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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

July 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I think it was around 2000 that I first took notice of a book called “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. I was working at amazon.com, and it was starting to gain popularity very quickly. It wasn’t long after that I saw more books with the name “Harry Potter”: “Chamber of Secrets” and “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. I thought, what’s the deal with these books? Well, the answer was…they had just become the most popular childrens’ books in circulation.

By the time the fourth book, “Goblet of Fire”, was being released, Harry Potter mania had taken full effect. In 2001, a film version was made of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. My sister was ecstatic, and even went so far as to work out something with a local theatre to promote a kid-friendly showing of the movie, complete with a Sorting Hat and people dressing up. I went to this showing to support what she was doing, and I had finally taken interest in the books after she repeatedly inflected the highest praise I’ve seen her give a book since she had read Roald Dahl.

I enjoyed the first book, enough to continue with the series. I liked what J.K. Rowling was doing: Harry was a very special child, but he was severely underappreciated and abused by his adopted parents (his own were killed). Harry learns that he’s a wizard, and he can perform magic and all sorts of special things that he couldn’t do in the “Muggle World” (muggle being the word for regular human, or an English person). I was taken by the journey and wound up reading the entire series, getting the concluding book the day it came out and finishing it in a week (a record for me).

Meanwhile, I went and saw the movies. And I was less than impressed with most of them. While some of them (“Chamber of Secrets”, “Order of the Phoenix”) were OK, only two really stood out for me as well done films: “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Half-Blood Prince”. Finally, these movies provided some much needed character development that made the books so entertaining and endearing.

For the final adaptation, the money-grubbing producers I suppose thought it’d be better to split the book into two movies. Yeah, I’m sure it was for artistic purposes. See my review on “Part 1” to see if they succeeded. I had my doubts that it would serve well as a two part…mini-series, and I think I was right to be so dubious.

In Part 2, we’re taken right into the action from the start. Why we needed a long-winded 2 and a half hour long “intro” (Part 1), I have no idea. Well, I do have an idea. But in any event, I saw it, and I was just anticipating this film to see if they could conclude it in a satisfying manner, the way the book did.

Obviously, there’s always going to be a disconnect between the film and book, in any adaptation. Certain things cannot be filmed, and sometimes things are left out. The “Harry Potter” series was a frequent culprit of this, especially in “Goblet of Fire” (which was my favorite of the book series). In this adaptation, from what I remember, they do get pretty much all of it right. But something was still missing. And I think because of all of the short comings of previous installments, this film was never going to deliver for me what I had been starved for the entire time–and that’s actually…caring for these characters.

I’ve never thought of Daniel Radcliffe as a good actor, nor Emma Watson. But they’re not entirely at fault for their cardboard cutout characters–the screenwriting in this series has been dreadful in many of the installments, including this one. The film’s pace never seems quite right, especially in Part 1. But there’s just no sense of urgency other than spewing out the dazzling special effects. That’s always seemed to be the driving force of these films.

If aesthetics were all you could base your opinion on in this series, I’d say it was a smashing success. But that’s not what drew me into the books, and that’s not what drew me into liking Harry Potter as a character, along with the other characters. I liked that Rowling gave them complexity and flaws. In the films, they just seem to go along with the story, not really offering any real emotion or showing pain or anguish. It all just seems like window dressing. And while it’s very nice to look at, it just doesn’t do anything for me.

And that’s basically what I thought of this conclusion. Everything is in its right place. But the puzzle itself doesn’t move me. And there was even a conclusion missing, I thought, between Harry and Draco–two characters who were heated rivals throughout the series. There was nothing I felt throughout this film; not even in the last scene, where we finally see Harry as an adult and without the scar. It struck me as interesting that in the film, he does not rub his forehead as he does in the last line of the book. That line was used to show that Harry had finally gotten through everything, and his scar “healed” so that he was pretty much…born anew. In the film he doesn’t touch it–almost signifying that he just never felt anything. I know that’s kind of an insult, and a bit short sighted.

I do not think the film series has been bad, necessarily. It just hasn’t been what I thought it would be. I was hoping for something more meaningful, such as the “Lord of the Rings” adaptations. In that, they cut out a lot from the books but they retained the most important thing–the relationships. Harry Potter’s relationships in the film series just serve as plot devices more than anything else. And all of the films worked on a visual level. But not on any other level. And what made me like Harry Potter so much was that there were so many levels.

But I am relieved that it’s finally over. My scar’s gone, too. And all is well.

My rating: :?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1

November 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

The Harry Potter series has dominated this past decade in book and film, and it’s finally coming to a close next summer with the concluding part of the final entry, “The Deathly Hallows.” I’ve been a fan of the book series; but the movies have been an up and down thing for me. Some of them, like “Prisoner of Azkaban”, “Order of the Phoenix”, and especially the last film, “The Half-Blood Prince”, have been rewarding movie going experiences. “The Deathly Hallows”, unfortunately, is piled in with the other movies as sloppy, slow, and in this case, overly brooding.

The film starts with Severus Snape, who killed Albus Dumbledore in the previous film, meeting with Voldemort and the plot is set in motion that he and Harry Potter will ultimately have a final duel. But Harry cannot defeat Voldemort without destroying precious objects that contain his soul, hidden in objects, known as Horcruxes. We’re reminded that Harry has destroyed a Horcrux already in “Chamber of Secrets”, the second entry–which by this time feels like a lifetime ago. There is so much to remember about these characters and their little adventures that the films have always tried to remind the audience about fun little factoids that can come in handy when it comes to the most recent plot. In this case, it’s important to know that there are a total of 7 Horcruxes, and Harry has destroyed one, leaving six. Or so it seems. Throughout the film, the focus is on one Horcrux which is located in a locket that when you wear it, its negativity can wear you down, if you’re not evil.

Most of the problems with this film involve the pacing. As with some of the previous weaker “Harry Potter” films like “Goblet of Fire” and especially in the first film, “Sorcerer’s Stone”, the film never seems to get its footing in the right place and the narrative comes off as messy. There are scenes that don’t go anywhere, long establishing shots that aren’t necessary, and at one point, the plot completely turns its focus on another object that makes the climax of destroying a Horcrux drag the rest of the film down, since there’s another plot point introduced late in the film–which actually explains the title of the film itself.

The acting is improved. The best example of this is the rising talent of Rupert Grint who plays Harry’s crimson haired, neurotic friend Ron Weasley. In some scenes, he actually carries the film on his own back. But even with his performance, and with the help of some very wicked special effects, “The Deathly Hallows Pt. 1” is a long winded entry in the “Harry Potter” movie series that doesn’t satisfy–mainly because it doesn’t conclude anything.

I had dubious feelings about this from the start: that one book was going to be split into two separate movies. I thought at first, well, maybe it’ll give them more time to develop the characters. That’s one thing that’s always been missing in the “Harry Potter” movies. Instead, the film doesn’t know what to do with itself most of the time. And the film runs at about two and a half hours long. I have a strong feeling the second “part” will run at about the same length. So we’re talking about a 5 hour long epic based upon one book. Not even J.R.R. Tolkein got that kind of treatment (although the director’s cut of “Return of the King” comes darn close). If there were more going on in the film, I’d say it was a welcome thing. But there really isn’t much besides Harry, Hermione, and Ron searching for Horcruxes and getting mad at each other. You have a few scenes of some of the other characters mingling with some of the action. We even get to see the cute little House Elf again. But his presence is a bit forced as a Deus Ex Machina and the climactic battle involving him is the second or third climax in the film–and by that time, we’re exhausted.

The other gripe I have, as I have with many of the films, is the constant throwing out of names. In the books, it works because you can always easily reference them if needbe. You can just turn the pages back and find the name. In a movie, once the name is spoken, that’s it. You have to remember it. And the names are so complicated and unmemorable, it’s nearly impossible to remember every one of them. But for some reason, a lot of those names come back to haunt you. And then you think, “Oh! Scrimmathor Herthelwaipe. Yeah. That guy. He…is something.”

OK I made that name up. But I think you see my point. Overall, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’re going to see this anyway and what I say can’t do anything to sway your decision. If you’re not a fan of the series, do not bother with this film and certainly don’t bother if you haven’t seen any of the previous films. I don’t think the film’s an entire waste of time; but there were some things in the screenwriting process and the cutting room floor that could’ve tightened this film up and made it a two hour long fun ride rather than a two and a half hour bloated run-around.

My rating: :?

Sherlock Holmes

December 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

In some ways this film felt more like a summer action flick than a brooding winter film. Somehow, a film involving a shrewd and careful detective like Sherlock Holmes doesn’t seem like it would involve a lot of action or fighting. But in Guy Ritchie’s world, Holmes doesn’t just have to beat you up mentally–he has to beat the living daylights out of you physically, too. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

This film snaps, crackles and pops from the very getgo. It starts in a rather brooding way, as Holmes is introduced as somewhat of a brute more than an intellectual. It’s Watson that’s more down to earth and calm. Their chemistry works well, although as usual Downey, Jr. steals the show.

The plot revolves around a mysterious and dangerous man named Blackwood who apparently has supernatural powers (and gives off the feel of Voldemort from “Harry Potter”), and “rises from the dead” after being hanged for murder. Also revealed is a larger plot involving an underground occult society that has big plans for England, and the world, as far as a takeover. For the most part, I wasn’t sure how this would work out since Holmes stories don’t usually involve the supernatural. But the pay offs, while predictable, make sense–and Holmes will always get to the bottom of it.

There are some things that didn’t seem to work. Rachel McAdams plays an ancillary character who is a criminal, but is a love interest for Holmes. For some reason, this chemistry never seemed to mesh. I like McAdams and I think she has been very good in some of her roles. But this just seemed a bit forced, and thrown in because the studio wanted a romantic sub-plot. Also, some of the ways Holmes figures things out can be a bit contrived as well. You don’t get to follow his logic, he is always three steps ahead of you. While that works for most of the film, it’d be nice for the audience to be in on it a little bit and be able to figure out how some of these things unfolded rather than Holmes just automatically telling you. I’ve never been a big fan of the “Let me explain to you the entire plot, Mr. Bond” thing.

But this film is very enjoyable from start to finish, and it certainly delivers where it should. Guy Ritchie may have too much a fondness for grungy characters and violence, but he sure knows how to shoot it and make it look good.

My rating: :-)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

July 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

I find it hard to believe anymore that there can be a “twist” or “secret” that hasn’t been revealed on the internet regarding “Harry Potter” but apparently that was the buzz leading up to this film’s release. The book series has eclipsed anything I’ve ever grown up with as far as sales and interest from kids, and it’s certainly shaped a generation the way that, say, “Star Wars” did from the late 70’s to mid-late 80’s–and in some ways, still shapes generations today. But with Harry Potter, it’s the books that have done the good; the movies have merely profited on what was already a good story by J.K. Rowling.

For those who are tired of the hysteria, you’re not out of the woods yet. While this may be the sixth installment, and there is only one left, it is going to be split into two movies. While I find this exceedingly unnecessary and unfair to my wallet, the only thing I can hope for is that it allows the characters to breathe more life into a film series that has lacked so much character depth, that by this installment, it was almost too late to care about the characters.

Almost. With a better than average script by Steve Kloves (who has written previous Harry Potter installments) and good pacing from director David Yates (who also directed the previous film, “Order of the Phoenix”), “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” finally brings these characters to life to the point where everything feels real. There is much more humor in this film, especially in the beginning, and it’s done purposely so that by the time it gets serious, you are ready to take it seriously. The laughs will also keep the kiddies in the seats that may not understand the more adult themes that are going on.

Relationships are the centerpiece of the film. Everything from awkward high school boyfriend/girlfriend to deep friendship, and mentor/student, is explored. The kids are growing up, for sure. But the most important relationship, and the biggest reason why this film works so well, is the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore. This was the first time I actually accepted Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. I really didn’t like the pick at first; I felt his demeanor to be too stiff, his eyes too dubious and lacked the sensitivity and innocent loveliness that gave Dumbledore such a glow (as Richard Harris did). But he really brings his best and most heartfelt performance here, in a very important chapter in the series as he and Harry embark on a journey to stop Voldemort.

We never really see Voldemort in this film, either. We don’t see a lot of things we saw in the previous films, and I think that was actually quite refreshing. The film looks different from the others. It feels different. The characters’ actors have grown (except Emma Watson, she is utterly hopeless as an actress) and the film is so much more about anticipation than it is execution. There is  a lot of build up. In a way, it’s like “Empire Strikes Back”, although the climax doesn’t really involve a battle (although in the book there is one).

The film is either boring or incredibly engaging depending on what you’re expecting. If you appreciate what the story is telling you about coming of age, not only as a boy into a man, but as a hero as well, and you want to take the journey with the characters, you’ll have a feast. If you want the special effects extravaganza and a lot of action, you’ll have famine. While there are a few intense scenes, most of the film is dedicated to the growth and maturity of Harry and his little brat pack.

While Harry Potter may be derivative and at times, shallow, the film series is proving it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the final (2) film(s) to make the ultimate decision on whether it’s a success, but the last 2 films have proven it is at least a possibility.

My rating: :smile: