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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: Hocus Pocus

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95d7bb7e8815898cdc893c0d72e7856b547682d6With Halloween upon us (or was by the time I wrote this), I pondered just what was it that made Hocus Pocus so popular these days. It was a movie Disney made in 1993, released in the summer (weird choice) and while it did ok at the box office, the film never made a huge splash like in the $100 millions. But now in days, this movie is like a virus on the Halloween season. Hear me out, people at my retail job talk about the film and how it airs to the equivalency of popular water bubble conversations. It gets a huge respect and love at Witch’s Woods, my other Halloween job, with even getting played at one of the haunts. And when I went to look for a copy at my local video store, there was only one Blu-Ray of it left on the shelf. That’s how huge the respect this movie gets around this time of year. So rather than review it, just what about Hocus Pocus does everyone go rapid and joyful for?

Is it the story? Well, not really but granted it does have an interesting concept. A group of witches called the Sanderson Sisters (get it? Sounds like Anderson Sisters?) are put on trail for their crimes in old Salem. They plan to say young and youthful but sucking out the souls of little children to ensure they will live forever. After their hanging, 300 years later, a kid named Max blindly lights a magic candle in their abandoned home causing them to come back and bring chaos. A typical good vs. evil story mixed with some fish out of water elements.

As the witches try to make sense of the new world, being 1993 in the movie’s case, they find Halloween is nothing but a holiday now with trick-or-treaters and technology has been updated. Does this get used to the advantage of the movie? Not fully. There are a couple of fun scenes where they interact with televisions, try to mingle at a Halloween party complete with a song and ride around on mops and vacuum cleaners. But that’s sort of about it. In a sense, I can see this working. The idea of witches resurrected and trying to fit in with modern times but it feels underplayed most of the time.

hocus-pocus-kidsThe more important thing is how Max takes their magic spell book (which by Disney’s standards is nicely designed and very Evil Dead-lite) which has a certain recipe for their soul sucking potion. While the three bewitching sisters try to hunt them down, Max has to relay on his typical sister, a would be girlfriend and a talking cat who is really a teenager cursed to help stop them. So yeah, for a 90 minute movie there is a lot going on here. In fact, there is so much plot going on that one wonders how things don’t get too complex. I can’t say its too hard to follow seeing the fish out of water elements feel like a break from the story but again, its a basic good vs. evil ploy that has been used since Disney’s time.

If that’s the case, do the characters make the movie so well-known? Again, not exactly. The main characters are sort of your run of the mill tropes and cliches. You have the awkward teen that gets bullied, the girl that will become the love interest, the sibling that is between annoying yet has a good heart, the goofy parents, the townsfolk that are deaf to their warnings and the bullies that act like they are hip and cool when they are not. Its very much a big bag of cliches that we have seen before and are written like beings we would see on a TV movie. Which is ironic seeing this movie was originally going to be a Disney Channel Original until executives thought other-wise.

Hocus-Pocus_20Things_9There’s also that talking cat named Binx who has an interesting back-story (voiced by James Marsden, human body performed by Sean Murray) and knows much of the Sandersons. But that’s sort of about it. There is also the question of times when he can talk and times he can’t. If Binx can speak English so well, what is he doing roaming about the old witch house? And if these kids are in trouble, wouldn’t it be more interesting to help convince others of what’s going on? If there was a deleted scene that explained that plot hole, I would be fine but there isn’t. He could have been a more helpful ally but just only resorts his duties to the main characters. We also get a zombie that tries to be the lackey of the Sandersons and has this funny running gag of loosing his head. But again, there’s not much to his character outside of comic relief. And that sort of sums up a good bulk of the main things. There’s not really that big or unique to them. While not bad concepts or ideas for that matter, they don’t feel fully developed.

Another thing I will address before I move on is that some people feel bugged by the whole “virgin” element. If you don’t know, the plot of the curse involves a virgin to set off these chain of events to happen. And Max just so happens to be that said “virgin” who is picked on and doesn’t fit in with the New England town. To be honest, I really wasn’t bugged this. If they flat-out bullied him because he didn’t have sex, then there would be some problems. But for the first half, most of that bullying is just toward him not fitting in and stuff like that. I can barley think of a scene where his character is made fun of just for his virginity aside from maybe one scene and the closing line. But its very underplayed.

hocus-pocus-then-nowSo if this movie isn’t really that big of masterpiece then why does it keep drawing new viewers? One answer: The Sanderson Sisters. These are probably one of Disney’s best villains to date. They have have the most fun and the actress portraying them have a lot of scene-stealing moments that really add on. True they are masked by basic quirks like Bette Midler being the annoyed leader Winnie, Kathy Najimy as the child-hungry but very bumbling Mary and Sarah Jessica Parker as the sultry and boy-crazy Sarah. Every moment they are in the movie, you can tell these three are having the time of their life. I love the way their get their eyes widen and just how expressive they can be. Even when they are given little to work with or play off of, they really try.

In fact, I wonder what it would be like if Hocus Pocus was just about them? In a time when self-centered villain movies are being the talk of the town, I would actually like to see maybe a sequel or even a reboot that just focuses on them only. It would be kind of fun to see a bunch of Shakespearean characters try to live in modern times. Heck, there’s even a stage show about them that recently opened up at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Obviously, they are the strongest element in the movie and if you took that out, Hocus Pocus would have been this basic and simple film.

So with that, your probably wondering how I feel about Hocus Pocus overall and where do I stand with it. For starters, I did grow up watching this movie as a kid and enjoying it. But not for the plot or the characters, just for the witches themselves. I can’t really say if that is a good thing or a bad thing but a part of me does feel this movie holds up in some way. Granted, its not a perfect movie by any means or really a masterpiece like say the Wizard of Oz but there is sort of a way I can describe why it got so popular over the years. Because its the one movie that dips itself into holiday tradition more than any other Halloween movie. Of course, movies today like Trick R Treat are starting to catch on (which arguably is a better movie) but there is one big reason why THIS movie is getting more attention to what its doing.

A good example of this kind of movie is A Christmas Story. For those who don’t know, the movie was released and didn’t make a big impact. But over the years, everyone keeps talking about it and watching it like its some kind of Christmas classic. It honors the Christmas traditions we went through as a kid and exploits them in some form of an adult twist. While Hocus Pocus doesn’t do that entirely, it does honor some Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating, urban legends, witchcraft and even discusses darker elements of the holiday that few Halloween family films would even tackle.

So for what it is, I do enjoy Hocus Pocus. Not for the story and not for the characters but what for it does to the holiday. Granted, it could have been a stronger movie if it was placed in different hands but I can’t think of anything too bad or ethically unclean. I know this movie already has a strong fan base and still growing one. But I do warn for newcomers to watch with low expectations. I know there are a good handful of people that don’t find much joy for the story, characters and few things here and there which is understandable. As for me, I don’t mind defending this one even if it is flawed. The witches are fun, the special effects surprisingly still look amazing and its one bewitching flick I always look forward to around this time of year.

We are not done yet! All week long, we are catching up on more horror goodness for that bag of leftover candy you got. Stay tuned creeps!

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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puella_magi_madoka_magica_the_movie_part_i_the_beginning_story_xlgWell, I promised I would review more anime this year and I’m trying to live up to it. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an interesting one to talk about because you don’t know what to expect going into it. Most Japanese folklore would be filled with all sorts of spiritual talk of other worlds, monsters and witches so choosing this one is appropriate for the season. In a nutshell, it’s a modern fairy tale but with a darker brush stroke. The premise alone sounds really “out there” on paper but when watching it, you’ll find this one to be a rather unique experience.

A group of girls come across a strange creature that claims to grant a wish in exchange for becoming a magical girl. And because of this new power, they have no choice but to send forth and fight off bizarre witches. And from that, it’s all you really need to give you an idea of what to expect. I do hope I won’t confuse my readers but from what I understand a magical girl uses powers for good while witches are the polar opposite. A basic concept that doesn’t get confusing but the story built around gets more complex as it goes along which is good and holds your interest.

The main character is Madoka, a typical girl that is good nature and such. But what keeps her character from being generic is the dilemma she gets. Without spoiling too much, Madoka has this choice to become one of the powerful girls but keeps putting it off or is interrupted. The pressure gets more to her when some of her friends make that choice but later see its consequences. Knowing that she is normal, we see this constant struggle for making such an ethic choice and wonder how it will turn out.

Madoka is tempted by a strange creature named Kyubey to make a wish in exchange to be a magical girl. Can you say Devil's Advocate?

Madoka is tempted by a strange creature named Kyubey to make a wish in exchange to be a magical girl. Can you say Devil’s Advocate?

As stated, there are consequences to choosing this path of fighting against witches as her friend Sayaka is a good example. She uses her wish to help out a young violinist which leads to some heavy tragedy. Without giving too much away, you sort of expect what will happen but thanks to the old phrase “be careful what you wish for,” the consequence of becoming a magical girl adds another level of tension. Even when you do make a good wish, we know it will backfire in some form. Some of this was in Disney’s Aladdin where our hero wished to be a prince but later realized the idea of being something he isn’t is a punishment toward his actions. But in that movie, the dangling consequence toward it never felt impending that much. Here, we know there is a risk and curious to see how it plays out.

But amidst the darkness, there are some fun characters and good humor. Another magical girl named Kyoko has sort of this Han Solo personality going on that leads to some humorous reactions with the other characters. I find it interesting she tries to have this cool personality and comes off as show off-ish but in a funny way. I strange character trait I found was how she keeps eating in every scene she is in. Unless I missed something, I just find that rather odd but again comedic. Normally a character like this would be smoking cigars or drinking. But here, its candy and apples that she holds in her hands.

One of the magical girls going up against a witch made of candy...trust me, its more scary than it sounds

One of the magical girls going up against a witch made of candy…trust me, its more scary than it sounds

The witches themselves are interesting too. They don’t speak or have much personality but depicted as twisted childhood nightmares coming to life. Even interesting is the style of animation they use to depict these creatures. Normal humans in the world of Madoka look like updated Sailor Moon characters while the monsters have this other type of animation design that gives a more other worldly feel. From monsters made of candy to strange mermaids, it makes the scenes with the witches more frightening and unique to watch.

Now, I could go deeper into the rules of being a magical girl and the remainder of the story but I feel its best you check it out for yourself without me ruining it. However, there are some drawbacks. First off, sensitive viewers might want to watch with caution or at least with a friend. There are some running themes here that are too dark or might upset them. There are some really clever twists and turns here but I fear it might disturb them a little. Keep in mind, this is meant to be a dark fairy tale that doesn’t hold back. Wolf Children is a great example knowing how to balance between light and darkness. Here, its the opposite. We think we are going into a charming world but find it to be paved with black bricks.

Second, this is actually a series but thankfully it was made into two movies. There is a third one that is more of an original story but the first two is really the entire show edited down a bit. I saw the movies instead and from what I read up, they do some animation enhancements that at least give fans a chance to see the movies in a different light. Part I is dubbed Beginnings while Part II is titled Eternal. I’m sure you can find them in DVD stores but as of this blog post, they are on Netflix. And because these two are connected, Part I does end on a cliffhanger. Both movies together clock in around a little over three hours so be prepared for such a binge. The only thing left to say is expect the unexpected because you in for a wild yet powerful ride with this one. Highly recommended, ’nuff said.