Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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A pleasant mix of whimsy and peril, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them takes elements from the Harry Potter saga and places them in a new setting with new characters. This latest movie from the mind of J.K. Rowling—she wrote and co-produced the film—has a mostly adult cast and is set on our side of the Atlantic in the mid 1920s.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Potter universe to enjoy FBAWTFT, although it has numerous references to Potter people and things. The film introduces a new character, briefly glimpsed in a Johnny Depp cameo, who will surely provide darkness and evil in Beasts’ sequels. (Four more movies are planned.)

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a British wizard who arrives by ship in New York. In a classic switcheroo, his magical suitcase full of beasts gets mixed up with that of aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Newt also meets fellow wizards Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her roommate Queenie (Alison Sudol). A hat tip to Dan Fogler as Jacob—It’s a role that could’ve seen him go full Oliver Hardy but he keeps it in check.

Tina is not highly regarded by the U.S. wizards organization, led by Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and enforcer Graves (Colin Ferrell). The wizarding group keeps a close eye on Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) who has a group of adopted children and preaches against witches and wizards. One of her flock is Credence (Ezra Miller), a troubled young man with dark secret and an awful haircut.

FBAWTFT has a bit of sexual tension bubbling under between Newt and Tina and especially between Jacob and Queenie, given Queenie’s mindreading ability. But everything is squeaky PG-13 clean.

The beasts? Yes, they are fantastic. Many are derivative, possessing the look of certain prehistoric bird/reptile creatures, as well as other beings witnessed previously in sci-fi movies. My favorite wizard world freaks are those seen in the speakeasy scene where a diminuitive bartender serves Jacob a drink called giggle water. He drinks it and he giggles.

Will Fantastic Beasts satisfy Potter fans now that that tale has concluded? Most likely yes, but it’s a different flavor of wizardry and magic. Like the Potter films, Beasts’ pace is breakneck, heavy with plot and characters. But Newt and crew lack the pure charm Harry and his gang possessed. A different flavor, to be sure, but tasty enough to succeed.

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The Danish Girl

 

Talk about perfect timing! The Danish Girl arrives at the end of a year when the world’s trangender population has received more attention than ever before.

And those stars! The Danish Girl’s title role goes to the incumbent Best Actor Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. Alicia Vikander, the gorgeous Swedish actress who appeared in Ex Machina and The Man From UNCLE this year, is his wife. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for their performances in this film.

The problem with The Danish Girl is, to borrow the Gertrude Stein line, there’s no there there. The story is weak and fragile. Husband Einar (Redmayne) and wife Gerda (Vikander) are artists in century ago Copenhagen. She asks hubby to slip on a gown so he can pose for a painting. He finds likes it!

Gerda paints more pictures of her new model and Einar hits the streets in a dress and wig. He even strikes up a relationship with a man, Henrik (the ubiquitous Ben Whishaw).

She and Einar (now going by Lili) take their art to Paris. They encounter Einar’s old friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is not particularly surprised by Einar’s new alter ego.

The support that Gerda gives her husband as he transitions to his identity as a woman is remarkable. It recalls the support given Caitlyn Jenner this year by her family members. (There is a fringe benefit for Gerda: her paintings of this “woman” are a big hit.)

In time, Lili pursues and undergoes surgery to make the transition complete.

Even with this sensitive treatment by director Tom Hooper, it is not easy to fully grasp what exactly sent Einar on this path. He and Gerda appear to be a happy, loving, sexually active young couple. Then, in short order, the movie’s story is set in motion.

Because of its subject matter and its topicality, The Danish Girl will likely receive huge amounts of praise. But there are, I hope, better, more substantial stories about the transgender population waiting to be told on screen.

Jupiter Ascending

 

Big dumb movie. There’s a reason Jupiter Ascending’s release date was pushed back from July 2014 to February 2015: it’s not very good.

Co-directors/co-writers Andy and Lana Wachowski make movies that contain gorgeous, imaginative visuals. But their stories and their storytelling abilities leave much to be desired.

Here’s the Jupiter Ascending scenario: Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a Chicago housecleaner, just an ordinary (if beautiful) schlub whose 4:45 a.m. alarm gets her moving into another day of the drudgery of cleaning toilet bowls. Turns out that she has in her DNA some special stuff that several folks on a distant planet want.

Jupiter is transported to this faraway place where she encounters three siblings who are interested in her. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tupence Middleton, the three Abrasax nogoodniks do their evil while good guys Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and Stinger (Sean Bean) line up on Jupiter’s side.

Redmayne should probably have his recent Oscar nomination rescinded based on his overacting in this film. Tatum, with goatee, resembles Will Ferrell’s character in Zoolander. Kunis looks good, if occasionally baffled, throughout the film. The wedding outfit she wears as a bride-to-be is nothing short of stunning.

For what it’s worth, Jupiter Ascending, presents a welcome positive view of Jupiter’s U.S. extended family of Russian immigrants. (Several films of the past few years have depicted Russians as evil, treacherous people, often worse than the Cold War Russians.) Maybe this portrayal is a result of the Wachowskis’ eastern European family heritage. (A subtitle in Jupiter Ascending revealed a Russian curse that I may include in my repertoire: “Stalin’s Balls!”)

The effects are spectacular, the battles are amazing. But, ultimately, Jupiter Ascending fails. It’s a shame that the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 is no longer being produced. Jupiter Ascending, I think, would be an excellent candidate for an MST3K treatment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Theory Of Everything

 

In a star-making role, Eddie Redmayne brings a brilliant performance to the screen as nerdy genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His portrayal is the reason to see this film.

The film has three plot elements: Hawking’s romance with Jane (Felicity Jones), his challenge due to physical issues and his work as a cosmologist. Because the brainy stuff is way over the heads of most of us, it gets less play. Because Hawking’s deteriorating condition is so heartbreaking and sad, even in brief scenes, it’s the love story that provides the real essence of the movie.

Hawking’s dogged pursuit of Jane starts the movie. It climaxes with an evening at a spring dance that provides one of the more truly romantic sequences seen in movies this year.

Following marriage, Hawking outlives initial prognosis that gave him just two more years of life. He and Jane try to maintain what normalcy they can. They have kids. His work leads him to teaching along with assembling his thoughts on the physical nature of being.

Jane’s fatigue leads her to join a church choir to relieve the stress of caring for her husband. (She is a religious woman; he cannot accept the possibility of God.) When she meets the choir director, Jonathon (Charlie Cox) it is obvious that they are going to hook up. But that comes after several years of a platonic friendship that includes Stephen.

When Hawking’s condition becomes more than Jane can handle, she brings in Elaine (Maxine Peake). Hawking’s affection grows for the new caretaker and he invites her to take care of him on his trip to America to promote his book A Brief History of Time.

Regarding Time and History, the film begins in summer 1963 (with Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave playing), but director James Marsh does not provide good indicators of time passage along the way. I had to consult Wikipedia to find out that it was 1988 when the book was published.

Marsh makes up for it with a end sequence that recaps the story of Stephen and Jane, reminding the audience that despite his debilitating condition, he lived life to the fullest and managed to accomplish more that most of us able bodied folks. (At age 72, the real-life Hawking is still alive.) It’s an upbeat end that adds a good vibe to that established by Redmayne’s acting.