REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

20 11 2016

It’s good to be back in the Potterverse. While I might resist some of the revisionist history and postscripts of my beloved characters, a tangential outing like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” hits the sweet spot. It’s clear that J.K. Rowling, who serves here as both screenwriter and producer, has more to explore and say about the magical world she created. Even if the roadmap to the supposedly five-part series she plans has not yet emerged, this first film makes for a fun, thoughtful outing.

The sheer presence of gentle ginger Eddie Redmayne alone, vocal in his bashful disappointment over not being cast as a Weasley, provides two hours of joy. The role of magical zoologist Newt Scamander is finely calibrated to match his unique star power: slightly awkward, modestly fumbling, overwhelmingly good-hearted. He serves as both our guide to a host of creatures never introduced to us by Hagrid and an outsider observing the operations of the American wizarding community.

Scamander arrives at Ellis Island with a suitcase full of living organisms and a mission to return some of them to their natural habitats. However, a series of chance encounters with a No-Maj (American speak for “Muggle”) gets him caught up in the geopolitical realities of the United States. Scamander becomes the unwitting companion to the rogue auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who dedicates herself to finding a magical disturbance among the No-Maj that threatens to disrupt the Americans’ carefully guarded segregation of the two communities. Quite often, Scamander’s beasts get loose and make a mess out of an already precarious situation, and therein lies the enjoyment. He can always, somehow, wrangle control.

It will be interesting to see how, as the series progresses, Rowling deals with the political undertones introduced here. “Fantastic Beasts” strays away from the obvious allegory of franchises like “X-Men,” perhaps at the expense of glossing over or trivializing the issues. In this introduction, she introduces a group of puritanical recluses called “Second-Salemers” who call for a new purge of the magical community and a dark perversion of wizardry in Europe that Americans deny will wash up on their shores. It appears she will have plenty to pull from, both in ’30s history and contemporary society, in making these themes relevant. B+3stars

REVIEW: Scenic Route

4 03 2015

Scenic RouteExplicitly name-dropping influences within a movie is always a bad idea because it quite literally invites comparisons to the source. And it is an especially ill-advised move if that movie is a classic of the cinema like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”

Well, in Kevin and Michael Goetz’s “Scenic Route,” guess what they do when Dan Fogler’s Carter shaves the hair of Josh Duhamel’s Mitchell into a Mohawk? Yeah. Big mistake.

In “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese achieves fascinating results by playing around with the grammar and vocabulary of cinema itself. “Scenic Route,” on the other hand, feels rather stage-like in its setup. Two brothers, one car, driven slowly to insanity by getting stuck in the middle of nowhere for an obscene amount of time? Having just a pair of performers really seems like more of a theatrical conceit. Having the immediacy of their presence, combined with an unbroken temporal dimension of their escalating madness, sounds like a riveting play.

But on screen, it can feel rather excruciating. The Goetzs fail to use the confined space in any interesting way, and it makes the sub-90 minute runtime quite a chore. Not to mention, “Scenic Route” takes an odd, tonally inconsistent turn in its conclusion that feels totally unearned. So, to answer the question that Josh Duhamel is begging to ask – no, this film does not redeem his participation in the “Transformers” series.  C2stars