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 Visit


There's something a little bit off about Nana.

There’s something a little bit off about Nana.

(2015) Suspense (Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deana Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh, Jorge Cordova, Steve Annan, Benjamin Kanes, Ocean James, Seamus Moroney, Brian Gildea, Richard Barlow, Dave Jia, Gabrielle Pentalow, Michelle Rose Domb, Shelby Lackman, Erica Lynne Arden. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

For any kid, a visit to the grandparents is something magical. Grandparents, after all, tend to be the ones who spoil the kids, treat them like royalty, allow them to do things their parents would never let them do (and ironically, that the grandparents never let their parents do when they were kids). What kid wouldn’t want to spend a week with their grandparents?

Becca (DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) are about to head to rural Pennsylvania to visit their Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie). The older couple is estranged from their mother (Hahn) who was dating someone they didn’t approve of; they had a big fight and mom did something so awful that she can’t bring herself to tell her daughter what it was. Becca hopes that she can make a documentary  (because, every kid in a horror film wants to be an auteur) about the visit so she can capture her mom’s parents forgiving their child on tape and healing the rift between them.

At first, it seems an ideal visit; it’s winter and snow covers the farm that they live on, but Nana is making all sorts of cookies and baked goods it seems hourly and Pop-Pop is full of bonhomie and charm. The kids are a little taken aback by a few rules – not to leave their room after 9:30pm or to ever go into the basement because of a mold problem but these seem harmless enough.

Then the two older people start acting…a little off. Pop-Pop seems disturbingly paranoid and Nana seems to absolutely go bonkers after dark. Becca and Tyler capture it all on tape. Mom, who has gone on a cruise with her boyfriend (Cordoba) is skeptical. It soon becomes apparent to the kids that there is something very wrong going on in Pennsylvania and that there may be no going home for them – ever.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a very public career, becoming a wunderkind right out of the box with a pair of really well-made movies. The next two weren’t quite as good and since then he’s been on a terrible streak of movies that are, to be generous, mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. The good news is that this is his best effort in nearly a decade. The bad news is that isn’t saying very much.

Shyamalan uses the found footage conceit which has gotten pretty old and stale at this point. To his credit, he does as good a job as anyone has lately, but he also violates a lot of the tropes of the sub-genre, adding in graphics and dissolves which kind of spoil the illusion of watching raw footage from essentially home movies. I have to say that I think it was a tactical error to do this in found footage format; the movie might have been stronger had he simply told the story using conventional means.

Shyamalan has had a history of finding talented juvenile actors and extracting terrific performances from them; DeJonge is the latest in that string. Yes, she can be too chipper and too annoying, but then again when you consider the age of her character that’s not out of step with how young teen and preteen girls behave. She’s just so, Oh my God!

Oxenbould isn’t half bad either, although his character who is gregarious, outgoing and a little bit too smug for his own good can be grating from time to time, particularly when he starts to rap. Misogyny isn’t cute even when it’s coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old and some of the lyrics are borderline in that regard. It may be authentic, but ending each rap with a reference to a fairly unflattering portrayal of women is something I could have done without.

Tyler is something of comic relief here and he does it pretty well. I liked the business of him deciding to clean up his language by using female pop singers names in place of expletives, like shouting “Sara McLaughlin!” when he stubs a toe, or “Shakira!” instead of a word for excrement. It’s a cute idea and I have to admit I chuckled at it but again, seems to reflect a fairly low opinion of women.

Shyamalan excels at making the audience feel a little off-balance and while the twist ending here (you know there had to be one) isn’t on par with some of his others, it is at least a decent one. There are a few plot holes – early on Shyamalan makes it clear that there’s no cell phone service at the farmhouse and yet the kids are able to get on a laptop and use Skype. Where’s the Wi-Fi coming from? Perhaps the aliens from Signs are providing it.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty taut suspense movie that has elements of horror in it and makes for solid entertainment. Fans of Shyamalan will welcome this return to form while those who take great delight in trolling the man may be disappointed that he didn’t serve up another helping of turkey. Think of this as kind of a pre-Halloween thriller and don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain; hopefully this will signal that Shyamalan is back on track and ready to fulfill the promise that he exhibited nearly 20 years ago.

REASONS TO GO: Decently tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Quasi-found footage getting old hat.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing thematic material and child peril, some nudity, plenty of violence and terror and brief foul language, not to mention gratuitous rapping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the movie was Sundowning.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Demon Seed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mission to Lars

Down, But Not Out


Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

(2015) Sports Documentary (Green Box) Alicja Cichewicz, Anna Pazdur-Czarnowska, Przemyslaw “Przemek” Rydynski, Daria Strzepka, Agnieszka Szmerek. Directed by Miguel Gaudéncio

Some call boxing the “sweet science” for reasons I can’t fathom. Any aficionado of the sport will tell you that it isn’t just two lugs throwing punches at one another; boxing requires skill, strategy and the ability to literally think on your feet.

A quartet of Polish women are going to an amateur boxing tournament in Poznan to box in their first matches. They are Alicja, Anna, Daria and Agnieszka – which sounds a bit like a Swedish pop group – and they are accompanied by their coach Przemek. He acts as their mentor, confidante, cheerleader and comforter. As the matches continue, the girls learn that sparring is a lot different than boxing, that heart and courage can take time to accumulate and that the sport is so much harder than it looks.

Filmed in gritty black and white, the film has a bit of a verité look to it, a cross between a newsreel and noir. Portuguese director Gaudéncio has a good eye and lines up some really nice shots, although at times he seems to fall in love with his own imagery; early on, an out of focus shot of passing streetlamps runs on interminably. I suspect that he is still learning the rhythms of film making, or at least of editing.

Even so, the movie runs on a mere 67 minutes so there is brevity to it, but it covers a 24 hour span. That’s not nearly enough time to get to know five people, and so Gaudéncio opts not to even try. We get no interviews, no voiceover narration, no graphics. Just raw footage and there is something to be admired about that.

Still, even a documentary is telling a story and in that sense Gaudéncio abrogates his responsibility by simply putting up the footage and letting us see it, forcing us to draw our own conclusions. Why did these four women, all of whom are beauties, enter the ring in the first place? What about what is likely the world’s most brutal sport appealed to them? What did they hope to accomplish? Were they intending to turn pro? None of these questions are answered because none of these questions are asked.

We end up not caring much who wins or loses each fight; we are simply observers and are not invested in what we see. That is the difference between raw footage and a documentary; in one, we become interested in the subjects because we know something about them and can relate to them. The other is like watching a boxing match on HBO – worse still, because HBO generally tells you something about the boxers and who they are. Here we are left with little more than names.

The paucity of information is offset somewhat by the dazzling electronic soundtrack and the beautiful black and white images. Perhaps this is a movie that simply should be experienced without preconceptions and without judgment; in that sense, this is what cinema verité is supposed to ideally be. However, this isn’t a film that is inclined to spoonfed their audience anything and while we get maddening glimpses of who these people are, we don’t get enough to really want to get to know them further which is simply death to a documentary.

At the end of the day the fighters and their managers become mere faces on a screen. Pretty faces, yes; but just faces nonetheless. They are no more compelling than the animatronic figures in the Disney parks and that does them a disservice. I think I see what the director was going for here, and I can admire his desire to make something unique, but unique doesn’t necessarily mean better always. I think there are those who will love this movie – certainly boxing fans will want to see it – but I think that there are many more who will find this a hard sell.

WHY RENT THIS: Love the soundtrack. Some cool cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No interaction with boxers whatsoever. Look, Ma, I’m directing. Style over substance.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The longest production element was the soundtrack, which took four months to record and sync.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Gift

The Transporter


Jason Statham's new workout regimen.

Jason Statham’s new workout regimen.

(2002) Action (20th Century Fox) Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze, Francois Berleand, Ric Young, Didier Saint Melin, Doug Rand, Tonio Descanvelle, Laurent Desponds, Mattheiu Albertini, Vincent Nemeth, Jean-Yves Bilien, Jean-Marie Paris, Adrian Dearnell, Alfred Lot, Audrey Hamm, Sebastien Migneau, Laurent Jumeaucourt, Christian Gazio. Directed by Corey Yuen

After having seen Jason Statham in such English gangster movies as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch’d, even the most casual moviegoer can see that the man was ready to lead in his own movies. The Transporter gave him his first opportunity.

Frank Martin (Statham) is an ex-Special Forces commando who makes a comfortable living on the French Riviera as a kind of mercenary courier. He makes deliveries for shady personalities, no questions asked. In fact, Martin lives and works by a strict set of rules that cannot be violated.

During the opening sequence, when he is acting as the highly-paid getaway driver for bank robbers, he refuses to leave the scene because there is an extra person in the car. ”I’ve worked everything out by weight,” he tells the robbers calmly as sirens and alarms blare. ”The additional weight will get us caught.”

Eventually, everything works out and the film embarks on a breathtaking car chase choreographed by Michel Julienne (son of the legendary Remy Julienne). This eventually leads to another delivery job, this time of a package. While on the road, Frank violates his own rules when he notices that the package is moving; he looks inside. There, he finds a beautiful young Asian woman (Shu), bound and gagged in a garbage bag. Martin indifferently feeds her and gives her something to drink; then, after an ill-fated escape attempt, he delivers her to her destination.

That’s when the bad guys make their first mistake. They attempt to kill Martin, having realized that he has seen ”the package.” Martin, a top-notch martial artist and weapons expert, responds in spectacular fashion, leading to some terrific fight sequences choreographed by legendary Hong Kong martial arts fight choreographer Corey Yuen who is also a respected director in China.

Luc Besson, who produced and co-wrote the movie, has always specialized in taciturn, sullen anti-heroes who have the heart of gold revealed midway through the film. Martin is not really a bad guy; he’s just pragmatic to a fault. Statham nails him to a T making what could be a most unlikable character completely riveting.

Statham was much like Vin Diesel just after Pitch Black; he oozed tons of potential it would just take the right vehicle (in the cases of both actors, literally) to elevate him to star status. The Transporter is one of those hip movies that connect more with a cult audience rather than the mainstream. I found it surprisingly good, engrossing and refreshing in terms of its action scenes. Yuen and cinematographer Pierre Morel also make good use of the locations on the French Riviera, Paris and Provence.

While the supporting cast generally is less than stellar (although Berleand works well as the cop friend of Martin) and some of the direction is strictly of the MTV ”Look Ma I’m Directing” style, this is one of the more entertaining sleeper gems you’ll find out there. Stream it, rent it or borrow a friend’s DVD; if you love action films, you’ll be glad you did.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is showing why he would later become an action superstar. Beautiful French locations. Excellent action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look Ma, I’m Directing! Supporting cast could have been more help.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots and lots of martial arts and automotive violence, along with a little bit of sensuality for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Frank’s car, a BMW 750i E38 is depicted as having a manual six-speed gearbox; in reality, the production version of the model never had one and the car in the movie is the only one produced to have such a gearbox. While some owners have made manual conversions using the gearbox from a BMW 850CSi E31, those cars are genuinely rare.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Despite the fact that there have been two different special edition DVDs and a Blu-Ray release, you won’t find anything beyond the same old commentary, making-of fluff featurettes, extended scenes and trailers so if you’re looking to purchase, keep in mind that there’s nothing here but the standard DVD/Blu-Ray features despite the “special” tags – and the corresponding price tag.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.9M on a $21M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Getaway

RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Short Term 12