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”

Side by Side: Kingsman and Jupiter Ascending

The spy movie “Kingsman” and the sci-fi “Jupiter Ascending” share more in common than being B-movies.

Sometimes the hate or love for a film just doesn’t make sense. In “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Jupiter Ascending,” you have two wildly creative films that both look like video games, are trashy fun, feature outlandish performances and stunning special effects, and yet one is considered genuinely good and the other is a cult film, but only because it’s so terrible.

I’ll flip that script and say I believe “Jupiter Ascending” to be a genuinely good movie. Everything about “Jupiter Ascending” is bananas, but the Wachowskis have made an endlessly inventive film that begs pouring over their imagination. Channing Tatum plays a hunter spliced with the DNA of a wolf, and he sports pointed ears, a scruffy blonde goatee and gliding rocket boots, but he fights and acts with the acrobatics of Magic Mike, employing his senses and a holo shield to evaporate pale nymph monsters. Eddie Redmayne gives the definition of a scene-chewing performance, but he seems to know what movie he’s in, curling his fingers in a lilting, vampiric performance. His voice raises octaves as he strives for range, and it never grows tiresome despite how it grows out of proportion. Even the human characters on Earth are colorful, cartoonish Russian greaseballs that make the film ever livelier. And they’re matched by the CGI spectacle of lush palaces and exotic gowns that put “The Hunger Games” to shame. At the same time, we’ll see Tatum flying in front of tacky green screen backdrops made to represent the Chicago skyline, and the film’s artificiality and B-movie charm shine through.

“Kingsman” has just as many quirks and goofy scenarios that extend far beyond the realm of believability, but Matthew Vaughn, as in “Kick-Ass,” has a tendency to confuse pure lunacy and anarchy for style, and gratuitous cartoon violence for humor. “Kingsman” doesn’t actually have sensational stunts. Rather, we see a delirious whooshing of the camera (accomplished digitally) rather than traditional action editing. It allows Vaughn to whip projectiles across the room or zoom in ultra close on various gadgets. One scene has Colin Firth knocking a tooth out of a thug’s mouth, and the tooth hangs in the air in slow motion before flying past another thug’s dumbstruck face. Another is the hyper-violent bloodbath that takes place as a result of Valentine’s mind control. Is there anything about this scene that’s funny other than it’s set to the tune of the “Freebird” guitar solo? And why exactly does Samuel L. Jackson talk with a lisp in this movie?

I still had fun with both of these films, but what’s interesting is how each film approaches class dynamics. It’s rare for movies this trashy to actually have credible substance about society, and yet the fact that they do goes a long way to elevating them beyond their frivolous fun.


Britain of course concerns itself far more with class and upbringing than Americans do generally, so perhaps in Britain this isn’t so revolutionary. But across the pond, “Kingsman” raises some interesting questions. In the film, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) comes from a working class background. When he arrives at the Kingsman training facility, all the other selected candidates are pompous, posh and preppy. They ask whether he’s an Oxford or Cambridge boy, which to anyone in England, coming from “Oxbridge” is an obvious sign of class and snobbery. The film shows that becoming a “gentleman” has little to do with your roots and everything to do with your actions. The film’s set pieces have stakes because they’re as much tests of character as they are feats of strength.

As for Jupiter (Mila Kunis) in “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowskis make a point to say that Jupiter was born over the Atlantic, literally without a country and that she’s “technically,” an alien. She explains how astrology has been a guiding factor in her upbringing, and each morning she complains saying, “I hate my life,” as though had she been born under different circumstances, things wouldn’t be so bad. Of course, Jupiter will find that all the wealth and royalty in the world will not make her want to change her heritage and her life.

Both evil plots are also governed by class dynamics. Valentine’s plan is to create a “culling” on Earth, in which the population whittles itself down through mass murder, leaving only the wealthy elite (like Eggsy’s privileged classmate) to survive. The culling process in “Jupiter Ascending” is a bit more sci-fi. The royal families have claims to individual planets, owning them and harvesting their resources like farms in order to extend their lives, but it’s still a process that favors the rich and treats other human beings as second class citizens made to serve.

People have been pointing to the libertarian politics in something like “Captain America: Civil War,” and yet Marvel deliberately makes their films wishy-washy and bland, scrubbed of an explicit position. The Wachowskis and Vaughn may have appeared to make innocent, meat and potatoes action films, but they’re far more sophisticated. Rather, because these are films “of the people” that reject sophistication, let’s just say they have a lot more character.

The Theory of Everything

The story of Stephen Hawking views the man’s genius too broadly, leaving only Eddie Redmayne’s performance to admire.

At its best, “The Theory of Everything” depicts the often normal, yet struggle-filled family dynamic of a man with a disability and illness and how his condition affects those who love him. At its worst, James Marsh’s biopic on Stephen Hawking is about watching a genius squirm.

“The Theory of Everything” depicts the life of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his fight with Lou Gehrig’s disease through the perspective of his long-time wife Jane (Felicity Jones), starting first when they met and fell in love as college students in Cambridge and leading all the way until the publishing of his world famous book “A Brief History of Time.” Across that near 50-year time span, the film shows in sometimes agonizing detail the rapid decay of his body, from going under the knife for surgery, to crawling up a flight of stairs, to straining to speak or even move his wrists.

In exchange we get a broad sense of admiration for his brilliance and some slices of his home life, like letting his children ride on his electric wheelchair and exchanging pleasantries with his wife. But a single film that tells us all we need to know about love and life, i.e. The Theory of Everything, its not.

Like the real Hawking, Marsh’s film is not without a sense of humor or even whimsy. We see a young Hawking cradled in the arms of a giant statue as his college chum fetches his wheelchair, and the film dances in beautifully lensed, fairy tale shades of gold and blue. It’s almost all too precious, with a maudlin score making the whole film a stuffy affair, and the fact that although this is Britain in the swinging ‘60s, the movie looks like a traditional Victorian Age drama.

Redmayne’s performance thankfully keeps the film grounded. As a co-ed, Redmayne plays Hawking with a mix of smarmy, aloof charm while also being cripplingly awkward and nerdy around pretty girls like Jane. As he grows ill and Marsh piles on the melodrama, Redmayne’s work recalls the all-too physical and broad acting of Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” feeling completely lived in but always straining for attention. It’s only until closer to Hawking’s old age that Redmayne feels completely natural with his mannerisms.

In truth though, the movie belongs to Jane. Jones displays great growth as an innocent yet brainy girl who grows firm and nurturing as she matures. She’s the one who needs help more so than Hawking does, and watching her grapple with her devotion to her husband and her effort to never lose face is the most affecting. Jones’s work shows that the people in the lives of a disabled individual often have to work as hard as those they’re nursing.

And yet the movie still finds more occasions for us to suffer rather than enlighten us about Hawking’s ideas or his personality. “The Theory of Everything” has the airs of one of the most moving and inspirational stories about our generation’s greatest thinker. But it only finds his genius at the cost of his pain and does not appear to have put the same level of thought into what makes this man or his story so great.

3 stars

Les Miserables

There’s a big difference in seeing an actor’s face 50 feet high on the silver screen than seeing an actor just five inches high on a stage that’s a mile away. There’s definitely something to seeing and hearing that little person live, but there’s a lot of emotion and expression that we only get from the movies.

So part of the thrill of this new adaptation of the classic musical “Les Miserables” is in making the emotions of Jean Valjean and Fantine be as big as possible. Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) has put them in an appropriately sized film that feels epic but not overstuffed, but did he really have to make their faces so big too?

Simply put, “Les Miz” is frustratingly un-cinematic. It achieves images that the stage never could but stifles the possibilities of what a camera can do and what an epically proportioned musical can and should look like. At every moment it emblazons these characters in intense close-ups and very little breathing room. Try as Hugh Jackman might to parade around the room of a monastery, the camera follows him mercilessly, refusing to break from a centered close-up of Valjean’s ill-fated face as though the camera were attached to a harness around his chest.

Hooper covers his tracks by chopping the movie to bits in the editing room. The average shot length is infuriatingly short, but not in the excessive Baz Luhrmann way either; Hooper simply doesn’t know when to stay put.

He does however realize that there’s true wonder in seeing the whole cast belt out a medley of themes during magnificent pop opera numbers like “One Day More,” and this is especially true when we get the opportunity to see them on stage together. Why then should Hooper separate each individual singer into claustrophobic boxes? Why does he refuse to let multiple characters share the frame at once? Why must it look like we’re watching this whole movie on a stadium Jumbotron?

It gets nauseating and delirious watching something so jarring. The makeup and hairstyles are garish, the lighting is dark and muddy, and the camera captures Parisian alleys and sewers with Dutch angles and a quivering hand. It can be as punishing as watching Fantine (Anne Hathaway) drunkenly stumble around in agony during the “Lovely Lady” number.

You long for the firm hand and intricate medium shots Hooper used to excess in “The King’s Speech” and “The Damned United.” How did this director change so thoroughly between films? Now Hooper’s close-ups are so intensified, they’d be boring to look at if Anne Hathaway weren’t pouring her heart and soul into “I Dreamed a Dream.”

She, amongst the rest of the cast, really are the saving grace of “Les Miz.” Hathaway’s Fantine is really just a minor character in this epic revolution drama, but amongst all the moments each character gets to themselves, hers is by far the most memorable, her face convulsing in agony and her eyes too sad to even care the camera is so close.

Much of these gripes won’t matter much to most audiences. They’ll be swept up in the way I was upon first seeing a touring production of “Les Miserables” in London, invigorated and inspired by the story’s themes of commitment, honor and spirituality. But to those who pay attention to cinematography and editing, least of all in a treasured musical where these things matter most of all, “Les Miz” will feel mighty clumsy.

3 stars

My Week With Marilyn

Marilyn Monroe was an impossibly difficult actress to work with because she seemed so incompetent and insecure at every turn. But when she got it right, she made magic happen.

“My Week With Marilyn” makes a point of this numerous times. It adores the blonde bombshell so much that it drills her greatness into your head. And yet, Michelle Williams is so effervescent and captivating by rejuvenating Monroe’s presence that she makes lightning strike twice. Continue reading “My Week With Marilyn”