(On Cable TV, August 2017) As a mild Harry Potter fan, I wasn’t expecting much from spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. With Colin Farrell lurking in a supporting role, I was even envisioning a Winter’s Tale-sized debacle. But the result, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s savvy script and Warner Brothers’ willingness to bankroll a lavish production, is surprisingly good. Eddie Redmayne is very good as Newt Scamander, an awkward wizard with more affinity with fantastic animals than people. He arrives in New York City in time for us to get a long good satisfying look at a lavish re-creation of 1920s NYC, crammed with details and enough CGI to impress anyone. Director David Yates moves the story along at a good clip, first as light comedy and then increasingly as a full fantastic drama. The ending deserves a special mention, as it is more thematically resonant than most other forgettable CGI fantasy fests of recent years—the hero doesn’t get to pulverize his opponent out of brawn, and whatever clichés remain (city in peril, memories wiped) and handled far more gracefully than elsewhere. Production design is important: The rebuilding-the-city sequence that so annoyed me in Jupiter Ascending is transformed here in a delightful sequence by sheer accumulation of details. Spending time in 1920s NYC turns out to be a lot of fun, and no expense seems to have been spared in putting details on-screen. Redmayne is backed-up with a good cast: while Katherine Waterston has a mostly unglamorous role as a flapper voice of reason, Alison Sudol is a lot more fun as her blonde bombshell sister, gaining importance as the story goes on and falling for Dan Fogler’s unexpectedly likable character. As far as big-screen CGI spectacles go, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is far more tolerable than most of the recent fantasy epics, and it feels substantially more sophisticated than many franchise-building attempts. It’s got a heart despite the big budget, and it’s so different from the Potter movies that it can be appreciated as a standalone effort. Its nature as a prequel doesn’t hamper its effectiveness or ability to surprise, and the way it leisurely reveals its fantastic assets is wondrous rather than slow. All in all, a better-than-expected effort at a time when we’ve grown used to the commodification of the fantastic in movies. All it takes is a good script and enough resources to do it justice…
(Video on Demand, March 2016) 2015 was the year when transgender issues hit the mainstream like never before, but it’s not clear whether this helped or hindered The Danish Girl. Reportedly a very fictionalized account of the first clinically transgendered person, this is also a recognizable piece of Oscar-courting filmmaking, complete with credible historical recreations, flawed but heroic characters, progressive social issues and a self-important tone. It seeks legitimacy through art, blurs the messy inconvenient details of its inspiration and wraps up everything with a sad bow. It usually works: director Tom Hooper is, by now, a veteran at this sort of thing, and effortlessly moves through period sets, and Eddie Redmayne does turn in a showy but compelling performance as a man becoming a woman—although Alicia Viklander is just as interesting as the character who reacts to the transition. The historical atmosphere of the early-twentieth-century European art scene is well executed and the drama goes slightly beyond what we’d expect from the film’s slug-line. The Danish Girl is, in short, a bit more interesting than expected, helping it avoid feeling like it’s exploiting the issue-of-the-moment. It could have been better: At times, the cinematography feels overly staid, feeling like a series of isolated room dramas rather than presenting its world with the bustling energy suggested at the edges. It’s also a film condemned by facts to a rather conventional dramatic arc—comforting given the touchy subject matter, but no less predictable. For all the sympathies we can have for the character’s plight, it’s also locked into the filmmaking template proper to those kinds of movies.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I usually try to write my capsule reviews without references to whatever elusive “critical consensus” exists about a film. With Jupiter Ascending, though, it’s difficult to avoid noticing that the film has earned a surprising number of scathing reviews. I think I understand why, but even that understanding can’t take away my annoyance at what I’m seeing as an unfair critical drubbing. To put it simply: Jupiter Ascending is a big quirky space opera and that’s such a specialized sub-genre that I’m not surprised that a lot of people would simply bounce off of it. Not that I’m overly pleased with an umpteenth “chosen one” rags-to-riches story –even less so from the Wachowskis, who pretty much did that storyline to quasi-perfection in The Matrix. Also not terribly cool: how wanton destruction is waved away, the caricatured characters, the brain-dead way a supposedly advanced alien society behaves, and other assorted shortcuts from reality. (The mad-bureaucracy sequence also feels out-of-place with the rest of the film, but seeing Brazil’s Terry Gilliam at the middle of it is almost an acceptable excuse) Strangely, it’s the weird wackiness of Jupiter Ascending that’s the best thing about it: bees domesticated by the queen of the universe, real-estate deals powering the entire plot; a dog-hybrid warrior with a gun that goes “woof!”; immortals back-stabbing each other for profit. That’s pure far-future Science Fiction stuff, too rarely seen on the big screen. If nothing else, I have a soft spot for such flights of fancy. Here, the Chicago nighttime action sequence works pretty well (although I feel that it’s been over-edited, runs too long and is almost instantly trivialized come morning), and the visuals once the action moves to space are nothing short of spectacular: The Wachowksis may have trouble with plot, but their eye for spectacle remains just as effective. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are unspectacular in the lead roles, but Sean Bean gets a nice turn as a character who (spoilers!) survives until the end of the film, and Eddie Redmayne gets a chance to ham it up as a spoiled aristocrat. While Jupiter Ascending has significant holes and annoyances, it’s also a film with the advantage of its eccentricities. I’d like to see more movies like that take chances and fall flat on their face rather that play it safe like most blockbusters today.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Perhaps the best things about The Theory of Everything as a biography of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is how seamlessly it weaves the accomplishments of a top-level scientist with the complicated emotional trajectory of his life, disability and romance included. Hawking has long been famous for exploring the universe while suffering from almost-absolute paralysis, and the film covers his life over four decades, tracking the disheartening progress of his affliction, the evolution of his marriage (warts and all, daringly enough), his rise to fame and his often infuriating obstinacy. Eddie Redmayne delivers an Oscar-calibre performance as Hawking, metamorphosing before our eyes from a vibrant young man to the Hawking best-known today. Felicity Jones also turns in a remarkable performance as his wife Jane, her emotions often bridging the film’s emotional impact from Hawking’s oft-inscrutable expressions. The film does have a few issues, notably how it downplays some of Hawking’s scientific achievements, makes a lot out of his lack of belief, and soften his legendarily abrasive personality. Still, the result is a powerful scientific biography, and one that celebrates the human element of a top intellectual’s life. As far as biographies of British scientists are concerned, The Theory of Everything is a film to be seen alongside Creation and The Imitation Game.