Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

rating: ****

the story: New Scamander travels to New York with a briefcase full of magical creatures, and things kind of spiral out of control from there.

what it's all about: In a lot of ways, judging the Harry Potter movies (all eight of them) was always going to be a tough proposition.  There's a diehard subculture that believes movie adaptations by definition are inferior to their book counterparts.  Actually, let me reword that: the prevailing opinion is that the book is always better than the movie.  It's a persistent prejudice, one that never really takes into account the unique benefits of both mediums.  To anyone who goes along with this line of reasoning, try to watch a movie based on a play.  If it's not a musical, and particularly if it was done years ago, you'll find "staginess" in the movie that would otherwise not be there.  That's the result of being excessively faithful to one version of a story at the expense of a different and wholly unique experience.  What works on the stage works that way because of the particular confines of the stage, which do not exist in movies. 

My point being, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them may in fact be the first real chance we get at how well the world of Harry Potter works in movies.  It's only too appropriate that the movie is set in America, which is where the majority of moviegoers around the world expect blockbuster movies to be set.  That's just one of the things it kind of automatically have going for it.  But there's also the threat of franchise fatigue.  Fans don't like to admit such a thing exists.  But you only have to look at the muted reception of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy to see it in action.  If these movies had been released right after his highly acclaimed and enthusiastically received Lord of the Rings trilogy, fans would have reacted to them very differently.  Franchise fatigue is a thing that happens mostly when fans have...moved on to something else.  It's no surprise that the Star Wars prequels were relative failures when Star Wars-scale blockbusters suddenly happened all the time (including Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and yes, the Harry Potter series).  But fans will attribute it to declining quality.

And actually, no matter how much lenience fans gave J.K. Rowling when she started to vastly increase the page-count of her books (the strain most showed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the second giant-size entry, and also the first one in the series directed by David Yates in the film adaptations, which will be important later in this review), this blind love has declined in recent years, as she's begun a career writing books specifically for adults, none of which (there have been four, including three detective stories, which will also be important later in this review).  This is relevant, because of course Rowling wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts, the first full-length story she's written in this series since 2007's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the book).

So there's no telling how enthusiastic fans, or critics, will be with this movie.  But they should be pretty ecstatic, because it's a brilliant success, like the stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which debuted this past summer, an unexpected continuation as well as restatement of everything that worked so well about Harry Potter the first time.

The story revolves on a vaguely familiar character, the author of a textbook Rowling released in the real world, for charity, but more importantly, the lone Brit in the story, who's an instant connection to Hogwarts lore even though he's technically off entirely on his own.  In a lot of ways, though, Rowling takes great pains to paint a portrait of the intrepid Newt Scamander very much in the mold of the beloved Rubeus Hagrid, the beloved groundskeeper portrayed by Robbie Coltrane in the movies, an outsider befriended by Dumbledore with a great love for magical creatures.  But make no mistake: Newt is no Hagrid.  In a lot of ways, he's what Harry Potter would have become if he hadn't found such stolid friends in Hermione and Ron, a sensitive soul with a fierce devotion to what he believes in, and an unwillingness to open up easily to others, fearing they just won't understand.

But the movie quickly pushes Newt in the direction of two helpful people, one being an American witch and the other a No-Maj, which is the American term for muggles.  (Some critics have suggested that "No-Maj" is a clumsy term, but anyone who grew up with the Magi of the Bible, or heard a similar term in the Mummy movies featuring Brendan Fraser shouldn't have any problem accepting it.)  Both of these characters add a wealth of inspiration to the movie, and help represent the uniquely American aspects of the movie.  In their own ways, they represent Newt's Hermione (someone who knows what's the what) and Ron (a charming bumbler) without consciously evoking them.  If I hadn't just pointed it out, I doubt you'd make the connections (not to insult you or anything).

And actually, Katherine Waterston's Tina Goldstein is more like Rowling's Robin from her Cormoran Strike mysteries, a woman who enjoys the thrill of the chase, even if it sometimes gets her into trouble.  Dan Fogler's Jacob Kowalski is so protoptypically American he's also fat, which is what most people around the world (and quite a few Americans) have assumed is the standard model for years, even though American movies rarely reflect that (Paul Blart, Mall Cop not withstanding).  His most interesting arc in the movie actually has nothing to do with Newt or Tina, but rather Tina's sister Queenie, played by Fine Frenzy, who would be a dead ringer for Idina Menzel.  Queenie is mesmerized by Jacob, the first No-Maj she's ever known.  The movie is actually about breaking through old modes of thought, and this is the easiest way it's demonstrated, and ends up finishing out the movie, too, so that you could very easily watch Fantastic Beasts as a completely standalone experience, whether or not subsequent sequels (there are four projected) picks up their story.

But these are all supporting players; Eddie Redmayne is, well, the main event.  He's developed a reputation lately of being a mercurial performer, able to slip into the unlikeliest roles, whether Stephen Hawking in 2014's Theory of Everything or a transgendered woman in 2015's The Danish Girl.  In Fantastic Beasts he brings almost lyrical physicality to the role of Newt Scamander, especially in a sequence where he coaxes a particularly troublesome creature back under control.  He brings effortless charm to Newt, which is the crux of the movie's appeal, and how it sells further exploits into the world of Harry Potter as something that doesn't actually need Harry.  In other words, he achieves the unthinkable.

There are other notable performances: Ezra Miller as the conflicted Credence (more on this later), Jon Voight as Henry Shaw Sr., Ron Perlman as Gnarlak, and Samantha Morton as Mary Lou, each of whom make indelible marks on fleshing out the American nature of the story.  (The whole concept of the Second-Salemers is brilliant, addressing something that was missing in Harry Potter previously, a tangible connection to the past.)  They have limited parts to play, so I won't spend too much time talking about them.

More notable is Colin Farrell as Percival Graves.  I would've watched this movie even if I wasn't already a fan of Harry Potter (and Rowling), because I've been a fan of Farrell's for nearly a decade now.  The Irish actor ironically plays an American in this one, as he has for the vast majority of his roles.  Critics have been silent about his appearance, if not dismissive, but he brings to Fantastic Beasts what he brings to all his movies: a distinct, brooding presence.  It's not just the eyebrows.  Farrell tends to inhabit all his characters will three dimensions.  This is not the first time he's spent the majority of his screen-time more or less silent (Dead Man Down, or even Miami Vice, or the most artistic example, The New World).  His role as Graves is the most direct reflection of the deeper ramifications running through Fantastic Beasts, and by the time the movie ends it's easy enough to understand why (I'm not going to spoil that, but I would give those who know reason enough to keep an open mind; this is hardly the first time we've been asked to ignore the personal life of someone making movies, and not even the hardest one to stomach, which I would say is the career of Roman Polanski).  Graves is almost Snape done all in one movie, but in the way fans expected rather than what Rowling eventually gave them.  His relationship with Credence is a dark reflection of Newt's with Jacob, and the film greatly benefits from the contrast.  I think Farrell is a powerful asset to the movie, and one of the few actors who could've pulled off such a tricky role.

Yates proves a deft hand as director once again.  By the time he started directing Harry Potter movies, the material had existed so long it almost didn't matter who was at the helm anymore, but this is an assumption he calmly busts with Fantastic Beasts.  Like the new look at Harry Potter in general, he proves that he really is as competent, and imaginative, as the movies might have only had fans think.  Matching him is Rowling, who proves she wasn't just doing this to further cash-in on her biggest success to date (now that there's been a lot of other stuff, too).  Some critics have said Fantastic Beasts reveals the debt she owes Roald Dahl, which is true, but there's also L. Frank Baum, too, anyone who's done truly imaginative work in the grand tradition Rowling continues, really.  There's even some Jumanji in there!

Where Yates proves that he was capable adapting even questionable material (his streamlined and incredibly effective improvement on Order of the Phoenix), Rowling demonstrates what she's learned since leaving behind the comforts of telling epic adventures one school year at a time.  If there are those who begin to suspect a lot of Harry Potter storytelling was somewhat convenient, fans can watch Fantastic Beasts and finally see for themselves that Rowling needs no such crutches.  This is a lot like the free-form nature of Deathly Hallows (both the book and movies) taken to its next logical extension.

In short (!), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is pretty fantastic.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

rating: ****

the story: FDR develops a relationship with his fifth-cousin while entertaining British monarchs struggling with public relations problems.

what it's all about: It's a terrible shame that Hyde Park on Hudson was allowed to slip out of general awareness so easily.  Bill Murray gives one of his few non-Bill Murray performances, which is to say he builds a performance, a character, other than Bill Murray.  Now, Bill Murray being Bill Murray is usually a reliable source of entertainment, but it also creates a situation where the actor becomes highly underrated as a performer.  This is what happened after his '80s boom, which stretched into the early '90s: like Robin Williams, it wasn't until he underwent a dramatic twist in the '00s that critics started taking Murray seriously again.  You can pinpoint Lost in Translation, his melancholic study of jaded celebrity, as the turning point, and yet, all it really meant was that audiences continued to not really care about him anymore, and that critics did.  (It was the same with Williams, who at least had been alternating serious and comedic roles all along, culminating in Good Will Hunting, at which point it seemed okay to forget he existed.)

What's ironic about all of this, in relation to Hyde Park, is that Murray's take on FDR is a complete revelation for reasons beyond Murray's performance.  In a lot of ways, Hyde Park is a better version of the Oscar-winning The King's Speech, from a mere two years earlier.  This was a fawning, unconvincing attempt to dramatize how poor King George got over his speech impediment and rallied the British against the Nazis.  This was incredible for any number of reasons, not the least because history records Churchill as the lion of that cause, with nothing in King's Speech remotely contradicting it.  Really, it was one long piece of propaganda, trying to justify continuing fascination with an increasingly irrelevant monarchy.

Where Hyde Park gets it right is making George and Elizabeth human rather than a bunch of movie stars gamely trying to hoodwink the audience.  The fact that neither of the actors playing them are household names, where the ones playing Roosevelt and the two women in the spotlight around him (Murray, Laura Linney as the fifth-cousin, and Olivia Williams as Eleanor), none of whom resort to caricatures (the best thing about King's Speech is Geoffrey Rush being Geoffrey Rush, which is always a winning formula), are, goes to sort of prove the point.  This is an intimate piece of history.

Granted, there's much dispute as to how factual it is.  The fifth-cousin wrote about this affair in letters that didn't circulate for decades, and the characterization of Eleanor is called suspect, too, but the effect is itself a revelation: whether or not it's true, it still humanizes Roosevelt.  There's this popular image of the polio-stricken president as superman, both for his New Deal and the way he handled WWII, along the way serving a historic three terms and being elected to four.  Yet for all that, it's uncanny that he's all but dominated by his mother in this movie.  Who knew?

It's that kind of insight that makes Hyde Park a truly winning experience, its leisurely pace, the way it not only contradicts everything we know about Murray, but also makes him almost incidental to the movie itself, which is narrated by Linney, who for whatever reason has fallen out of favor in Hollywood and with critics.  Both of them further strong cases for already-stellar careers in this movie.

Right now there's a big struggle about the importance of seeming important in movies.  I guess it mostly depends on whether or not it strikes the right note, whatever that means.  I think most of why Hyde Park had to be downplayed was because King's Speech had already covered some of this territory and had gotten plenty of awards glitz for it.  Critics couldn't very well admit that just a few years later someone did it better, and quite handily.  They like to say bombast kills subtlety, but when it comes to which is bombastic and which is subtle, I think of the two, Hyde Park makes a good case for what truly merits applause. 

Reduce it only to Murray's revelatory performance if you must.  But on that score alone, Hyde Park on Hudson deserves much more attention than it's gotten.