Dunkirk (2017)


Waiting to evacuate, a British soldier nervously scans the sky for Nazi planes in Dunkirk.

(2017) War (Warner Brothers) Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, Will Attenborough, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, Billy Howle, Matthew Marsh, Richard Sanderson, Bobby Lockwood, Mikey Collins, Dean Ridge, Adam Long, Bradley Hall, Miranda Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

Dunkirk remains one of the seminal moments in the Second World War. Churchill’s stirring speech “We shall never surrender!” was written about the event. For those whose history is rusty, when the Nazis overran France some 400,000 soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With Hitler’s troops drawing the noose tight, the English were staring at the obliteration of most of their army and essentially the complete loss of Western Europe.

Nolan aims to capture the desperation and chaos of those few days using three time-dilated stories each centered around a single element; a week following soldiers waiting to die or be rescued on the jetty and on the beach, a day aboard one of the civilian rescue vessels desperately trying to ferry as many soldiers back to safety as possible, this one captained by the noble Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and an hour in the air with a pair of daring RAF pilots (Hardy, Lowden) trying to take out the Luftwaffe planes trying to bomb and strafe the beaches and the British naval vessels trying to evacuate the troops.

Like Memento, Nolan uses time differently than most linear storytelling techniques in order to….well, I’m not quite sure. It is confusing at times to follow the goings on when you are jumping ahead and back in time depending on whether you’re in a boat, plane or beach. It also leads to a curious difficulty in telling the different characters apart for the most part; the soldiers and sailors are all fresh faced and largely unknown with a few exceptions and those exceptions tend to stand out, particularly Rylance and to a lesser extent, Branagh as a stolid Naval commander and Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier pulled out of the ocean by Rylance.

The technical achievement here is impressive, maybe even mind-blowing. I’m not just talking about the special effects but on all the elements of the film, from the lighting (often utilizing a washed out pastel color palate that gives a visual accounting of the hopelessness of the waiting soldiers) to the way the shots are lined up to the sound design to the way there’s virtually no let-up in the tension from the opening shot to the closing credits.

Some of the few remaining Dunkirk survivors who viewed the film at its London premiere observed that the sound wasn’t quite as loud during the real bombing and strafing which apparently Nolan found amusing and when you think about it, has a ring of the “Turn down that music ya whippersnappers” to it. Not that I’m an expert but this may be the most authentic war movie since the D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan raised the bar on war movies in general.

There was talk this was going to be an Oscar contender way back in July when this was released and to that end Warner Brothers is planning a re-release to remind Academy voters not to forget about this film among all the year-end prestige releases. And, for those wondering, that is also why it hasn’t been released to home video just yet. If you haven’t seen it in a theater, by all means make a point to do so when the re-release occurs. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most realistic depiction of war since Saving Private Ryan. The tension generated here is absolutely relentless. Rylance has become one of the most reliable actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to loud noises may have issues with this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very intense war violence as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Nolan to portray real events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Day
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Diana: Our Mother, Her Life and Her Legacy

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Everything, Everything


Young love is a heady thing.

(2017) Young Adult Romance (Warner Brothers) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube R. Hermosillo, Dan Payne, Fiona Loewi, Sage Brocklebank, Robert Lawrenson, Peter Benson, Françoise Yip, Farryn VanHumbeck, Marion Eisman, Allison Riley, Valareen Friday. Directed by Stella Meghie

 

There is something about young love that is intoxicating, not only for those experiencing it but for those around them. We all remember those first throes of our first real love, the high highs, the low lows, the amazing mood swings. Our hormones sizzle our bodies like steaks on a grill and we have no clue how to handle the intensity of our emotions. It’s sweet and horrible and wonderful and bitter all at once.

The movies and television often celebrate this particular event which is common to nearly everyone, but there are some movies that give us a twist on that; the dying teenager finds love sub genre. The tragic element tends to put young girls hormones into overdrive, either in maternal sympathy for the beautiful young boy who is dying or identifying with the beautiful young girl who is dying.

In this case, it’s the latter. Maddy (Stenberg) lives in a hermetically sealed house with filtered air and a sterile environment. She suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency disorder, or SCID. Simply taking a stroll outside could kill her, so for the past 17 years of her 18 years of life she has lived here, watching the world go by through big glass windows.

She wants to be an architect and has designed a diner and a home that she sometimes imagines herself inhabiting. She often feels like an astronaut adrift in space, unable to touch down back on Earth and in her imagination she often sees an astronaut in her creations.

Maddy’s mom Pauline (Rose) is a mother hen, protecting her daughter with almost drill sergeant-like ardor. She’s a doctor who specializes in immune system disorders and she’s responsible for a lot of Maddy’s care. The only two people who ever interact with Maddy besides her mom is the housekeeper Carla (de la Reguera) and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Hermosilla) who undergo a pretty thorough sterilization procedure every time they come in.

Maddy dreams of going to the beach but that seems an unlikely reality until Maddy’s reality is turned upside down by literally the boy next door. Olly (Robinson) moves in and soon the two are trading soulful glasses through the window and then it’s phone numbers. They begin to text and call like well, a couple of teenagers. The two fall head over heels. Carla tries to foster this relationship but Pauline finds out about it and soon, no more Carla.

Soon Maddy and Olly decide that their only alternative is a trip to Hawaii – it turns out that Olly’s dad (Payne) is abusive. Olly is a little reluctant but Maddy is willing to risk everything for a single perfect teenage day at the beach – including her life.

This is based on the young adult romance novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon. I haven’t read it but I’m wondering how similar the plot is to the movie because quite frankly, this feels like too many movies I’ve seen before from Romeo and Juliet to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to dozens of young adult-aimed movies over the past few years.

One of the things that bothers me is that Olly is literally too good to be true; despite having to deal with his father’s physical abuse, he almost never acts out in ways that most abused kids do. I don’t know Yoon or screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe have spent much time around abused kids but given their tone-deaf portrayal of Olly I’d say the answer is no.

The movie is definitely aimed at a tween/teen crowd, especially young girls. Olly is dreamy/handsome and Maddy is a prototypical spunky teen heroine with a tragic disease.. Oh, and the plot is preposterous, the teen characters are all smart and terrific and the adult characters are all jerks. Not to mention that rules and common sense don’t mean squat when you’re doing what you want to do instead of what you should do. There’s a time and a place for being rebellious but not when it puts your life at risk but I suppose that feels pretty noble and everything.

There’s not a lot of realism here and the big twist is so completely unbelievable that it would have ruined a much better movie than this. As it is I just sat there watching and nodding to myself, muttering “Yup. Of course that’s where they went.”

I wish that Hollywood would stop treating tweens and teens and kids as underage morons. They are capable of figuring things out and I’m convinced that, just like adults, they want good movies and not crappy ones. The fact that they pretty much stayed away from this in droves bears me out. I think that there are better versions of this type of story to be made (and likely a few that have already been made). Teens deserve better than this.

REASONS TO GO: There is some decent cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie suffers from too-good-to-be-true boyfriend syndrome. The plot is predictable and goes completely off the rails once the action shifts to Hawaii.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, Olly has a shaved head. In the movie version, Pauline (Maddy’s mom) tells him he needs a haircut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Camera Obscura

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword


Pulling the sword from the stone was easy; uniting the kingdom was hard.

(2017) Fantasy Action (Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Bergés-Frisbey, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis, Geoff Bell, Poppy Delevingne, Millie Brady, Nicola Wren, Wil Coban, Bleu Landau, Jacqui Ainsley, Lorraine Bruce, Georgina Campbell. Directed by Guy Ritchie

 

One of the most enduring legends in Western European history is that of King Arthur. Loosely based on an actual Anglican King shortly after the fall of Rome, he has become associated with all that is good about English royalty; a fair and just ruler, a mighty warrior and a man wise enough to know his own failings, his court at Camelot is widely characterized bittersweetly as a brief and shining moment in history.

King Uther Pendragon (Bana) of England is by all accounts a good and just king but he is overthrown by his ambitious brother Vortigen (Law) who is aided by demonic black magic. Uther is killed but his little son Arthur is saved and whisked off into obscurity. As Vortigen rules with cruelty and fear, Arthur grows up in the streets of London, raised by prostitutes and becoming a petty crime lord and pimp. Vortigen has become increasingly paranoid due to a prophecy that says he will be killed by the true king and his throne taken. There is a sword called Excalibur buried deep in the rock near the king’s castle and by legend only the true king can pull it from its sheath. All men in the kingdom of a certain age are required to have a try at pulling it but only Arthur succeeds.

Rescued by Bedivere (Hounsou), one of his father’s last remaining knights, and a beautiful Mage (Bergés-Frisbey) Arthur undergoes intensive training on how to fight. Arthur is reluctant to help – he wants no part of the sword or the responsibility of kingship but as his friends are attacked and imperiled, Arthur soon realizes that he cannot avoid his destiny. Accepting the power of the sword, he proves to be a nearly unbeatable warrior but Vortigen is vicious and ends up capturing the Mage and the son of one of Arthur’s best friends who has been killed by Vortigen personally. Ordered to surrender or watch his friends be executed, Arthur must become the King he was meant to be if he is to save his friends – and England.

This is certainly not your father’s Arthur. Reimagined by Ritchie who has previously messed with Sherlock Holmes – another British icon – the film is effects-heavy and somewhat darker than Mallory’s better-known version of the English hero. There are some fairly impressive creature effects here although nothing particularly groundbreaking. There are a few liberties taken with the plot – there is an obviously Asian martial arts instructor at Camelot centuries before Marco Polo opened up trade relations. That’s a big whoopsie.

The film is mostly grey in hue which gives a kind of dreary atmosphere. It doesn’t help matters that the battle sequences are mostly shot with handheld cameras which while giving a sense of the chaos of battle also give the audience vertigo. I’ll never understand why directors think that’s artistic; it’s just freaking annoying.

Hunnam has been given some high-profile roles over the past few years and I think he shows his potential most here. He’s not really your typical action hero and that’s a good thing but it can make things a little tough on directors who aren’t used to a screen presence like his. Not every director knows what to do with him. Ritchie does,, however, and that bodes well for Hunnam’s future.

Law has had a good career and does exceptionally well here as the villain. He’s played villainous roles before and seems well-suited to them; as Vortigen he’s as vile a villain as can be which makes for good cinema. A great hero requires a great villain, after all. Sadly Law is sabotaged by a script in which the plot meanders and is often disjointed and confusing. Despite the spectacle and despite some well-staged action sequences, I found some of the film boring which is a cardinal sin for action films.

This was meant to be the first episode in a new shared cinematic universe which was slated for at least six films. The film bombed at the box office so it seems unlikely short of a miraculous life on VOD and home video that the series will continue. There were to be installments concentrating on other Arthurian heroes such as Merlin, Guinevere and Lancelot – none of whom appear in this film – but that ambitious plan seems to be moot at this point. The thing about cinematic universes is that in order for people to want to see the other films in the series they’re first going to have to be wowed and excited by the first film and that simply doesn’t happen here. There are some good cinematic ideas and Law is a terrific villain but there just isn’t enough to make anyone eagerly anticipate the next film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Hunnam acquits himself with more confidence here. Law makes for a hiss-worthy villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is extremely disjointed. The film suffers from an excess of shaky-cam in the battle sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is bloodshed and violence, some sexually suggestive material and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hunnam was introduced to the Arthurian legend by the John Boorman film Excalibur,  a movie he has watched repeatedly over the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Arthur (2004)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Wakefield

Unforgettable (2017)


There’s something about a catfight men find irresistible.

(2017) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults, Isabella Kai Rice, Alex Quijano, Sarah Burns, Whitney Cummings, Simon Kassianides, Robert Ray Wisdom, Cheryl Ladd, Stephanie Escajeda, Kincaid Walker, Aline Elasmar, Jayson Blair, Lauren Rose Lewis, Robin Hardy, Mitch Silpa, Alex Staggs, Scott Beehner, Michelle Mehta, Leslie A. Hughes. Directed by Denise Di Novi

 

We humans are obsessed with love. So much has been written about it and there are so may aphorisms that exist about it. For example, it is said that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. That’s pretty much true but I suppose that it might not be if your ex is completely out of their minds.

Things are looking up for Julia Banks (Dawson). Getting out of an abusive relationship which ended with her ex (Kassianides) being jailed (although he is due to be released soon) she has gotten into a relationship with a buff divorcee named David Connover (Stults) who has an adorable daughter named Lily (Rice) and is working to make his microbrewery into a big success. Engaged to be married, she is moving to the small town where he lives leaving the big city editorial job and her dear friend Ali (Cummings). Things are looking rosy for Julia.

That is, until she meets David’s ex Tessa (Heigl). To say she is tightly wound is like saying the Great Wall of China has a few bricks in it. She clearly wants her husband back as well as the life she had with him but David is done with her and has moved on. At first it feels like Tessa is making an attempt to be civil to Julia but soon nagging little annoyances start to turn into bigger things, like missing wedding rings, flower deliveries from Julia’s ex, Lily getting lost at a carnival – and then things turn full-blown crazy.

Tessa is going to get David back by any means necessary and nobody is going to keep her from her perfect life. As the stakes get higher, Julia realizes she is dealing with someone who has a deep psychosis and in order to protect herself and those she loves she has going to have to jump aboard the crazy train with Tessa and have it out with her once and for all.

If this sounds a bit like a Lifetime movie, it certainly feels like one at times – albeit one with better production values and a better cast. Heigl, known more for frothy romantic comedies, brings her A game here, allowing herself to go big which is what a movie like this needs. One must give her kudos for giving her all for a script that really doesn’t have a lot going for it.

Cliches abound here, from the housewife who turns out to have some mad hacking skills to the climactic catfight. Anyone who has watched a few of these crazy ex-wife thrillers will be able to pretty much figure out what’s going on from the opening scene which has Julia sitting in a police interrogation room trying to explain the dead body in her home which was probably not a good idea from a screenwriting perspective – it gives too much away right from the beginning.

There is a fairly tawdry scene in which David and Julia get busy in a public bathroom while Tessa, alone in her own home, goes the self-love route even as she sexts with one of the characters in the film as part of her plan to get Julia out of the picture. From a prurient point of view it’s pretty close to softcore Skinamax material so those who find that sort of thing distasteful should be forewarned.

Despite Heigl’s delightfully trashy performance, it’s really hard to recommend this wholeheartedly. Certainly there is a guilty pleasure element to it and I admit to liking it much more a few months after seeing it than I did immediately after watching it, but the characters are so poorly written and the execution shows little imagination. Based on Heigl alone, I can give it a mild recommendation particularly for those who like their potbroilers with a dash of sex and a minimum of mental effort. For everyone else, I’m sure you have better things to do.

REASONS TO GO: Heigl does some solid work in the batshit crazy ex role.
REASONS TO STAY: This is pretty much as predictable as it gets
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality and brief partial nudity, some foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Di Novi has been a producer for quite awhile working with (among others) Tim Burton, this is her first go-round in the director’s chair.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Family Life

The LEGO Batman Movie


The Batmobile is getting a little bit crowded.

(2017) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Jason Mantzoukas, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Jemaine Clement, Hector Elizondo, Chris Hardwick, Ellie Kemper. Directed by Chris McKay

 

After the breakout success of The LEGO Movie in 2014, it became clear that one of the reasons for that success was Will Arnett’s delightful portrayal of Batman. Completely clueless and a bit of a jerk, it became clear that he deserved his own movie.

The movie he got is a face off between Batman (Arnett) and the Joker (Galifianakis) but not in the traditional sense. Jim Gordon (Elizondo) is retiring as police chief and his daughter Barbara (Dawson) is taking over but the pragmatic Barbara has some questions. If Batman is such a great crime fighter, why is Gotham so overridden with crime?

For Batman’s part, he leads a lonely existence, dining alone at Wayne Manor while watching Jerry Maguire and laughing in all the wrong places. His faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes) reminds Batman/Bruce Wayne that he has a responsibility – for one thing, to raise the orphan Dick Grayson (Cera) that he had adopted. Batman, for his part, didn’t realize he’d adopted the boy, thinking it was a joke. Grayson discovers Bruce Wayne’s secret and takes on the costumed vigilante identity as Robin, much to Batman’s annoyance.

But Joker has a plan; to release all of the monsters from the Phantom Zone and overrun Gotham. What he really wants though is for Batman to admit that the Joker is his arch-nemesis which the Caped Crusader just won’t do. But he can’t take on all these villains at once. He’s going to have to put aside his ego and admit that he needs help.

The movie is very family-friendly; kids will love it and adults won’t mind it either. While the “family is important” message will resonate with adults, kids might find it a bit saccharine; kids tend to prefer anarchy and chaos when left to their own devices. The nerd brigade will like the infusion of various DC superheroes as well as monsters and villains from across the pop culture spectrum (curiously there are no Marvel superheroes or villains, at least none I can remember). Adults will appreciate the rapid fire jokes that keep the movie jumping, not unlike a ZAZ film from the 70s. However, like most movies that throw a lot of jokes into the mix, not all of them work. A lot of them hit the mark though, like the whole lobster thermador thing. While the satire of the comic book genre is spot on, McKay and his cadre of five comedy writers also skewer movie conventions with Arnett’s portentous voiceover as the movie opens “Black screen. All important movies start with a black screen.” And he continues, hilariously, as the various production company logos come on.

The animation is simple but effective and makes clever use of the LEGO bricks that make up the world. McKay, a veteran of Robot Chicken, knows how to keep the action moving and there are some pretty spiffy action sequences. It does fall apart in the final act when there are way too many monsters and it becomes hard to follow. The palate is a bit darker than The LEGO Movie but it is still bright enough to keep the smaller kids delighted.

I don’t think this is as successful as The LEGO Movie but that may well be because we were so caught off guard by that movie. The bar was a bit higher for this one and if it didn’t quite hit it, it came damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Equally fun for children and adults alike. A fresh view of Batman and at comic book superheroes in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor can be hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some animated action and a few rude jokes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the third Oscar-nominated actor to play Alfred Pennyworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dig Two Graves

Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

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