Monthly Archives: November 2016

“Fantastic Beasts”fun but lacks focus

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Fifteenth years after the first Harry Potter movie, the talents of writer J. K. Rowling and director David Yates (who has directed the fifth movie and so forth) combine once again to bring us back to the secret world of witches and wizards. Surprisingly, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is based on a book. During the Potter craze, two spin off books were published as mock guides to monsters and the sport Quidditch. With that in mind, I felt the choice was perfectly made with “Fantastic Beasts.” The last thing I would need to see is a cliche sports movie with wizards and witches.

Joking aside, Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything) plays a wizard named Newt Scamander who believes that not all mythical creatures are dangerous and can be understood. While on a trip to New York in 1926, he has stowed away in a briefcase tons of creatures that he is studying as well as taking care of. The charm of Newt really comes from Redmayne’s performance. When he’s interacting with CGI monsters, it almost feels like he has a knowledge and sense about them. When it comes to people, the character tries to find a reasoning and middle ground.  Despite the skepticism, he proves that most creatures can be easily reasoned if done right. There’s a sense of calmness to Redmaye’s performance and yet some mystery to his character.

Plopped into the mix is a normal human named Jacob who comes across the wizard’s zoo-like collection. He is perhaps the biggest surprise considering this character is played by Dan Fogler. After an up and down filmography, I’m impressed to say Dan’s performance is enjoyable while also the heart of the picture. What they do with his character is smart and clever. He is used as a means for the audience to connect with. When something strange comes his way, Jacob tries to accept it for what it is instead of running away. This is clear in some great moments when Newt is trying to capture some creatures on the loose and he tries to help. In a strange way, it feels like Dan is trying to channel Chaplin in certain scenes of chase while maintaining charm. I do hope he gets more roles like this.

Also in the mix are Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as two witch sisters that work in an underground ministry named Tina and Queenie. When these two come their way, I like how theses two have a ying and yang feel. Tina  wants to do the way of justice and expose Newt while Queenie feels otherwise. And much like with Jacob, they start to realize that maybe there is more to these creatures than they thought. Both get some great comedic moments when Tina goes after Newt for his “illegal” collection and Queenie who feels more than just a typical flapper girl.

In a nutshell, “Fantastic Beasts” feels like two movies in one. In corner, you have this well-written whimsical movie which echos classics like “Bedknobs and Brooksticks” and has the smart yet engaging wonder of a “Doctor Who” episode. Easily, the best scenes are when characters interact with Newt’s creatures as each one gets established by not just design but even quirks. A good example is one escaped animal that looks like a hybrid between a platypus and a mole yet the mind of a robber. I didn’t find a single one boring and wanted to learn more about these odd things.

Unfortunately, you have this other half which tries to mesh and yet feels like it could be its own movie. Samantha Morton plays this leader of extremists who plan to expose wizards and witches. She runs an orphanage while simultaneously beating in propaganda about the existence of magic and going as far to even abuse one of the orphans for his beliefs. Somewhere in this other subplot is an invisible creature that goes around and makes destruction in King Kong fashion. This is not a bad idea, but it feels sidelined when you compared it to the other tone of the movie which tires to be amazing and light-hearted. We jump back and forth even the point we can tell which story we are in by the cinematography. Story A which is about the creatures on the loose appears more bright and colorful. While Story B about the witch hunters looks bleak, dark and Burton-lite in spots.

Aside from that flaw in story/pacing, “Fantastic Beasts” is guaranteed to the best flick of the holiday season so far. I loved the characters, the premise and even the climax which gets intense but knows how to have fun. According to Rowling, there seems to be 4 more films coming from this one and I’m fine with it. I want to see what else can be done in this universe, but even then I do question a few things left nearly hanging by the end. After over a decade of being on the big screen, this secret world of wizards and witches appears to never be short on supply of creativity and magic.

“Doctor Strange” other-worldly enjoyable

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“Doctor Strange” is a movie that truly lives up to its title. This is a strange entry in the Marvel Universe, but a unique one. Of all the superheroes, he is the only one who can walk through different dimensions and bend reality. With a movie adaptation out, the possibilities seem endless for a character like this. Of course, the usual origins route has to be done in order to understand who this person is. Chances are if you can get through that, you will have a good time.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon with a high ego yet maintains a lot of ambition. This is proven after a car accident renders his hands useless as he tries to find a way to restore them. An incident like this proves just how far his character will go to save his reputation along with his usefulness. His knowledge of medical procedures show his understanding for the human mind physically but doesn’t have a mental grasp.

His journey leads him to a place in Napal where he learns a group of people might know how to cure his injured hands. As it turns out, this is really a coven of sorcerers who protect the world from evil. Sounds basic on paper, but when you get into the belief system and different spells, “Doctor Strange” starts to become more theoretical. Strange, himself, is more equip with knowing the world as he sees it; through scientific measures and practices. The journey into the place of sorcerers give off a belief vs. fact argument as Strange questions if his traditional methods are more powerful than magic.

However, a character named the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) proves the importance of mystical belief over science. Or at least the two can be one in some way. She proves useful in showing her new accomplice how vast the universe is within secret and odd ways. I liked how the calmness of this character really defined her. True, this is the usual master with knowledgeable ways, but an interesting one. The moments that made her stood out was when she argues with Strange’s faith. My only nitpick is they try to put in this twist about how she might be deceiving her followers which felt a tad unnecessary.

I say that because the main conflict of the plot doesn’t seem to have much room for it. A group of rebels, led by Dannish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who plan to unleash a monster from a darker dimension in hopes to take over the world in some way. But even the good vs. evil aspect feels a tad underplayed when we are exploring this new realm and the possibilities of traveling between space and time. Once we get to the zealots and their grand plan, it almost feels like a footnote after scenes of Strange training and learning about the new world along with its powers.

These effect-heavy scenes were more interesting than the villains as it proves the biggest eye-candy of the movie. We get treated to Strange traveling briefly through different dimensions (almost an homage to the vortex of light in Kubrick’s 2001), jumping through self-made portals and exploring more the sorcerer culture. When it was exploring this bizarre world of magic and mind over matter, it got interesting. But when it picked up and got back to the villains, the plot turns into your basic “whose the real bad guy” scenario.

On the bright side, it makes for a good excuse for intense action scenes that even push the limits of “Inception” and “The Matrix.” “Doctor Strange” goes further by having the sets actually move like the twisted gears of a clock or a puzzling Rubix cube. Between the fist fights, whole buildings and roads twist and roll around and it only gets bigger once we draw down to the climax. Unfortunately, if you took away the amazing effects, all that would exist is clunky fight scenes. The added sets that constantly move at least add tension and a dream-like feeling.

“Doctor Strange” is once again another step in the right direction for Marvel. They already proven before that they can do more than just superhero movies. “Strange” shows Marvel can channel any genre into their heroes and fly with it. The only flaws I do have to nitpick, which keep me from saying this is their best, include some odd pacing  and the handle of the material. In the first 20 minutes or so, the tragic backstory goes immediately into the training and the final third immediately launches itself into the typical good vs. evil battle. And I understand newcomers need to understand key terms in this odd world, but even they break the aspect of telling as opposed to showing. Characters keep mentioning about this massive creature which might destroy the world, but makes the mistake of talking instead of giving us an idea of this being’s power. When we do see this god-like creature, there’s not a sense of menace because we didn’t see this thing or action or understand its motive.

I must also tag on that despite the PG-13 rating, this is not a movie I would recommend for younger viewers. I would dare say this is one of Marvel’s darkest movies in violence and tone. From surgical procedures to a beheading seen in shadow, I’m honestly miffed at how this got away without getting an R rating. On the other hand, what we see is not too graphic to upset, but when you have talks of surgery on the spinal cord and scenes with out of body experiences, this might be something not for kids under 9 or 12. Parental guidance is strongly suggested for this entry.

Although, I can look past the flaws and say “Doctor Strange” was a fun ride. Full of imagination and creative fantasy, I once again find myself wondering what else Marvel has up its sleeve. After traveling through space in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the world of the small in “Ant Man,” “Strange” goes beyond the realm and even delivers, what I hope, a possible new franchise. One I even predict will be bigger since “Iron Man” made its debut. If not, at least it was a good start to the holiday season.