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.

watch the trailer:

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THE DANISH GIRL (2015)

December 17, 2015

danish girl Greetings again from the darkness. There was a time when movies were cultural trendsetters in such areas as speech, style and behavior. Somewhere along the way, a transition occurred, and these days movies are more a reflection of the times – showing us who we are and focusing mostly on what society focuses on. Oscar winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) capitalizes on the current movement to mainstream the LGBT community by telling the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a transgender from more than 40 years before Dr. Renee Richards, and 75 years before Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Lucida Coxon has adapted the 2000 novel from David Ebershoff, which is a fictionalized version of the 1933 “Man Into Woman” … the personal letters and diaries of Einar/Lili (edited by Niels Hoyer). The film opens in 1926 Copenhagen as successful landscape artist Einar Wegener and his struggling-to-gain-respect portrait artist wife Gerda appear to be happily married and quite attracted to each other. During this segment, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen utilize a somewhat distracting quasi-fisheye lens that distorts most every shot … presumably making the point that this couple’s life is itself distorted. There is no shortage of foreshadowing despite the bohemian artist lifestyle. Einar doesn’t miss a chance to caress the silks and frills as he visits his ballet dancing friend Ulla (Amber Heard), and things escalate quickly once he poses in stockings for one of Gerda’s portraits.

The best and most interesting segment of the film is the middle as Einar begins to explore his Lili persona, and Gerda is diligent in her support … going as far as to encourage her husband to attend a party as Lili (introduced as Einar’s visiting cousin). The public interactions with their friends and acquaintances are a little difficult to accept, though the scenes with her initial male suitor Henrik (Ben Whishaw) make it clear this is a point of no return. Despite this, the times are such that Einar willingly attempts to repress the Lili side, and even visits multiple medical and psychological specialists. It’s this segment that reminds us how quickly the medical profession of the era overreacted by prescribing radiation, electrotherapy, and even by institutionalizing those who were so inclined.

Gerda and Einar/Lili “escape” to Paris, where it becomes obvious that it’s Lily who has been masquerading as Einar, rather than the other way. The duality of Einar/Lily soon dissolves and daily life is filled with lessons … such as a Paris peep show where hand and body movements become part of the transition. Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything) gives an extraordinary performance, and is at his best when exploring the subtle nuances of Lili. It’s crucial to note that while Redmayne’s performance is a physical marvel, it’s Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Ex Machina) as Gerda who provides the real heart and soul of the story. Though the film glosses over some traits of the real life Gerda, Ms. Vikander is stunning in more than a few scenes, which in the hands of a lesser actress, could have proved cringe-inducing.

Adding some depth in limited roles are Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as Hans, Einar’s childhood friend all grown up, and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as the pioneering doctor who performs the sex reassignment surgeries that physically transition Einar into Lili. Even with the strong supporting cast, there is no mistaking this as anything other than a film that belongs to Mr. Redmayne and Ms. Vikander.

Director Hooper takes a very conventional approach to an unconventional story, and this “safe” direction seems designed to make the uncomfortable story more palatable for mainstream audiences (similar to how Brokeback Mountain handled homosexuality). However, don’t mistake this for Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. There are two serious stories here: the struggles of one person’s identity, and the corresponding challenges of a married couple. Hooper’s style is by no means cutting edge, but does feature one of the best lines of the year … “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” This story has bounced around the movie world for awhile, and for many years was rumored to have Nicole Kidman in the Einar/Lili role. Your imagination can determine if that would have made for a better fit.

watch the trailer:

 

 


OSCARS recap (2015)

February 23, 2015

oscars6 Greetings again from the darkness. “Stay weird and stay different” is the main takeaway from this year’s Oscars presentation. Not only was that the heartfelt and emotional plea to kids made by Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore (The Imitation Game), but it also describes Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The Academy seems to suffer from a multiple personality disorder in trying to decide what to do with the ceremony. Is it a formal and dignified event to honor the nominees? Is it a celebration of the artistic and historic sides of cinema? Is it an opportunity to entertain the tens of millions of TV viewers who tune in each year? Not knowing the objective makes it very difficult to be successful, which leads to a too-long mish-mash of all three approaches further muddled by the 30-second political statements offered up by millionaires whose words probably carry less weight than they believe, but more than they should.

As a movie lover, what draws me to the telecast is the celebration of cinema, so my favorite segments included: the brilliant opening number entitled “Moving Pictures” as performed by emcee Neil Patrick Harris, with an assist from Anna Kendrick, Jack Black, numerous costumed dancers, some terrific special effects, and clips from many iconic movies; the beautifully sung melody by Lady Gaga as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music – with an appearance from Julie Andrews; and the first time ever that each movie nominated for Best Picture (all 8 of them) went home with at least one Oscar.

Of course there were also segments which I did not enjoy so much: an ultra-creepy John Travolta pawing at Idina Menzel’s face a year after butchering her name on stage; a lackluster Birdman parody by Neil Patrick Harris that paled in comparison to the recent work of Fred Armisen (Indie Spirit Awards) and Sesame Street (with Big Bird); the cut away shots to Michael Keaton chomping his chewing gum like a junior high kid; and the multitude of lame jokes (and absurd pre-show predictions) by Mr Harris that could have been excused if not for the poorly timed zinger directed at the dress choice of an award winner who had just moments before disclosed the suicide of her child.

Emotions always run high in a room full of artists, and the live performance of “Glory” from Best Picture nominee Selma was quite impressive … from the infamous bridge setting, to the vocals of Common and John Legend, to the dozens of folks who joined them onstage (Note: they were given much more time than the other live performances of nominated songs). Also registering high on the emotional meter were: Patricia Arquette’s call for pay equality, Eddie Redmayne’s pure joy at winning Best Actor, and the excitement, pride and perspective shown by Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski  towards his home country of Poland.  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, how does it make sense that sourpuss Sean Penn tries to crack wise with an ill-timed joke, while “comedian” Eddie Murphy reads the list of nominees like he is checking inventory at Home Depot?

On a personal note, my favorite film of the year was Boyhood, and while I am not upset that my second favorite film of the year won Best Picture, I do wish director Richard Linklater had received more accolades for his unique and extraordinary project. It was nice to see two screen veterans and professionals like Julianne Moore and JK Simmons take home their first Oscars, and I was ecstatic to see so many awards go to Wes Anderson’s beautiful The Grand Budapest Hotel and the frenetic Whiplash. We should all welcome the notice given to international talents like Emmanuel Lubezki, Alexandre Desplat and the previously mentioned Eddie Redmayne.

Alejandro Inarritu was the big winner of the night for his ground-breaking work on Best Picture winner Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and on one of his trips to the stage he articulated a point of which I fully agree. He talked about how in the world of art, “works can’t be compared”, and when he has completed a project, it is that moment when he feels like he has succeeded. That is the heart of why the Academy remains confused about how to treat this event. The work of one actor cannot be objectively compared to that of another. No movie can fairly be determined superior to another. By their nature, works of creativity and art impact each of us differently, and the real test is … were we moved? Were we touched? Did the work cause us to think? Each of these things is more important than a shiny statuette … unless it’s one of those Lego Oscars, which, regardless what was contained in the $160,000 swag bags, were the absolute coolest item given away at the Dolby Theatre!

oscars7


THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)

November 18, 2014

theory of everything Greetings again from the darkness. Stephen Hawking would most certainly make anyone’s list of the most fascinating people to have overcome severe obstacles in life to achieve greatness. Even today, at age 72, Hawking remains one of the foremost physicists and cosmologists. His extraordinary mind now 50+ years trapped inside a body that failed him, and as we learn, should have killed him by the time he was 23.

Director James Marsh is known for his work on two documentaries: Project Nim, and Man On Wire. His flair with reality in those two films is mostly kept in check with this conventional biopic. Based on Jane Hawking‘s book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”, the film does a nice job of showing us the stages of his motor neuron disease, while never digging too deep into the resulting hardships for Stephen or Jane (his wife).

Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserable, My Week with Marilyn) delivers the type of performance that often results in awards. His physical contortions capture the Hawking we have all seen, yet he also emotes the charm and wry humor that accompanies his genius. Jane is played by Felicity Jones (so terrific in Like Crazy) and since it’s based on Jane’s book, we are provided a glimpse into her strength and tenacity as she refuses to give up on Hawking or their relationship.

Some basic science is touched upon here – mostly through beer foam on a table or the glowing embers from a fireplace, but it’s highly recommended that you read Hawking’s best selling book “A Brief History of Time” if you have not already done so. It’s written using language so clear and concise, that even I almost understood it! Much more than science, this film is about the tenacity of Jane and her ability to keep Stephen moving forward while still pursuing her own studies and raising their three kids.

The evolution of their relationship is deftly handled, even as they each drift away towards others. When the break eventually occurs, it is the one moment in the film where heartfelt emotion is on full display. Oddly enough, it’s more relief for both parties than disappointment. In light of the doctor’s original estimate of two years to live, this moment is quite poignant.

Excellent support work comes courtesy of David Thewlis as Hawking’s professor and mentor, Emily Watson as Jane’s mother, Simon McBurney as Stephen’s dad, Charlie Cox as Jonathan (Jane’s second husband), and Maxine Peake as Elaine (Stephen’s second wife). Also of note, Harry Lloyd plays Stephen’s classmate and friend Brian. Mr. Lloyd is the great, great, great grandson of Charles Dickens.

You can see this one without being intimidated by the science, and instead get a glimpse at Hawking’s challenges and the strength of Jane.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the personal relationship and struggles of Hawking and his wife are of interest to you.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some in-depth analysis of Hawking’s genius

watch the trailer:

 


LES MISERABLES (2012)

December 30, 2012

les mis Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most anticipated films of the year is the first from director Tom Hooper since his Oscar -winning The King’s Speech. It also happens to be based on one of the true literary classics by Victor Hugo (first published 1862). And yes, it is presented as a true musical … the dialogue is sung and story advanced through forty-something songs. The latter feature gives it more of an opera feel than the stage version I saw more than 20 years ago.

The biggest question and curiosity going in was whether the cast of top notch movie stars could hold their own vocally. Sure, Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a Tony winner, Anne Hathaway (Fatine) has some Broadway chops of her own, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) sang in Mamma Mia, and Russell Crowe (Javert) has toured with his own band. But this is a whole new challenge, as director Hooper decided to have the actors sing “live” during les mis4filming, providing a more intimate feel to the film. Throw in two exceptionally strong vocal performances from Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and only the harshest critics will claim the singing disappoints.

Seinfeld” fans will enjoy the comic relief from thieving innkeepers Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as they take advantage of their customers while belting out “Master of the House“. And it’s pure joy to hear Colin Wilkinson‘s wonderful voice as The Bishop who offers Valjean his chance for redemption. Mr. Wilkinson is legendary as the original Valjean in the London and New York stage versions from the mid-80’s.  The historical les mis3relevance of the material includes the 1832 student-led June Rebellion and it’s adequately staged here.

There were a few things that distracted me at times. The most annoying being the incessant facial close-up on every song. This is typically a device to cover-up weak set design, but here the sets are spectacular and really capture the nastiness of 19th century France. And while I certainly enjoyed Ms. Hathaways’ show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream“, I found her overall acting to be quite distracting during her few scenes. Russell Crowe’s physical presence perfectly captures the omnipresent Javert, though the lack of punch in his vocals les mis2prevented the boom needed in a couple of songs. Lastly, Mr. Jackman seemed to strain on the high notes in my favorite “Bring him Home“, though again, none of these things ruined the experience for me.

As with most film musicals, the best approach is just to allow the story and songs to wash over you … don’t dwell on the minor issues. Keep in mind that this is a powerful and interesting production thanks to Victor Hugo’s source material. It’s a privilege to enjoy a first rate presentation seen through new eyes and heard through new vocalists.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the stage version OR you enjoy well made movie musicals

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the movie stars to have operatic voices OR nearly three hours of close-ups is more than you can take

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHHHUk8RCw

 


MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

December 2, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I was initially ambivalent on seeing a movie about Marilyn Monroe making a movie. My twisted thinking was that I have already seen the actual film The Prince and the Showgirl, and this particular story is based on a book by Colin Clark who claims to have had a connection/fling with Marilyn during the production phase of the film. Since I had always doubted Clark’s claim, it wasn’t until early reviews of Michelle Williams‘ performance hit Twitter that I started to get interested.

 For an actor, playing Marilyn Monroe must be similar to playing Elvis. Everyone on earth knows what the real deal looks and sounds like. What is interesting about this film is that it is chock-full of actors playing well known people. In addition to Williams/Monroe, we get Eddie Redmayne as Colin, Kenneth Branagh as Sir Lawrence Olivier, Julia Ormond as Vivia Leigh (Olivier’s wife), Toby Jones as Arthur Jacobs, Dominic Cooper as Milton Greene, Karl Moffat as DP Jack Cardiff, Dame Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Zoe Wannamaker playing Paula Strasberg (Monroe’s acting coach), and Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller (the famous writer and Monroe’s husband at the time).

 Michelle Williams dominates the film just as Monroe would have. She mimics the iconic movements, but best succeeds in capturing the essence of Marilyn. History states that Olivier was very impatient with Marilyn and struggled with her irregular schedule and “method” approach to acting (which he abhorred). It is little wonder that Marilyn struggled so with her first and only film outside of the U.S. Many have an image of Ms. Monroe as a ditsy blonde, but there are a couple of well-documented autobiographies that show a pretty shrewd business person and one very aware of her marketable and valuable public image.

 As for the film, it rates a couple of ticks higher thanks to the outstanding performances of both Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh. If not for them, it would be little more than a TV movie. Speaking of, this is the first feature film for director Simon Curtis, whose previous work has been seen on television. Personally, I would have preferred a movie that focused on either the making of The Prince and the Showgirl or a view of the human side of Marilyn. Here, we get a shortage of each.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Michelle Williams’ beautiful performance as Marilyn (she is likely to get an Oscar nom)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for any real insight into what Marilyn was like as a real person (this one just skims the surface)

watch the trailer: