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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

There's a Blue Light special in Bellatrix Le Strange's vault.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Tom Fenton, Matthew Lewis, Michael Gambon, Warwick Davis, Evanna Lynch, Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith, Bonnie Wright, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Julie Walters, George Harris, Kelly Macdonald, Helen McCrory . Directed by David Yates

All good things must come to an end, and in every sense, the Harry Potter film franchise has been a good thing. It has brought untold joy to millions of viewers, not to mention untold billions to the coffers of Warner Brothers. Will the series go out with a whimper or a bang?

After the events of the first part of the finale (think of it as Act I), Harry Potter (Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Watson) and Ron Weasley (Grint) are on the run from Lord Voldemort’s (Fiennes) Death Eaters who have essentially taken over the Wizarding World. Harry needs to find the Sword of Godric Gryffindor in the bank vault at Gringott’s belonging to Bellatrix Le Strange (Carter). To do so, they will need the help of the captured Griphook the Goblin (Davis) and for Hermione to use polyjuice potion to impersonate Le Strange. If you aren’t into Harry Potter, you probably didn’t understand a word of that last paragraph bbz.

The plan is bold and might have worked but as is par for the course for the trio (“When have we ever made a plan that actually worked?” ponders Harry early on) they barely escape with their lives and without the Sword. However they do get a clue that one of the Horcruxes that contains the soul of Voldemort resides in Hogwarts itself, so off they go to their old school which has become more of a gulag overseen by Severus Snape (Rickman), the man who killed Albus Dumbledore (Gambon). Dumbledore’s brother Abeforth (Hinds), a bitter man who lives in the shadow of his late sibling, helps Harry and his friends elude the Death Eaters and dementors that patrol the skies above Hogwarts and slip him in through a secret passageway, assisted by their old friend Neville Longbottom (Lewis).

With the help of a secret underground at Hogwarts and the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry retakes Hogwarts and sets about retrieving the Diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw (one of the founders of Hogwarts) and eventually winds up facing down Draco Malfoy (Fenton), his old nemesis and winds up saving him from certain death.

Realizing that Harry is at Hogwarts, Voldemort and his Death Eaters engage in a pitched battle at the old school in preparation for Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort. Only one of them will walk away and many friends old and new will not survive.

The fact that the movie had the biggest opening weekend box office in motion picture history isn’t really an indication of whether or not this movie is worth seeing, but it certainly is a clear marker of the anticipation surrounding its release. As much as Part I was somewhat unsatisfying (which given the circumstances was inevitable), this is completely satisfying and a fitting end to the franchise.

Radcliffe gets to show Harry as the hero he was always meant to be. He has a scene in the forest near the end of the movie in which he faces his own mortality that is absolutely heartbreaking, one that I will remember for a long time. It’s not just a great scene in a summer blockbuster; it’s a great scene in any movie period. Oscar winning performances have been based on less.

Sure, there are times when you might feel lost or left out if you haven’t seen the first seven movies of the series. Sure the 3D is unnecessary and makes a dark picture darker, but it at least doesn’t ruin the movie, which a bad conversion can do.

Simply put, this is the movie that I may wind up remembering with the most affection in a summer full of underwhelming movies for the most part. There is spectacle, but there is also human pathos. It is on an epic scale, but also very much intimate character studies. There is something for everyone here and even for those who are ambivalent about Harry Potter and fantasy in general, this is worth your while to spend your hard-earned cash at the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: An appropriate and fitting end to a great franchise. Epic in scope and personal in nature, you will laugh, cry and ooh and ahh – everything a movie should be.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like Harry Potter, fantasy or good movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few frightening images and some fantasy action. Some of the more wrenching scenes might be difficult for younger kids to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the movie Hermione impersonates Mafalda Hopkirk (portrayed by Sophie Thompson, the sister of Emma Thompson – who plays Professor Trelawney) and Bellatrix Le Strange (portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter who played Emma’s sister in Howard’s End).

HOME OR THEATER: It may be a bit of a cliché but it is true in this case – if you see only one movie in a theater this summer, this is the one to go see.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Zombie Strippers

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Harry and Hermione share a rare tender moment in a dark and dismal place.

(2010) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Alan Rickman . Directed by David Yates

As someone who’s been with the Harry Potter series from the beginning, I had always thought it a young adult fantasy series but I was wrong. This has always been a series for adults; we just didn’t know it at the time.

After the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Radcliffe), Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are on the run. No longer is Hogwarts a safe place – in fact, it only puts in a cursory appearance in the movie. Instead, the three are on the run, chased by Deatheaters who are looking for Harry specifically.

Lord Voldemort (Fiennes) and his cohorts, including Lucius Malfoy (Isaacs), his son Draco (Felton) and cousin Bellatrix Lestrange (Carter) have taken over the Ministry of Magic as well as Hogwarts itself and have launched a campaign to stamp out Muggles, using propaganda and fear. The overall impression is of a totalitarian Nazi-like state with Voldemort a Hitler-like figure at the top.

Harry is seeking the horcruxes, special items in which Voldemort has placed parts of his soul. Harry has found several of them but there still remain several to go. The stress and weariness are getting to Ron, who notices that Harry and Hermione are getting close. Into this mix comes the Deathly Hallows, but what exactly are they and how are they the key to victory over Voldemort?

This is movie is dark, dark, dark. If Half-Blood Prince was dark, this is pitch-black. This is serial killer-dark. This is your mom is dead-dark. You get the picture. In fact, the mood is so unrelenting in its grimness that you actually feel it weighing on your soul as you exit the theater.

I have tried to avoid reading the books before I see the movies so I can’t really say how closely this follows the book, which the studio has ultimately decided to split into two movies ostensibly at author J.K. Rowling’s request but, I suspect, also as a way of wringing out twice the revenue from the same book which will be the final installment in the series. Along the way it has become the most successful film series of all time on a per-film basis (the Bond series has brought more money in overall but has had 22 films to do it in) and more or less a license for Warner Brothers to print money. It’s not hard to see why they’re disappointed that the cash cow is coming to a close.

Part of my issue with the movie is that there is just so much information being crammed into it, and so many characters – nearly everyone from the first six books who haven’t died either in the series or in real life is here. It’s very difficult to keep everybody straight and by the time the two and a half hour movie comes to a close, you feel a very real sense of overload.

And yet there is much going for the movie. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have become fine actors and have essentially grown up with their roles. Harry is showing the heroism that his character has always threatened to be, while Hermione is not only a charming and beautiful young woman but brilliant and resourceful as well, every bit Harry’s equal. Ron is the most human of the three, filled with doubts and flaws, but yet in his own way more courageous than either of them. The three make a formidable team, three terrific friends who are stronger together than they are separately.

The special effects are jaw-dropping at times, particularly an early broomstick and motorcycle sidecar battle, as well as a wonderful animation that introduces the Deathly Hallows into the film (the animator Ben Hibon has recently been rewarded with a feature film of his own). While a dark and terrifying place, the wizarding world is no less dazzling than it has been all along.

One gets the impression that the second film of the two Deathly Hallows movies will be much better in the sense that the resolution that is approaching like a bullet train is going to be something special. Much of that has to do with Rowling, who may sometimes not get her due simply because the books appeal to children. She is simply put one of the best writers of our age, regardless of genre or audience.

This is still a movie worth seeing – it is in many ways the weakest movie in the series simply because it feels so incomplete and yet it is the equal of all of them, but that is a function of the split. It is a movie of putting aside childish things and stepping into a frightening world. It is a movie of accepting responsibility and standing up for what is good and what is right. It is a movie that while on the surface may seem to be about running away and hiding is in reality about acting in the face of overwhelming odds and terrible penalties. Bad things happen to good people in this series – not everyone comes out of the movie alive and many come out badly injured at least. It is a movie about conquering fear, and what better lesson can we give to young people than that?

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this is marvelous to look at and all the threads of the first six movies are beginning to draw together into a recognizable tapestry.

REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark – this is not your older brother’s Harry Potter. There is a good deal of information crammed into this movie which will probably all be necessary for the second but it sure does slow the pacing down quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: This is dark, dark, dark – the wee ones are going to be plenty scared by the violence, both on-screen and implied. The evil of Voldemort and his Deatheaters becomes much more realized and I would have a serious talk with any younger kid before seeing it to make sure they understand it’s just a movie. If they are prone to nightmares or particularly sensitive, I’d really think twice about taking my kids to see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After escaping the attack at the wedding, Harry, Hermione and Ron end up in a London diner, where one of the posters on the wall is for the West End production of “Equus” which star Daniel Radcliffe starred in.

HOME OR THEATER: You will see this on the big screen, if you haven’t already.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last Legion

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter: Ultimate Emo Boy!

(Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes, David Thewlis. Directed by David Yates

Being a teenager is hard enough without additional burdens. There’s the rampaging flood of hormones that makes a life-or-death situation of any emotional trauma. There’s the constant war between childish comforts and the call of growing up. Throw on top of that the responsibility of being The Chosen One and well, it sucks to be Harry Potter.

After the fallout of the events of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry (Radcliffe) has become a bit of a celebrity. The tabloids have gone so far as to wonder out loud if he isn’t The Chosen One, the wizard meant to end the threat of Valdemort (Fiennes) once and for all. For Valdemort’s part, his Deatheaters are no longer acting covertly but openly causing damage in both the Wizarding and Muggle worlds.

Dumbledore (Gambon) is increasingly spending time with Harry, preparing him for the battle to come. He takes young Harry on a mission to find Horace Slughorn (Broadbent), a bon vivant and former Potions teacher at Hogwarts. The idea is not just to offer him a job, but to bring him close to Dumbledore. Slughorn has a memory of young Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane) that may prove to be crucial in defeating the Dark Lord once and for all, but it is a memory that Slughorn is reluctant to pass on; you see, the contents of that memory may also ruin Slughorn forever.

In the meantime, Harry and his friends Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are struggling with the adolescent hormones big time. Ron is the target of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), while Hermione has her eye on Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch) and Harry himself has come under the scrutiny of Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Things can be very tangled up at that age.

In the meantime, the Dark Lord has an infiltrator at Hogwarts – Draco Malfoy (Felton). He is being protected by Professor Snape (Rickman), the former Deatheater who has been pressed into service by Draco’s mother Narcissa (Helen McCrory) and the evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Bonham Carter). What Malfoy’s mission is – and what he is doing with the cabinet in the Room of Requirement – is also central to Harry’s fate and the fate of the Wizarding world.

This is a much darker Potter than any of the other films in the franchise, and you definitely get a sense that the confrontation that has been building since the first movie is almost upon us. While the Wizarding world intrudes on our own world much more in this movie (London’s famed Millennium Bridge is destroyed in a fit of spite by the Deatheaters), the movie is Hogwarts-centric. However, you get less of a sense of it as a school as much as you do of the place of it. Harry is not attending classes so much as brooding in the hallways. We see much more of the social interactions between the students than we do instructions in the art of magic, and that’s a good thing.

Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have turned out to be solid, first-class actors who hold their own with world class talents like Rickman and Smith. Wright has also turned out nicely, making the romance between Ginny and Harry one of the sweetest things in the movie and nicely authentic. Watching Ron and Hermione turn towards each other is much more like watching your sister kiss your brother.

The effects are magnificent and the story is compelling. So why didn’t I like this movie more? Much of the middle part of the movie seems directly aimed at pleasing the legions of Potter obsessives who demand that the books be faithfully followed to a literal “T”. Characters literally make cameo appearances – Wormtail (Spall) appears merely to open a door without saying a word, then disappear from the film entirely. That kind of thing proves to be distracting.

The craft that went into the making of this movie is extraordinary. Kudos must go to the special effects and art direction crews; this is a world that is well-lived in and fleshed out and much of the credit must go to J.K. Rowling. She has created a world so detailed in her books that the movie crews have a great template to work with. The sequence in the underground cavern in which Dumbledore displays some of the powerful magic he is capable of is extremely well-done, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff, spectacle at its finest.

This is a solidly made movie that while not up to the standards of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, is still certainly worth seeing. I suspect that you will probably like it more than I did – for some reason, it didn’t draw me in the way other Potter movies have. Perhaps it is the dark, foreboding tone of the movie that makes the Wizarding world much less attractive to be in, unlike the first movies when it was a delightful place.

If there is light, then there must also be its absence as well, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince peers into that aspect firmly. This is not meant to be a movie for small children, but a movie for putting aside childish things. Harry Potter is growing up, and perhaps I’m not ready for that but as with all children, they grow up whether we want them to or not.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular special effects sequences and art direction make this a feast for the eyes. Well-acted and the romance between Ginny and Harry is extremely sweet and believable. Michael Gambon does some of his finest work of his career.

REASONS TO STAY: The tone is exceedingly dark and foreboding. There is a lot of unnecessary business that while pandering to the Potter extremists, proves to be distracting to the rest of us.

FAMILY VALUES: There are many frightening images and incidents that may be too intense for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.K. Rowling makes a cameo appearance as the subject on the cover of a gardening magazine that Dumbledore picks up in Slughorn’s flat.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The documentary J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life (which aired on U.S. cable) depicts the last year of the writing of the final book in the Harry Potter series during which the author revisits her past; there is also a series of “One Minute Drills” in which the cast are given sixty seconds to describe their character’s history, personality and other personal details  before time runs out. Finally, there is a sneak peak of the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure theme park opening in the Spring of 2010 in Orlando, Florida.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Armored