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“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.

Rental Corner: “Theory of Everything” heartbreaking as every bit fascintating

TTOE_D04_01827.NEFEddie Redmayne must had a hard time trying to perform Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” This is not an easy role to take on but somehow he makes to translate the story of a brilliant mind that kept moving forward to an interesting feature in the pursuit of ideas and trying to live. Most biopics of today tend to be romanticized, over-bloated and go as far to change facts just to “spice” things up. The problem today is that no biopic is perfect and will had its detractors. “Hitchcock” and “An Adventure in Time and Space” are a good examples because they are presented more as a  tribute while showing real life events. But then you have those like “Buddy” or “Jobs” that will change events for the sake of creativity liberties in making a story creating an uneven narrative that doesn’t know what it wants to say. “Theory of Everything” is more than that.

Eddie’s performance is rather surprising showing Stephen’s college life early on before the effect of his motor neuron disease. It gives us a chance to see his time before the disease overtook his body and shows how brilliant he was. I can only imagine how hard it was to sell viewers the idea of a person with damaged functionality. Once he starts to loose control of his limbs, it gets hard watching Stephen convey his theory of black holes and time while he deals with his weakening body.

For me, this was the center of the movie. When Eddie Redmayne acted like his body was deteriorating bit by bit, I was convinced. This is a man whose knowledge is expansive yet resourceful which only makes you wonder how could he be confined to a wheelchair. The fact he kept his theories and expanding on them while still moving through life makes for a good motion picture about self-confidence and living with your flaws. The special effect is the actor as he has to convince us he is in a weak state and as the movie went on, I too felt bad for everything Hawking went through as much as the real one.

But I can’t say “Theory” is completely perfect. A subplot with Felicity Jones as Hawking’s love interest almost drags the movie down as his condition gets worse to the point she is going camping with a close male friend of hers and worries that his wheelchair bound husband might be cheating. Its the usual biopic stock that is done just to give conflict to the picture. The movie would have been more powerful if it remained on Hawking and his condition and I do admit, it would be interesting to see how his mobility affects his friends around him but this is as close as we get.

Aside from that, “Theory of Everything” works. For every fleeting frame, I felt like I was watching Hawking’s life as he moved on from wheelchair to the next, one mode of communication to an electronic voice box and so forth. The moments that work best are when it focuses on Hawking and his struggles as the condition spreads from his limbs to even his vocals. I kept watching wondering what would happen next and in the end felt satisfied. Its an emotional piece of cinema that’s not overly powerful like “12 Years a Slave” but yet a unique look into one of the most amazing minds that surprisingly exists today.