Friday, June 24, 2016

Red Army (Nik's Piks: Movie Review)

In my continued endeavor to offer movie reviews in a wide variety of genres, I decided to watch the 2014 documentary film Red Army based on the heyday of the Soviet national hockey team during the 1970s through 1991 when the Soviet Union was disassembled bringing an end to the Cold War. In addition to being a must-see for hockey fans, general sports fans and those interested in this political era will also find this film one worth watching. 

My interest in seeing the film stemmed from being a long time hockey fan as well as a product of the 1980s. Plus, I was hoping to see some coverage of the Miracle on Ice moment when the USA shocked the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports. Unfortunately, the coverage of this momentous game was short and if you blink you may miss it. 

"The Soviet hockey team represented the peak of what the Soviet Union had achieved and was proof that the Soviet system was the best system." ~ Pozner, Red Army

Red Army is primarily the story of the former Soviet hockey captain, Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov, from his tryouts as a young boy to his induction into the  Hockey Hall of Fame, and centers around the politics of the game during this time in the Soviet Union. The film highlights the unique (to say the least) coaching style of the national team, how it was run by the Soviet military and its ties to the KGB. 

In addition to Fetisov's, there are some other interesting interviews presented in the film including that of journalist Vladimir Pozner. Red Army acts as a history lesson while offering incredible insight into the politics of the time including the defections of numerous Soviet players and what that meant to the NHL. There are some tender moments as well as some shocking stories that really reflect this team's dynasty and the fall of communism.   

Watch Official Trailer

Red Army is rated PG for thematic material and language. The film features mostly original footage and much of the film is also in subtitles, something to keep in mind. Naturally, I recommend this film to fans of the sport, but it is also a nostalgic film for anyone who lived during this period and those interested in political history. However, it is definitely a niche film and not for everyone. 

Read more of my Nik's Piks: After Hours reviews. 

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too! 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Pursuit of Happyness (Nik's Piks: After Hours)

"You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can't do something themselves, they want to tell you you can't do it." ~ The Pursuit of Happyness

Recently, I sat down to watch the 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith in what is probably now my favorite of his movies. The film is based on the memoir of entrepreneur turn motivational speaker Chris Gardner.  It is a deeply heartfelt story, one that chronicles Gardner's slow climb to the top, particularly the time in the early 1980s when faced with personal and professional crisis, he finds himself homeless while trying to raise his young son (played by Jaden Smith) on his own. 

Struggling to make ends meet as a salesman, Gardner decides to risk it all and accept a non-paying intern position at Dean Witter. Clearly a step down in regards to income, but if he can succeed, the result can be life-changing. The film demonstrates how Gardner used positive thinking to pull himself out of the darkest of circumstances while highlighting the bond between father and son. 

"Don't ever let somebody tell you you can't do something, not even me." ~ The Pursuit of Happyness

Determined not to let the struggles, often dire circumstances, of his life break him, Gardner continues to look toward the journey's end - happiness. Smith is wonderful in this role that really tug at my heartstrings. I really can't remember the last time I cheered so much for a character. You will not help but fall in love with him and feel his frustrations and successes along with him. 

Watch Official Trailer

If you ever needed a reminder that no matter how bad things seem they do get better, this rags to riches story is for you. I strongly recommend this truly inspirational film to fans of family drama and those that love a good underdog film. If this film doesn't touch your heart, you aren't human. The Pursuit of Happyness is rated PG-13 for some language and also stars Thandie Newton as Gardner's wife, Linda, Brian Howe, James Karen, and Dan Castellaneta. 

Read more of my Nik's Piks: After Hours reviews. 

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too! 

Monday, June 13, 2016

TOP FIVE Books to Read this Summer (2016)

Summertime is here!  That means vacations and lazy afternoons lounging by the pool or catching the rays at the beach. It also means time to grab that book and READ!   

Here are my TOP 5 books to grab along with your beach towel this summer season! 

1. Historical FictionBrooklyn is so beautifully written, so authentic, I felt like I melted into the pages. Tóibín captures the innocence of the era wonderfully including the strong family relationships and unspoken social etiquette and pure romance between men and women. Honestly, it is one of those novels that I cannot say enough good things about, but I will admit that it will not be for everyone. Do not expect edge of your seat suspense or in your face action. This book is pure heart and soul and poetic storytelling as it focuses on the inherently assumed sacrifices often made by women. I must have read the last paragraph of the novel five times or more, each time letting it sink further and further into my psyche.  Along with the readings came both tears of pain and smiles of warmth. (Read full description and review here.)

2. Women's Fiction / Drama: Me Before You is not your typical love story. Rather, it is a love story of the mind, friendship, and deep connection.  It is a close look at how one human being can inspire another to be the best he can be. It will leave you on an emotional overload craving for more. I personally didn't want this one to end and had to pace myself so I wouldn't finish it too quickly. The sequel was released in September and the film adaptation is due out in June of 2016!  (Read full description and review here.) 

3. Crime / Thriller: Career of Evil is a dark crime story that will engage the reader with it's many twists and highly interwoven string of characters. Although, some may find it difficult to keep all the backstories of the numerous characters straight in their heads. The Coromoran Strike series remains my favorite detective / crime series and Career of Evil is without a doubt my favorite in the series thus far. (Read full description and review here.)

4. Drama / Suspense: With similarities that are ripped from today's headlines, The Ones We Trust is not only a light political crime story, it is also a gripping look at post-traumatic stress disorder and dealing with loss, a journey of forgiveness, and a commentary on the ethics of journalism.  I love Belle's style of writing and her ability to make intelligent heroines that are also witty and charming. (Read full description and review here.)

5. Young Adult / Fantasy: My final pick for 2016 summer reading is actually a young adult / fantasy series. I was first introduced to author D.G. Driver and her high school protagonist, Juniper "June" Sawfeather, when I read and reviewed the first novel in the series, Cry of the Sea, for the 2016 Multicultural Children's Book Day. I enjoy this series for the combination of real life environmental concerns that are addressed, Native American culture, and fantasy - all centered around teen characters who fans of Young Adult fiction will relate to. (Read full description and review of Whisper in the Woods here.) 

For more suggestions and reviews see Top Five Books for Summer 2015 and visit Nik's Book Piks

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Danish Girl (Nik's Piks: Movie Review)

Based on the novel by David Ebershoff, the 2015 film, The Danish Girl, is the true story of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener who became one of the first to receive sex reassignment surgery in 1930. Einar, or Lili Elbe as she would eventually become, documented her journey in an autobiography, Man into Woman, which was published in 1933. This memoir continues to provide courage and understanding for the transgender community and was the basis for this adaptation. 

"You love Einar, and I have to let him go." ~ The Danish Girl

Set in Copenhagen between 1926-1931, The Danish Girl stars Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili and Alicia Vikander as Einar's wife, Gerda. Both actors delivered powerful performances of two very heroic characters. The film received four Oscar nominations, including Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Redmayne) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, which Vikander won.  

What starts off as a simple game in his wife's mind becomes a realization of Einar's true sexuality. While posing as a woman for his wife's paintings, Einar comes to grips with his own sexuality and soon Lili is "born." While Gerda's career takes off due to her collection of Lili portraits, Einar's career tumbles as he falls deeper and deeper into despair over his true identity. The strain on their marriage grows as Lili's presence becomes more and more frequent. 

"There's a doctor....he's interested in men like Einar, who are confused and who are different." ~ The Danish Girl

The story beautifully depicts this often misunderstood reality for some and shows how the medical community blamed it on a chemical imbalance, insanity, or even delusional schizophrenia. After several attempts at medical treatment, the couple finally finds a doctor who is performing sex reassignment surgery but at a very experimental stage. Gerda's character is remarkable as she stands by the person she loves through it all.  

Watch Official Trailer

The problem I had with this film, is how suddenly Einar comes to the revelation about his repressed feelings that he is truly a woman trapped in a man's body. There is only one brief reference to the existence of Lili in his past. However, I am going to have to say that this is probably due to time restraints of the film. There is also a technical matter I had issue with involving Lili using Einar's passport after the surgery, but again, just a minor blip in an otherwise flawless script. The Danish Girl offers wonderful heart and insight into the transgender struggle while portraying a beautiful love story simultaneously. The final scene is simply spectacular both emotionally and visually. 

The Danish Girl is rated R for some sexuality and full nudity. 

Read more of my Nik's Piks: After Hours reviews. 

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too! 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse (Family Movie Review)

If I thought I was clueless about other Marvel films before heading to theaters to see them, I got a rude awakening when I finally took my son to see the comic giant's latest film, X-Men: Apocalypse. What made this worse is I couldn't even rely on my son to fill me in as he isn't schooled on the franchise either. The most I got out of him was, "They're mutants."  Therefore, sitting down to watch the latest film in the X-Men series, one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer movie season, I was not only curious how appropriate the film is for families and children, but also how will viewers who have limited knowledge of the story and the characters enjoy it.

While I read mostly positive comments about the film, and since it has only been playing in theaters for just under two weeks, I was shocked at how empty the theater was - especially since it was a stormy day in South Florida. So, my initial fear was perhaps this film fizzled out quicker than filmmakers anticipated. I did not, however, let any of that influence my reaction to the film.

First of all, there are nine prior X-Men films that I haven't seen. That's a ton of backstory that I didn't know. Where does this one fit in? Well, I am happy to hear that it doesn't necessarily fit in neatly, so even die-hard fans need to accept that. The film starts off with a sufficient about of background and if viewers will have patience with the storytelling process I think it will make sense to them. However, unlike other Marvel blockbusters like Avengers, Ant-Man, and Fantastic Four, the X-Men films, this one at least, is geared more toward franchise fans - those that really know what the hell is going on.  That doesn't mean that general fans of fantasy / sci-fi won't enjoy it-  I certainly did, but I want to point that difference out.

"Everyone fears that which they do not understand." ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

Right off the bat I could tell this film was going to be much darker than other Marvel films I've enjoyed. Yes, there are the typical intense scenes with mass destruction and violence, but there is something more parents should be aware of. Some scenes are just plain gruesome (Or gory to use my son's word). In fact, he said there were some scenes that made his stomach sick!  He has never said that before and that comment alone gives credence to my parental warning for parents. Just as an example, there are bodies burned alive and lots of beheadings, to give you a couple of examples.  Parents also need to know that the film is nearly two and a half hours long, has a LOT of subtitles, and has some strong language including one F-bomb!

The film takes place in 1983 when mutants are still not being accepted by humans, especially after events that occurred 10 years earlier, which is explained in the film. The "re-birth" of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), presumably the first mutant, threatens the planet as he is determined to round up other mutants to help him destroy humankind. It is up to Professor X played (once again) by the very handsome James McAvoy and his mutant students (who will eventually become the X-Men team) to stop him.

The special effects are fantastic making this a great film to see on the big screen! But, what really had me enjoying this film, was the amazing cast of young actors which we will hopefully see more of in future X-Men films. The film also had Michael Fassbender returning as Magneto and Rose Byrne returning as Moira. Hugh Jackman also makes a brief appearance as Wolverine.  Of course, the big name for this edition was Jennifer Lawrence who plays Mystique, but, despite the fact that I love her as an actress, I was not impressed with her performance, especially when compared to the rest of the cast.

Watch Official Trailer

X-Men: Apocalypse is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language, and some suggestive images. I do not recommend this film to those under 12 at all. As far as viewers with no prior knowledge of the franchise, whether or not you enjoy this film will greatly depend on whether or not you are a fan of the genre in general.

I'd really like to hear from my readers. If you are a fan, how does this one compare to the prior installments?? If you are like me and never saw one before, but went to see this one, how did you enjoy it?

Read more of my Family Movie Reviews

Check out my Nik's Piks: After Hours reviews for mature audiences. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Southpaw (Nik's Piks: Movie Review)

I hate boxing! There I said it. Therefore, no surprise that I didn't have an interest in watching the 2015 drama, Southpaw. Even Jake Gyllenhaal wasn't enough to initially draw me in. However, after I took the time to watch the trailer, I mean REALLY watch the trailer, I had a change of heart. I do like underdog stories! (NOTE: The trailer gives away a huge spoiler, so don't watch it unless you're on the fence about seeing this film.) 

This is more than a boxing film. Although, trust me! There are plenty of fight scenes for those that like the sport. More importantly, Southpaw is the story of a champion who faces tremendous loss and must pick up the pieces of what is left of his world and career and salvage his life and, ultimately, his relationship with his daughter.   

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) and his wife Maureen (played by Rachel McAdams) both grew up as orphans, and, against all odds, made it big thanks to Billy's very successful boxing career. However, all the hits have taken their toll on Billy, and Maureen tries to persuade him to quit. When tragedy strikes, Billy loses it all and must overcome the fight of his life and dig deep to find the strength needed to pull himself out of this ditch. Yet, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The hits he took in the ring are nothing compared to what life is about to dish out to him. 

Gyllenhaal's performance is electrifying and probably the best of his career thus far. If not for very tough competition in 2015, I'm sure he would have received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Hope. The on-screen chemistry between McAdams and Gyllenhaal is tender, yet steamy, and young Oona Laurence, who plays their daughter, delivered a very touching performance in her own right.  The film also stars the wonderful Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, and 50 Cent. 

Official Trailer

Southpaw is rated R for language throughout and some violence. To clarify, the fight scenes can be brutal to watch and are very bloody. If we need a reminder of why this "sport" should be illegal, this is it! Like I said, there is plenty of boxing for fans, but I like the film for the humanistic side of the story. The film is worth a watch, and not just for boxing fans. 

Read more of my Nik's Piks: After Hours reviews. 

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too!