Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

(2016) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Jon Voight, Gemma Chan, Ron Perlman, Zoë Kravitz, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Peter Bretmeier, Kevin Guthrie, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ellie Haddington, Johnny Depp, Anne Wittman. Directed by David Yates

 

J.K. Rowling is a household name and for all the right reasons. A single mum living on the dole at one time, she wrote a fabulous book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter that while ostensibly for children was also well-written enough that adults got into it too. Seven books later, she was a billionaire and the wealthiest woman in Britain save for the Queen herself. Admirably, she gave much of her wealth away, returning it to the government whose assistance allowed her to survive while she wrote her books. Their investment in her paid off.

One of the textbooks that Harry Potter studied at Hogwart’s was Newt Scamander’s bestselling textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He even had his own Chocolate Frog wizard card. So how did he get to be so famous?

Rowling – who wrote the script as the first of five movies – set this some seventy years before the Potter films and across an ocean. Scamander (Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island in New York City in 1926 en route to Arizona. Newt is a magizoologist – an expert in magical creatures. He is carrying a ratty old suitcase with him, one with a latch that just won’t stay closed. Inside his TARDIS-like case is a whole ecology where specimens of the various creatures he has collected are residing. Some are being relocated to places where they have a better chance of surviving. None of them are allowed in the United States.

Rather than having a Ministry of Magic, the wizards in the New World are governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America – MACUSA for short. They have recently emerged from a battle with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and they are a bit by-the-book these days. When Newt’s case is accidentally switched with the case of Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), an aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle, or person without magical skills), chaos ensues as several creatures escape.

Demoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard but when the case he is carrying is revealed to have baked goods in it, he is released. Tina and Newt end up joining forces to re-capture the beasts with the assistance of Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) who has precognitive powers, and Jacob. However, with Chief Auror (magical investigator) Percival Graves (Farrell) hot on their trail, they need to find the creatures quickly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. A malevolent magical force has been wreaking havoc on the city and there is a society of No-Maj activists led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her abused son Credence (Miller) and daughters Chastity (Murray) and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) are helping to create an atmosphere in which the magical community is feeling threatened. Keeping the existence of wizards and witches may no longer be possible when Newt’s beasts begin to make their presence felt.

This has been justifiably one of the most hyped movies of the year and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Does it measure up with the Potter franchise? Well, yes and no. From a sheer spectacle standpoint, the beasts themselves are entirely magnificent. Yates has also created a very living and breathing jazz age New York City and in many ways that’s being overlooked by those praising (and a few damning) the film. The environments both magical and real are visually compelling and inviting.

Part of the issue is that while millions are familiar with Hogwart’s and the world of Harry Potter, in essence Rowling is starting from scratch. The Wizarding World is distinct and different from the world being built in the Fantastic Beasts series. Sure, they name-check Albus Dumbledore (and he is due to appear in the second film of the series) and of course Scamander himself is name-checked in the very first Potter film but there is little overlap. Therefore there is a ton of exposition so the movie feels turgid at times.

Fogler as Jacob felt far more sympathetic and heroic to me than Redmayne did. Of course, Scamander is somewhat socially awkward and tends to isolate himself from people and wizards, being more comfortable around animals. Still, Redmayne is rather bland in his portrayal of the wizard and my attention is less on him than on Jacob who has no magical skills but has a ton of heart. His romance with Queenie is sweet and touching and the most emotional moment in the film belongs to Fogler and for my money, that is the moment that will stay with me from this particular movie.

While I’ve been perhaps a little overly critical of the movie, don’t think for a moment that this isn’t sheer entertainment. Yates is a veteran at creating magical spectacles and the movie retains the feel of the later-stage Potter films that Yates directed. Hopefully the succeeding movies won’t need to set up as much backstory and be able to just tell the story at hand.

REASONS TO GO: The fantastic beasts are enchanting as are the special effects. Fogler steals the show. The place and period is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Redmayne is actually rather vanilla here and doesn’t seem capable of bearing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders as Radcliffe did. There is a ton of exposition here which slows down the pacing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of a fantasy nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The grey and yellow scarf that Newt wears is a nod to his origins as a member of Hufflepuff house at Hogwart’s.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spiderwick Chronicles
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Loving

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The Extra Man


Kevin Kline wants you to know this is a PRIVATE phone conversation and listening in on your part is very rude.

Kevin Kline wants you to know this is a PRIVATE phone conversation and listening in on your part is very rude.

(2010) Romance (Magnolia) Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly, Marian Seldes, Celia Weston, Patti D’Arbanville, Dan Hedaya, Jason Butler Harner, Alex Burns, Katie Holmes, Alicia Goranson, Lynn Cohen, John Pankow, Lewis Payton, Marisa Ryan, Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, Jackie Hoffman, Justis Bolding, Beth Fowler, Victoria Barabas. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

The world needs extra men, men who radiate charm and elegance. Men who are gentlemen, refined raconteurs of taste and breeding. Men who escort wealthy old ladies to the opera and to art gallery openings with aplomb. Men like Henry Harrison (Kline).

Louis Ives (Dano) is a substitute teacher who is courtly and sweet-natured but likes to cross-dress when nobody’s looking. He comes to the Big Apple looking to make something of himself but can’t afford the sky-high rents for apartments in the city. He comes across a listing that Harrison has posted subletting his apartment and Louis, lacking much in the way of choice, takes it despite Harrison’s somewhat eccentric behavior.

Like Harrison himself, the apartment has seen better days and as Louis gets work in an office where he develops a shy romance with co-worker Mary (Holmes), Harrison is training Louis in the fine art of being an extra man. He also falls into the man’s orbit where his circle of quirky friends, including the shaggy Gershon Gruen (Reilly) speaks in an ear-shattering falsetto.

Like a lot of independent movies, The Extra Man places a heavy reliance on characters who are just a little bit out there – or in some cases here, a lot out there. If you watch a lot of indie films, you might get the idea the New York is bursting at the seams with oddballs and eccentrics, kooky sorts who are tolerated with warmth and affection and make the fruits and nuts of Southern California look positively Midwestern.

This is Kline’s movie although ostensibly Dano is the lead. It is Kline whose Henry will capture your imagination and attention from the first moment he steps onscreen until well after the closing credits have run. I have always had a great deal of affection for Kline in such movies as A Fish Called Wanda and The January Man and it has not diminished over time.

Dano is one of those actors who seem better served taking outside the mainstream roles. He’s at his best when his characters are just a bit off-beat. That is certainly the case here and he pounds out a solid performance that allows his natural charm and sweetness to show through. While he doesn’t quite distract enough attention from Kline (and honestly, there are few actors today who can hold their own with him) he certainly can point to this entry on his resume with pride.

I enjoyed this enough to recommend it although not effusively; this is a movie that will occupy your imagination for a short while but probably not too long before something else gets your attention. While I find myself cringing whenever I see a New York eccentric indie film, at least once the initial knee-jerk twitch passed I found myself consumed. You can’t ask much more of any film than that.

WHY RENT THIS: Kevin Kline. Oddball charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extra-high quirkiness quotient. Sometimes seems more like a series of scenes in search of a plot.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexual content and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is an HDNet feature on the film as well as a look at the animated voiceover trials and tribulations of becoming ducks.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $457,867 on a $7M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Gigolo

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Timeline

The Hurricane (1999)


The Hurricane

Some are tough inside the boxing ring, fewer still tougher outside it.

(1999) Biographical Drama (Universal) Denzel Washington, Deborah Kara Unger, John Hannah, Liev Schreiber, Dan Hedaya, Rod Steiger, Debbi Morgan, Clancy Brown, Vicellious Reon Shannon, David Paymer, Harris Yulin, Vincent Pastore. Directed by Norman Jewison

 

One of the most notorious injustices of the 20th century was the incarceration of boxer and former middleweight champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Washington). Sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for the murders of three white people in the Lafayette Bar in Patterson, New Jersey, Carter – a proud black man – loudly proclaimed his innocence but remained jailed for more than 20 years. Corruption, racial prejudice and legal chicanery kept him there.

In his cell, Carter, a strong-spirited intellectual, deprived himself of everything that could potentially be taken away from him, retaining only his heart, his mind and his soul – things that were his alone to control. Shutting out all those who loved him, Carter’s pride and dignity created a prison for himself of a different kind, one which allowed him to survive his ordeal. Still, even those strong walls he created for himself were crumbling in the insidious bonds of despair.

Into his life comes young Lesra Martin (Shannon), a young man deeply touched by Carter’s prison-penned autobiography. Martin had been “adopted” by three white Canadian idealists – Sam Chaiton (Schreiber),  Terry Swinton ( Hannah) and Lisa Peters (Unger), who taught Martin how to read and write. Martin is moved to write to Carter, who begins a correspondence with him. He gives Carter hope – hope quickly dashed by the New Jersey courts.

Realizing that their new friend can’t survive much longer in prison, the Canadians and Lesra move to New Jersey, determined to free Carter. Despite the scarcity of witnesses willing to testify, despite the coldness of the trail they follow and despite veiled threats of bodily harm, they soldier on, convinced of Carter’s innocence. They eventually find the evidence they seek  but is it enough to free a man who has by now become a liability to the corrupt officials who originally imprisoned him?

Washington is sensational as Carter. He is absolutely riveting to watch, portraying one of the most complex individuals ever seen on the screen. He is a young man filled with rage and hatred; he is a middle-aged man dead to all emotion, he is an older man filled with wisdom and enlightenment. He grows throughout the course of this movie, and each change rings true every step of the way. Whenever Washington is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him.

This is a very affecting movie; Da Queen gave it three hankies, and would have made it four but ran out of napkins. Everyone in the theater was snuffling, particularly during a late-in-the-movie exchange between Carter and Martin. The supporting cast is swell too; Schreiber, Hannah and Unger are terrific, Dan Hedaya as a cop and Rod Steiger as a judge are fantastic, but Shannon is amazing here. I thought he had a very promising future, but that hasn’t panned out up to now.

The Norman Jewison was at the top of his game here. Never a flashy director, he was content to let the story tell itself without distracting the audience with parlor tricks. He does that here too, utilizing a lot of standard camera shots but never going the razzle dazzle route. With a story as intriguing as this one, those things aren’t needed and would actually detract from the impact of the film and Jewison was a seasoned pro who recognized that.

Most of the problems here are minor; for one thing, the movie drags during the middle portion when Carter adjusts to his imprisonment. Also, Carter is sometimes too good to be true. In real life, he was a man prone to violence and very suspicious of whites. He had problems controlling his temper and was sometimes thug-like in his behavior. He had served time for robbery and was dishonorably discharged from the military, not a conquering hero returning from war.  There is contraversy still that the movie was little more than a pro-Carter propaganda piece and there is plenty of evidence that he actually did commit the crimes he was accused of.  However, it must also be said that there are many who feel that the evidence was inconclusive and mostly circumstantial. Even so while some of his faults are alluded to Carter remains a fascinating subject for a movie. His ordeal makes for compelling drama. It seems almost unspeakable that he had to endure what he did. What will be the test of our culture in the years to come is that there be no more Rubin Carters. However, human nature being what it is, we have a long way to go until we get there.

WHY RENT THIS: Incendiary performance by Washington and fine supporting work by Shannon, Unger, Hannah and Schreiber. Compelling cautionary tale.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over the not-so-nice part of Carter’s personality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of violence and a surfeit of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The picture of Malcolm X in Carter’s cell was actually a still photograph of Washington playing Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film Malcolm X.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $74.0M on a $50M budget; the movie was unprofitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Mutants