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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.

“Warcraft” lacks heart despite great visuals

warcraft-movie-poster-full_987.0.0Every summer has that one movie which tries so hard to be the next big ticket. Yet it fails to deliver regardless of its good intentions. In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Warcraft” ends up with “Waterworld,” “Krull” and “Dune” for having great eye-candy yet short on story. There is great promise with a good director like Duncan Jones and the effects have certainly evolved to bring this RPG world to life. The creatures look amazing and the world itself is a visual marvel. The only ingredient missing here is substance and a reason to care for our main leads.

Two major problems really hamper with the overall enjoyment. The first being the story. In a grand fantasy epic, there should be room for all sorts of subplots and concepts which this movie injects. A group of orcs travel from their world by a dimension and enter a realm that is a Diet Coke version of Middle-Earth. Instead of settling in, the new neighbors decide to rampage and pillage as I guess war is part of the orc code.

Then again, battling kingdoms was part of the video game its based from, so I can’t be too negative on that. But what bothers me is the multitude of story lines and things that come from this. One minute, a king is trying to investigate these invaders, then we get an orc chief who is questioning the traditions of his tribe, then we get a hybrid orc who is trying to find a place to belong, a young sorcerer who comes across a conspiracy, an elder sorcerer who is trying to help out and so forth. The movie alone is just a mere 2 hours and already, it packs too much. I would be fine with the abundance of plot lines, but nothing seems to come together or pay off. Things do in the climatic battle, but it has a rushed delivery just so it can set itself up for a franchise it hopes to happen.

3067953-img4And that brings me to the second problem, this movie doesn’t have a way to portray its characters well. I can tell you, I barley remember a single motive from the human characters that made them interesting. There a lose motive going about which doesn’t seem to bring anything close at hand. The only element that is creating the story is the orc’s plan to merge the rest of their army from their doomed home world.  And sadly, that’s about it. There is nothing compelling or even remotely interesting because we never dive into how the characters feel about what’s going on.

In “Lord of the Rings,” everything was banking on this one device to bring damage to the world. And while the hobbits took their journey, time was given to help you understand these heroes and how they are associated with each other. I feel at times “Warcraft” is holding itself back to avoid dragging the story out when there is little there. As one who never played the video game, I want to know more about the orc customs and the way the world works. But the execution feels like only fans of the game will get it while leaving newcomers confused. In fact, there’s all these dwarfs and elves running about in the world, so why don’t they do more than just stand there?

Regardless of its faults, there is some good to behold here. The motion capture effects on the orcs are outstanding to look at. I was worried it would look too “cartoony” but seeing them on the big screen really helps. You can see skin texture and the jagged details on the teeth. And for a CGI heavy movie, the sets and battle scenes are nice to watch. Truly its a case were the visuals certainly overpower the story here.

warcraft-movie6-1200x675One or two characters do get a chance to shine. I liked how the orc chief Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is caught between honoring tradition or knowing when things are right and wrong. And Paula Patton as a human/orc hybrid named Garona is also interesting to watch as she tries to figure what side to be on. These two characters worked because you felt there was an arc going on. With the impending war at hand, these two start to question not just their ethics but also what place they belong in. These two really make the movie work for me.

As far as everything else goes, “Warcraft” seems to cram too much into itself. From learning the nature and world of the game to what kind of plot we are dealing with, this is the kind of movie where it enters this world and lets things loose. Perhaps I would have been a tad more kinder if the plot was more simple and our leads had more care and development. The only way I see this working is if the running time was longer and certain elements were given more explanation to new viewers. While I’m glad I saw this one, I’m still disappointed to see how far it falls short of being a great summer blockbuster. I only see myself recommending “Warcraft” if your a fan of the video games or one who likes fantasy movies that are more on eye-candy and less on story. There’s a lot of stuff I did enjoy and certainly this is not one of the worst. But sadly, its another video game adaptation that makes you want to play a character in the world than rather sit down and watch it.