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 Divergent Series: Allegiant

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the earth-shattering revelations of Insurgent, Tris must escape with Four beyond the wall that encircles Chicago to finally discover the shocking truth of what lies behind it.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Jeff Daniels, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Keiynan Lonsdale, Jonny Weston, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim, Nadia Hilker, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Robert Schwentke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When Divergent was released in 2014, the hope was that it would be Summit Entertainment’s answer to The Hunger Games gauntlet thrown down by Lionsgate, a rival studio.  It wasn’t.  Actually, Divergent was so airless that when its sequel (Insurgent) rolled out a year later I didn’t even bother to see it.  What’s the point of continuing on with a series if the audience doesn’t really care about characters played by actors that don’t seem to care themselves about anything more than their paychecks and the perks of an international press tour.

In preparing for Allegiant, I went back and re-watched Divergent to see if my original feelings held up.  Boy, did they ever.  I still find Divergent to be a major bore, peppered with blank performances, spotty special effects, and a plot so convolutedly serpentine that it winds up feeling like it’s being made up on the fly and not adapted from the first in a series of bestsellers by Veronica Roth.  I continue to have a major problem with the violence towards women, grimacing each time the film finds our heroine getting beaten about the head and face by a male peer.

Since I’m never one to skimp on my homework, I gave Insurgent an overdue spin and to my surprise found it more than marginally better than its predecessor.  It’s still hopelessly devoid of point and general interest but with a new director (Robert Schwentke) and better special effects, the overall feeling of the series as a whole was that it was finding its footing (though I don’t feel like a series should ever need to take an entire first chapter to work out the kinks).

So going into Allegiant I was ready to see it improve upon the previous entry.  With the same director returning along with its cast made up of representatives of young Hollywood supported by several Oscar nominated/winning veterans there was surely hope to be had.

Wrong.  So very wrong.

First off is that Allegiant continues the unfortunate trend of studios with dollar-signs in their eyes and opting to split the final installment into two movies.  It worked for Harry Potter, it kinda worked for Twilight, and it definitely worked for The Hunger Games…but Allegiant is not destined to be put into any marginally successfully category because it’s actually the worst entry yet.  Instead of besting Insurgent, it falls far behind Divergent thanks to uninspired performances, downright lousy special effects, and the cold hard truth that the whole series is not about anything.

If you haven’t seen Insurgent yet, you best stop reading now because it’s impossible to discuss this one without letting a few spoilers slide by.

Jeanine is dead.  And Kate Winslet must have been so happy she wasn’t contractually obligated (like Ashley Judd seems to be) to appear in installments after her character was shot down by Evelyn (Naomi Watts, The Impossible, acting like her life depended on it in a brunette wig).  The message received at the end of Insurgent suggests that outside the wall that surrounds Chicago is a population waiting for the divergents to appear.  With the faction system breaking down and naysayers unlawfully executed, it’s more important than ever to scale the massive wall and hope that what’s outside is better than what’s inside.

When her brother (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) is lined up to be next on the chopping block, Tris (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) and Four (Theo James) escape with him and their friends (Zoe Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, and Maggie Q), literally walking up the wall through an electrified fence.  Before going over the wall, the screenwriters trim the escapees by one in a most unceremonious fashion…losing one of the more interesting characters is a bummer for us but good for them because they’re spared from what happens next.

Outside the wall is a wasteland, a fleshy red landscape irrigated by a red rain.  Why?  The film never says…probably because it just looks good and goes with the costume design. Salvation comes when the group is rescued and brought to what used to be Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, though it’s been redesigned to look like the first pass of architectural model by a grade school student with no eye for functionality.  Ruled by David (Jeff Daniels, The Martian, with sad eyes that tells us he can see his career fading) who’s focused on separating the “pure” from the “damaged”, a divide arises between Tris and her friends that will call into question their, um, allegiance.

To say more would be giving the wafer thin plot more time than it deserves.  It’s just a bridge between Insurgent and 2017’s Ascendant so really what’s the point of catching this one in the theaters?  It’s a waste of time and everyone onboard seems to know it.  Schwentke is coasting in his director’s chair…so much so that he decided to jump ship and not come back to finish the series.  The special effects look like they were from a computer game you’d play between commercial breaks of a new episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the acting is absolutely dreadful.

Woodley has been someone I’ve kept an eye on for a while now but instead of getting more acclimated to her heroine role, she seems more uncomfortable than ever.  A solid dramatic actress she may be but an action star she’s not and never will be.  With her huge saucer eyes and dirty blond bob, she doesn’t even look the part.  James fares better as her love interest and brawn of the group, but the two have precious chemistry to suggest that we should care whether they wind up together or not.  Watts, Daniels, and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) feign attentiveness while Teller hams it up with one-liners that rarely drew much of a reaction from the nearly 500 audience members I saw this with.  And I can’t even go there with the dreadful extras that have been assembled.  All of them look like they’ve been recruited from a pep rally in a juvenile detention center.

As I was leaving the theater I was walking behind a major fan of the series that was shaking her head and exclaiming that the filmmakers totally ruined the series with this one…so you don’t just have to take my non-fan word for it that Allegiant is a lousy waste of space.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Megan Gale, Nicholas Hoult, John Howard, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Richard Carter, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Jennifer Hagan, iOTA , Angus Sampson, Joy Smithers, Gillian Jones, Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic

Director: George Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Forgive me, but it’s been three days since I caught Mad Max: Fury Road and I’m still a bit speechless but this giant juggernaut of a film.  It’s been 30 years since the last time Max Rockatansky raced across movie screens in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and a full 36 years since the character was introduced in George Miller’s cult favorite Mad Max (the sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior arrived in 1981).  Though Miller had tried to get a fourth entry off the ground with Mel Gibson in early 2003, an agreement over budget and filming couldn’t be reached and the idea was scrapped.  Interest was again stirred around 2012 and that brings us to the awesome power of Mad Max: Fury Road.

The 70 year old Miller has spent the time between Max movies directing an impressive variety of films from The Witches of Eastwick to Babe to Happy Feet…but more than a little Mad Max-ness was still kicking around for the director and it’s a joy to see what he’s produced here with a new star and a sky high budget that thankfully isn’t all tossed away on CGI effects.  What Miller does is nothing short of a modern miracle of cinema and one that positively shouldn’t have worked as well as it has.

What you have here is really a two hour long car chase film with only the occasional rest stop to relieve the tension.  Giving the middle finger to the traditional film structure, it’s clever and full throttle entertainment, not for the faint of heart or hearing.  Miller assumes you’re well versed in the Mad Max universe (and if you aren’t, what’s wrong with you?) and doesn’t waste a millisecond getting you acclimated to the current state of affairs.  From frame one you’re thrust back into the apocalyptic wasteland (the Namib Desert in Africa, standing in for the Outback which was too wet for filming) where Max (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises) calls home.  Captured by a gang of marauders and imprisoned as a human blood bag for sickly warriors, the future doesn’t look very good for our hero of few words.

Enter Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman, sporting a shaved head and bionic arm) a trusted disciple of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain Toecutter from Mad Max) the ruler of the appropriately named Wasteland.  Immortan Joe is an evil dictator who enslaves women either to produce milk for his War Boys or breed new children to add to his royal family.  When Furiosa makes off with Immortan Joe’s prized Five Wives, a race ensues that puts several bands of very bad men on the hunt for Furiosa and her booty of women, water, and gasoline.

If we’re being honest, this is really Furiosa’s movie with Max along for the ride.  How he gets involved with Furiosa and her cargo is best left for you to find out but Miller has correctly given Max an equal that seeks the same justice he does.  I find it interesting that Mad Max: Fury Road has come under fire from men (of all people) that are upset a woman leads the way…claiming they were duped into thinking this was a “man’s movie”.  If you’ve seen any Mad Max film to date, you’d know that Max has always been a character that aids the disenfranchised and, somewhat begrudgingly, comes to their aid.

What sets Mad Max: Fury Road apart is that Furiosa largely doesn’t need Max’s help to get the job done.  Yes, he’s there to help her on multiple occasions but she’s got things under control, no doubt.  The fun of the film is watching Hardy and Theron lock horns, band together, and wreak havoc on all that get in their way.

Good support is offered from a bevy of interesting actors that pop up throughout the film.  Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is whacked out as an amped up War Boy hot on the heels of Max and Furiosa that could become their greatest ally.   Zoe Kravitz (Divergent), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Riley Keough (Magic Mike), are three of the Five Wives that prove their value as Furiosa’s tanker clanks and clashes around canyons and sandstorms, trying to avoid the grasp of Immortan Joe and his crew that are accompanied, hysterically, by a convoy including six timpani banging War Boys and a mutant guitarist with an electric guitar that shoots fire.

It could be said that Miller doesn’t know when to quit and that’s a very, very good thing.  From the opening titles to the totally insane action sequences, there’s not a moment that doesn’t feel in motion and the effect is often so overwhelming you feel the need to close your eyes to get your bearings.  Then you remember that if you close your eyes you may miss something…and you solider through it.

For fans of the Mad Max films, there are nice touches here and there that reference the previous three films.  Nothing too apparent or instantly obvious, but trinkets there to reward those that have stuck with Miller and his gang over the years.  Each Mad Max film has been a standalone story and with Tom Hardy signing on for at least three more Max films you can bet that once Miller has had a chance to catch his breath, he’ll hit the ground running with another escapade for his legendary hero.  The bar has been set so very very high with Mad Max: Fury Road…but Miller knows how to surprise us.

Mad Max: Fury Road puts all other summer blockbusters to shame.  It’s gorgeously shot, ferociously edited (culled from a staggering 480 hours of footage), and thrillingly produced with an insane level of detail in the costume and make-up design.  A second viewing is almost required to catch all of the inventive design Miller and his crew have worked up.  Not to be missed…and if I were you I’d plan on seeing it twice.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mad Max: Fury Road (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life

Release Date: May 15, 2015

Thoughts: So many trailers commit the cardinal sin of not being interesting enough to ensnare audiences into returning to see the final product…and then there are trailers like Mad Max: Fury Road. Like the first preview released in July, it’s clear that this will be one highly original futuristic film that takes no prisoners with its over the top theatricality. Providing more excitement and jaw-dropping moments in 2:30 than most films can muster at their feature length best, it’s a glorious reminder that movies can transport you to another world and thrill you with innovation. In short, Mad Max: Fury Road looks to be one bad ass sock-knocker-offer.   Directed by George Miller (who also helmed the original three Mad Max films) and starring Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Charlize Theron (Prometheus), and Nicolas Hoult (Jack the Giant Slayer), I can’t wait to hit the road with this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

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Synopsis: An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and most everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life.

Release Date: May 15, 2015

Thoughts: It’s been 30 years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and it feels like this follow-up/reboot has been filming for nearly the same amount of time.  It always amazes me the gestation period for certain blockbuster movies and Mad Max: Fury Road has been in utero long past its intended release way back in 2009.  With returning director George Miller and a new Max (Tom Hardy, This Means War), this first look at the action adventure set for release in May 2015 looks heavy on sand, style, violence, and atmosphere…all keeping in line with the series Miller started in 1979.  Add the always intriguing Charlize Theron (A Million Ways to Die in the West) to the mix and Warner Brothers already has a furious head start on laying claim to the summer of 2015.