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Eddie Redmayne

Eddie Redmayne

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”  My rating: C

133 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s some magic in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” but it’s all courtesy of the special effects and design departments.

Dramatically speaking, this attempt to expand the “Harry Potter” franchise is stillborn. Not even the usually screen-dominating Eddie Redmayne can give it a compelling head or heart.

Based on an original screenplay by “Potter” creator J.K. Rowling (who also produced this film),  “Fantastic Beasts…” is a prequel unfolding in the 1920s. This setting gives the set and costume designers plenty to play with, and their vision of Jazz Age New York City — and the parallel wizarding world that coexists with it — is rich and evocative.

Would that the same could be said for the story and characters.

Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a British wizard who comes to the Big Apple with a small suitcase filled with fantastic creatures. Eventually we learn that he’s a sort of Marlon Perkins on a mission to preserve magical species on the verge of extinction. Much of the film consists of chase scenes in which Newt tries to recapture escapees from his luggage.

Colin Farrell

Colin Farrell

The first one, involving a platypus-like creature that gobbles up jewelry and precious metals, is mildly amusing. Things go downhill from there.

Newt finds that America’s wizarding world is in crisis. The Magical Congress of the U.S.A., the governing institution, has been fighting a losing battle to keep wizardry a secret from the Muggles (only the Yanks call them No-Mags…as in “no magic”). But their cover is being blown by the depredations of some sort of malevolent magical creature that is leveling entire blocks of Manhattan.

Newt’s guide through North American wizardry is Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a sort of bob-coiffed lady detective who has taken it upon herself to police these mysterious happenings.

And he unwittingly gets a sidekick, a roly poly and somewhat bumbling human named Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, who immediately begins stealing scenes from his Oscar-winning costar. In fact Fogler’s disbelieving No-Mag is the single best thing in the film, and his romance with Porpentina’s psychic sister  Queenie (Alison Sudol) provides the only charm and genuine emotion.

Something’s amiss when the second bananas eclipse the leads.

Continue Reading »

Hailee Steinfeld

Hailee Steinfeld

“THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN” My rating: B

204 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Teen angst has always been with us, but it’s rarely been captured on film with the insight  and hilarity on display in “The Edge of Seventeen.”

Hailee Stienfeld, who won an Oscar nomination for her first movie (2010’s “True Grit”), seems likely to snag another one for her performance as  Nadine, a 16-year-old whose emotional wisdom lags way behind her book learning.

“I just had the worse thought,” she confides. “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Nadine joins a short list of adolescent film heroines (like those of “Juno” and “Ghost World”) who have done heroic battle with the inanities of teenage life. And she has more than little of Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield percolating through her bloodstream.

But as with those characters, behind Nadine’s assured bluster there’s an awkward child utterly terrified at the notion of adulthood.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s film starts with a backstory — how Nadine lost her beloved father to a heart attack. She resents his absence every single day, and the injustice of his passing leaves her riding an emotional razor blade.

She has found a substitute of sorts with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her history teacher, whom she engages in combative, provocative banter. He finds Nadine exasperating and self-absorbed, but keeps being drawn back to her sardonic wit. These two could trade verbal punches all day long.

“The Edge of Seventeen” (a generic title that sounds like something generated by a computer program) centers on two major plot lines, neither of which may seem like a big deal to adults but which to Nadine are the alpha and omega of her existence.

The first is a betrayal by her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who has had the temerity to fall for Nadine’s big brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Darian is a handsome senior jock — probably a Republican for crying out loud. He represents all the things about high school that Nadine despises.

And now Krista has gone over to the enemy.  It’s enough to make a girl act out in inappropriate ways. Continue Reading »

Amy Adams

Amy Adams

“ARRIVAL” My rating: B+

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In “Arrival,” space aliens — as they have so often in our cinematic past — come to Earth with questionable intentions.

Only this time their reception is less Ridley Scott than Stanley Kubrick.

“Arrival” may be the most thought-provoking science fiction film since “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Like Kubrick’s cryptic classic, it will leave some viewers puzzled and perhaps dissatisfied. In lieu of ray guns and souped-up space jalopies, director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners,” “Sicario”) depicts massive societal and personal dislocation and ruminates about the very nature of time.

Happily, “Arrival” does all this with a final emotional jolt that will linger in the viewer’s mind for … well, maybe forever. Great movies can do that.

The adventure begins with a dreamy, time-leaping sequence of a mother (Amy Adams) interacting with her daughter from infancy to adolescence. On the soundtrack this woman, Louise, talks about beginnings.

Then we’re taken to the present day where Louise, a world famous linguist, arrives in her college lecture hall to find that practically nobody has come to hear her talk about the Portuguese language. The absences are soon explained — 12 magnificent spaceships (they resemble gigantic elongated eggs, or maybe black mango seeds) are now hovering at various points around the globe.

In just a couple of brilliantly conceived and edited minutes Villeneuve evokes the shock and widespread disruption caused by the realization that we are not alone.

Populations panic. Stock markets tumble. There are runs on bottled water and batteries. Looting and rioting.

Yes. This is exactly what would happen.

For Louise it gets personal when a military bigwig (Forest Whitaker) arrives at her doorstep to announce that her country needs her. Mankind must figure out how to converse with the newcomers. Continue Reading »

Rebecca Hall as reporter Christine Chubbuck

Rebecca Hall as reporter Christine Chubbuck

“CHRISTINE” My rating: B

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An almost unbearably sad story well told, “Christine” hovers on the nexus of individual mental illness and societal insanity.

But however painful this yarn may be, it offers an acting showcase for Rebecca Hall, the Brit actress who here dowdies herself down to portray real-life TV reporter  Christine Chubbuck with a quiet anguish and growing desperation that can make your skin crawl.

Set in the early ’70s in a TV station in Sarasota, FLA, Antonio Campos’ film (the screenplay is by Craig Shilowich) follows
Christine’s personal and professional meltdown as she is beset both by inner  demons and what she sees as an unconscionable deterioration in local TV news.

She’s a workaholic…perhaps not by choice. Christine has  no personal life to speak of.  She lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and hasn’t had a proper date in years — though she has a clumsy case of the unrequited hots for the station’s preening anchorman (Michael C. Hall).

When she has a spare moment she puts on hand puppet shows for elementary school kids — shows that are a lot heavier on moral instruction than entertainment value.

And that’s Christine’s dilemma at work as well.

She is forever battling her news director (Tracy Letts), whose mandate is to beef up the station’s pitiful ratings. That means minimizing the thoughtful reports in which Christine specializes and leaning heavily on “juicy” topics: crime, violence and the outrageous.

“If it bleeds,  it leads,” he advises the staff.

Continue Reading »

20s

Trevante Rhodes as the twenty something Chiron

“MOONLIGHT” My rating: B+ 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Think of  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” as an African-American variation on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It is an epic chronicle of childhood giving way to adolescence, and adolescence becoming a lonely adulthood.

The difference is that “Boyhood” was pretty much straightforward storytelling, while “Moonlight” is pure poetry. It is, in short, a genuine black art film, filled with beauty and horror, small comforts and big challenges.

Through the character of Chiron, a young Floridian played by three actors of different ages, writer/director Bennett gives us a deeply personal story which, without belaboring the point, can stand for the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young black men.

It’s not about drugs or poverty or gang life per se, and there’s no obviously political agenda (in fact white people are almost never seen), but “Moonlight” cannot help folding those socially relevant topics into its narrative.

At the same time the movie is less about facts (it’s filled with unanswered questions) than about feelings. It’s about a few seconds of blessed respite during a suffocatingly tense day, about water and sand and tropical heat, about activity fearfully captured out of the corner of one’s eye.

In one sense it’s practically documentary without the usual big dramatic speeches (the film’s protagonist is incapable of verbal grandstanding), but captured in a swirling riot of camera movement, color and conflicting sounds.

When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little as he’s called by just about everyone, he’s hiding in an abandoned apartment building, having been pursued by schoolyard bullies. As his name suggests, Little is small. Also shy, withdrawn, mistrustful and uncommunicative.

He’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug lord, who provides safe escort and takes the boy to his apartment and his nurturing girlfriend Teresa (KCK native Janelle Monae, making a seemingly effortless transition from pop stardom to film acting).

Over the course of weeks and months the cocaine slinger and his woman will become Little’s surrogate parents, providing food, shelter and — as weird as it may sound — examples of more-or-less responsible adulthood…something painfully lacking in Little’s relationship with his  increasingly drug dependent mother (Naomie Harris).

Ali (sure to be honored as a supporting actor Oscar nominee) makes of Juan a deeply complex figure. He’s a criminal, but his relationship with Little is one of selfless nurturing.  Countless films have prepared us for Ali to use the kid as part of his drug business, but that never happens.

Instead he takes the boy to the beach and gently coaxes him into learning to float on the rocking waves. When Little asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan answers with profound sincerity that Little may be gay, but he’s no faggot.

Other life lessons follow.  “No place in this world ain’t got black people,” Juan declares.  “We were the first people here.”

And especially:  “At some point you gotta decide for yoursdrelf who you gonna be.” Continue Reading »

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

“DOCTOR STRANGE” My rating: B-

115 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

At this stage of the game Marvel movies have fallen into a predictable pattern, especially the third-act city-leveling smackdown (it’s like it’s guaranteed in the Constitution or something).

About two years ago I decided I was over the whole superhero thing. Unless, of course, you can show me something new.

“Dr. Strange” takes me halfway there, giving us a spell-casting protagonist who has more in common with Harry Potter than your usual Spandexed bicep bulger.

It’s got a solid first hour in which our ego-driven hero (see “Iron Man”) recognizes  the errors of his ways and gets his head turned around.

And a second hour in which a lot of shit gets blown up.

The wild card here is Benedict Cumberbatch, PBS’s current Sherlock and an actor of such range and integrity that I’m willing to give a chance to just about any project to which he lends his name.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a ground-breaking neurosurgeon. Even among his self-aggrandizing colleagues he’s noted as a self-serving asshole who peers down his aquiline nose at lesser mortals and lives the life of a solitary genius.  In the past he had a fling with surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but his most enduring relationships are with his fancy sports car, plush apartment and his own self.

A highway accident leaves Strange with crushed paws. Unable to hold a scalpel, he sees  his life dripping away and goes on an international hunt for some sort of treatment that can reverse his physical infirmities.

Which is how he ends up in Katmandu in an esoteric school run by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, bald and looking like a visiting space alien).  The Ancient One and her lieutenant Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put our hero through a physical and mental marathon, breaking down his sense of self, opening him up to life on the astral plane, and filling his head — and the screenplay — with enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to make Scientology seem a viable option.

 

Continue Reading »

Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss

“HACKSAW RIDGE” My rating: B+

131 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Old fashioned” in the best possible sense, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a real-life World War II combat drama that has it both ways.

It may be the most violent film ever released by a major studio, being horrifyingly realistic in its depiction of combat in the South Pacific.

At the same time it is soul-shakingly inspiring.

Brutality and spirituality are unlikely bedfellows, which makes the ultimate triumph of “Hacksaw Ridge” all the more remarkable.

In fact, the film instantly elevates director Mel Gibson back to his one-time status as a major filmmaker. Say what you will about Gibson’s misbehavior and misplaced beliefs, the guy has got the stuff.

Like “Sergeant York,” the reality-inspired classic about the World War I hero, “Hacksaw Ridge” centers on a conscientious objector who ends up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. It even follows that earlier film’s basic narrative, dividing its running time between our hero’s life Stateside and his grueling combat experiences.

The difference is that unlike Sgt. Alvin York — who finally put aside his C.O. status and became a one-man juggernaut, killing at least 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others — Desmond Doss practiced non-violence even in the midst of the most ghastly carnage imaginable.

With bullets whizzing around him — quite literally up to his knees in blood and guts — this Army medic singlemindedly went about his business of saving his fellow soldiers.

We meet young Desmond (Andrew Garfield) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Dad (Hugo Weaving) is an unshaved alcoholic still tormented by the sight of his friends being blown to bits during the Great War. Mom (Rachel Griffiths) is often on the fist end of her husband’s anguish.

As a boy Desmond is traumatized after losing his temper and striking his brother  with a rock. Swearing to never again harm another human, he joins the the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose pacifist doctrines prohibit its members from carrying weapons.

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