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.

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 ~ Decoding Annie Parker

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Synopsis: Love, science, sex, infidelity, disease and comedy, the wild, mostly true story of the irrepressible Annie Parker and the almost discovery of a cure for cancer.

Release Date: May 2, 2014

Thoughts: Though the cast for Decoding Annie Parker is filled with celebrated actors like Helen Hunt (The Sessions), Samantha Morton (In America), and Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) and surrounds an important subject (searching for cures/causes of breast cancer) I can’t help but feel overall that this is a movie that was originally intended for the small screen. Yeah, yeah, the film is distributed as an indie but something about it reads television movie to me. That’s not to say it won’t work just fine in your local cinema and I’m interested enough in the true life story of the title character to make the effort to catch this one, but will it be one I’ll be happy I left the house for?

Movie Review ~ Her

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt

Director: Spike Jonze

Rated: R

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of Her.  After all, a Spike Jonze written/directed film starring the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) about a man that falls in love with a computer program could, without question, have gone either way.  Even looking over the rest of the cast from Rooney Mara to Amy Adams to Olivia Wilde and especially Scarlett Johansson, (all actresses I like but don’t love) I couldn’t tell if this would wind up being another awards buzz movie I’d be forced to slog through and defend my overall opinion to hoity-toity critics or a new twist in the romance genre.

It was with a certain delight, then, that I emerged from Her so totally refreshed by its unconventional romance and stimulated by its two unlikely leads.  Too often critics are eager to toss out the term “modern romance” when describing a film that portrays a love story without large flights of fancy but what Jonze has created here is a futuristic romance without a lot of extra bells and whistles or spaceships to Mars.

In the future as imagined by Jonze (and not that far off the mark, I believe) we’re all even more interconnected to the world with our activity on the web downloadable and programmable leaving little to the imagination.  Fashion wise, I’m sorry to say that Jonze (who also had a hand in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) believes we’ll all be wearing high waisted wool pants, too…frightening.

Employed to write letters from loved ones that don’t have the time to do it themselves, Phoenix finds just the right words to make his clients and their addressees happy.  In his own personal life, however, he’s not so lucky in love.  Recently divorced and not yet ready to go back on the market he’s intrigued by the latest in tech must-haves…an advanced operating system that’s tailored to cater to him specifically.  After a brief set-up filtered through a typical Jonze-ian questionnaire, Phoenix is introduced to the one woman that will truly change his life…Samantha.

Scarlet Johansson (Don Jon) wasn’t the original actress cast to be the voice of Samantha…that would be Samantha Morton who was on the set every day with Phoenix to film his scenes.  When the film was completed, Jonze discovered that Morton’s voice didn’t fit exactly with the rest of the film and Morton being the pro she was agreed.  Johansson was brought in to redub Morton’s work without ever going through the live on-set emotion Morton and Phoenix shared.

Knowing this, it’s remarkable at how in tune Johansson and Phoenix are in the film and the buzz surrounding Johansson being the first actress to be nominated for an Oscar for voice-only work isn’t that unwarranted.  Her take on Samantha is grounded, curious, playful, and understanding…never resorting to breathy cooing or attempts at seduction…as a computer program, she’s not designed for that…so the eventual feelings she starts to develop for Phoenix are lovely and genuine.

Phoenix too grapples with the knowledge that he’s falling for his operating system.  Knowing that she’ll never be a real person and recognizing that she may be the best thing to ever happen to him he walks a fine line between a fantasy that can never be and the reality of his burgeoning love for her.  It’s a high-wire relationship that Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson handle with the greatest of care.

Aside from Phoenix, the rest of the cast is filled out primarily with females.  Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) plays Phoenix’s ex-wife and their frigid lunch meeting counters nicely with Phoenix’s flashback memories of their loving earlier life together.  Popping up in a brief cameo is Wilde (Rush) as a first date for Phoenix that goes south pretty quickly…I’ll say it again that Hollywood hasn’t yet found the right way to use Wilde.  Though she has less than a quarter of the screen time than she does in American Hustle, Amy Adams has a much greater impact here as a residential acquaintance and former flame of Phoenix that understands his current situation more than he/we think.

Make no mistake, though, that the movie belongs to Phoenix and Johansson.  After a while, I forgot that Samantha was just a voice and we never actually “see” her in the film.  The way that Jonze has filmed the movie and the way that Phoenix and Johansson run with the material make for a classic romance with its peaks and valleys of joy and heartache.

Her easily made my list for Best of 2013.  In a future world perhaps years away from our own when it’s hard to make a live connection with someone, Phoenix finds a love that can never be returned but finds himself thrilled and reenergized.  You’ll thrill right along with him.

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