Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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All of us know that person.  The person who was born to be part of something.  The person whom a cause is not a cause but a dedication of their life.  Their life’s work and passion.  When you interact with someone like this, you cannot help but be drawn to the intensity of their feelings about the subject.  Such a person in Newt Scamander.   Newt is determined to make the wizarding world see it’s wrongs when dealing with magical creatures.  Even if the creatures cause a bit of chaos along the way.

Newt is a magical zoologist and adventurer.   Based on a glossary of creatures book that was created by J.K Rowling to accompany the Harry Potter book series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a return to the wonderful, wondrous, world of Harry Potter.   This movie is a prequel and while Albus Dumbledore is mentioned in the movie, most of the characters are new to the series.

Eddie Redmayne is pitch perfect as Newt Scamander.   He plays the role with a wide eyed naivete and determination to do what is right.   His magical suitcase, one of the highlights of the film, holds numerous magical creatures and shortly after arriving in New York, the suitcase gets inadvertently switched out with a suitcase of a would be  baker, “no mag”  Jacob Kowalski.  Kowalski is played artfully by Dan Fogler, who connects with Newt and comes along on his adventures. A “No mag” is the US equivalent of muggle in wizarding Britain. A regular person with no magic capability.  During Jacob’s day, some creatures escape, and the work to find them and put them all back in the suitcase begins!

Rounding out the circle of friends is an Auror on suspension, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and her Legillimens sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol).  For the 3 people who never saw or read Harry Potter in the world, a Legillimens is a mind reader.   Jacob and Queenie strike up a sweet romance and this group of four, Newt, Jacob, Porpetina, and Queenie form the central core of the film.

At the same time as Newt’s creatures are causing havoc, a dark force is killing people around New York.  And to add further complications, there is a dark wizard loose and the Magical Congress of the USA, MACUSA for short, has outlawed possession of all magical creatures and creates and enforces strict laws about the separation of the magical and non-magical worlds.

The film’s director, David Yates, is a veteran Harry Potter filmmaker.   He brings the same stylish, fun, and whimiscal nature to this film.  The scenes in the speakeasy are so good, that you really appreciate the work Yates has done to bring the film to life.  He sets a great tone and look to the movie, seamlessly moving back and forth from the magical and non-magical worlds.

The film does assume that you have a working knowledge of how wizarding life works, from spells to appearing and reappearing from spot to spot (Known as apparating and disapparating to you no-mags and muggles).    And the darkness of the film’s main villain, may be a bit too intense for those younger than 7 or 8.

Overall a wonder of a film and an absolute delight to know that this is the first of five films in a new series.

A Hitting a Mark recommendation – 3.5 stars.

 

 

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Suicide Squad

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There have been a lot of very critical reviews of Suicide Squad. The level of hate and downright mean spiritedness directed at the film is pretty overwhelming.  One cannot miss the headlines and negativity being published.  Perhaps this is a reflection of the society as a whole, where we seem to get a whole heaping lot of negativity in our news versus just simply taking things for what they are and enjoying them.

This movie is simply a summer popcorn spectacle.  Much like the silliness of Independence Day or the Transformers movies, it is high on style and music, effects, and really cool characters.  Thats the sum total of Suicide Squad.  It is NOT Shakespeare.  And nor should it be.  There are some major faults with the movie.  But, there are many other very cool things to enjoy.

As readers, you may have noticed that I tend to focus on a few key points when reviewing a good vs. evil type movie.  And no, although there are bad guys, you never really see them be really bad.  They do awful things, but none of it isn’t redeemable.  And at times, I can understand why they did what they did or at least empathize.  (Everyone except the Joker, who is bat sh*t crazy).

The villain of the movie is the Enchantress.  Um, well, no.  She tries to be very villainy and never really comes off as someone who is evil.   Do I ever think the whole of the Suicide Squad won’t beat her?  No. Thats the main problem. Look at the superhero films that are successful and profitable.  And yes, gasp, I will include the Marvel films.  Loki, Thanos, General Zod, Ronan, they all are very believable villains.  And do you see another pattern?  Not the fact that they are all male, no thats not it.  The fact that they are all played by actors of some depth. Actors who can make the bad, believable.  That is what is missing from Suicide Squad, a villain you can root against.

The second criticism of the film and more of the DCU film universe is that their films seem to suffer from an identity crisis.  When Christopher Nolan was brought on board to produce the Man of Steel movie and Zach Snyder was announced as the director, I thought “Wow, this combination of these two will be outstanding.  Nolan’s Dark Knight movie structure with Snyder’s visual style?!  This is really a good thing.”  Again, um, NO.  DC has to decide what types of films it is going to make.  When you see a Marvel film, you know that it isn’t going to see the light of day if it stinks.  And Marvel learned its lesson early on with Iron Man 2.  Don’t force the films.  Let them flow.  Write well, have a good villain, and trust your director.  The problem with Suicide Squad is the dreaded checklist method seems to be employed.  You know – Batman (Check), Another Superhero (Check), tie in to Justice League (check), and so on.  Just stop DC.  Let the films stand or fail on their merit.

And by the way, quit trying so hard to NOT be like Marvel.  Whats is so wrong about being like Marvel?   They invented the comic book film universe and are killing it.  With all the DC films it is almost like the execs are looking the dreaded list again and saying “We can be like Marvel, WE CANT BE LIKE MARVEL!”  Well, yes you can. Your characters are more popular than Marvel’s.  Watch a few of the cartoons that have been made.  There are some quality ones out there, use the structure, and fill in the blanks.  This shouldn’t be that hard.  I truly believe that the DC execs are squeezing the fun out of making these films.

Whats to like?  Well, a lot as it turns out.  The fascinating love story of Joker and Harley Quinn.  Built on levels of crazy and sadistic feelings, the two of these characters are just a wonder to see together.  They aren’t together all that often, but when they are, oh boy.  Joker is completely unhinged and in control at the same time.  He oozes sexuality and desperation for Harley, while she just can’t stop being connected to him.  It really is an awful relationship for both, but the level of acting by Jared Leto and Margot Robbie is outstanding.

Will Smith is quite surprising as Deadshot.  Arguably, the center of the film, Deadshot loves his daughter and has supposedly no love for anyone else.  But Smith does play it as a man with depth, conviction, and somewhat decent character.  Again, good acting and knows how to interact with each Squad member.  They should get him his own stand alone film.

Director David Ayer had a tough job, writer and director.  His films Fury and End of Watch are outstanding.  I really hope that he gets another chance at directing a film in the DCU.  Something more intimate and grounded.  Like a Nolan film!  I truly believe the bulk of the issues with the film come from his involvement.  But, I am not sure if he was given full power over the film.

This movie is meant to be seen on the big screen.  With full sound and audio assaulting your senses.

2.5 Stars – A Hitting a Mark recommendation.

 

 

The Jungle Book – 2016

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The Jungle Book (2016) is a live action remake and update of the iconic Disney cartoon that was released in 1967.   The cartoon version of the Jungle Book was the last movie that Walt Disney worked on before he died.  This film pulls story and structure from both the cartoon and Rudyard Kipling’s original source material.   To put this together into a film that simply works is an enormous amount of pressure.  Such a daunting task was given to Jon Favreau, who was tapped to be the director of the film.   Does he succeed?  With a resounding Yes!  This film is magical (Excuse the obvious Disney pun).

Director Jon Favreau puts together his finest film to date, better than Iron Man and Chef. To see this film and realize none of it is real, all computer generated graphics, just made me shake my head in wonder.  The stunning world created by Favreau and the wizards of the effects team is just fantastic.  When watching this film, you are totally immersed in the jungle.   There was not a point in the film when I noticed it was computer animation.   It just exists.

Neel Sethi, the lone human actor, plays Mowgli the man cub.  He interacts with the computer animated world like a pro who has been doing it for years.  The credit for the manner in which the film is shot, and the young actors seamless connectivity to all of the computer animated characters has to go to Favreau.  His direction is flawless, with every choice shown on the screen just pitch perfect.  However, keep an eye out for this actor, as I can predict good things to come for him.

Every choice of each actor who provided voices for the animated characters is perfect.

Idris Elba is Shere Khan.  And boy does he produce the right amount of menace, sheer terror, and a bullying presence as the evil tiger.

Ben Kingsley is Bagheera.  His steady voice and sheer majestic presence as Mowgli’s guiding hand is just fantastic.  His voice and the smooth moves of the panther just go together.

Bill Murray is Baloo.  The moment Baloo is on screen and Murray’s voice comes out of the bear’s mouth, adults were laughing.  Kids caught up to Baloo’s antics, but this is inspired casting.  Murray just injects the film with a bit of whimsy and silliness and it is perfect.

Christopher Walken is King Louie.  Inspired casting?  Nope, PERFECT casting.   Walken just brings it as King Louie.   He has a plan to use the red flower (fire) with bad intentions.   His giant ape is not to be trifled with and it takes some effort to pry Mowgli away from him.

There are many other voice actors who are outstanding.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that everything really looks like live action and real animals.  When deaths occur,  the animals attack with ferocity.   So please note – anyone under the age of 6 may have a bit of a hard time with the more intense scenes in the film.  Parents, you may need to explain that this happens in the real jungle the same way, as it is that realistic.

Finally, if this movie is not nominated for Best Picture, I will be disappointed.  The effects teams should all be nominated as should Favreau.  Enjoy this film, I know I sure did.  4 stars – A Hitting a Mark recommendation.

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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My love of movies began with seeing The Empire Strikes Back in a packed movie theater.  The crowd was rowdy, it was truly the first time I could feel an energy while waiting to see a film.  Anticipation, excitement, and wonder were all around.  When Yoda tells Luke – “For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship”, I truly understood what he meant because of the way the crowd reacted to the movie.

Nostalgia is good and bad.  It can be good because it comforts us, providing memories of better times.   It can also be bad, as we tend to focus on only the best and loving memories, glossing over the problems or issues with the experience that we are having in the current moment.    The Force Awakens provides nostalgia in whopping amounts, hitting the viewer again and again.   And because Star Wars figured so prominently in my childhood, I never stopped smiling (and shedding a tear of joy or two).

JJ Abrams did it.  As the director of the first movie under Disney, who paid George Lucas 4 billion dollars(!!) to the rights for Star Wars, he had a monumental task.   I am very happy that Disney gave the reigns to JJ as he is a fellow Star Wars geek.    He truly loved the first set of movies.  And in this movie he lovingly takes from the first set and places it again up on screen for all to see.   He makes several brilliant decisions with this movie, bringing back the old cast, using practical effects, and simply casting new leads of whom the viewer can be invested in.  A fantastic job by JJ.

My one concern is the number of times they re-used portions of the first trilogy in this movie.   And I get why they did it.  Wash away the bad taste in everyone’s mouth from the prequels.   Use the older films to start off the new series of films because everyone loves them.  OK, JJ and Co, that’s it. No more re-treads.   If a Death Star like weapon in the next movie, I am docking the film two stars right off the bat.

You gotta feel both nervous and glad for director and writer Rian Johnson. He will get a chance to take Episode 8 and go in  a different direction.   Nervous, because he gets this shiny new r Star Wars universe to play with and he also has the new and old cast in an original story.  Glad, because the story can be told with a fresh set of ideas and doesn’t have to mimic the old set of films.

I am going to avoid writing about any spoilers in this review.  Some other media outlets can do that.  I truly want all of you to experience this movie first hand.  The scale of the film is excellent and sound and cinematography are fantastic and deserve Academy Award nominations.

As I mentioned before, the idea of casting the older stars and mixing them in with a fresh crop of stars is brilliant.   Seeing the old characters on film just made me smile again and again.  From Chewbacca to Admiral Ackbar, I just kept being reminded about what was good with the first films.  And the supporting characters are excellent in this film.  Chewbacca is funny, imposing, and just a delight to see on screen.  R2 D2 and C3PO provide just the right touches at the right moments in the film.

Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa is a wonder.  Fisher plays her with such a sense of responsibility and weariness.  When she is on screen, the movie settles into the drama it needs to be,  giving the viewer a sense of the enormity of the decisions as well as her investment personally in the Rebellion and Resistance.

Mark Hamill is fantastic.  His facial expressions and eyes show the pain, guilt, and loss he has felt.   Hamill is a wonder on screen and gives us a taste of the excitement and good things to come.  He just pops and has us wondering how soon Episode 8 will be here!  May 26th, 2017 for all of you wondering…

Harrison Ford.  Harrison Ford.  Nope that is not a typo.  I had to write it twice because the director hitched his wagon to Ford and he delivers.   JJ knows Harrison has a blockbuster or two under his belt, so a good portion of the movie is him and the new cast.  And what a wonder it is.  He just kills it. He as depth to him and when he talks about the Jedi and Dark Side, you get the feeling from him that he is still thinking “I have seen these things, but still don’t believe them”.  Ford is the MVP of the movie, giving it a grounded feeling while still provide the smirking, smart ass attitude of Han Solo.

Oscar Isaac is very good as the best pilot in the Resistance, Poe Dameron. He is confident and brash, very capable and truly forms a bromance with John Boyega’s Finn.  It will be interesting to see where they go with this character in future films as he has so much promise.

John Boyega as the Finn is fantastic.  His comedic timing is perfect and he has a “what the heck did I get myself into” attitude throughout the film.  He provides just the right touch of drama and really plays off Daisy Ridley’s character, Rey, very well.

Adam Driver.   Wow.   Just Wow.  His dark side driven Kylo Ren is fantastic. He just chews up every scene he is in.  I always judge a movie by how good a villain is and he is very good.   His portrayal is frightening.  Up until now, every Star Wars bad guy moved with a purpose, a sense of deviousness and plodding methodology.  What happens if a dark side baddie was overly emotional?  Well, here is your answer.  When he is mad, look out.  Oh and Driver is just brilliant with his physical movements. A few times he turned while in costume with the mask and I thought “Uh Oh, here is comes”.  He was able to convey a sense of dread and evil just by how he moves in the film.

Daisy Ridley is a revelation.  She provides such a fresh face and sense of wonder to the film.  And how awesome is it that she is an action star.  I really hope they explain how she got her moves, but she is the heroine that this new set of films can rely on going forward.  She really connects with us, allowing us to invest in her character and at the same time, watch her grow with a wide eyed wonderment.  She also provides the best instant classic line in the movie – “Oh that’s just a piece of garbage”.   Them the camera swings to reveal the Millennium Falcon!   Ridley is going to explode after this movie, if she handle everything right, every nerd will love her, girls will adore her, and she will have legions of fans.

The visuals in the movie are award worthy.   The way they shot the flying scenes with the Millennium Falcon are just awe inspiring.  Some of the best scenes are the Falcon flying and how much they beat the daylights out of the ship.   No wonder it keeps breaking down!

That being said – the film is a triumph!  4 stars – A Hitting a Mark Recommendation!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

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The Hunger Games Mockingjay is a good, but not great way to end an impressive series of movies.   The tales of Katniss Everdeen, the Mockingjay, is a great story of a strong heroine who reluctantly finds herself and her footing within a rebellion against the capital and the evil President Snow.

The last book was split into two movies in order to give a more detailed experience that fell in line with the books.  I did not read the books. However, both Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 suffer from the same problem, they are about 30 minutes two long.  With an edited version of both movies together, an audience would have easily sat for a three hour movie.  There is enough action and drama to really put together a fine last film.

Jennifer Lawrence is very good as Katniss Everdeen.  With all the hurricane of activity around her, she manages to keep her wits and will about her.   She stays true to herself, always allowing her self to care and to hope for a better outcome for all.  Lawrence really shows her emotions well with her eyes and just raises the bar for all the other actors in the movie.

I do not know why people aren’t knocking down Donald Sutherland’s door to be the villain in every movie from now until he retires.  His chews dialogue, engulfing every scene in such a malicious and gleeful nature.  His smile is played with such a fantastic menace that it just captures you and the chills roll over your body watching him.  He is just fantastic.

Because of the drawn out sections of the movie, the pacing tends to bog down and I found myself thinking – OK, cool, another impressive trap.  But one thing boggles my mind, the rating of the film.  Why is this movie not an R rated film?  There is some serious violence, and the zombie skeleton creatures are beyond frightening.

If you really like the series, see it in the theater.  But, it can wait for you to see it at home as a casual fan, nothing really compels me to tell you to rush to the theaters to see the movie.

2 stars – a slight Hitting A Mark recommendation.

 

 

 

 

 

Spectre

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Spectre

I find myself highly disappointed in Spectre.   It seems the filmmakers tried to use a checklist to satisfy the idea of what elements are needed in a James Bond film. This causes the picture to not live up to the quality of it’s predecessor Skyfall.   Also, as the media has reported, this may be Daniel Craig’s last Bond movie and the director Sam Mendes tries way to hard to make memorable scenes versus letting the film play out naturally.  This film needed one more review of the script and perhaps needed to be delayed until they Bond team got everything tightened up.

Evil henchman, check.  Surprise twist, check.   Good looking Bond women, check.   Great locations, check.  Great story and script, um no.   The story only exists to further the various sequences in the film, it does not bind them together.  I can tell you exactly what the great Bond films where about.  In a month, I won’t be able to tell you what Spectre is about.

The movie opens with some of the best action and visual sequences of any Bond film.  I don’t know how they did it, but the sequences shot during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City are just fantastic.  At one point, I felt a bit out of sort as my stomach was queasy from watching the fight within a helicopter above a crowded square.  The back and forth in the copter was outstanding.  This is the highlight of the film and it is within the first ten minutes.

There are several wasted opportunities within the film.  Starting with the female leads.  Lea Seydoux and Monica Belluci are the two female Bond women in the film. Their roles should have been swapped.  Belluci exudes sex appeal and Seydoux doesn’t really seem to have a great connection with Bond.  At one point she tells Bond she loves him.  They don’t have enough moments and they are in love?  Bond fell deeply for Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, Seydoux’s character has none of her charisma and chemistry with Bond.  Belluci connects with him more in five minutes than Seydoux does in the rest of the film.  I never believe that they are in love.

The second wasted opportunity is Dave Bautista.   Having seen him act as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, I know he can bring the serious and cheeky fun.  In this film, they made the odd choice of making him a mute.  He should have been taunting Bond and as a mute, they could have had him make motions and signals at Bond.  While Mr. Hinx and Bond beat the living stuffing out of one another, Bautista not being able to talk takes away from the sequence.

The final great failure of the movie if Christoph Waltz.  He is a fantastic bad guy in Inglorious Bastards and has this feeling of menace about him.  But he never really brings it out and the director and screenplay do nothing to show him as a someone to fear.   Your movie is only as good at it’s villain.  Remember they are following Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall.  Silva is one of the best Bond villains ever, and Waltz’s Oberhauser just fall’s flat.

Not wanting to give away the surprise, I was just dumbfounded at the direction they chose to go.  Introducing Spectre as the overarching evil organization and revealing the reason’s why they are doing what they are doing just made me shake my head.  This all ties back to the point I made earlier, they should have done one more script revision before shooting the film.

1.5 Stars – NOT a Hitting a Mark recommendation (Sadly)

The Martian

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The Martian

The Martian is a brilliant movie.   The acting, screenplay, direction, and cinematography are just brilliant.  This is the best word I can think of that describes the movie and the world that is created by director Ridley Scott.  This is an experience and not just a movie, that’s how good it is.

Matt Damon play Mark Watney, an botanist astronaut who is part of the six person crew exploring Mars.   Because of a freak storm and accident, the crew abandons the mission and he is left behind, thought for dead.   However, he does wake up and begins to address the situation of his abandonment.  His greatest challenge is time.  He needs to have food and water that will allow him to last the time needed to survive until the next mission arrives.

Damon play the part as a astronaut and botanist would do, he works through the supplies he has, figures out what he has and how he can make them last, and “sciences the hell” out of the situation.  He faces the situation with tongue in cheek humor, while coming up with some pretty impressive solutions to the challenges put before him.

The rest of the cast are just phenomenal.  Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, and Donald Glover are just fantastic in each of their parts.   They bring just the right amount of emotion to each scene.   They all play off one another and their interactions show the right amount of despair, humor, pain, anxiety, and determination.   Just a fantastic cast.

Director Ridley Scott deserves an Academy Award nomination for his efforts on this movie.  To oversee the editing, visual effects, sound effects, and actors show just a master at the peak of his skills.   Every single choice in the movie is a win.

Do not wait to see this movie.  See it on a large format screen with digital sound.

4 stars – a Hitting a Mark recommendation.

JBD White Horse Inn

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Admittedly the JBD White Horse Inn is not notable by it’s outside appearance.  In fact, having been to a movie theater near its location more than a dozen times, I havent noticed it.  Also, if an old grammar school classmate hadn’t taken recent ownership, I would have never had stopped.  But I saw numerous updates about the new menu and inviting atmosphere, so I just had to stop.

What I ran into once I was inside what a immense surprise.   The service is excellent the beer was served quickly.   The ambiance is similar to the Cheers!  The owners, Jim and Annette, make you feel so comfortable.  It’s almost as if you walked into someone’s home.   It was warm and inviting and beyond enjoyable.

Not having see Jim for a few (more than 25) years, we caught up about our families and lives.   He introduced us to Annette and it was like we actually had seen them everyday for the last 25 years.   There are several big screen televisions, great sound, and a small, intimate feeling to the bar.   Just a great place to watch a game on the TV, have a cold adult beverage. and have something from their food menu.

The burgers were really good, the soup excellent, and the service really good.   Jim gave a rundown of the changes he had planned and and had already changed.  He wanted to update the exterior, had already updated the menu (all of the food is excellent), and had really emphasized that the service was upgraded when he and Annette took over.

For a comfortable time, with a cold beverage, and good food, and excellent atmosphere, try the JBD White Horse Inn, you wont be disappointed.

3 stars – A Hitting a Mark recommendation.

JBD White Horse

348 West Maple

New Lenox, Illinois

The Raid – Redemption

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The Raid

This is one of the best martial arts films I have ever seen.   Set in Indonesia, this movie is pretty much non-stop action.   Be warned, there are sub-titles.  Do not let that deter you, take the time to see this movie.   The enjoyment is just off the charts.

Set in a 15 story building, in a raid organized to go after a brutal crime lord who uses the building as his headquarters, The Raid: Redemption puts the Police Swat team against overwhelming, impossible odds.   To add the to the lunacy, the bad guys been tipped off and the battle is on.  Nothing, I mean nothing, is not used to beat the living bejeesus out of your opponent.   The action just never stops.

This is filled with first time actors and the plot is simple.  Go in, kick butt, survive, get the bad guy.   Impressively, the movie was made for only a little over a million dollars.

The music is another plus.   It adds a pounding pulse to the film, enhancing the action and has you sitting on the edge of your seat.   Also, the fight choreography is just outstanding.   The fights are incredibly well choreographed and the director had to work overtime on the shot selection and editing.  That alone is enough of a reason to enjoy the film.

4 starts – A Hitting a Mark Recommendation.