Movie Review ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo, Jenn Murray, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Colin Farrell, Zoe Kravitz

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: For you die hard Harry Potter fans out there, know that this review is going to be as spoiler-free as possible. You’ve waited far too long to have the secrets of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them spoiled for you so…read on with confidence.

It’s been five years since the world said good-bye to Harry Potter and company after the films based on the novels by J.K. Rowling concluded. We all knew the end was coming and it was still hard to bid adieu to these characters and the actors we watched grow up over the course of nearly ten years and eight films. Still, we never really said farewell because Rowling has made sure Potter lives on in theme park attractions (been twice to the one in Orlando and it’s, of course, excellent), on the Pottermore website, and even in a stage adaptation taking London (and soon Broadway) by storm. The hunger for more adventures in wizardry was clearly there but how do you get back to business without sullying the memory of a beloved franchise?

The answer: start a new one.

Adapted by Rowling from her 2001 field guide published as a fundraiser for charity, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is your way back into Rowling’s creative creation and fans of the series are sure to find this was worth the wait. Or is it? If I’m being honest, I had a hard time finding my way in this new world and it’s not because it doesn’t do its job or because it doesn’t fit into the same universe as the series it was spun-off from.

My main problem was that with the Harry Potter movies, we knew what to expect and came looking for our favorite parts of the books to come to life onscreen. There was an endgame to work toward that had set boundaries and pre-defined beats to hit. We don’t have that same advantage in Rowling’s original screenplay which spells a fun discovery for some but uncertainty for others, including this critic.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1920’s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, sketching Newt as decidedly on the spectrum) hasn’t come alone. Toting a suitcase with enough capacity to make Mary Poppins green with envy, he’s arrived from London with a mission to restore a “fantastic beast” to its rightful homeland. Before he can get very far, however, he finds himself chasing down some escaped creatures with the help of an American auror (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), and a No-Maj (Dan Fogler, Europa Report) that mistakenly switches suitcases with Scamander to disastrous results.

As if that weren’t enough, Rowling get political (and dark) with the inclusion of a family of Second-Salemers who seek to rid the country of the witches and wizards they suspect are living amongst them. The matriarch (Samantha Morton, John Carter) is another grave, frightening character crafted by Rowling to represent much of the racism, bigotry, and even homophobia of the day. Her adopted son (Ezra Miller, Suicide Squad) has clandestine conspiratorial meetings with a MACUSA big-wig (Colin Farrell, Dead Man Down) that are staged uncomfortably on purpose by director David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) and are open for multiple interpretations.

Yates guided the last four Potter films and is signed up for the next installment of Fantastic Beasts. It was a wise decision to keep him involved as he brings a needed tonal consistency to this new jumping off point and nicely balances Rowling’s twists and turns with more than a few delightful moments of special effects flights of fancy. Yet the movie is too long by a good ten minutes, oddly choosing to linger when it should leap.  These are all the problems that go along with the first film in a planned franchise…by the time you arrive at a nifty final twist (and it really is a good one) you realize all of it has been in service to setting up the next four films.

As has been the case recently, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another example of a film marketed to all ages of the family audience that’s far too scary and dark for young children. The Potter films always had sadness at their core but this feels exceedingly bleak and unrepentantly so. Parents are encouraged to view this first before letting kids under the age of 10 have a look. For us grown-ups though, whatever faults lie in the story or calculated forward-looking set-up are lessened by Rowling’s admirable devotion to character development that seems to only richen the deeper you look and the super-duper production design and special effects that put you right back into Depression-era New York City (I half expected to see Annie cross by at ay moment).

More good than fantastic, this first entry in the next saga of Rowling’s witches and wizards is far from a disappointment but could have been tightened and brightened in order to live up to it’s title.

Movie Review ~ The Legend of Tarzan

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Two full months into the summer season and we finally have a blockbuster worth talking about. Don’t get me wrong, strong entries have been made with Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and X-Men: Apocalypse but The Legend of Tarzan represents everything a popcorn film should be. It’s an exciting, action-packed thrill ride that’s been given grand treatment not only from its director and cinematographer but from it’s surprisingly nimble cast. I went into the film being mildly interested in another retelling of the classic Tarzan tale and left with the kind of energized good-will that made me feel like swinging from vine to vine singing its praises.

Thankfully, The Legend of Tarzan isn’t merely an origin story of how young John Clayton lost his parents to the wilds of Africa and was raised by a caring ape before joining society after falling in love with Jane. This story is there but it’s interspersed throughout the first half of the picture as well-timed glimpses into a past Clayton both longs for and recognizes he needs to move forward from. Married to his love and living in his Greystoke estate, Clayton is asked back to Africa under false pretenses and becomes the victim of a villainous power-hungry jewel smuggler.

What sets The Legend of Tarzan apart from similarly styled blockbusters is that it has an actual plot at its core.  Screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) ping off of the stories laid out by Edgar Rice Burroughs as they craft a story around Tarzan returning to his roots and saving the people and land he loves from mercenaries, slave traders, and land developers. It’s not heavy-handed stuff but it feels like it means something, much more than a superhero going after a stone with special powers.

As Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård (The East) is the true vison of what his creator must have had in mind. In impeccable shape but still bearing the signs of a life in the wild, Skarsgård Tarzan is soft-spoken and curious, only jumping into action when he or his family is threatened. He’s matched nicely with Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Jane, still plucky and headstrong but perhaps a tad bit on the underdeveloped side. While she’s given some swell heroine moments, I still felt like she was given less important hurdles to navigate than her male counterparts.

At first I was scratching my head at the presence of Samuel L. Jackson’s (The Hateful Eight) supporting turn as a Civil War veteran sent by the US President to England in hopes of exposing slave trade in the Congo. Jackson’s cooler-than-you swagger is kept at bay here, with the actor getting mighty physical as he tries to keep pace with Tarzan. Even if he uses a few too many modern turns of phrase (was “screwed” a popular term in the late 1800s?), he easily gets the most positive audience reaction and seems game for whatever Yates and company throws his way.

I’ve about had it with Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes, Django Unchained) playing a soft-spoken smarmy villain outfitted in pristine attire. The two-time Oscar winner feels like he’s coasting on his initial popularity but is managing only to lull us into slumber. Feeling like a half-hearted extension of his Spectre bad guy, Waltz never grooves with the other actors and feels miscast. It’s always nice to see Djimon Hounsou (Furious 7) in anything and he’s utilized well as the chief of a tribe with a personal vendetta against Tarzan.

On the production side, the score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Winter’s Tale) is tone appropriate whether it be a full-throttle action scene or a more somber moment between Tarzan and his ape brethren. Cinematographer Henry Braham’s stunning vistas are a seamless blend of live-action and CGI that make quite the impact when seen in 3D (note that the 3D adds appropriate depth for items that appear to extend past the screen).

No matter how well The Legend of Tarzan does, director David Yates is bound to have a great 2016 overall. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arriving November, Yates is at the helm of two potential franchise starters after lovingly guiding the last four Harry Potter films to their conclusion. Even if you aren’t swayed by the actors or the story, Yates has brought forth a sharp looking film that looks like an old-fashioned epic.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Release Date:  November 18, 2016

Thoughts: Now that’s how you make a teaser trailer.  I think in the din of awards season and upcoming superhero movies of 2016, we’ve forgotten that there’s a film arriving in mid-November with some serious pedigree behind it.  Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling adapts her own short guidebook for a film directed by David Yates, the man who helmed the last four Potter features (and who will be represented earlier in 2016 with The Legend of Tarzan) with a cast that includes Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), and Colin Farrell (Winter’s Tale).  A true teaser trailer in every sense, I’ll admit this one gave me some of those good tingles that few previews nowadays can.  Highly anticipated, this only fuels the growing fire.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Legend of Tarzan

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Synopsis: Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment.

Release Date:  July 1, 2016

Thoughts: Fans of 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes that have been waiting for a sequel for these past three decades, I have some sad news for you.  Edgar Rice Burroughs classic vine swinging hero is getting a reboot with two sexy stars as Tarzan and Jane along with some Academy Award nominated/winning character actors playing various allies and foes. Before you write this one off as another CGI-heavy trifle, keep in mind that David Yates is at the helm of it all and having shepherded four handsome looking Harry Potter films (the most difficult ones, no less), he sure knows how to keep the humanity of characters that are put into perilous computer rendered worlds.  Alexander Skarsgård (The East), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained), Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes), & Djimon Hounsou (Furious 7) will head into the jungle next July.