Sunday, November 27, 2016

They turned Harry Potter into a Newt.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Directors: David Yates

Reviewed: 27 November 2016

jamesintexas rating--**

I do not think that reading a book should be a prerequisite to enjoying a film, though I will admit with every Harry Potter film I had read its antecedent work. That world had the routine of school, familiar growing faces of students and teachers, and the sheer amount of time spent in that world paid off in generosity when viewing the films, which obviously truncated massive amounts of text. I think about that now when I view the J.K. Rowling penned Fantastic Beasts and my lack of reading about it.  I wonder how dramatically different the experience would have been if I had spent ten to twenty hours in this world before seeing it.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) visits New York in the 1920's with a suitcase full of marvelous creatures who run amuck and disrupt the American wizarding community. Tina (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced auror, tries to bring him to justice while an innocent factory worker named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) bumps into Newt and switches briefcases with him. The beginning scenes set in motion a vast plot of conspiratorial ministers like Graves (Colin Farrell) in the American Congress of Magic, the dance of keeping the magical hiding from the non-magical (No-Maj, they are called here, not Muggles), and a shadowy spectral force that is blowing up buildings and harming people all over the city.

I think the look of the film and its music and costumes are a highlight.  However, Yates suffers from George Lucas prequel-esque showmanship with the special effects while not giving the audience enough time to peer deeply into the world.  For example, there is a little guy, a sort of mini-tree Groot-type friend that Newt speaks to occasionally, yet Yates gives him only one close-up in the entire film to give us a sense of his personality. The beasts, though primarily fun, represent a tactile, physical counterpoint to the magical world, and I like that contrast, even if the action to me seemed a bit difficult to follow, the names swallowed by the under-emoting, especially of Redmayne.  I never felt charmed by his character or performance, which seemed uneven and mumbly to me. I had trouble following the plot and its turns, and I really needed subtitles for many of the names of the characters and beasts.  The ending seemed especially troubling to me because it was incomprehensible at times, I did not understand the stakes, and it seemed smugly satisfied with its revelations, though they meant little to me.  And, I like Collin Farrell too much to see him relegated to so little here.

I wonder about the fundamental differences between screenwriting and writing a novel.  J.K. Rowling, a modern master, tries her hand her at concise and visual storytelling, a paring down of prose that reminds me of how skillful the screenwriters of the Harry Potter films were in making judicious decisions.  I also just did not feel the emotional power or resonance of these characters or this moment; to hear that this film might spark four additional films with these characters did not fill me with excitement, merely exhaustion.  However, there is a chance that continuing to play with the past and different locations than Hogwarts can yield a far more rich evocation of magic than this one.  This muggle was uninspired.

Finding Movies with Gus: Minor Pixar

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Directors: Andrew Stanton and Angus McLane

Reviewed: Started 1 August 2016; Finished 12 November 2016

jamesintexas rating--***

"Gus, did you like Finding Dory?"

"It's okay."

"Why did you like it?"


We took our almost-three-year-old son August to see his first movie, and Finding Dory seemed like the best option. He's seen Finding Nemo, and despite lots of uncomfortable questions like "Where's Nemo's mama?" the colors and brightness captivated him. Now, this review acknowledges that I did not see the entire film; we took a ten-minute walk break in the middle of the movie. 

The film is light and fine, but it has nowhere near the humor and emotional resonance of the first film.  How could it?  "Just keep swimming" is a slogan that I repeat nearly everyday at the high school I teach at, and the colors of the ocean world in that film never cease to amaze me.

Here, Pixar uses flashbacks to cute little Dory's childhood and traumatic separation from her parents to create a kind of mystery.  Most of the main characters are back from the first film (except Bruce and the sharks, sadly), and although the world of the aquarium and its denizens is quite fun, it never soars in the same way as the original.  The voice work is incredible, and many of the sequences work well, but it lacks the gusto and the heart of the original.  The epiphanies of Marlon and Nemo in the first film work on such an elemental level, and in this film, Marlon is really sidelined and reduced to a minor character.  That being said, the seals are wonderful, the septopus has great moments, and there is lots of razzle-dazzle.  But, just like the Monsters Inc. sequel, it seems a diminished return to the world of a masterpiece, and on some level, a cash grab with just enough in it to satiate fans of the original but not to break any new emotional or artistic grounds. 

I don't know what we'll see next with Gus.  His mama took him to see Storks which he loved and still talks about a month later.  He does not talk about Finding Dory.  Maybe Moana will be next up?  He is currently obsessed with Super Why, Super Readers on Netflix, but I feel that if we have the choice, we will always return to the first film and not its sequel.  We will see. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sully Soars

Movie Review: Sully

Director: Clint Eastwood

Date: 12 November 2016

Rating: ***

Sully works best as a portrait of systems of synergy, the unique linking of teams of people that combined to save the day in New York City's post-9-11 world when birds flew into the engine of a plane forcing an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Strange is the film that has a very public (and happy) ending to it that an audience knows before going in, but Eastwood uses an interesting structure, complete with Sully's fantasies of what could have happened (the plane ripping through buildings in downtown Manhattan), while also unfortunately turning the NTSB into a needlessly evil and antagonistic opponent to the vaunted, cool under pressure Sully (Tom Hanks).  Hanks is very good here, compressing emotion into his face and into Sully's quick thinking along with his co-pilot (played by Aaron Eckhart).  But Eastwood is focused on their partnership and the systems that interlock and unite us and work together here, in a love-note to the people involved in saving so many in a situation that could have gone disastrously wrong.  There are the harbor boats with their quick maneuvering to the scene; there are the frog divers of the NYPD who skillfully enter the frigid waters and contain the emergency. There is Sully, walking through the waters of his sinking airplane, making sure that everyone is off of the plane, that everyone is safe, in scenes that are unapologetically and undeniably powerful.  Fighting off tears, I thought about the sheer terror of those moments, which is not diluted by our knowing of the happy ending.  It resembles Titanic in those moments, the collision of water and manmade craft, the rising water and inevitability of loss. 

I am disheartened by Eastwood's desire to demonize the government entity involved in investigating the landing.  I am also critical of his failure to end his movie well, choosing a light punchline from Eckhart instead of reaching for any deeper meaning or point.  He has this trend, which I do not love, of pulling back the curtain in his credits and showing the real funeral of Chris Kyle in American Sniper and here, the real Sully with his reunion with the passengers.  I'm reminded of Roger Ebert stating at the end of What's Love Got To Do With It?, when the director showed the real Tina Turner performing after seeing Angela Bassett belt her heart and soul out as the character for two hours, "Is this necessary?"  I am glad that Eastwood wants to examine shock and post-traumatic stress in our national identity, and I applaud the desire to set the context of 9-11 always in our minds with this event, with it being a September release.  My favorite moment was a quiet reaction from Sully to his co-pilot when they both had to step outside of the hearing to process some new information.  It is a soft conversation of low-key proportions, and the gratitude and acknowledgement of one character to the other is emotionally powerful.Eastwood remains a compelling and thought-provoking filmmaker, and Hanks proves himself completely capable in registering the complexity of the man and the moment when quick decisions saved countless lives.