Friday, July 29, 2016

Straight Outta Compton (Nik's Piks: Movie Review)

"Our art is a reflection of our reality." ~ Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton is the 2015 biographical drama that chronicles the rise of the hip hop group N.W.A. from Compton, CA. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film stars a talented young cast which includes O'Shea Jackson, Jr. who plays his father Ice Cube, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, along with Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller the bands manager. While the subject matter alone may have kept me from watching this film (I do NOT like rap music!), I do love a good story and Straight Outta Compton definitely fits that bill. It also probably helps that I grew up in the time frame of the film and recall several of the incidences referenced in the film including the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots and the surge of the AIDS epidemic. 

In 1986, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre are living a hard life of gangs, drugs, and crime. The one thing that helps them escape the streets is their music. Along with DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), the gangsta rap group N.W.A. is born. When they are discovered by Heller, their career takes off along with the popularity of rap and the entire hip hop culture. To this day, N.W.A. is considered one of the most influential bands for this genre. With their success comes a lavish lifestyle, but one thing they can't escape is the street culture in which they grew up. 

"Speak a little truth and people lose their minds." ~ Straight Outta Compton

In addition to the story, I enjoyed the performances of the entire cast. And, while I personally disapprove of most rap music because of the offensive lyrics and glamorization of the gang lifestyle, the elements of freedom of speech and censorship presented in the film were on-target. However, so was the fact that public figures have a responsibility to not incite violence. Straight Outta Compton also highlights police brutality and the infamously controversial L.A.P.D., which is not shown in favorable light at all in the film. Historically this film is very interesting. 

If you are a big music buff or simply like films that deal with a lot of important issues that still plague our society today, I recommend you see this film. However, this is certainly not a film I would suggest to everyone (and certainly NOT my parents!) In addition to the rap music itself, of which I am not a fan, there are multiple scenes of wild parties including drug use, promiscuity and violence. 

Watch Official Trailer

Overall, I liked this film and, if I am to be completely honest, I am quite surprised at how much I liked it. The highlights for me as I previously mentioned were the performances and the actual story which I found quite fascinating. Straight Outta Compton is rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.  

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

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too! 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ghostbusters 2016 (Family Movie Review)

"Safety lights are for dudes!" ~ Ghostbusters

Although rumor has it (I don't actually read other reviews until I've seen and written my own) that this 2016 remake of the 1984 Ghostbusters film is being met with mixed opinions, my twelve year old son and I dutifully marched off to the theater to take it in anyway. Maybe it is because the film was being shown on three separate screens at the theater or maybe it was because of the early showing we went to, but the audience for Ghostbusters was under a dozen, only one week after its release. What surprised me the most about the audience, however, was the fact that besides my son, the rest of the crowd was female. In fact, the audience was made up of mainly middle-aged and older women. Which made me wonder if this remake is being presumed as a chick-flick because of the all-female cast of leads. 

Ghostbusters stars Melissa McCarthy (Abby Yates), Kristen Wiig (Erin Gilbert), Kate McKinnon (Jillian Holtzmann), and Leslie Jones (Patty Tolan).  The cast was the highlight of the film and the ladies had my son in stitches most of the movie. The movie parallels the plot of the original but makes some key changes - all of which worked in my opinion. 

Physics professor, Erin Gilbert, is a respected scientist at Columbia University in NYC when her old friend, Abby Yates, makes a grand re-entrance into her life and ruins her chance at earning tenure. Years ago the two co-authored a book on paranormal activity; a book that now shuns Gilbert from the academic community. After witnessing first-hand some suspected ghost activity, Gilbert joins forces with Yates and Holtzmann and the team is later joined by Tolan. The Ghostbusters team is made complete with the hire of Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth, as their receptionist. The team eventually learns that the increase in paranormal activity is being caused by Rowan North (Neil Casey), a social outcast who is out to destroy the city all in the name of revenge, and they must pull out all the stops to save it. 

Of course, this remake would not have been complete without the cameos from most of the original cast including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and everyone's favorite little green ghost - Slimer (Adam Ray). There are also some other fun celebrity appearances to look out for, and make sure you stay for the credits. 

Watch Official Trailer

Overall, Ghostbusters is fun and, as long as you don't go in expecting too much, you will enjoy it. It seems like the cast had a great time making this film. There are many very funny moments and lines and, thanks to the advancement in special effects, the ghosts are MUCH scarier than the original film resulting in more than one jump-out-of-your-seat moment. The film is rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some crude humor. There is also brief minor language and some sexual inferences. 

Read my review of Ghostbusters (1984)

Read more of my Family Movie Reviews.  

Check out my Nik's Piks: After Hours reviews too! 

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Count of Monte Cristo (Nik's Pik: Movie Review)

"In life, we are kings or pawns." ~ The Count of Monte Cristo

My viewing of The Count of Monte Cristo was a spontaneous happenstance while hanging out with my family, and I am delighted to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.  This 2002 film is based on the 1844 literary classic by Alexandre Dumas and was the fourth film version to be made. Previous film adaptations were released in 1934, 1975, and 1998. (Would you believe my dad has seen all four films!)  It stars Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes (the Count), Guy Pearce (Fernand Montego), James Frain (J.F. Villefort), Dagmara Dominczyk (Mercedes Montego), Luis Guzman (Jacopo), and a very young Henry Cavill as Albert Montego. 

In 1815 France, things are looking up for sailer Edmond Dantes, notably a job promotion and engagement to his love, Mercedes. However, all this is taken away when he is crossed by his closest friend and falsely imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. While in prison for 13 years, he meets the priest Abbe Faria, played wonderfully by Richard Harris, who not only uses their time together to educate Edmond, he provides much needed faith and hope. He also inadvertently helps Edmond escape AND inherit riches beyond the imagination. Now a free man, Edmond is overcome with revenge and sets in motion his master plan to avenge the men that wronged him and find his true love. He is aided by his loyal companion, Jacopo. Along the way, he is met with more heartache and must struggle to keep his pain and anger in check and remember Abbe's final words to him:

"Do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, 'Vengeance is mine.'" ~ The Count of Monte Cristo

Watch Official Trailer 

The Count of Monte Cristo is the ultimate story of betrayal and revenge and has a little bit of everything including pirates, action, corruption and love - all this with a twist. It's funny! It is a historical fiction with some highly effective comic relief. In my opinion, while not a a pure comedy and more subtle in its comedic approach, it was reminiscent of such films as The Princess Bride and Zorro, the Gay Blade

The Count of Monte Cristo is rated PG-13 for adventure violence/swordplay and some sensuality.  If you haven't already seen this film and are looking for something a bit different for your next movie night, give this one a shot.  

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

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too! 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Archie of Outlandish (Book Review)

NOTE: I received this book free from the author requesting an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's rules and guidelines.

"Different doesn't mean less significant or with less potential." ~ Archie of Outlandish

If you're looking for a sweet, romantic novel this summer, look no further. Archie of Outlandish is the latest by author Lynnette Kraft and is perfect for fans of Christian, young adult fiction and contemporary romance novels. And, like her fantasy novel IngridArchie of Outlandish is once again beautifully illustrated by her daughter, Abigail Kraft, and comes with an original score composed by her son, Jared Kraft.

This timeless romance centers around the small, coastal town of Outlandish, CA and its most unusual resident, Archibald "Archie" Plumby.  Archie is a 20-year-old aspiring writer who works for the local newspaper when he meets Tallie, a young photographer, who is in Outlandish on assignment. What catches her eye immediately is the one thing that makes Archie stand out from anyone she's ever met. Although a very positive and confident young man, Archie has one unique quality. Because of a phobia of wide-open spaces that causes panic attacks, he lives his life under umbrellas. However, instead of letting this "handicap" cause restrictions on or bitterness in his life, Archie has learned how to embrace his challenge.

"My life might be different than yours, and I realize my scenario is uncommon, but it is only a limiting circumstance if I allow it to be." ~ Archie of Outlandish

In an interview with Kraft, she tells me that the story of Archie was originally conceptualized as a children's story. However, over time it grew into this love story of a young man overcoming his obstacles while keeping a positive outlook on life. "I guess I sort of mothered Archie," Kraft told me, "by brainstorming ways to offer him a normal life within his particular set of  boundaries." Kraft's faith is very prominent in this story and provides uplifting courage amidst adversity.

"Everyone is facing something that can't be (or wasn't meant to be) fixed," Kraft continued. "It takes courage to accept those things in our lives. Courage and acceptance can bring confidence and peace, even when we are teased or harassed. In turn, our confidence has the potential to inspire and provoke courage in others." In this respect, Archie was truly an uplifting character.

"Don't let a day go by without reaching for something you love." ~ Archie of Outlandish

Of course, the relationship between Archie and Tallie isn't without some complications, but it is how they deal with them that makes this love story so endearing. I don't want to spoil too much of the plot for you, but will mention that Tallie is a strong, confident character as well, but, as most women (sigh), must make difficult choices between which of her dreams to pursue.

The setting of Outlandish is itself serene and undeniably charming and adds to the appeal of the story. Kraft told me she deliberately left out a specific time frame and references, preferring her readers use their own imaginations and preferences to complete that aspect.

Archie of Outlandish and the soundtrack are available on Amazon.

Read more of my Book Reviews.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Joy (Nik's Piks: Movie Review)

"Sometimes life gets in the way of our dreams, but just because dreams are put on hold, doesn't mean they're lost forever." ~ Joy 

With this cast, the 2015 film, Joy, was high on my list of must-sees.  Jennifer Lawrence, who plays inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano, delivers yet another stellar performance and Robert De Niro, who plays her father, is flawless as always. In fact, the entire cast was one of the best ensembles in recent years. However, despite numerous industry nominations including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, this film didn't seem to get the recognition from audiences it deserved. 

Joy is loosely based on the life of Mangano, a true American success story. Ever since she was a child, Joy was always creating things.  In the late 80s, while struggling to make ends meet, Joy, now a single-mom living in her dysfunctional home along with her grandmother, her divorced parents and even her ex-husband, comes up with a design for a self-wringing mop. The rest of the film focuses on her journey getting the mop patented, manufactured and distributed. That may not sound very exciting on the surface, but this is a story of fighting and staying strong even when if feels like you've hit rock bottom. 

"When you're hiding, you're safe because people can't see you. But, funny thing about hiding, you're even hidden from yourself." ~ Joy 

Joy finally gets a break when Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive with QVC - the nation's first televised shopping network that was just starting to take off - gambles on her idea. However, Joy quickly learns what it is going to take to succeed in a man's world.  Lawrence's portrayal of Joy earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role and is truly her best performance since American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook

Watch Official Trailer

In the spirit of other uplifting stories such as The Pursuit of Happyness, Joy illustrates a remarkable person who refused to give up on her dreams. The script is fantastic and will make you laugh and cry. I thought the middle moved a bit slow, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. The film also stars Edgar Ramirez as Joy's ex-husband, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Virginia Madsen, and Diane Ladd who gives a heartfelt performance as Joy's grandmother who also narrates the story. Joy is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. I recommend this film to fans of family drama and inspirational films.  

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

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too! 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Pixels (Family Movie Review)

"Let the nerds take over!" ~ Pixels

All your favorite video arcade games from the 1980s come to life in this 2015 science fiction / comedy by Sony.  When Pixels was first released in theaters, I had no desire to see it and neither did my kids. It looked, well, for a lack of a better word - stupid! But this is one case where I learned not to judge a movie by its trailer. In all honesty, I enjoyed this film. However, as I sat down to watch with my 11-year old son, we quickly came to a scene with quite a bit of sensuality and I stated, "How is this film rated PG??!!" 

Well, it was my son who pointed out to me that it is actually rated PG-13 (for some language and suggestive comments) and, quite frankly, that just bugged me. This is clearly a film that is going to attract young viewers, yet because of the unnecessary language and sexual references it may not be suitable for all family members. I see no reason why they couldn't tone it down and make it PG.

Pixels starts off at the 1982 World Wide Video Arcade Championships where a young Sam finds himself in the finals against Eddie in a game of Donkey Kong. A video of this match and several others from the tournament are included in a time capsule sent into space by NASA. Although meant as a friendly message and cultural exchange between humans and aliens, the video is interpreted as a declaration of intergalatic war. 

"I'm just a loser who's good at all video games." ~ Pixels 

Fast-forward thirty-three years. Major cities all over the world are attacked by aliens that have created giant-sized gaming legends such as Pac-Man, Centipede and others. Governments and military forces are having no luck in defeating these atrocities. They must call on the help of Sam, Will, Ludlow, and Eddie before everything is pixelated. The fate of the world literally depends on these middle-aged gamers.  Maybe all those hours playing arcade games are finally coming in handy. 

Watch Official Trailer

The film is great fun filled with lots of laughs. And, how could it not be? Pixels stars Adam Sandler (Sam), Kevin James (Will), Josh Gad (Ludlow), Peter Dinklage (Eddie), Michelle Monaghan (Violet), and Jane Krakowski (First Lady) - all major comedy players.  Those who grew up in the 80s will enjoy the nostalgic components of the film including the music and several cameos by entertainment icons such as Madonna and Hall & Oates. While I am recommending this film for family movie night (for those age-appropriate), Pixels is an enjoyable watch for adults too!

Read more of my Family Movie Reviews

And, check out my Nik's Piks: After Hours reviews too! 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Florida Keys: Family Style

Deciding to get away for a few days, we headed south on the Florida Turnpike and in less than a few hours, we were officially in the Florida Keys - Key Largo to be specific. What I have noticed is that each Key has its own distinct feel and benefits. For me, Key Largo's biggest draw is its affordability and nearness to the mainland. Just enough of an escape to paradise without the traffic and additional hours to the keys further south including the world famous Key West which I have only experienced twice and only as a stop on a cruise. Not a bad way to taste the environment of Key West, by the way, but probably not the most family friendly destination.

Key Largo, on the other hand, is family-friendly and only a short drive away from Islamorada where there are lots of other great family hotspots like Theater of the Sea (which we may check out next time down here),  History of Diving Museum, and shopping, restaurants and art galleries.  On our one raining morning, the kids even had fun exploring World Wide Sportsman, the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, and the best of of the cheesy gift shops Shell World!

Of course you can't come to the keys and not experience the many water activities. This is a diving and snorkeling haven and there are tours and equipment rentals everywhere. While most first-timers want to (and should) find a place to take an airboat ride in the Everglades, which you can find in the Miami-Dade area just before hitting the Keys, we, having done that a couple of times already, opted for a different kind of boating experience. Here's where I give a shout out to Capt. Sterling's Everglades Eco-Tours. Departing a few times a day, this 6-person maximum or private charter boat took us on a scenic and educational tour of the saltwater regions of the Everglades including the mangrove tunnel which is credited as being the most beautiful spot in the park. Our guide, Captain Dave, has lived in Key Largo for decades and gave a very personal view of the island as we explored the mangroves. We were even lucky enough to run into a family of seven manatees in addition to numerous wetland birds. The tour also swings by some of the residential areas of Key Largo and the million-year-old fossilized reef cut in half to create a passageway for boaters. But the absolute best part of the tour?? My sons LOVED it and were fascinated by Captain Dave's stories of the island, the eco-system, and the dangers threatening the Everglades today, mainly the explosive - and invasive - Burmese python population.

The boys also snorkeled for hours on end right at the hotel. They saw nurse sharks, mangrove jellyfish (Don't worry, they don't sting!), barracuda, tons of starfish and countless other fish. One night while watching the sunset, a baby manatee ventured into the shallow waters of the hotel's beach delighting some lucky swimmers before the youngster returned to his mother waiting not far off. My sons say they are ready for a snorkeling tour the next time we come down here. Most likely we would head over to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for this adventure and maybe take in a glassbottom boat tour too!

Overall, the Keys are known for their seafood restaurants, bars, and music - particularly Jimmy Buffett! There is truly something for everyone whether you're looking an active getaway or a completely relaxing one! If possible, avoid weekends and holidays when traffic on the islands can be a bear! One of the unique things I noticed about the area is that directions are given in terms of mile markers. On more than one occasion, I wanted someone to just give me directions the old-fashion way. Plus, there is key lime everything. Key lime soap, key lime candles, and of course, key lime pie!!  I took in a key lime mojito on my first night there.

At the end of the day, it just isn't a trip to the Florida Keys without taking in the breathtaking sunsets. When all was said and done, we had a great time and I see us coming back again and again and partaking in more of the activities and attractions available here on the islands.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Room (Nik's Piks: Movie Review)

Nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress in a Leading Role, which Brie Larson won, Room is a 2015 film adapted from the novel by Emma Donoghue. It is nothing short of intense and I quickly referred to it as one of the saddest films I've seen in recent years. My regular readers will know I do not have a problem with "sad" as long as the film is uplifting and inspirational in the end. Although very disturbing, Room does deliver in this regard. 

"We all help each other stay strong. No one is strong alone." ~ Room 

Room is about a young woman, Joy (Larson), who is taken prisoner at the age of seventeen by a sadistic man referred to as "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers). Two years into her captivity and abuse, she has a child named Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and it is on his fifth birthday that the film begins. For the first 48 minutes of the film, viewers are restricted to life inside the tiny, windowless room that is home to this mother and son. Even I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and anxious. The second half of the film focuses on Joy and Jack's escape and the long road to healing they must endure. 

One scene is so emotionally charged, my stomach was in my throat. Other scenes were so overwhelming, I just sat there and sobbed. Even surprisingly tender moments are quickly splattered with horror. I know - I am not exactly selling this film for a fun movie night! Yet, it is a powerful story of human relationships and how a broken soul can heal. With a plot ripped from all too familiar headlines, Room is a tragic story that shows how victims of violent crimes never fully recover, but merely get through the next step. On the plus side, the film is a triumph in showing what the human spirit can endure while trying to let go of unthinkable pain. 

Larson was worthy of her Oscar win, but the highlight of the film for me was Tremblay's performance of Jack. Room also stars Joan Allen (whose performance was deeply touching) as Joy's mother, William H. Macy as her father, and Tom McCamus. The film is rated R for language, but even though there aren't explicit violent scenes, the content alone warrants this rating. 

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

Check out my Family Movie Reviews too!