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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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t love a good whodunit? Don’t we all find a bit of guilty pleasure in being the mastermind who solves a fictitious murder case? Has anyone ever been better at crafting an intricate murder mystery than Agatha Christie? Why all the questions? Well, that’s nothing compared to what “probably the world’s greatest detective”, Hercule Poirot, must answer amidst the foul play aboard the sleek, luxurious, and snowbound Orient Express.

This latest film version has Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) with the adapted screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as the fabulously mustachioed Poirot (with his own take on the iconic super-sleuth). Like the near-perfect 1974 version, this latest adaptation succeeds in capturing the theatricality, while avoiding any stodgy staginess. Director Branagh shot on film and it pays off in both the stunning snow-covered mountains and landscapes, as well as the tight, precisely-blocked interior shots around the exceptional set designs.

Fans of the novel will notice some shifting of character names, professions and backgrounds, although the vast majority of the story remains intact … including the early murder that occurs not long after the film ingeniously introduces us to each of the characters. The cast is strong and deep, and in addition to Mr. Branagh, features: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. All are suspects – well, except the victim.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen a previous version, know that the fun is in ride. Follow along as Poirot dispenses zingers throughout, while maintaining a most precise commitment to balance in all things. He is an exacting and fastidious man, and as entertaining as he is skilled in crime solving. Note that the photograph he keeps of his one true love Katherine, is actually a photo of young Emma Thompson (Branagh’s real life wife). Enjoy keeping track of the clues and hints, while also tracking the widely diverse personalities, excuses and alibis. Most of the many characters only have a couple of key scenes, and it’s quite fun to see what these talented performers make of their moments. Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton and Derek Jacobi make the most of their time, while Penelope Cruz overplays hers. Other than Branagh, the star who shines the brightest is Michelle Pfeiffer (fresh off a killer performance in MOTHER!). She continues to remind us just how talented she is, and no, your ears aren’t playing tricks … that’s Ms. Pfeiffer singing “Never Forget” (lyrics by Branagh) as the closing credits roll.

Ms. Christie’s outstanding novel was first published in 1934, and is somewhat based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and her own train-riding adventure. It’s a wonderful and perplexing read … one that will have you changing your mind multiple times on who you believe to be guilty of murder. It’s obviously a personal favorite. There have been numerous movie versions over the years, and none have matched the excellence of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film with an incredible all-star cast alongside Albert Finney’s Poirot. Though this most recent movie doesn’t reach the timelessness of that one, no movie can be expected to capture the detail and maze-like structure of the novel. It’s still quite fun – and a true joy- to see the pages come to life (irony intended) on the big screen.

watch the trailer:

 


BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

watch the trailer:

 


INTO THE WOODS (2014)

December 23, 2014

 

into the woods Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a musical, but not a typical musical. It’s a fairy tale, but not a typical fairy tale. It’s funny, but not a typical comedy. It’s a bit frightening, but not a typical monster film. It’s filled with lessons of morality and responsibility, but certainly not a typical parable. In fact, there is nothing typical about director Rob Marshall’s (Oscar winner for Chicago) screen adaptation of the smash Broadway hit from Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine.

The story revolves around 4 classic Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, in a style much more similar in tone to the edgy Brothers Grimm, than the cuddly Walt Disney traditionals. These four are intertwined with the saga of a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who discover they have been unable to have children due to a long ago spell cast by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep). With a secret agenda, the witch offers the couple a way to break the spell, and that’s what ties-in the four tales and provides a reason for adventure and song.

Filmed seamlessly between an elaborate sound stage and a couple of park locations, the film has a dark and eerie feel to it that’s probably too intense for younger children. And much of the dialogue and lyrics is aimed directly at adults and will be a blur to kids. Additionally, in typical Sondheim fashion, the songs aren’t catchy and melodic in the manner of most movie musicals … instead the lyrics propel the story and help shape the characters. Oh, and by the way, don’t expect any fancy dance sequences – this is pretty serious stuff with plenty of angst amongst the characters.

Ms. Streep is extraordinary as the witch (both nasty and beautiful) and does a terrific job with her three main songs. She is especially fun in her entrances and exits, and while wearing the most impactful of all the costumes. Emily Blunt also handles her vocals very well and offers up some of the film’s most witty dialogue. Chris Pine (as the Prince) is flat out hilarious, and with a twinkle in his eye, spouts lines such as “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”. He also shares the screen with Billy Magnussen (playing the younger brother) in the most audacious of the musical numbers, “Agony”. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick once again proves she is an exceptionally talented singer, and James Cordon anchors the production as the nice guy village baker we are rooting for.

In supporting roles, we have a devilish Johnny Depp whose screen time as the Big Bad Wolf is quite limited, and a perfectly cast Christine Baranski as the evil step-mother in cahoots with her non-Cinderella daughters played by Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard. Lilla Crawford is Little Red Riding Hood, and her young age snuffs out much of the innuendo that the Wolf scenes should have provided, and takes the edge off the song “I Know Things Now”. Daniel Huddlestone is an energetic Jack, and dependable Tracey Ullman plays his frustrated mom. MacKenzie Mauzy captures the awakening of Rapunzel, while Frances de la Tour frightens everyone involved as the agitated (for good reason) Lady Giant.

Unconventional is the best description of this production, and there is a group of viewers who will be totally captivated by it, while a much larger group will probably find it too dark and bleak, and lacking the easy charm we have come to expect from movie musicals. However, for those of us in the first group, we will be totally enchanted by the characters, story lines, wry humor, costumes, sets, and songs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your fairy tales a bit on the dark side OR you want to see yet another incredible performance from Meryl.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a light-hearted holiday matinee for the little kiddies

watch the trailer:

 


THE LONE RANGER (2013)

July 6, 2013

lone ranger Greetings again from the darkness. The Western genre has always appealed to me. I love the clear division between good and bad. Heroes and Villains face-off and the good guys usually win, thereby protecting those too weak to protect themselves. TV had an impressive string of popular westerns: “The Rifleman”, “Maverick”, “The Big Valley”, “Rawhide”, “Bonanza”, and “Gunsmoke” (1955-75).

One of the most popular got it’s start on the radio in 1933: “The Lone Ranger“. When it hit TV in 1949, the great Clayton Moore donned the mask and badge, accompanied by Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Though they filmed a couple of movies, they were best known on the small screen. Then in 1981,  The Legend of the Lone Ranger was released in theatres. It was directed by William Fraker and starred Klinton Spilsbury. If you have never seen it … Mr. Fraker never directed another movie and Mr. Spilsbury never acted again. Enough said.

lone ranger2 Thirty-three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and mega-star Johnny Depp have teamed up for a re-imagined Tonto and the Lone Ranger story. Yes, that is the proper order since this is mostly the story of Tonto, told by Tonto, with the camera focused on Tonto (Depp). There is very little respect for the roots of the story, and that’s probably because it would not be politically correct these days to have a subservient Comanche taking orders from a masked white man.

We first meet an aging Tonto as the “Noble Savage” in a 1933 Old West traveling museum. This approach reminds me of the far superior Little Big Man featuring Dustin Hoffman. Tonto proceeds to tell a young boy his version of history. We are never really sure if this is a tall tale or just a commentary on how our memory recalls events solely from our own perspective. Tonto’s character is given a full backstory, but John Reid, the square and square-jawed prosecutor who Tonto mentors into becoming the lone ranger4Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer) is presented as a naive buffoon. Reid’s courageous brother Dan is played by James Badge Dale, and the bad guys are played by Tom Wilkinson (Cole, the train baron), and William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish, the notorious outlaw who wiped out the Rangers).

It seems apparent that Verbinski was striving to create the next Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The template is familiar … lots of action and wise-cracking, replete with the newest caricature in the Johnny Depp repertoire. Though Depp has many critics, I am not one. To me, he is a modern day Red Skelton, and I admire the nuances of his Captain Jack Sparrow, Wily Wonka, Mad Hatter, and of course, Edward Scissorhands. Tonto is another feather in his cap (so to speak) and his decision to base the look on Kirby Sattler’s painting “I Am Crow” adds a stark look along with fodder for comedy.  Depp performs an impressive stunt featuring a tall ladder and two trains … it plays like a tribute to the great Buster Keaton.

lone ranger3 Many film critics have been bashing the production – some even before the film’s release. In this day of information overload, we all are aware of the battle between the filmmakers and the studio. The final product does in fact wear the scars of entirely too many writers and budget mismanagement and limitations that come with the Disney brand. What should have been a perfect fit (ultimate good guy Lone Ranger) turned into a jumbled mess at times. The 2 1/2 hour movie easily could have been a full hour shorter. Maybe building two new locomotives worked great for realism, but was tough on the budget. With so few young movie-goers even aware of the Lone Ranger, creative freedom to re-imagine the character makes sense, but making him a klutzy sidekick probably doesn’t. So what we get are pre-release headlines telling us the film is a bomb. I find that unfair. It certainly appeared that most of the audience I was part of enjoyed the movie, though there were cracks about how long it was.

There are some very impressive segments within the film and having Rossini’s William Tell Overture playing over the heart-pounding climax adds a level of fun that most movies don’t have. The use of Monument Valley in Utah put me in the mood for a John Ford movie marathon.  So while I fully agree that the movie is much too long, the script should have been tightened, and more respect paid to the main character, it seems highly likely that the movie will be remembered much more fondly than film critics would have us believe … at least by those who give it a shot.

**NOTE: if you are unfamiliar with the legend, Britt Reid who became The Green Hornet, is the great nephew of John Reid (The Lone Ranger).

**NOTE: I totally missed the significance or tie-in of the blood-thirsty rabbits in this movie, though they did remind me of Monty Python’s Killer Rabbits.  If you “get” this, please explain to me.

**NOTE: Helena Bonham Carter.  ugh

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the critics and accept this as another blockbuster summer fun flick OR you want to see the latest addition to the Johnny Depp Hall of Oddity

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the All-American hero as seen in the long ago TV series (this is really not his story)

Below are two videos.  The first is the 27 second opening to the TV series.  The second is one of the full trailers to the new movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Td4RHvyAFsM

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L5pbgKyWs4


DARK SHADOWS (2012)

May 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If anyone ever asks “What was the name of that late 60’s goth, supernatural soap opera with the cult following?“, it’s safe to assume they mean the TV series “Dark Shadows“. It ran from 1966-1971 for a remarkable 1225 episodes. For those who remember it, the image they recall tends to be actor Jonathan Frid as Barnabus Collins … the first vampire most of us ever saw outside of a Friday night horror film. The series made quite an impact on two young boys in particular: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

There are many reasons that movies get made. Pet projects or labors of love are not as common these days because of high production costs. But that’s exactly what this movie is – a pet project for Burton and Depp. They clearly have fun with the characters, and the film dallies ever so closely to the parody line. The initial set-up is brilliant and dark and ominous, leading us to believe this film will be in line with Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or Corpse Bride. Instead, the rest of the movie is more in line with Beetlejuice. Definitely not a bad thing – just different than what we were prepped for.

 Johnny Depp gives a wonderful performance as Barnabus Collins, the rich young man cursed by Angelique, the witch he spurns in love. His curse is to be turned into a vampire and buried alive. When his casket is discovered 196 years later, the world of 1972 is quite different than the one he left. He comically struggles to fit in and make sense of it all … not the least of which is his remaining family. At his beloved Collinswood Manor lives Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), the live-in child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and their recently hired nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcote). While he was buried, the wicked witch Angelique (Eva Green) becomes the most powerful figure in town.  Ms. Green holds nothing back in her over-the-top jealous witch fun.

 Burton does a nice job poking fun at the 1970’s with comedy that won’t mean much to today’s youngsters, but will hit home with those from the era. The art direction and sets are terrific, especially Collinwood Manor. The music of the 70’s is used to comic effect, including a live performance by Alice Cooper. Michelle Pfeiffer does the best job at capturing the look and feel of the original series, but her daughter’s character (Moretz) takes an unnecessary turn as Burton tries to cram as much in as possible. In fact, the film is actually quite fun to watch, but is lacking real substance in the story department … not dissimilar to the original series.

 This is the 8th film collaboration between Burton and Depp. They make a wonderful team, and Depp has added another entertaining character to his Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Mad Hatter legacy. His movements and speech pattern are especially entertaining as we are mesmerized by his milky white complexion. His dialogue (written by Seth Grahame-Smith) demands attention and is both comical and majestic simultaneously. Burton’s tribute to the TV series includes cameos by four of the original actors: Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, and the recently deceased Jonathan Frid (pictured left) as guests at the ball. It’s a classy touch. Danny Elfman’s score is a bit overwhelmed by the use of numerous 70’s classics, and it was disappointing to hear The Killers version of “Go All the Way” rather than The Raspberries as the closing credits rolled.

Burton is one of the more visual directors and even though the story is a bit lacking, each scene gives us plenty to absorb. The ghosts are especially well done, as is the fishing town of Collinsport which was built just for the movie. It has many similarities to Bodega Bay, which film lovers will recognize as the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Lastly, Burton gives us another scene with the great Christopher Lee – this time as a boat captain caught between Angelique and Barnabus. Good stuff.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original TV series OR you enjoy Burton/Depp collaborations OR you “get” 1970’s humor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: in your mind, the 1970’s have as much relevance as 1870

watch the trailer:


21 JUMP STREET (2012)

March 20, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The original 1987-91 TV series “jump” started Johnny Depp‘s mega-superstardom career, and yes, he is a generous enough to appear in a brief cameo in this updated film from co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The script from co-writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill makes little effort to stay true to the source material and that works in the film’s favor.

We first meet Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) as polar opposites at the same high school. One of them is a pudgy, nerdy looking guy trying hard to throw down an Eminem look, while the other is the ultra-cool jock who is skating by academically. Guess which is which? Flash forward seven years and these two are still misfits … this time at the police academy where one aces the physical fitness tests and bombs academically and the other is just the opposite. Guess which is which? So these two decide to become buddies and help each other live the dream as badass cops.

 Cut to the next scene where they are patrolling a park on bicycles and visualizing their first big bust. When things go wrong … SURPRISE! … they are assigned to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), an angry man who runs the Jump Street undercover unit out of a Korean church. Since neither Hill nor Tatum look anything like high schoolers, the absurdity is written into the script. They become the most mis-matched brothers since Schwarzenegger and Devito in Twins.

Their mission is to discover the dealers and source for a new drug making its way through a local high school. The drug has already killed one student and it takes these two “brothers” about 5 minutes to uncover the dealers, a group of popular rich kids. The supplier is a bit slower to come and the process involves numerous comedy skits involving Tatum as a science geek and Hill as Peter Pan.

 The comedy skits involve nice work from Elle Kemper, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Chris Parnell. The cool kids are played by Dave Franco (James’ brother) and Brie Larson. Car chases, a keg party, science experiments and the prom all play a role, as do white tuxedos and one of the oddest shootouts ever filmed. What seems like 1200 rounds are fired in a hotel room before someone is actually hit.

In addition to Depp’s pretty cool cameo, there are also appearances from Peter DeLuise and Holly Robinson Peete, both of whom starred in the original TV series. Of course the story is ridiculous and the film never really takes itself seriously, but I was actually somewhat impressed with Channing Tatum’s ability to play deadpan to Jonah Hill’s slapstick. The two worked pretty well together and there are enough laughs to make this one worth seeing.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Channing Tatum generate some laughs (purposefully this time) OR you just need some mindless giggles

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a tribute to the original TV series OR you are a fan of realistic police dramas

watch the trailer: