FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDEWALD (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been seven years since the final Harry Potter movie, and this is the second entry in the planned series of 5 prequels entitled FANTASTIC BEASTS, based on a (fictional) Hogwarts’ textbook written by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). Of course the characters and stories are from the pen of J.K. Rowling, and who better to bring us the war pitting pure-blood wizards against Muggles?

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM was released in 2016, and it was mostly an introduction to these characters and to some of the cutest and oddest creatures we’d ever encountered on screen. This second entry is much darker and more sinister, and tries to develop quite a few characters … perhaps too many. On top of the roster of players, romantic complications abound, and a search for one’s roots/identity is yet another sub-plot. And then there’s that whole Nazi element – leaving us all a bit bewildered at trying to keep up (although, it is fun trying).

David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter movies, and now the first two Fantastic Beasts films. He kicks this one off with a spectacular action sequence featuring a black carriage being drawn by a team of majestic flying dragons during a driving rain storm … all part of a daring 1927 prison escape by the titular Grindewald (Johnny Depp with a bleach punk do). It’s a breathtaking sequence, and the best of many visual wonders throughout – including my favorite, a very cool statue effect and a fabulous kelp seahorse.

Most of the key players return from the first film, though, as previously mentioned, their stories are more elaborate. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt, our main guide through this universe. Katherine Waterston is back as auror and fringy love interest Tina, Alison Sudol returns as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie, and Dan Fogler resumes his comic relief duties as Jacob. Jude Law is Albus Dumbledore (yes, the first name is needed), and he is prevented from fighting Gindewald (Depp) due to some youthful “bonding” that occurred years prior. Zoe Kravitz is Leta Lestrange, Carmen Ejogo is Seraphina Picquery, and Ezra Miller is the lost soul Credence Barebone. Newly introduced characters include Claudia Kim as shapeshifter Nagini, Callum Turner as Newt’s brother Theseus, and Brontis Jodorowsky (son of renowned cult director Alejandro Jadorowsky, EL TOPO) as non-ghost Flamel. If that’s not enough characters to track, you should know the story skips from New York to London to Paris and back around again.

Expect some happy gasps from the audience as Hogwarts is revisited, but the darkness and similarities to Nazi beginnings may surprise those expecting two hours of cutesy creatures springing from Newt’s coat … although, those exist as well. We do learn that ‘salamander eyes’ are not to be used while flirting, and it will be quite interesting to see how these stories close in to the Harry Potter world over the next 3 prequel-sequels (scheduled through 2024). It should be a fun ride – though not as fun as riding that seahorse.

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ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)

November 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Denzel Washington is one of our most iconic actors and he’s put together a remarkable career, including 8 Oscar nominations and two wins. He’s had his Al Pacino SCARFACE comparable with TRAINING DAY, his Robert DeNiro GOODFELLAS comparable with AMERICAN GANGSTER, and here he gets his Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN as he plays the titular Roman J. Israel, Esquire. It’s a role that lacks Denzel’s usual cool factor, but it’s one in which he dives head first.

‘Esquire’ rates “above gentleman, but below Knight” as described by Roman. He has spent more than 30 years as the wizard behind the curtain of a two man law firm run by his mentor and partner William “Bulldog” Jackson. We never really meet Mr. Jackson, as circumstances force the closing of the firm and shove an uncomfortable-with-change Roman into the high profile and high dollar firm run by George Pierce. Mr. Pierce is played by a strutting Colin Farrell – and no actor peacocks better than he.

It’s here we must note that Roman appears to have a touch of Asperger’s and/or be some type of legal Savant. He’s kind of a Dr. Gregory House for the legal profession – remarkable on the details, while lacking in the delivery. His long held idealism and belief system were in fine form while he was the back office guy, but Pierce forces him into the front lines and it’s a bumpy transition with sometimes comic and sometimes tragic results.

The film bookends with Roman crafting a legal brief, that while somewhat convoluted, is actually more of a confession, with himself as both plaintiff and defendant. Much of the film focuses on Roman’s idealism and revolutionary beliefs, and what happens when that crumbles. There is an odd quasi-love interest with Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA). We never really grasp why she is so taken by him, other than his seemingly solid belief system reminds her that a mission of goodness and justice is always worth fighting for.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy is one of the quiet secret weapons in Hollywood these days. His last project was the terrific NIGHTCRAWLER, and he’s also written the screenplays for this year’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and one of my favorites from 2006, THE FALL. Here he teams with Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) to deliver a stylish look that feels unique to the story and characters … the frumpy look of Roman, the ultra-slick look of Pierce, and the various textures of the city. It’s really something to behold – especially when accompanied by Roman’s ringtone of Eddie Kendrick’s “Keep on Truckin’”. A couple of cast members worth mentioning: for you NBA fans, Sedale Threat Jr (son of the long time player), and simply for catching my eye in the closing credits, an actor named Just N. Time. There is plenty to discuss after this one, but mostly it’s a chance to watch Denzel chew scenery.

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BORN TO BE BLUE (2016)

April 6, 2016

born to be blue Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics aim for historical accuracy with only the occasional stretching of facts for dramatic effect. Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two that take a much different approach … fictionalized versions of jazz icons – legendary trumpeters Miles Davis (Miles Ahead) and Chet Baker. Writer/director Robert Budreau expands on his 2009 short film to deliver a feature length look at the talented and troubled Baker … with a huge assist from Ethan Hawke.

The film begins in 1966 with Baker locked up in an Italian jail cell. Bailed out by a filmmaker who wants Baker to star in his own life story, a flash back to 1954 allows us to see Baker at his musical peak. As he heads into a gig, he asks an autograph seeker “Who do you like best, me or Miles Davis?” The question could be arrogance when asked by another artist, but it’s our first insight into the insecurity that Baker struggled with his entire life. His desire to be liked sometimes conflicted with his goal to be great. But like the story of so many musical geniuses, it was the drug abuse that continually sabotaged the talent.

Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in Selma) plays Jane, a fictionalized blend of Baker’s lovers through the years. The two of them are good together, though she is as much a caretaker as a lover … keeping him on track and nursing him through the (many) tough times. Baker received a savage beating that cost him his front teeth and ability to play the trumpet for years. The movie presents the beating as drug-related, but history is unclear on the matter. Still, it’s painful and brutal to watch Baker bleed for his art.

Baker is credited as the inspiration of West Coast Swing, though it’s quite challenging to relate to yet another junkie musician – no matter how talented. He’s just not a very interesting guy as presented here. Talented, yes … but not very interesting. Additionally, none of Baker’s music is actually heard. It’s been reimagined, just like his life story.

Despite the issues, Ethan Hawke delivers what may be the best work of his career. He is tremendous and believable as both the talented jazz artist and the insecure drug addict. Director Budreau creates a dream-like atmosphere at times, which adds to the “is it real” style. The 1988 Oscar nominated documentary Let’s Get Lost is probably a better source for Baker’s life story, but Budreau’s take does capture the man’s struggles.

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SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

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