Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
The highly expository follow-up to the energetic and entertaining “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” may likely force the viewer to wonder if the series has enough fuel to stretch its arms across three more pictures. At its worst, for a story that offers magic, a wealth of imagination, strange-looking creatures, it is talkative but uninformative. For long periods during the middle, nothing much of value happens; I caught myself checking my watch a few times. I considered if author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling ought to have allowed someone else to translate her work through a cinematic medium. What results is a ponderous picture that lacks the power to capture the curiosity of both children and children-at-heart, a quality that seems to come so naturally to the “Harry Potter” movies.
As a sequel that strives to expand its world-building, the material offers a group of new potentially interesting characters. The first that comes to mind is Theseus Scamander, played by Callum Turner, brother of our protagonist who is played by Eddie Redmayne. This character is engaged to be married to Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), former schoolmate of our quirky magizoologist. Newt and Leta seems to share a special, possibly even a romantic connection, and it would have been an interesting avenue to explore had Theseus been a fully developed character. In addition, Newt feeling insecure whenever his “normal” brother is around is hinted at but never explored. Instead, the siblings are reduced to giving each other hugs. Another possible interesting personality that may have been worth looking into is the alchemist Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky) whose name should be familiar to fans of the magical series. Instead, there are jokes about him being old.
Delivering top-notch special and visual effects is clearly the film’s forté. Particularly impressive is the sequence involving Newt and Jacob (Dan Fogler), the latter lacking magical ability, attempting to track down the whereabouts of an Auror (Katherine Waterston). A spell is cast to retrace the literal steps of their target in addition to the circumstances surrounding this person. The fact that the scene is executed in a calm manner is solid choice because it builds tension. Another example of ace visuals, but of feverish approach, is the opening scene involving the villainous Grindelwald (Johnny Deep) executing a daring escape in the sky as a storm rages on. It takes place at night and it is hard to see in the rain. And yet—we have a complete idea of the events unfolding. The technical mastery of the action scenes cannot be denied. The camera is so alive and the editing is willing to match the beat of the wild dance exploding on screen.
The problem is, when the action dies down, so does the film to an extent. It comes alive somewhat during flashbacks of young Newt and Leta attending Hogwarts. I loved learning about them, especially in how they felt like outcasts as students. This feeling did not disappear as they became adults. It evolved and, in a way, their experiences in Hogwarts stuck with them and helped to shape who they are. It is these moments that “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” directed by David Yates, manages to capture the essence of Rowling’s excellent Potter series. The human drama creates more intrigue than the politics—just as exploring Harry and his friends’ relationships is more interesting than having to defeat Voldermort.
Despite its shortcomings, I remain interested in what is going to happen. There is a surprising revelation during the closing minutes involving Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and his quest for discovering his biological connections. It is about time that this character moves to the center because he has been running around since the predecessor with little progress, if any. He is beginning to feel like decoration. This, too, can be attributed to the screenplay: it lacks efficiency and urgency. Things that can be accomplished in five minutes are stretched to fifteen. Clearly, a film is not a novel, vice-versa. Given that this series will only grow larger in scope and ambition, I hope that a more effective screenwriter will be taken aboard.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first out of five potential entries of “Fantastic Beasts,” written by “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling and directed by returning “Potter” filmmaker David Yates, is a respectable but unimpressive introduction into the wizarding world of 1920s America. Gone is the sense of wonder which made the “Potter” series, especially its early installments, so intriguing. Instead, we are immediately placed in the middle of a possible conflict between the magic and non-magic communities through the eyes of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British magizoologist, one who studies oft misunderstood, endangered magical creatures.
Numerous strands are introduced—all of them interesting but not one is throughly explored. As a result, we feel the machinations of the plot to the fullest extent. Notice as we move from one scene to another, usually there is a choppiness to them; one minute we are supposed to be getting inside the minds and hearts of its characters as to understand their varying motivations and the next they are running around in a desperate attempt to capture the beasts that have escaped from the twitchy researcher’s suitcase. This is not due to editing. Rather, it is in how the screenplay is structured—an approach problem: so many pieces are introduced at once instead of naturally building off one another.
Conversely, too many fantasy-adventures simply do not have enough ideas to keep their respective boats afloat, so I suppose the opposite can be considered to be less of a problem. Still, it is an issue worth noting and, more importantly, fixing in the future films because its impact is tethered to the detriment of the viewing experience. Flow between scenes is so important in order to immerse us successfully into a specific world with specific rules and band of colorful characters.
As expected, the special and visual effects are top-notch for the most part. I enjoyed small but rewarding moments where Scamander simply shows and interacts with the creatures he wishes to understand further. These beasts vary in size, texture, and personality and so each one evokes a certain feeling. Although a few creatures shown are so flashy to the point where one cannot help but notice how colorful and polished they are—and thus distracting and taking us out of the moment—Redmayne has a way of looking at them as though Newt has forged a strong bond with them. There is clearly history there and so instances where he must employ the creatures’ talents in order to get him and his friends (Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler) out of tricky situations are believable and sometimes most amusing.
The political undercurrents ought to have been written smarter, stronger, more purposeful. Specifically, the situation in New York City is so tension-filled between magic and non-magic folks that any small thing could trigger an all-out war between the two factions, especially with a highly dangerous Dark Wizard named Gellert Grindewald having recently escaped from magical authorities. Samantha Morton is underused as a No-Maj (American term for “Muggle,” a non-magic person), leader of a sinisterly-named New Salem Philanthropic Society, who uses children to achieve her personal agendas.
Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is satisfying as a visual experience—rather than of deep thoughts and emotions. Viewers who loved the “Potter” series for its sense of wonder and youthful energy are likely to feel disappointed, but the film is able to establish a convincing 1920s milieu with characters we can grow to love in the future. But now that the introduction is out of the way, here’s to hoping that the filmmakers will aspire for depth.
Danish Girl, The (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Danish Girl,” directed by Tom Hooper, is a classy, heartfelt, and beautifully told story about a person, biologically male, who is born in the wrong body. For a subject that many people at this time may find difficult to understand, let alone connect with, the film has the courage to respect the audience and its subject by telling this specific story without sensationalism. It is spearheaded by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander’s first-rate performances who play Einar Wegener and Gerda Wegener, respectively, married painters in 1920s Denmark. He specializes in landscapes while she excels in portraits.
The film is most effective during long takes. Notice how it takes its time to allow us to settle into a scene by aiding us to carefully observe the characters move and speak. This is accomplished by employing confident still shots, well-calculated close-ups, and minimal score. Such scenes are allowed to breathe, too. For instance, when a paintbrush dances on a canvas, we hear the bristles move. Sometimes it is soft and calming. But there are times when it is intense and cross.
It is very important that the work gets the look, mood, and tone exactly right not only because it is a period drama. Given that the material aspires to capture a complex subject, it is critical that we buy into the reality of the environment which serves as a conduit to the people who live in it. This is most pivotal during scenes when Einar looks at a frock, starts caressing it with his fingertips, and begins to overlay it on his body. If the dress were wrong or if the look of the room where the dress hung looked unconvincing, such intimate moments would likely have been silly or laughable.
It shows the love between the married couple without relying on words to constantly remind us how they feel about one another. This is where Vikander and Redmayne’s instincts as natural performers come in. Like great actors who came before them, they know how to modulate facial expressions just so, beginning with the eyes, to communicate a spectrum of emotions often in one shot. These are highly efficient performances; we get a real impression that Einar, later renamed Lili, and Gerda really have been married for six years and sometimes they know exactly what one is feeling or thinking without having to voice out what they need or want.
The movie is not about gender reassignment surgery although the story gets to that point eventually. Notice that the majority of the two-hour running time is devoted to the unconditional love shared between the painters. The key word is “unconditional” because, in a way, the film indirectly asks the audience what they are willing to do, or give up, for the happiness of the person, or persons, they love.
The beauty of Vikander’s interpretation of the character is that she may not completely understand her husband’s situation but she is willing to skip fully comprehending and actually be present, to be there to offer support and acceptance. This is why “The Danish Girl,” based on the novel by David Ebershoff and loosely based on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, is a strong statement piece that remains highly relevant today: Too many parents of LGBTQ youths are not willing to find a way around deeply held conventions or beliefs and simply love their children over everything else.
Theory of Everything, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ph.D. student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is given news that he has two years to live. After a thorough examination, doctors conclude that he has a motor neuron disease which will inevitably result to gradual muscle decay, wasting away, and his ability to control voluntary movement will be lost entirely. We all know that Dr. Hawking will surpass the given life expectancy and so one of the challenges of the film, adapted to the screen by Anthony McCarten from Jane Hawking’s memoir, is to construct an arc that feels complete, from the moment Hawking received the terrible news until the publication of his book, “A Brief History of Time.”
Throughout the course of the picture, I admired Redmayne’s very human performance. He is able to turn a renowned astrophysicist into just another person afflicted by a disease that has no cure and yet provide colorful, complex layers, especially during the final third in which the subject is no longer able to speak. I imagined how difficult it must have been to play the character convincingly because every limb and facial expression must be on point—even if the camera is capturing images only from the chest up.
To be consistent in his portrayal take after take must have required a lot of effort, research, and determination. The way he is able to contort his face and fingers appears highly uncomfortable but nonetheless convincing. To top it off, not once does Redmayne forget to communicate with his eyes. They are always strong and alive even when the character’s body is weak and frail.
I was surprised and disappointed that the picture is not really about the science behind Hawking’s theories. There are some science, simplistic enough to be understood by laymen but still interesting enough for those who would like to know more. The movie is more about the relationship between Stephen and Jane (Felicity Jones) and the love they shared. Although their partnership comes across as too glossy at times, there are enough moments of honesty that are painful, like Jane having to push herself to be with Stephen in their later years even if it no longer felt right. The push-and-pull between Jane wanting to stay and leave is great drama because it is essentially a question of doing the right thing. But for whom?
Although the score is a bit overbearing at times, the picture is beautifully photographed. The first half is bathed in a bright yellow glow, signifying optimism, youth, a surplus of energy and inspiration to tackle what the world has to offer head-on. The second half, on the other hand, is considerably less saturated, as if to reflect the subject’s physical decay. The characters move a little slower, their faces more saggy, a bit grey. A certain level of acceptance is in the air.
“The Theory of Everything” is able to hone in on what is important to Stephen and Jane, together and respectively, and that is why it works. I felt a bit of dread when I began to realize that the romance would comprise about half of the running time. Instead, it surprised me because I grew to invest in Jane and Stephen as a couple, that romance is not just reflected in maintaining a marriage but in the compatibility of souls.
Powder Blue (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Timothy Linh Bui, “Powder Blue” tells the stories of an exotic dancer, a suicidal man, an ex-con, and a mortician and how their lives are connected to one another days before Christmas Eve. While the picture aims to communicate the sadness in the paradox of living in a hugely populated city yet no one seems to really care, most the scenes, I must admit, made me laugh when it is supposed to be very serious.
For instance, as Charlie (Forest Whitaker) lures strangers to shoot a bullet through his heart for $50,000, the execution of the character’s request lacks a proper build-up that comes across effortless and commanding genuine tension. Although Whitaker’s performance might have been convincing given a proper direction coupled with a script that offers a backbone and supporting substance, it feels very awkward here. The rare glimmers of intensity is a testament to how good Whitaker can be as a raw performer.
Another weak strand involves Jack (Ray Liotta), recently released from jail, frequenting a strip club because there is something about the sight of Johnny (Jessica Biel) that piques his curiosity. While inside the strip club, each time he is shown standing about or sitting down staring into nothing, he always looks sad. It is emotionally manipulative because not enough time is invested toward honing in on the character’s sadness and communicating it to us that does not come across preachy.
The convenient flashbacks do nothing to make us more sympathetic and sensitive to the characters’ struggles. If there is one shining moment in the film, it is found in the waitress that Charlie meets in a diner that stands in as his second home. While Sally (Lisa Kudrow) has her own share of problems and sadness, the light within her resonated with me. I enjoyed the way Kudrow allows her character to reach out and help Charlie and yet she isn’t quite sure if she is ready to take on a friend or a potential romantic interest.
Sally and Charlie share several gauche conversations but the way in which they mirror each other’s energy made me want to know more about their relationship and consider ways that could help them to move on from their current problems. What they have is about hope and it is critical to the picture because everything about it is so depressing: the cinematography, the subject matter, and the characters being convinced that there is no escaping their fates.
The storyline that shows potential but ultimately does not deliver involves Qwerty (Eddie Redmayne) and his reclusive existence. We are given information about his life like the fact that his father, also a mortician, recently passed away and that their family business is about to go under due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately, there are not enough scenes of his struggles designed to show rather than tell. What is executed nicely is his interactions with a dog he accidentally had ran over and later taken home. It shows that he is capable of giving love but recent events in his life almost prevents him from going out there in the world and living his life as a young person.
Because “Powder Blue” is so intent on showcasing the seedy environs of Los Angeles, it neglects to paint its characters as real people. It also feels overlong. The problems of the protagonists defines them and the screenplay is unwilling to explore other potentially more interesting avenues.
Misérables, Les (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Having done imprisonment and hard labor for years, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) decides to break his parole and disposes of his old identity. With a new life comes a personal vow to lead an honest life and helping others along the way. Eight years later, 1823, Valjean, under a pseudonym, has become the mayor of Paris and a factory owner. A worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has been fired by the manager after she is discovered to have been sending money to an illegitimate daughter. Eventually, the desperate woman is driven to prostitution. While on her deathbed due to possible extreme exhaustion combined with famine, guilt-ridden Valjean promises to take care of her child.
Based on Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stage musical, “Les Misérables” might have been a more immersing picture if it had been divided into two films. It has the scope of three or four movies and cramming the material into a two-and-a-half hour film means sacrificing depth of events and characterization. These two are very necessary if we are to plunge completely into a world of the past that is both full of blazing passion and dark realities. Without splendid work from three of the four central performances, the whole project might have collapsed under its own ambitions.
The picture proves expert in executing individual scenes. When it is only the camera and an actor in a frame, it captures the feeling of privacy beautifully. Most memorable is Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” so absent of vanity that although I did not fully buy into her character’s desperation due to glaring lack of details about Fantine, I was nonetheless very moved. Close-ups are utilized well, highlighting the most minuscule ticks on the performer’s face. I liked the way Hathaway is willing to be ugly–not superficially like having grime all over her or sporting a Mia Farrow haircut à la “Rosemary’s Baby”–by contorting her face in awkward angles in order to summon the right emotions and hitting the right notes. It is too bad that she is not in front of the camera the entire time.
Jackman is very capable as the conflicted protagonist. Like Hathaway, his talent is best showcased during the more personal scenes. He gets the most screen time, but at times I wondered about the other characters like Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s grown-up daughter, and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), one of the young people who is adamant about creating a revolution. Cosette is introduced and disappears for a big chunk of time so the romance between she and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Enjolras’ partner in the cause, is not entirely believable even though the actors look attractive together. Because of the lack of depth, Cosette comes off soft and beautiful but vapid, a critical misstep considering that she is a symbol of Valjean’s redemption. As Marius, Redmayne is very good in balancing the subtleties between two kinds of passion: the girl he loves and his duty to do what he thinks is right for his country. Since Marius is given more time to develop, he escapes being superficial. At least we understand half of the couple.
Though some may consider Russell Crowe’s voice to be the weakest link in the musical, I say it is the occasional mismanagement of the camera. This is a problem when there are five or six people in a frame. Tom Hooper, the director, is generous when it comes to going for the close-ups–which does not always work. When the technique is used in a group shot, I felt the camera inching toward a face. Sometimes Hooper flings the camera at them. It took me out of the experience. In such cases, it might have been better if the camera had allowed us to absorb the celebration or whatever is going on from afar.
I was won over by the ambition of “Les Misérables” even though about half of the songs are not my cup of tea. What saddens me is that movies like the last chapter of “The Twilight Saga” gets split in two when it is absolutely not necessary because the story is so thin. In here, you can really feel that there is so much more to discover about the characters and their experiences, but a lot of the details are sacrificed. This creates a feeling of an incomplete film due to the noticeable gaps in the screenplay.
Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.
Like Minds (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Gregory J. Read, “Like Minds” or “Murderous Intent” was about two boys in prep school who had a complex relationship. One ended up dead (Tom Sturridge) and the other was sent to jail (Eddie Redmayne) because evidence suggested murder. It was up to a forensic psychologist (Toni Collette) to figure out what really happened between the two and to try to gather evidence that could potentially allow the surviving boy to be released from jail. The film was something I had not expected. I’ve seen a number of movies about prep school and murder but I did not expect this one to be so involved in history and psychology. Since I had studied the latter subject, it was relatively easy for me to grasp what was happening on the surface. However, since my weakest subject was history, I found the discussion of the past somewhat confusing so I don’t think I fully saw the big picture. Having said that, the movie was full of tension and had a knack for delivering the unexpected. I thought it did a great job establishing the twisted relationship between Sturridge and Redmayne; they were interesting together but it was creepy at the same time trying to deal with a roommate from hell who had a penchant for dissecting dead animals. However, I wished that the picture had more scenes of Collette doing her own investigation instead of relying on the surviving boy’s stories. One of the best scenes was the climax in which she finally stumbled upon some evidence because she delivered subtleties on her body movements and facial expressions that went beyond the fact that she was scared and she wanted to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. What did not work for me was the detective (Richard Roxburgh) in charge of the strange deaths. I thought he served no purpose to the overall picture and he was the most one-dimensional character. Instead of helping out Collette’s character, he kept on wanting to get together with her and it was very distracting. “Like Minds” may be a small film and somewhat uneven at times but the mystery fascinated me and there was an intelligence behind the storytelling. The two boys did a great job playing predator and prey, especially Sturridge’s ability to shift from intense and piercing glares to blank but evil eyes. He reminded me of a more versatile and magnetic version of Robert Pattinson which amused me because I found out later that they were good friends. Fans of creepy, slow, sometimes disturbing psychological thrillers will most likely find “Like Minds” pretty enjoyable.