Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

J.K. Rowling plays up the whimsy over the darkness in her first of five Harry Potter spinoffs.

fantasticbeastsposterYou may have forgotten how whimsical the original Harry Potter book and film once were. J.K. Rowling’s first novel was akin to a Roald Dahl classic, a magical story fit for children and only slowly developing the stakes and the real world connections across the entire series.

Now comes “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a Harry Potter spinoff in which the story is not based on a book but is an original screenplay developed by Rowling. It carries the weight and expectations of the darker, later films, all of them directed by this film’s director David Yates. But the story’s charms are far lighter in nature, only hinting at the many directions this blossoming franchise can go.

For instance, the movie opens with the portent of the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the evil wizard who believed in magical purity before Voldemort came around. But that prelude soon gives way to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) chasing a fuzzy, teleporting platypus around Manhattan. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”

The Lobster

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos envisions a dystopian future in a satire about modern romance.

TheLobsterPosterIf you could be transformed into any animal, which would it be? It sounds like a bad question on a dating website, and yet we’ve become more reliant on such quirks in defining relationships and romance. Colin Farrell chooses to be the title animal in “The Lobster,” an absurdist satire that uses a hilariously bizarre, futuristic premise to lampoon the idea of modern love.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director behind “Dogtooth” now working in the English language, imagines a future in which it’s a law to have a romantic partner. Those without one, like David (Farrell) after recently becoming a widower, are sent to an upscale resort hotel and given 45 days to find a match or be transformed into an animal of their choice.

Lanthimos has some fun in subtly revealing the details of this premise, and the film’s deadpan style slowly works its way from raised-eyebrow peculiarities to laugh-out-loud moments of uneasy humor. For instance, David casually drops the detail that his dog is actually his brother who didn’t “make it.” When he arrives at the hotel, his choice to become a lobster has more to do with survival than preference. He envisions a long life span, an ability to swim and an easier chance at mating, and we wonder if David’s not actually trying to make it as a human any longer but simply waiting out the clock.

The details get stranger. Periodically the hotel guests are required to participate in a hunt for “loners,” single people who have rejected the rules of society and now live in the forest. Bagging one nabs you an extra day, and some hotel guests have spent years here as a result. Lanthimos stages these hunts like graceful slow-motion sequences in a Michael Mann film, stylized, operatic and wholly absurd. Guests are also tethered through their belt loops and restricted from masturbating; one who breaks the rule (John C. Reilly) gets his hand shoved in a toaster during breakfast. And only those who share similar characteristics to each other can become couples. One young girl (Jessica Barden) touts that she gets sporadic nosebleeds. David might be interested, but his trait is that he’s shortsighted, so no match.

“The Lobster” works great as a dystopian comedy (without explanation, random elephants or flamingos can be spotted in the background), but it helps that these oddities have parallels to dating in 2016. We give too much weight to superficial character traits, we go to great lengths to remain in love, we assign unnecessary rules and norms on society, and we shun those who can’t find a significant other. Lanthimos approaches these themes with ironic levity, like when the hotel’s manager informs an aspiring couple, “If you cannot solve any problems yourselves, you will be assigned children,” or with shocking poignancy, like the line, “A relationship can’t be built on a lie,” after it’s revealed one member of a couple faked a similar character trait.

Of course we know love is never defined by strict rules. Lanthimos’s deadpan tone, with every character delivering their lines in matter-of-fact, staccato notes (not to mention a score that’s equally terse and arresting), underscores the need to dismantle what he sees as ludicrous institutions.

Love however is something of an act of survival. For as comically bleak as “The Lobster” can be, the romance formed between Farrell and another loner played by Rachel Weisz reaches touching heights. Lanthimos asks if it’s harder to pretend you have feelings or that you don’t, and there’s a push-and-pull between this film’s harder exterior and softer inside. It’s a perfect match.

4 stars

Saving Mr. Banks

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of Disney nostalgia for “Mary Poppins.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little bit of nostalgia. Some critics seem to think Disney is committing a Cardinal Sin by putting out a movie like “Saving Mr. Banks,” as though it were so shamelessly self promoting of their own golden age in order to further their brilliant marketing schemes. But if the story is strong, I typically have no issues. P.L. Travers’ story with Disney is a good one, and “Mary Poppins” most certainly is, so what seems to be the big fuss?

That said, where Disney steps over the line is in turning what is quite simply a movie into something more than precious and whimsical. “Saving Mr. Banks” can be as melodramatic and straining to be profound as it is frivolous.

The story goes that in 1961 P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was strapped for cash, was fresh out of ideas for writing books and now had no choice but to turn to Walt Disney Studios’ long standing request to adapt Mary Poppins into a movie. She reluctantly accepts a trip to L.A. to review the script, provide notes and then, only then, will she agree to sign over the rights to her book.

She looks at a mess of plush Disney animals littering her hotel room and notices a Winnie the Pooh doll. “Poor A.A. Milne,” she opines, and fears that she, another British author with a beloved children’s character, might meet the same fate. But Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) assures Travers that he won’t do anything to tarnish the story and the creation she cherishes as family. After all, he too was once a kid with only a drawing of Mickey Mouse to his name, questioning if he should sell his work. Continue reading “Saving Mr. Banks”

Seven Psychopaths

“Seven Psychopaths” proves you should never judge a movie by its title. Playwright turned movie director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) starts with the title and knowingly ropes you in to a movie you both did and didn’t expect it to be.

It’s a movie about movies, it’s about writers with writer’s block, it’s about how psychopathic we must be to enjoy a movie about psychopaths, and it’s one of the more twistedly clever movies of the year.

Colin Farrell as Marty is not one of the movie’s seven psychopaths, but he must be crazy to think he can get any work done on a screenplay when he’s an alcoholic writer and Irishman. All he has so far is the title, “Seven Psychopaths,” which is good enough for everyone, because a title like that should write itself. But he doesn’t know who the psychopaths are, and he doesn’t want them to be violent or the movie to be a mindless bloodbath. One of them, he thinks, could be a Buddhist.

But this isn’t good enough for Billy (Sam Rockwell), a crook who kidnaps dogs and returns them for reward money along with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). Billy suggests one of the psychopaths could be based on a local serial killer called the Jack of Diamonds, who goes around killing members of crime syndicates. All the plots inevitably intertwine when Billy kidnaps crime boss Charlie’s (Woody Harrelson) shih tzu puppy and he comes looking for them.

The twist of “Seven Psychopaths” however is that this is the set up. The title itself is a ploy. Suddenly on the run, Marty wonders that if this were the story of his movie, what if the second half was just three guys sitting in the desert and talking? The movie calls attention to itself in the biggest way possible. It’s writing the movie as it goes, recognizing the over-stylized shootout isn’t as fun or as funny as it seems, showing the seams of its plot and acknowledging that even a sincere attempt at life lessons can be phony.

It’s not quite “Pulp Fiction” because it has its own set of rules instead of none at all. It’s not quite “Snatch” because it’s smarter than that and only uses the movie’s ideas as a template for parody. And it’s not quite “Adaptation” because at the end of the day this is still a screwball, blood-drenched mob comedy.

“Seven Psychopaths” is its own movie. It’s got layers, as it says. It’s a movie inside itself that doesn’t play out in ways you would expect, but then does on a technicality.

At its core, the film works because McDonagh’s dialogue isn’t funny just because it’s self-aware, and it doesn’t waste the talent on screen just to make a point about movies like this. Woody Harrelson is probably best, using obscenely large guns and other props like a wheelchair to always teeter on comedic and menacing and make his own legacy as an iconic and memorable movie villain.

And McDonagh isn’t just a stylistic copycat. He backs away from most of the pop culture references and focuses carefully on the proper aesthetic of the action comedy dream sequence and how he can tweak it. Take note of the maudlin score and storybook monologue during a montage telling the story of Zacharia (Tom Waits), another serial killer specializing in killing serial killers who acted with a Bonnie Parker partner in crime and fell in love.

The question is whether or not “Seven Psychopaths” earns its stripes. The movie is so self-aware that it even calls itself out on its own trap. These characters can’t necessarily be liked, the movie really can only end one way and the insights really can only be skin deep. If “Seven Psychopaths” is a movie within a movie, it seems to say how you couldn’t possibly enjoy a movie like this as you’re watching it.

3 stars

Horrible Bosses

Sometimes I wonder how anyone actually writes a comedy like “Horrible Bosses.” Who has the thesaurus that helps find smutty replacements for perfectly normal words? Sometimes the unrealistically raunchy factor in a movie like this serves as a disconnect from the otherwise witty and creative screenplay at hand.

At times, “Horrible Bosses” seems dirty for the sake of achieving an R-rating. Despite being about three guys plotting a way to kill their boss, the gratuitous language and casual discussion of rape make the material mature. For instance, somehow I question the ability of the word “dickswath” to come up in conversation naturally, and it makes me realize how contrived the rest of their dialogue appears.

It all subtracts from an otherwise darkly clever revenge comedy. Nick, Dale and Kurt (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) each have sadistic bosses controlling and ruining their lives. For Nick, he’s worked to the bone and denied a corner office promotion by his boss Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey). Kurt is left at the mercy of an uncaring coke addict Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell). And Dale is sexually harassed by his boss in the dentist office Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), although only Dale really sees her as a problem. Continue reading “Horrible Bosses”

The New World

Even children know the story of Pocahontas. Her story does not need to be retold, and in fact it is slightly historically inaccurate. But there is still beauty in the story, and leave it to Terrence Malick to evoke the natural wonder contained within the British’s encounter with the “naturals” in “The New World.”

To make the Pocahontas tale a story for adults, Malick embeds in the film a message about the way we communicate when presented with something new. John Smith (Colin Farrell) begins the film as a stoic and silent convict in the crew to settle the colony of Jamestown. Upon arriving in the new world, it is expected of him to rebuild his reputation and communicate to the crew he is worthy of accepting the responsibility of exploring when presented with new circumstances. Continue reading “The New World”