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 PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)

August 31, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Brace for gushing. Upon attending a screening that included a fascinating Q&A with writer/director Stephen Chbosky, I was reminded of how personal and intimate and observant and incisive a well-made film can be. A well written script is so refreshing, and an exceptional script can be truly breath-taking. Mr. Chbosky takes the most unusual step of directing his own screenplay based on his own novel (a 1999 bestseller), and he left me stunned and enthralled, both onscreen and off.

The popularity of the novel would typically make the film version a disappointment for its fans. Not so this time. Mr. Chbosky remains true to the spirit despite the need to edit for the sake of pacing and brevity. The key characters spring to life thanks to the outstanding script and the four strong performances from young actors: Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson, The Three Muskateers) plays Charlie, Emma Watson (Harry Potter films) is Sam, Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, City Island) is Patrick, and Mae Whitman (“Arrested Development“) is Mary Elizabeth.

If you have read the book, you know the story … you know the characters … you know the themes. If you haven’t read the book, I will spoil nothing. The brilliance is recognized only as you get to know these characters and slowly uncover their stories. What we discover is that, regardless of our age, we recognize these characters from our high school days. We know the introverted, observant Charlie who so desperately needs a support system. We surely recognize the attention-starved, lacking in self-esteem Sam who is the epitome of “We accept the love we think we deserve“. And we all knew a Patrick … the flamboyant one who sheaths his pain with an over-the-top act of public confidence. What Chbosky does is shine the spotlight on these characters to ensure that we really SEE them this time.

The themes reminded me a bit of a darker John Hughes film (that’s a compliment). There were also pieces of two other really good films: Stand By Me and Almost Famous. The formative years of a writer determine the depths to which his or her work will reach later in life. Admittedly, the film is substantially autobiographical, so when Mr. Chbosky says it’s a personal story, we begin to understand the foundation of his remarkable writing style.  He even utilizes music to help us get a better feel for this period of time … especially “Asleep” by The Smiths and “Heroes” by David Bowie.  Watching the impact of the songs reminds us just what a powerful bookmark a particular song can be at a given moment in our life.

Welcome to the island of misfit toys.” When this line is spoken, we realize that most every high school kid has thought the same thing at some point. These are painful and difficult times and as Mr. Chbosky stated, we should encourage kids to fight through this stage and get on to the next … then work to find their true self. Clearly, the film made a strong impact on me. My favorite reaction to a movie is profound thought, and this one caused it in waves. The decision to release as PG-13 was wise. There is no excess of profanity or nudity to divert attention from what really matters … the characters. I can think of no finer compliment to a writer and filmmaker than to cite them as the cause of my internal discussions related to their film. My hope is that you have the same reaction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the book OR you believe that the high school years, in spite of how painful they might be, are formative years for helping us start the path to self-discovery

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer teen movies be doused in slapstick rather than reality

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5rh7O4IDc0


WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

March 4, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Brady Bunch, this isn’t. It’s also not the place to look for helpful parenting tips. In fact, the story revolves around Eva, a woman (Tilda Swinton) who apparently didn’t want to have a child … at least not at this time, and certainly not THIS child. If you have seen The Omen, you probably gave thanks that you didn’t have a child like Damien. At least we knew Damien was the spawn of Satan. Eva’s son Kevin, is instead a good old fashioned psychopath. One who has an inherent need to cause pain and misery for his mother.

What a pair Eva and Kevin make. From day one, Kevin seems to sense his mother’s lack of joy in parenthood. And he seems to have a genetic disposition of making her pay. As with many psychopaths, his above average intelligence makes him all the more dangerous. He is tricky enough to keep his dad (John C Riley) clueless as to his nature, while causing much doubt in the dad’s mind as to the stability of his wife.

 My favorite part is actually how director Lynne Ramsay structured the storytelling. It goes beyond non-linear and actually bounces throughout three key periods: Kevin as a baby/toddler, Kevin as a 6-8 year old (Jason Newell), and Kevin as a teenager (Ezra Miller). Each age is progressively more frightening and disenchanting … and all of the “Kevin” actors glare with the same lifeless eyes. The film begins with what is an undetermined catastrophe. This event is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, though we witness events leading up to it, as well as the resulting fallout.

 There are recurring scenes where Eva is scrubbing the exterior of her house in an attempt to remove the red paint that was purposefully splattered. As a viewer, we understand that she has blood on her hands and she seems resigned to the fact that she is now a social outcast, even a pariah. We spend much of the movie in Eva’s jumbled thoughts as she tries to piece together what has happened and why. Of course, there is no simple answer. The title explains what was missing all along. There was no communication and no willingness to confront the problem … a psychopathic son born to a disenchanted woman who refuses to get past her lost dreams. To say they all paid the price is an understatement.

This film has a very limited audience, though my claim is that Ms. Swinton was quite deserving of an Oscar nomination. She wears defeat like a mask and lives in isolation better than most could. Even the music is offbeat and unusual in its use … thanks to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. As filmmaking, this is high art. As storytelling, it’s a bit muddled and quite a downer.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to feel better about the kids you are raising

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for helpful parenting tips

watch the trailer:


CITY ISLAND (2009)

April 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am always amazed, amused and somewhat satisfied when a writer gathers up multiple stereotypes, massages the conflict and dialogue, and emerges with a script that captures interest and holds attention. Writer/director Raymond De Felitta has done just that with working class Italian New Yorkers.

All story lines revolve around the secrets each of the family members keep from the others. Sure, we all understand that two-way communication and trust create a much stronger and healthier family, but sometimes, it’s just not that simple.

Andy Garcia plays the head of this secretive bunch and he sets the stage with two whoppers. The first is his slinking off to acting classes while chasing his lifelong dream of becoming an actor – like his inspiration, Marlon Brando. To cover this one up, he tells his wife (Julianna Margulies) that he is off to another poker game, unaware that she interprets this as code for his having an affair.

They have a daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) who has lost her college scholarship and is saving money to re-enroll by working (secretly) as a stripper. Guess what?  Her parents don’t know.  Their odd ball son (Ezra Miller), who believes he is too smart to attend classes, develops an online fetish habit that ends up VERY close to home.  Again, his parents are oblivious.

In most films, this would be plenty of ammunition to create havoc among the players. Not here. Garcia’s second, and much larger secret, throws this dysfunctional family into a tailspin – and he somehow is the last to realize. Emily Mortimer, Steven Strait and Alan Arkin all provide strong support to the story and this “family”.

Mr. De Felitta explored some of these family topics in The Thing About My Folks, but here he is working with his own script. The balance between comedy, conflict and insight is actually very good; though, the New Yorker habit of loud mealtime conversation is somewhat discomforting for this southern boy. Still, I have nothing but positive things to say about how the stereotypes end up providing self-realization to each of the characters, and even more importantly, an understanding of what their family really is. Good stuff here.