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:

Advertisements

GENIUS (2016)

June 17, 2016

genius Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics provide a look into the life of someone who had an impact. If after watching this film, you are confused about just who the main subject is, that’s understandable. It’s rare to find a biopic about two people … a duo biopic … but that’s what the film directorial debut of noted British theatre director Michael Grandage presents. Novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins are forever linked in history, and the screenplay by John Logan (Oscar nominated for Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) shows us just how intertwined these two lives became. It’s based on A Scott Berg’s 1978 book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”.

It’s 1929 and writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is tapping his foot as he smokes a cigarette while standing on the sidewalk staring at Scribner’s Sons Publishing building in New York City. A moment later he is bursting into an office whilst unleashing a rapid-fire blast of words to which our ears can barely keep pace. Taking in the verbal fireworks is an elegantly quiet and eternally hatted man behind the desk. With only the phrase “Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book”, editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) manages to silence the bombastic writer for a few stunned seconds … mostly the only time we witness this.

And so begins not so much a friendship as a professional dependency and surrogate father/son relationship. Thomas Wolfe was other-worldly prolific in his ability to craft words into stories. He was also an exceedingly creative workaholic and alcoholic who found his way to Perkins via North Carolina and Harvard. Yes, it’s the same Max Perkins who was editor to such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Seen as personality polar opposites, we also get to witness the differences within the personal lives of the two gentlemen. Both have strong women at home. Mr. Perkins’ wife Louise is played by Laura Linney, and their 5 daughters are smitten with the outlandish behavior and stories of Mr. Wolfe as he visits for dinner. In an unusual twist for the times, an older married woman Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), was Wolfe’s lover and supporter … even through his carousing and endless nights of work with Perkins.

The red pencil of Perkins is as ever-present as the hat on his head, as he slashes and burns through paragraph after paragraph and page after page of Wolfe’s writing in order to fashion an end product that is “marketable”. The result was Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward, Angel” … even the title was changed by Perkins. The editing sequences and Perkins’ directive for “Big story, fewer words” have us (and Perkins himself) questioning the role of an editor. Do they make the story better or just different? Is marketable more important than the original words of the author? It’s a legitimate point of discussion, as it’s doubtful anyone told da Vinci that his Mona Lisa should have a bigger smile, or Mozart that The Magic Flute should have fewer notes. Are book editors underappreciated or overly critical?  In the case of the second Wolfe novel “Of Time and the River”, Perkins reduced the work by not hundreds, but rather thousands of pages … all for the goal of marketability. And it turned out to be Wolfe’s best-selling book.

The best scene in the film is also the most insightful. Wolfe drags the always dignified Perkins to a late night jazz club, and with the help of the band, displays in song how Wolfe’s brain kicks into writing mode. It’s a moment of enlightenment for Perkins, as well as us viewers. Law’s Wolfe is a whirlwind of words and prose and those in his path are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of his way. In what feels like a touch of name-dropping, the film tacks on a couple of scenes with Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald ( ). Though the scenes are a bit heavy-handed, they do serve as a reminder of what terrific writing came from this era, as well as the impact of editor Perkins.

It’s a little disconcerting to see the leads in an America tale played by Brits and Aussies, but there is no denying the effectiveness of Firth, Law, et al. It’s truly a tale of two geniuses, and Aline was correct … after Wolfe, there was “a great hush”.

watch the trailer:

 


SPY (2015)

June 24, 2015

spy Greetings again from the darkness. Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig are back together in hopes of recapturing their Bridesmaids comedy and box office magic. They are also re-teaming for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This time it’s a parody of James Bond films … right down to the elaborate and creative opening credit sequence. Recognizing that combining action and comedy can be a bit challenging, Feig enlists the help of Jason Statham and Jude Law. Statham parodies his well known uber-intense characters with a running dialogue of his bravery and heroism, while Law is clearly having a blast as the ultra-smooth agent Bradley Fine (think Pierce Brosnan’s Bond).

In spite of the gentlemen, this is Ms. McCarthy’s film and she is believable as the frumpy CIA analyst who is the “voice in the ear” of super agent Fine (Law). He maneuvers the front line of dangerous assignments as she provides life-saving high-tech guidance from the relative safety of the vermin-infested basement CIA lab. Of course, we know McCarthy’s agent will end up in the field in her attempts to avenge a mission gone wrong.

It’s McCarthy in the field that will either make or break the film for you. Her scenes with Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz worked best for me, while her Jackie Chan-style kitchen fight scene and her chase scenes were a bit more difficult to buy off on. It can be confusing as a viewer when we are constantly bombarded with PC rules, and then Feig and McCarthy don’t hesitate to use her heft for laughs.

Other supporting work is provided by British comedienne Miranda Hunt, another fish out of water agent; Morena Baccarin as a strutting super agent at the level of Statham; Bobby Cannavale as a would-be terrorist; and Allison Janney as the CIA Supervisor. While each have their moments, it’s McCarthy’s visit to the spy gadget department that provides the best laughs.

The Action-Comedy-Spy Thriller genre is pretty sparse, and as you may expect, comedy is the priority for most scenes. McCarthy does well in her first true film lead, though my prediction is that her value as an actress will ultimately come from playing characters who are more “real” – like her role in last year’s St. Vincent.


BLACK SEA (2015)

January 21, 2015

black sea Greetings again from the darkness. One of my first favorite TV shows as a little kid was “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. Each week I sat wide-eyed in front of the tube (yes, it was actually a cathode ray tube back then) anxiously awaiting underwater adventure. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Irwin Allen’s 1961 movie of the same name, and more importantly, Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, which featured the wild exploits of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus.  Since then, count me in for just about any movie based aboard a submarine (Down Periscope being a rare exception).

Director Kevin MacDonald is best known for his excellent 2006 film The Last King of Scotland (with Forest Whitaker’s Oscar winning performance as Idi Amin). This time he works with a script from playwright Dennis Kelly to deliver a gritty, tense thriller that is lacking any traditional Hollywood fluff … it’s a down and dirty look at greed, desperation and the survival instinct.

Inherent to a story based aboard a submarine is the immediate and constant threat of claustrophobia and death. This one adds another element of danger by blending a crew of Russians and Brits with the goal of bringing back millions of dollars in gold locked away on a sunken German U-Boat in the Black Sea waters. Lest you think the Russians are just another group of southern California actors faking the accent, director MacDonald confirmed that he cast actual Russian actors – including Grigoriy Dobrygin (A Most Wanted Man), Konstantin Khabenskiy (one of the most popular actors in Russia), and three others named Sergey, which MacDonald acknowledged contributed to on-set confusion. This decision elevates the onboard tension between adversarial characters to an armrest-gripping level. Yet another slightly psychotic Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) role doesn’t hurt, either.

Jude Law continues the second phase of his career – far removed from his pretty boy early films – as a tough, revenge-seeking sub captain fired by his long-time employer. Should you doubt Law’s acting range, I would recommend not just this film, but also last year’s Dom Hemingway (a raucous ride). Law’s performance here is very strong as he transforms from a p.o.’d former employee to an eye-on-the-prize, win-at-all-cost treasure seeker. The onboard tension mounts every time there is interaction between the Russians and Brits, and Law’s character attempts to mediate. The progression of this three-way dynamic is fascinating to watch as it unfolds.

To provide that true underwater feeling, MacDonald filmed some scenes onboard an old Soviet submarine that is moored in the River Medway in Kent (UK). We never have that feeling of Hollywood soundstage; instead we as viewers share in the tight space and constant dread. This combination of characters, setting and mission deliver an intense thriller that is sure to please, and feels uncommonly welcome this early in the year.

The pinnacle of submarine movies is Das Boot (1981), a must-see for any movie lover. Other popular sub films include Crimson Tide (1995), The Hunt for Red October (1990), and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and for those of us who are fascinated by life (and possible death) under the sea, we gladly welcome a new entry to the sub-genre, especially one as well made and tension-packed as Black Sea.

watch the trailer:

 


DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

April 17, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

dom Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe I should apologize, but I won’t. This was hands-down my favorite from the Dallas International Film Festival. It was probably the least favorite of many others. With the most outlandish and uncomfortable opening scene in recent memory, the movie comes across a rough blend of early Guy Ritchie and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Given that description, no movie lover would expect Jude Law to be the star who dominates most every scene. Yes, pretty boy Jude Law has gone “ugly” the way fellow pretty boy Matthew McConaughey went “indie”. It’s a shock to see Mr. Law looking shaggy and paunchy … in his best moments! He holds nothing back in his portrayal of this vulgar, verbose ex-con so full of swagger.

Joining Dom is his old buddy Dickie, played by Richard E Grant – whose smooth comedic delivery is a terrific complement to the harshness of Dom. After serving 12 years in prison, Dom is on a mission to get the money he is due from a Russian mobster played by Demian Bichir (yes, Mr. Bichir is Mexican). Of course, nothing ever goes as planned in Dom’s life, so a coke-fueled night of celebration at a glamorous French château leads to one of the most startling cinematic car accidents, leaving Dom penniless.

The story now veers off the Dom’s attempt at redemption … reconciliation with his daughter played by “Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke. The bi-polar aspects of Dom’s persona comes through when comparing his “criminal” scenes and his “daughter” scenes. The contrast does provide relief from the relentless raucous dialogue delivered with the most extreme cockney accent possible. Still, the redemption story line takes away from what makes Dom such a force of nature and so much fun to watch on screen. Writer/director Richard Shepard gave a very enthusiastic and passionate Q&A after the screening, and it was quite obvious he “liked” this character, despite the flaws.  Mr. Shepard was responsible for one of my favorite little known gems, The Matador (2005).

This is a violent, vulgar character delivered in blaringly over-the-top mode by an actor that has previously shown no such tendencies. As with all comedy, and especially such raucous, irreverent black comedy, the audience will be divided by those who find this extremely entertaining and those who think it’s a waste of time and talent. Expect no guarantees from me on which camp you might fall into.

**NOTE: the movie contains quite striking primate art, as evidenced by the movie poster shown above

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

March 16, 2014

grand budapest Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the finer things in life are an acquired taste. The exception to that is the film canon of writer/director Wes Anderson. You either “get” it or you don’t. Which side of the line you fall is much more a matter of style and taste than intellect.

This latest from Anderson may be his most visually distinct and stylistic presentation yet. He even tosses in a bit of a plot so that we have more reason to follow the outlandish antics of master concierge (and murder suspect) M Gustave – played with comic verve by Ralph Fiennes. Yes, the Ralph Fiennes known for such comedy classics as Schindler’s List, The English Patient and The Hurt Locker. Admit it, when you need a laugh, you fire up the Ralph Fiennes stand-up routine. OK, so he did have a role in the terrific dark comedy In Bruges, but nothing has prepared us for seeing him in this witty, fast-talking role at the center of Anderson’s wildest ride yet.

As any follower of Anderson films will tell you, there is always fun to be had in picking out the members of his supporting cast. Assisting Mr. Fiennes with this one are Edward Norton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (oddly cast after Angela Lansbury dropped out), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Of course, there is also Bill Murray, in his seventh collaboration with Anderson. The most impressive new face is that of Tony Revolori, who plays the teenage Lobby Boy in-training … a role that turns vital when he is befriended by Gustave, and is invaluable in the telling of the story.

None of that really matters though, as the best description I give this is “spectacle”. It’s a whimsical romp with nostalgic tributes throughout. It’s a movie for movie lovers from a true movie lover. You will notice the three distinct aspect ratios used to depict the different time periods, and the music is perfect … from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastic composition over the closing credits. If you are up for some hyper-stylistic eye candy, this one is tough to beat (especially this time of year).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: colorful costumes and wild set design combined with oddly humorous deadpan dialogue delivery from the mind of Wes Anderson is something you “get” OR you never miss a Ralph Fiennes comedy!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: traditional story telling is your preference for movies

Below you will find two links … one for the trailer and one for the Desplat’s closing credit song.

the closing credit song:

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

the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

 

 

 


SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

February 11, 2013

side Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steven Soderbergh says this is it. His final film. At age 50, he says he is walking away from making movies. Over the years, he has provided some good and some not so good, but never has he bored us. Movie lovers will always be grateful to him for his 1989 Sex, Lies and Videotape, which single-handedly brought the spotlight back to indie film. While I am quite skeptical of his retirement claim, it’s noteworthy because the absence of one of today’s true auteur’s would be a loss for the art of cinema.

As for this “last” film, it begins as Hitchcock-esque, but concludes as more like Basic Instinct or Dressed to Kill. Put simply, the first half is mesmerizing while the second half devolves into a trashy pulp thrille … which, depending on your tastes, may or may not be a negative.

side2 The first half brought to mind the term pharmacological thriller. It seems as though Soderbergh and frequent writing collaborator Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) are making a statement about our current societal trend of seeking answers, and even cures, through medication … despite the risky side effects. We meet Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) as he is released from prison (insider trading) and she is falling back into her depressive ways. She is soon enough being treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a doctor who seems typical in his belief that finding the right pill cures most ills.

Since this is a suspense thriller filled with numerous twists and double, even triple-crossings, it’s impossible to go too deep into what happens without spoilers … something I won’t do here. What can be said is the pharmacological thriller shifts into legal drama and finally a who-done-what kind of conclusion. The solving of the mystery comes courtesy of another oft-used Hitchcock theme: the wronged man seeking vindication.

side3 Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent here and to whatever extent the story works for you, they deserve the credit along with Soderbergh. Ms. Mara was outstanding in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mr. Law continues his transition from lame rom-com’s to quality dramatic actor. The same shouldn’t be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Dr Victoria Seibert, Emily’s first psychiatrist. Every scene she shares and every line she speaks just screams “look at me”, not a desired quality for a supporting role.

Support work is provided by Polly Draper, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), Vinessa Shaw, Peter Friedman, Laila Robins, and Ann Dowd. Soderbergh does not disappoint from a technical aspect. His odd camera angles and unique shots are quite impressive and effective in sustaining the mood, even as the story spirals towards far-fetched. If it’s truly his swan song, it seems appropriate that we see both the highs and lows of director Soderbergh. Here’s hoping he returns very soon to the medium where his impact is needed.  If not, the side effects aren’t pretty.

**NOTE: If you look quick, there is an advertising poster featuring Julia Roberts. (Ms. Roberts is a Soderbergh favorite from films such as Erin Brokovich)

**NOTE: Soderbergh does have a TV project set to air later this year.  Behind the Candelabra is the story of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe it’s Steven Soderbergh’s final movie OR you enjoy a pulpy thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer psycho-thrillesr that avoid the slide towards trash-pulp

watch the trailer:

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