Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

November 18, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is an adaptation of sorts of a 2001 publication J.K. Rowling made under the pseudonym Newt Scamander. The book is meant to be a scrapbook journal of fantastical creatures that Scamander has found and cared for throughout his life. He is mentioned briefly in the first “Harry Potter” book, but he does not appear in any of the books or films. The book itself did not have its own story or narrative, it was just meant to be a companion piece for avid readers of the “Harry Potter” series. It served as a sort of historical piece, somewhat like “The Silmarillian” did for J.R.R. Tolkein’s middle earth.

Now, Rowling has taken the idea of the scrapbook and brought it to life, making a story for Newt Scamander, and bringing the Harry Potter Universe to New York City in the 1920’s. Call it either a stroke of brilliance to take this story into new places, or a cash grab–whichever way you want to look at it, I think she pulls it off quite nicely.

The story begins with Newt (Eddie Redmayne) bringing a curious suitcase with him from England to New York City via boat, in search of a particular species of “fantastic beast” that he has yet to find. Allegedly the creature is only bred in New York City, although he finds out that magical creature breeding had been banned for some time. In fact, the magical world in America is different than it is in Jolly Olde England–the Magical and Non-Magical (No-Maj, as their called) do co-exist, but there’s a coldness between them. There’s a…shall we say…segregation. It turns out that at one time, there was a disturbance caused by wizards that left the community shunned. Because of this, the Wizarding World of New York City is very hush-hush. There’s no friendly Hogwarts Express for the wizards, to gleefully take their comforting ride while the Muggle British carry on without a care in the world. It’s a dangerous place to be a wizard in New York City. It’s a dangerous place to be much of anything really.

For poor Newt, he can hardly settle himself before he’s already being tracked by an investigator, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is afraid that his little suitcase full of creatures will expose them all. Meanwhile, Newt runs into a bumbling but likable New Yorker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who is trying to get a loan approved to start his own bakery. Rejected by the bank, he intends to leave–but Newt has discovered that one of his little creatures did escape and he has to retrieve him. The two of them are then forced into a caper in and of itself, running from police and Goldstein, who finally catches them.

She brings them to MACUSA, the Magic Headquarters of the US, and there we find that she is actually on the outs herself. She’s trying to reclaim her position as an Auror, which is a high position, and one obtained by a mysterious and perhaps untrustworthy wizard named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). We learn that Goldstein is demoted because of a run-in with some No-Maj’s (just get used to the term) who believe that witchcraft is among them and is evil. The head of this group, called the New Salemers, is Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). The New Salemers is part orphanage, part religious cult. She disciplines her children harshly, including Credence (Ezra Miller), who may himself have magic in his blood.

It’s not just the creatures they worry about, but a dark presence known as an Obscurial, which represents a manifestation of suppressing one’s magic as a child, when all of those powers are trying to feed into their maturity. Unfortunately for Newt, inside his case (it’s much bigger on the inside), there is in fact an Obscurial of his own. He had obtained it from an African girl who had suffered from the presence, that took her life. Newt kept it, not for malicious reasons, but to contain it and protect the rest of the world from it. Not only that, it still provides the essence of the girl’s life–a piece of her.

The wizards have to find the Obscurial before it tears the city apart, but they don’t know the source. Graves is on his own quest to find it, but for selfish reasons unbeknownst to the rest of MACUSA. For Newt, and Kowalski, they’re seen as the enemy and Goldstein is locked up with them for being an accomplice, since she kept them at her house with her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The president of MACUSA, Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) basically sees them all as threats.

While the plot complicates itself, it isn’t hard to follow, and it’s entertaining throughout. The creatures range from cute to ghastly, from mild to wondrous, and even exhilarating. There are even some amusing scenes of the creatures getting a little out of hand when it comes to finding a mate, or stealing jewelry. The film balances itself well, never losing its tone completely. It can be silly, but not too silly. It can be dark, but not too dour. It can be funny, but not obnoxious. And one thing I really liked was that none of the New York accents were accentuated too much. It never felt over the top, which is usually typical of anything involving New York–especially in a period piece.

Because the film keeps itself close to the button, it always finds a way to thread itself through its narrative without weighing you down. The pace is good, probably better than most of the “Harry Potter” movies. In fact it made me wonder if perhaps Rowling should have penned her own screenplays for those films, as she did with this. It could be that she hadn’t been experienced enough, but by now, she should certainly write whatever sequels this film produces. And I’m sure it will produce a few.

The performances are all well done, and Redmayne and Fogler are especially appealing and their chemistry is very nice. Waterston is a bit tough to like at first, but she’s certainly kind on the eyes, and she comes round by the film’s end. Sudol is instantly engaging. Farrell could pretty much copy his Jerry Dandridge from the “Fright Night” remake; and Ezra Miller plays the suffering but dangerous Credence well.

I also liked the film’s themes about oppression, racism, and classism. The undertones of a group of people who have to live among people but not live *with* them are very nicely handled; it’s never preachy but you can certainly see that Rowling does not like separation of a people. The suffering of the character who bears the Obscurial is sympathetic, and even poignant at times. I do think it’s a bit thrown away at the end, and perhaps the metaphor could’ve been stronger. But I think its presence alone is enough to at least get you thinking.

As the spiritual 9th “Harry Potter” film, I’d say this ranks as one of the strongest. I certainly can’t wait to see more of the Wizarding World of America, and what more fantastical creatures Rowling invites us to. We’ve certainly found enough to want more.

My rating: :D

Saving Mr. Banks

January 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

“Winds in the east / mist comin’ in / Like somethin’ is brewin, about to begin / Can’t put my finger on what lies in store / But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

That’s a foreshadowing thought from Bert in the Disney film “Mary Poppins”; it’s also used as the first and last words of narration in spoken-song by the father of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to begin “Saving Mr. Banks”, a biographical depiction of the development of her novel into the film. The story goes that it took Walt Disney 20 years to persuade Travers to sell the rights of her best selling book to him in order to make it into a film. This film is about the final weeks before she finally does indeed sign over “Mary Poppins” to Disney in 1961.

But it’s still not an easy fortnight. We are first introduced to Travers as a little girl living in Australia in 1906. She is sitting by herself, possibly daydreaming, until it fades into the adult Travers sitting in the same position when she is awakened out of her trance by her agent. At this moment, she still does not want to sell her book to Disney. Even after it’s revealed that Disney has given her full script approval, and the stipulation that there be no animation in the film, she still must be convinced to go to California and meet with Disney and Co. to go through the table readings.

Once she’s there, she butts heads with just about everyone who is involved with the script process, including the song writers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak respectively). She initially wants no singing, no “twinkling”, no cavorting, nothing. It must be proper, and English. The screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) allows the sessions to be recorded while she breaks in to the table reading to voice her disapproval with everything. She meets Disney (Tom Hanks) and gives him just as much trouble. But Disney is not willing to give up. He claims he has given a promise to his children that he’s kept for 20 years that he will bring “Mary Poppins” to life.

Meanwhile, we are given a back story to Travers’ life as a girl growing up in Australia. She has a seemingly normal family, except her father (Colin Farrell) is an obvious drunk who is also irresponsible. He seems to live in a fantasy world of his own, retreating into drinking when things get too hard. He also never calls her by her given name, which is Helen Goff. He is the real life Mary Poppins–but the film version of her, not the book. In the book, Mary Poppins is very proper. But he is reckless, and while he seems to care for his children, he treats them more as if they are participants in his fantasy world than actually as his children to raise and feel responsibility for.

This presents the conundrum that is P.L. Travers. She adored her father, looked up to him, and never wanted anything to spoil the relationship she had with him. We do find out there was an actual nanny to take care of her and her sister (played by Rachel Griffiths) who happens to be her aunt. She promises to “fix everything”, but is not at all into playing games and imagination. She disciplines the children while trying to take care of Travers’ father and mother once his health begins to fail. As we see her in adulthood, she has created a cold and hostile exterior because of the tragedies she experienced when she was a girl.

The giddy child in her does come out in one scene where the writers have invented an ending that allows Mr. Banks to fix his son’s kite and realize how important his children are to him. After all, that’s who Mary Poppins was “saving” to begin with–not the children. Then it all falls apart when she finds out that there will in fact be animation, for the penguins in the film. Until you see what her father means to her, you wonder why she is so hardened and against little specific things like animation and singing. But then it all comes together as part of something she is afraid of, which is really confronting what her father really was. She uses the character of Mr. Banks as a representation (her father was a banker) and at one session at the studio, she lashes out at everyone telling them what a good person Mr. Banks is.

“The woman is a conundrum,” says Walt Disney to one of the Sherman brothers after watching him perform “Feed the Birds” alone on the piano in an empty studio one night. Obviously we know that ultimately Travers does not get her way in the end. “Mary Poppins” indeed had animation, musical numbers–and, no sequels. That’s because Travers was so upset with the final product that she never again gave permission to Disney for any of her other works, including other volumes of the Mary Poppins series.

The performances here are exceptional, especially that of Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. You can feel her pain and even her suppressed emotions as she stares blankly at nothing. Colin Farrell is fine as her troubled father, and Hanks is right on pitch as Disney, never allowing the persona of Disney get in the way of his performance. He is still just a man, and just a character, and Hanks has always had an ability to play his characters on the right note. There’s also the character of the limo driver whom Travers befriends (“You’re the only American I’ve ever liked, she tells him) played by Paul Giamatti that adds a nice touch to the story. Whether this person actually existed, I’m not sure. But even as an invention, he works well.

The story is a sad one, but the film never overwhelms you with sentimentality that it becomes sappy. Its poignancy is never compromised. That’s what makes it a strong film and a fine directing job by John Lee Hancock. It’s a nice experience to rediscover why “Mary Poppins” is such a treasured classic; and it shows that show business can be very, very hard work, especially when there’s extremely guarded source material by a very strict author.

My rating::-)

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

I’m not always sure how to review a Terry Gilliam film. These days, I think it’s safe to say it’s an achievement for him to even get one made anymore. After projects coming together, then falling apart (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, “Good Omens”), and with this one even being in question after the main star had died during production (do I even have to say his name?), the fact that this film is FINISHED can be given a thumb’s up, no? But this is the film critiquing business and I still have a job to do. Even though I’m not paid for it and nobody really reads these anyway. I still believe in myself. So there.

I’d have to start off by saying if you enjoy Gilliam’s earlier works, you will most likely enjoy this. If you’re not a fan, this won’t make you one. It keeps within the visual styles and narrative themes that he and his co-writer Charles McKeown have been making for decades now. In this film, the theme is self-indulgence and selfishness, and it’s presented in a typical, Gilliam way.

The “Imaginarium” is a world beyond a mirror that you can be taken to for a donation, as a traveling “circus” like stage moves about towns, seeking customers. Anton (played by Andrew Garfield) is the attractor. Valentina (Lily Cole) is the beautiful temptress to lure the men. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) merely sits on the stage in a zen-like way, waiting for those who want to come into his world.

It looks like a cheap parlor trick, but inside the Imaginarium is literally a fantasy world. In it, your wildest dreams come true. But there is a price. Actually, there is a choice. The devil, known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), is waiting in the Imaginarium to seduce you as well. As the plot continues you learn that the two of them are battling for souls, as part of a bet that Parnassus made with him long ago.

But Parnassus is not made out to be God, or god-like. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures and simple desires–and he’s an alcoholic. He is accompanied by a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer) who tries to keep him in line (“What would I do without you, Percy?” “Get a midget.”) but Parnassus is consumed with himself. He made a deal with the devil that if he doesn’t win, he loses his daughter to him. His daughter, nor Anton, know about this and Anton is in love with her.

The plot thickens when they encounter a hanging man that they bring back to life, who’s revealed as Tony (Heath Ledger, among others). They’re not sure where he’s come from but he bears strange markings on his head, and he’s dressed in a suit. Tony, meanwhile, cannot remember anything, not even his name. Parnassus gets a few tidbits from Mr. Nick (though they’re “enemies”, the two have a relationship) and Parnassus convinces Tony who he is and what he was doing (he was hosting a charity event). But Mr. Nick swears that Tony is “not his”, nor sent by him. Tony feels obligated to pay Parnassus back, so he joins their traveling show and woos women into coming into the mirror. This allows Parnassus to possibly win the bet and get his daughter back. He needs 5 souls.

But problems arise once Tony is sucked into the world himself. He transforms, becomes other manifestations of himself. He grows increasingly selfish about it, and is revealed to be somewhat of a bad person. It is in this world that brings other performances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell into the film, as Tony. Each one delivered is a good one, and in some way resemble Ledger’s Tony. This is what saved the film. It would not have been finished without this happening. However, it makes perfect sense in the narrative for it to happen regardless. In fact it strengthens the theme because of how much Tony “changes”.

While I enjoyed the theme and the look of the film, it was actually the performances that I found the strongest element of it. Andrew Garfield is perfect as Anton; Waits is a pure delight to watch, and Ledger & Co. are all entertaining, especially Jude Law.

The film bears striking resemblances to earlier Gilliam works as well. I’m not sure if I’d call it a weakness, but it certainly doesn’t possess the uniqueness that some of his older work has. For instance, the “street” scenes with Parnassus are straight out of “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys”. The character of Tony is extremely reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines. Parnassus himself reminds me of Baron Munchausen. Some of the disjointed and disorganized dialog and presentations in the Imaginarium are straight out of “Brazil”.

All of that being said, however, the film is fun to watch and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Its climax and ending are very satisfactory, and I left with a smile on my face.

I’m sure this is not the last film we see from Gilliam. But I hope his next venture isn’t as much of a hassle. I won’t hold my breath, though.

My rating: :-)