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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.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: King Kong (1933)

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October is here and its time to open up the vault once again. The Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon is back to give you more chills, thrills and oddball titles for the Halloween season. All October, you will get 31 posts for the next 31 days on some personal recommendations or some that deserve a good tearing. Some you wouldn’t guess would fit in with the Halloween season. And others that seriously may need a re-write. Consider this a “Personal Movie Gudie” for the Halloween season and feel free to agree, disagree or marvel at what I got in store. Instead of focusing on a theme, each day will be a special surprise. It could be a movie from the 1930s or a modern piece of trash. As with tradition, the last day of October will be specially reserved for a movie that I feel is underrated and deserves a watch on the spooky season. For now, let’s start off with the king of the monsters … or at least he is a king where he comes from.

If Universal Studios started the monster craze, this one perfected it!

If Universal Studios started the monster craze, this one perfected it!

Its hard to think of a world when King Kong wouldn’t exist. Many can argue It was the turn of the horror genre or the first blockbuster. But I feel it was the movie that perfected the horror genre. You had a monster, a damsel that was adored, everyday heroes and a tragic end. All the beats of a horror movie but done with flare. Its no wonder some tend to use this for the Halloween season and I can see why.

Robert Armstrong gives a great performance as Carl Denham, an eccentric Hollywood director that is all about action and adventure. His next film is to take place on an unknown island but is forced to add romance under studio pressure. The minute we get introduced to Carl, we love him. He can be egotistical but persuasive. A little melodramatic but very street smart. He’s not a villain and far from the kind of person that is in it for the money. He makes films for viewers to enjoy as opposed to profit from and that is the heart of the character.

Carl Denham directs Ann Darrow (Lance Armstrong and Fay Wray) in this classic scene

Carl Denham directs Ann Darrow (Lance Armstrong and Fay Wray) in this classic scene

Apparently, this new movie he’s working on needs a lead and manages to convince a shy Ann Darrow (ultimate scream queen Fay Wray) to join on the venture of a lifetime. Ann maybe the damsel but at least we sympathize with her. I feel with many of the remakes that we get, they always try to add more personality to her character and that’s fine. I do feel the Ann character can be a weak element of the story but Fay’s performance adds a lot of charm. One must remember this is the 1930s and before a time when creating strong female characters were the norm. I admit, I do feel a bit bothered that Ann doesn’t stand up to Kong or do more than just scream. But we spend so much time with her, prior to meeting the giant ape, that we still don’t want to see harm come to her.

Fay and Bruce Cabot make for the perfect odd couple

Fay and Bruce Cabot make for the perfect odd couple

Aboard the ship is Cpt. Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) who is the romantic lead. Of course, we do get that whole thing where he doesn’t want anything to do with Ann but later warms up to her. Its funny how the director of King Kong, Merian C. Cooper, added a romance subplot to this film after a string of successful jungle trek films. Supposedly, this was done to please the executives at RKO Pictures to do something different other than a jungle adventure film, which were still all the rave at the time. The chemistry between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot would be a staple for future odd couple romances. They would at first have nothing in common, then start to see a connection and then one would try to fight for the other. That usual schlock would continue on in films to this day. I would argue to say this is a chick flick in disguise but that would be taking it too far.

Once we get to the island, things really kick up. We get treated to a group of natives that worship a strange god named Kong, which let’s be honest look a tad silly by today’s standards. Once they notice the beauty of Ann, they use her as a

Beauty meets the Beast!

Beauty meets the Beast!

sacrifice for Kong and sure enough, we find out that their god is really a giant ape. But like with most monster movies, the creature takes a liking to the beauty yet the beauty would rather run away than spend a life with the beast. Again, these are cliches and tropes we would see in later films but King Kong was there first. We sympathize with Kong because we know how rocky the chemistry is even if the ape doesn’t see it. Its almost like how a kid would play with a doll and if that doll came to life. Would the kid appreciate how he has something to cherish and would that toy bring back that appreciation? The bigger tragedy here is how cold the relationship is. Again, in later remakes, they would adjust this to give more heart and something for Ann and Kong to connect with. Honestly, I feel the way things play out is more interesting and adds a sad layer to Kong’s character. Past the fur is a lonely creature who wants companionship even when he doesn’t get the love he wants in return.

Also interesting is the special effects which are performed in stop-motion animation courtesy of Willis O’Brien. You can tell there is a lot of care and craft in trying to make you believe Ann Darrow is in Kong’s hands or that she is in the middle of a fight between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus rex. The island gives way to showcase a huge cornucopia of  effects work as sailors try to fight off dinosaurs and Kong struggles to get through the jungle just to make it to his home. For 1933, this was ground-breaking. Today, we know the tricks of the trade but we don’t care. The execution makes it all the more believable. As actors look on in horror, we are convinced of the horror they view as well.

Kong on Broadway!

Kong on Broadway!

In a nutshell, this is a movie driven by emotion and special effects. The biggest highlight of course is the ending when Kong is taken to New York so he can be on display and goes on a rampage through the city. There is a wide range of shots and tricks to convince us that Kong is on Broadway or trying to fight biplanes on the Empire State Building. Even a giant head and arm had to be made for some scenes and close-ups to convince us that huge monkey is in front of us. Despite the simplicity, we can’t up but admire just how much effort is being tossed in to convince us something is real and on the screen. Even the musical score by Max Steiner complements this. Back then, having a musical score throughout a movie was new at the time and even to this day feels powerful and matches the movie perfect. It knows when to raise the tension of a scene like Kong tossing sailors off a log and when to be quiet and have us enjoy a dinosaur fight or raise the drama during Kong’s last stand. With the elements of sight and sound in play, it keeps us engaged.

And to be honest, its no wonder to see how big of an impact this movie left its viewers. For 1933, this was something new and exciting. Odd how an idea like this didn’t sit well with RKO executives until they saw how well it did at the box-office. Nobody knew Kong would have such a huge impact even during a time of Great Depression. It was something that would go down as pure American history and last through the ages.

One of the many "offending" scenes where Kong tears off bits of Ann's dress and tickles her. Trust me, its not as bad as you think its. Eventually this and many others would be restored to the film later on

One of the many “offending” scenes where Kong tears off bits of Ann’s dress and tickles her. Trust me, its not as bad as you think its. Eventually this and many others would be restored to the film later on

Not even censorship from the MPPC could stop its legacy. Yeah, there was a time when King Kong had to be heavily edited for stuff deemed inappropriate. Much of the “offending” scenes consisted of the Brontosaurus attack, Kong eating people or squishing them with his foot, a sequence where Kong rips off some of Ann’s dress and tickles her (yes, you read that right) and a chilling scene where Kong thinks he sees a lady that looks like Ann but then rejects her by means of dropping her from the building he was clinging on to. Thankfully, the missing scenes where found sometime in the 1960s and restored. But do the age of the censored cuts, one would view this material from a very grainy and scratched quality. Luckily, a print was found in Britain with no cuts made and was used for the 2005 DVD release (which I might add was the first release of the movie on DVD!).

A still from the iconic lost "Spider Pit Sequence"

A still from the iconic lost “Spider Pit Sequence”

And of course, I should talk about the infamous deleted scene that also made the movie famous. Apparently, there was supposed to be a sequence where the sailors would go against a horde of giant insects and monsters. Dubbed “The Spider Pit Sequence,” there has been much debate as to if this cut scene still exists. Rumor has it, that the reason for its removal was after a preview screening where viewers were horrified over after seeing actors getting munched on by giant stop-motion bugs. However, evidence was later discovered that it might have been cut before any preview screening under Merian C. Cooper’s direction, who felt the scene slowed the movie down despite being hailed as O’Brien’s best work. Stills and concept art have surfaced but fans might want to check out a special documentary on the Kong DVD that involves a recreation of the scene crafted by Peter Jackson. Not only is it worth it to see their hard effort pay off but how it was created. Seeing him and the gang make monsters and film stuff the “old fashioned” is a nice treat to watch and gives an idea of how the movie’s special effects were achieved.

"Twas beauty who killed the beast..."

“Twas beauty who killed the beast…”

I am also aware of the many films and remakes that were spawned from it. I would do a whole retrospective if I could about those films ranging form remakes to pitting Kong against Godzilla, but I feel there is not much a purpose. De Laurentiis’ version from 1976 isn’t too bad but a couple of elements null it from being considered a pure classic. Peter Jackson’s take in 2005 feels more like a tribute which had some good stuff despite the unfortunate 3 hour length that nearly kills it. And with more Kong movies planned down the road, only time can tell how well those movies will do for the king. Will they pay a perfect homage to monster lover’s favorite ape or cause disgruntled furry? At this point, we should be reminded of the lasting impact this movie gave us. I’m positive those who are in the movie industry can cite King Kong as an excuse for its innovative special effects, engaging story and unforgettable characters. For in the end, beauty may have killed him but Kong lives on thanks to the public and its fans.