesn’t ruffle any feathers (believe it or not, pun actually not intended). Nor does it ever really make you ever second-guess our protagonist–which is for the best, I think, in this situation. But it takes what it has and does its very best turning the material into one heck of an ode to a memorable person and event of the early 21st century.

Twizard Rating: 98

Quick Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

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It’s not the prequel to Oceans Eleven, but coincidentally it is from the same year. The Magnificent Seven is a Western remake of Kurosawa’s 1954 film, Seven Samurai.

In this 1960 version, seven gunslingers from America are hired to protect a small Mexican village from local bandits.

The ensemble cast led by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen is not quite a sum of its parts. While McQueen and Charles Bronson boast strong performances, Brynner displays one of his weaker ones.

It’s odd, considering director John Sturges does an excellent job with McQueen film, The Great Escape, three years later. It’s as though these two films have a different director entirely. Or maybe the script is just not quite as strong. Evidence mostly points to the latter.

The plot is stretched far too thin, and the ending is not quite as climactic as we want it to be. Every once in awhile, they’ll throw us a nice line or two, but overall, the dialogue is weak. Much of the film is slow and boring, only to be saved by either McQueen or Bronson–who are as good as ever.

Also, the two leads, Brynner and McQueen have absolutely no chemistry. The writers try several times to bolster their relationship, but to no avail.

It’s not all bad. The premise is intriguing, and it gives us nice characters to root for. The production value is top-notch for the time. The set pieces are impressive, as are the shootouts. And we can’t forget about the score, which is one for the ages–granting the movie some extra points. But they’re not enough to save this disjointed film. It’s a part of history, and I could see it being impressive back in 1960, but it hardly holds up well today.

Twizard Rating: 74

Quick Movie Review: War Dogs (2016)

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Most people are going to want to see this film based on the trailer alone. It looks like a funny and adventurous heist movie of some sort. While it’s not a comedy in the truest sense, it’s just light enough to keep the audience involved.

The film follows two twenty-somethings, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, as they venture to the top of the international arms dealer industry. Amidst the war in Iraq, they use unorthodox techniques to fulfill US military contracts.

War Dogs gets a little wordy when it’s setting things up. Also, Teller’s voiceover goes on a little bit too long at times. But while verbose when explaining things, it covers a lot of ground answering most of our questions in a Big Short type of way. Thus, a potentially byzantine premise never becomes convoluted.

Teller plays David Packouz, the antiwar protagonist who is contributing to the war effort out of financial necessity. He’s good, but Hill arguably carries the film, playing the real-life Efraim Diveroli. He’s basically a selfish scumbag who could double as a mob boss at any given moment. Hill broadens his range as an actor with this role, proving he can play sinister along with his goofy trademark. He’s so deceptively creepy that we become literally afraid of him.

Genre-wise, it might seem to be stuck in limbo, but it’s not. The comedy is evenly written and is balanced consistently into the drama. The exposition is fast-paced and doesn’t require us to look back scratching our heads.

War Dogs doesn’t necessarily explore any new territory as far as the life of a criminal goes, but it’s educational and entertaining every step of the way.

Twizard Rating: 89

Quick Movie Review: Don’t Think Twice (2016)

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Like a lot of improv comedy, this film will be understood by few, and will be waved off by many. If you like comedies, you may not necessarily be into this movie. But if you appreciate comedy, you will.

Writer-director Mike Birbiglia, who also plays Miles in the film, constructs a story that will speak to artists everywhere who truly have a passion for what they do. The struggle with sacrificing the art’s purity to make money. Choosing between making it a career or keeping it just a passion. Or even being afraid to “make it” because it would mean stepping away from what’s comfortable.

Miles is one of six members of an improv comedy troupe. He’s the leader, in a sense, but the film tries to make all of them the main protagonists.

When one of the members, Jack, played by Keegan-Michael Key, makes it onto Weekend Live (the film universe’s equivalent to Saturday Night Live), tensions flare up. Miles is bitter that he’s never made it, while Jack’s girlfriend, Samantha, has a shot at making it, but doesn’t want it. It’s all very American Graffiti-esque. These people are all in the same situation wanting a different end result. But not really, if you look closely.

It’s a conflict most of us are familiar with, yet probably not on this level. It’s masked well, since the subject matter is so esoteric, but anyone who’s ever felt some sort of fear of change or jealousy based on entitlement should be able to relate.

The whole film has a very fresh feel to it. The camera moves in a way where it seems as though we’re watching a documentary or a reality show. But this also says a lot about the brilliant performances of the entire cast.

Although there are six leads, it creates depth right away without making it seem rushed. And it saves some for the remainder of the movie.

At times, the film slows down to take in the emotion of what’s going on. About halfway through, it starts shying away from the uninhibited humor of the first act. But the cast and script are good enough to keep us into it. However, the real genius comes from Birbiglia’s direction and choosing which things to use for the final cut. The subtle jokes here and there are what make this film so likable.

Go into this film expecting something a bit different. But be open to relating to it. Pound for pound, it’s one of the best of the year so far.

Twizard Rating: 97

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Quick Movie Review: Bad Moms (2016)

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Usually modern comedies have a difficult time building any kind of depth without either feeling forced or sacrificing its sense of humor in the process. Bad Moms, with the help of its strong cast, knows how to work around this.

While it’s not some highbrow character study, it shows all sides of the situation without making it obvious that it’s using a traditional path to get there.

Bad Moms stars Mila Kunis as Amy, a mother of two who gets absolutely no help from her husband, who apparently likes the dog more than his own kids.

Christina Applegate plays Amy’s antagonist, Gwendolyn, who is president of the PTA and doesn’t allow anything with sugar at the school’s bake sale. Amy doesn’t buy into her philosophies, nor her manipulation tactics, which causes Gwendolyn to try and ruin Amy’s life. Applegate does an excellent job of making the audience despise her, while countering Kunis’ charismatic charm.

Amy pairs up with two other mothers who are on the same page as her. They’re played by Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell. The former is always under-appreciated in comedic roles, while the latter is totally unrecognizable as a pushover and naive mother.

It’s truly the cast that helps carry this film so well. No character is a wash or unnecessary.

And the jokes are consistent. They run all along the whole film without ever growing tiresome. Each joke is as fresh as the last–and there is a true sense of cohesion amongst it all. No bit seems out of place.

The only thing wrong? The film portrays every husband as useless. Literally. Not one husband in the film is even a little bit competent at being a father or spouse. I guess it bodes well for the film’s target audience, but it may alienate some men out there.

But regardless, I still found the movie highly entertaining and one that I would watch over and over again.

Twizard Rating: 91

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Quick Movie Review: Sausage Party (2016)

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The animation is easy to watch with its unique look and feel, and the grocery puns are usually very clever and well thought-out, but besides that, Sausage Party is more gag-inducing than funny. And you can’t help but think that it’s merely for shock value.

As thought-provoking as it intends to be, it’s mostly in vain due to its irreverence. The items in a grocery store are all brainwashed to believe that humans are their gods, and that they must be “chosen” to reach the Great Beyond–which is unknown to any of them at the time.

It’s led by a sausage, Frank (Seth Rogen), who is slowly discovering the truth–that humans aren’t gods, but monsters set out to murder all of them–but no one will listen to him. The storyline has promise, but much of the time is spent on extraneous sex jokes, for the sheer purpose of having sex jokes made by pieces of food.

It has its moments, but you spend too much time cringing or laughing out of discomfort. And even within the ridiculous logic of the film, certain things still don’t always make sense.

Certain characters are enjoyable, like a chewed up piece of gum who cannot die because he’s a piece of gum. But on the other hand, there’s a villain (besides the humans) whose motives are foggy and entirely unconvincing.

Honestly, the film’s strongest aspect is making us truly want to know how it will end. But when it does, you’re still not completely satisfied.

Twizard Rating: 63