Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): Fun Supporting Cast but Narrative Doesn’t Quite Work

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them

    “Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them,” could have been a really good film. It wasn’t a bad film, not by a long shot…but there were so many narrative issues and plot holes that took away some great chances for drama and character as well as world development that just hurt the overall story. These are my non-spoiler thoughts going in, also I kind of hate that they are turning this into a Franchise as the film’s story feels done after this film, but I guess post-Marvel everybody wants to be a Franchise.

      The film was directed by David Yates, written by J. K. Rowling who was one of the producers along with David Heyman, Steve Cloves and Lionel Wigram.

     The story involves Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrival in NYC in order to release of the animals he’s been studying when he’s pulled into a wider plot as the evil wizard Grindelwald has gone missing in Europe and mysterious attacks are happening all over NYC making Scamander a suspect.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic, though not fully fleshed out. One thing in the Potter Books is that real life events in our world are tied to events in the Wizarding World. In this that is dropped completely as we have anti-wizard organizations in the muggle world and much more moments of the two worlds knowing one another. Not to mention Newt being made to be a bigger deal than he ever was in the Harry Potter World. This is still a fun world though and I enjoyed visiting it again.

The Soundtrack – James Newton Howard hits all the ques. This is the Harry Potter Universe and the magic and music working together to illustrates scenes is on display here.

The Support Characters – The support characters are the best part of this film, and really should have been the focus. There was no reason to pull in Scamander and Hogwarts beyond references. Hell, Grindelwald didn’t even have to be the baddie, America could have it’s own Nazi Wizard. Still, if they have to Grindelwald the support characters were more than enough to carry off the mystery and fight.

Gnarlack – This guy is a goblin who owns a jazz club. He was a cool looking character and I wanted to learn more about him…He was clearly doing well even with wizards looking down on all those who weren’t wizards.

Tina – Tina is the disgraced auror who is seeking to redeem herself through the film. The reason she’s disgraced is because she protected Credence from his abusive anti-witch mother. In the end she nearly saves him again before the aurors kill him when he is coming back down from turning into a Obscurus. She also has a thing for Newt but we never fully get why as Newt never listens to her and just does his own thing.

Queenie – Queenie is so much fun! she is a Witch who can read minds and is one of the liberal witches as she likes the muggle Jacob and doesn’t get the prejudice going on around her. She was one of my favorite characters and she shows how smart she is when she sneaks all of them out of the Ministry before they are executed. It is also implied she gets her happy ending with Jacob. Alison Sudol is fantastic.

Jacob – Dan Fogler is really wonderful in the role as the muggle in over his head but who deals with the unknowns and magic with respect after the shock goes away. He is an all around good guy and vet from the war. I’m really glad that even though his mind got wiped it is assumed he kept the memories from before as the Eagle Monster only wiped away the sad memories from the city.

Okay: Credence – This guy is the plot device of the film as it is his extreme power that turns him into an Obscuro and has him reek havoc through NYC. Grindelwald and Tina are the ones fighting for his soul but no one really wins as the Ministry kills him…and it’s never brought up again. He’s abused by his adoptive Mom and could have been so much more in the plot. He’s a plot device that works but fails to elevate the plot.

Newt Scamander – Newt is a mystery and Redmayne does a fine job with that but a character needs to be more. We never know why he went into protecting creatures, we don’t know why he’s cut off from people or even why he knows so much. He’s enough of a person though that I won’t call him a “Knock-off” Doctor from “Doctor Who,” though I get why some people would think this. He has enough there to be his own person but not enough to draw me in like the supporting cast.

Graves/Grindelwald – Grindelwald has Newt’s problem but at least his motivation is there as he hates the wizarding laws that hide them from humans as he sees it as protecting humans when wizards should revel in their power. For much of the film he is Agent Graves, an Auror who works for the Wizarding Government in the U.S. Why he was acting alone this entire time was stupid though, if you are Wizard Hitler, you should have followers. So of course he gets caught at the end, even Voldemort didn’t act alone…he at least had Quirrel in Book 1.

The Cons: Creating a Franchise – Rowling should write books first so there is a justification for all of this. There is no reason for Franchising a series that only has Pottermore to go on. It feels like a blatant cash grab and super cynical and dirties the waters of what could be a great Franchise if it happened naturally. This film shows the studio just wants some of the “Game of Thrones” and “Marvel” action.

Plot Holes – Why is Grindelwald alone if he has a movement at his back? What brought Newt into studying creatures? How do relations between the Wizarding Governments work? (we see a council but no follow up). What is Grindelwald doing beyond terror attacks? There were more as well but these are some right off the bat that I noticed while watching the film. Rowling had this problem in her books too.

The Right to Memory – This is a hole in Rowling’s universe too. Wizards wipe human minds so many times and that is never addressed. This is a huge moral issues, hell they wipe the memory of an entire city and things just return to the status quo. Wizards and humans eventually should interact with one another, groups remaining isolated leads to terms like muggles, etc. This is never addressed but this mentality is what creates Grindelwald’s and Voldemort’s in the Wizarding World.

   This was a film that really excelled when it was doing the Grindelwald plot, but fell apart when Scamander had to “Catch em’ all.” The creatures are all very cool and I get that it is his job but that is even never fully explored but it takes up so much of the plot that the much more interesting mystery of why Grindelwald is in America get’s sidelined until the very end. This was a tragic waste of what could have been a wizard noir! A lot of these cons are cons the books and films have too. Rowling is a great idea writer and she is really good at characters when she focuses on them but in the process her world and stories end up being full of plot holes, even if they are a fun ride. I’d still recommend this film, just know it is flawed going in.

Final Score: 7.3 / 10

Advertisements

Black Mass (2015): A Decent Biopic about the Rise and Fall of “Whitey” Bulger

Black Mass Poster

    Biopics, specifically gangster biopics are hard to pull off. For one you are starting with someone who by the very nature of what they do is unsympathetic and it often times depends way too much on whomever the star is in order to carry the story rather than the power of the writing and story itself. These were the main issues with “Black Mass” that kept it from being great, though it is good to see Johnny Depp in form again and there is a lot to like about this film, even though it missed some great opportunities to raise stakes and humanize the characters.

      The film was directed by Scott Cooper who was also one of the producers and written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk while the other producers were Josh Lesher, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson. It was also based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

      The story involves the rise of fall of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his relationship with his brother the Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their childhood friend who joined the FBI but stayed close to them John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is dark and does a good job capturing the tone of the piece as we follow the life and times of the criminal Whitey Bulger. It never pretends to be anything but a crime biopic and the cinematography beautifully captures it. Takayanagi did a great job.

Whitey Bulger – Johnny Depp is great when he has the chance to play more than a Tim Burton stock character and we get to see him play a truly creepy and scary guy in this. He has relationships he cares about like his son, mother and brother but at the end of the day human life means nothing to him and we see that really well. His paranoia also continues to grow throughout the film as he becomes even more unstable than when we first meet him.

Billy Bulger – Cumberbatch does a fantastic Boston accent and is great as the brother who looks the other way and gives a good public face to the family as he is never corrupt as far as we can see, he is corrupt in how he hides his brother’s crimes by refusing to prosecute or do anything about what others bring forward. It is for this reason he eventually gets arrested we learn in the post credits scene when he stays in contact with his brother the fugitive.

Fred Wyshak – Corey Stoll does a fantastic job as the one who cleans house in the FBI leading to the eventual arrest of Connolly and Bulger and his gang. He is all about work and and it is great seeing him figure everything out, while holding it all close to his chest so that what informants Bulger has in the FBI won’t get out.

Charles McGuire – Kevin Bacon plays the FBI agent trying to do his job on a corrupt force and does a good job of it and clashing with Connolly. Kevin Bacon was great doing the no-nonsense boss shtick.

Okay: John Connolly – It was hard to care about this guy as he was so blatantly corrupt that I was just waiting for the eventual ax to fall.

The Cons: The Minor Characters and Women – Most of the minor characters were completely unmemorable, be they part of Whitey’s gang or the wives of the FBI agents. They were nothing be scenery and for this reason it was hard to care about what happened to any of them. They weren’t given agency.

The War with the Mafia – We never really see the face of the mafia so the war that the FBI fights and the Bulger is fighting with them doesn’t mean anything. They are only ever mentioned and we get the fallout and that really took a lot of the stakes out of the film as we don’t really get tension until Wyshack appears and does all he can to clean out the FBI and catch Whitey.

  This was a decent film that is worth seeing if you are into crime dramas. Depp is memorable but the script needed work as the stakes aren’t executed well and the minor characters never rise above being stock crime drama characters. This is what kept it from being great and why I could see people not enjoying this film as you cannot count on stars to carry a film. “The Martian” worked because of the writing, directing and all of the cast being interesting. In this the only interesting characters are the main characters played by stars who are usually always good.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003): Shooting for a Bigger Point

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

     “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” would make a great min-series. As a film it doesn’t quite work as there are a ton of characters and revenge stories going on and right around the middle it gets really muddled and overindulgent but picks up a lot again at the end while finally having El Mariachi change! As the ending to the Mexico Trilogy, it wasn’t the best…that still belongs to “Desparado” but it was better than “El Mariachi” both in soundtrack and cinematography.

     The film was directed by Robert Rodriguez who also wrote, produced and composed the music for. With the other producers being Elizabeth Avellan and Carlos Gallardo.

     The story picks up where “Desparado” left off with El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) and Carolina living their life with their daughter after they defeat the corrupt General Marquez. The general survives and gets revenge on El Mariachi killing his wife and daughter leading El Mariachi to seek revenge.  Around the same time Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) commissions him to kill the Drug Lord Armando Barillo (Willem Dafoe) leading to a final face off as all the factions come together as both Barillo and Marquez want to overthrow Mexico’s President.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is stark and like a dream sequence making the violence beautiful in how it is presented. It’s not as beautiful as “Desperado” but it still has some very beautiful scenes and color combinations.

The Soundtrack – Soundtrack is the best it has been so far and has a reflective somber tone intermixed with high action beats to reflect the scenes going on.

Armando Barillo – Dafoe does a great job as this drug lord who the CIA is trying to take down. He is emphatic at first and later we see how smart he is when he fakes his own death and even survives past Marquez. It is only a Mexican agent who kills him in revenge after Sands gives him the prompting and opportunity. The agent wasn’t memorable at all though, versus Dafoe.

Ajedrez Barillo – Eva Mendes is wonderful as the daugther of Barillo. She is the one who captures Sands and has them drill out his eyes. She’s cruel and smart and only has a moment of stupidity when she goes to check on Sands body and Sands shoots her in revenge.

Jeffrey Sands – This is one of Depp’s more memorable characters. He is a smooth operator and speaks very calm. I enjoyed his performance as he was a character who was odd and driven and all about the job. He doesn’t let losing his eyes end his mission either and we see that even with loss he can fight and joke making him one of the better action heroes out there. He’s also crazy like most of the characters in this film.

El Mariachi – El Mariachi’s arc goes from taking out small time drug lords in the prior films to taking out Generals in this one. It is here he finds purpose beyond revenge as he gives his money to the people and with his new Band where they take on a Nationalist identity of fighting for Mexico as they protect the President from Marquez and Barillo. He gets Carolina’s locket back and we see him singing for her and fighting for his country. It’s a powerful story.

The Ending – The message is that a person can make their home better. In the first 2 films El Mariachi couldn’t see beyond revenge and himself but later he is fighting for the populace and in this the populace rises up with him against the corrupt General as now El Mariachi has become a folk hero. He embraces this role and it is in that his love for his country and the people keep him going as he is no longer driven by revenge and wishing to die.

Okay/Pros: The Action – Rodriguez has always been good at action and this is film is no exception. A con could even be that it had too much action and was really excessive at times much to the detriment of the story. Specially the hospital attack I was really bored on and it wasn’t until the final confrontation during “Day of the Dead” where I was pulled back in.

The Cons: The Writing – The writing is all over the place. I didn’t care about the Mexican agent, Barillo and his daughter needed more fleshing out and El Mariachi is just kind of there, we don’t see much of his life beyond his music and revenge up until the end. There are a lot of good ideas here they just aren’t clear because of how muddled the script is.

The Use of the Fridge – El Mariachi has now lost his girlfriend, Carolina and daughter as the motivator for each film. This is a tired trope and way overdone. I wish he’d had something more and that we could have seen some of the women in his life kick ass like Carolina did in the flashbacks. The fridge is a terrible trope largely because it is overused. Rodriguez didn’t have to do anything but repeat the plot of “Desperado” for El Mariachi’s motivation and that is just sad.

     Minus the fridging of his girlfriend in the first film and Carolina and his daughter in this one, as well as the muddled script, this was a good film I’d recommend. It is more polished and interesting than “El Mariachi” which felt like a film made by a director just starting to direct but wasn’t as tight and polished as “Desperado” which never felt excessive in any major ways. This one did have a better message though as the vigilante finally looked beyond himself and to the people he should have been protecting all along. That is what made this film really good besides the very colorful characters.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

Also, here are the reviews for “El Mariachi”: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/el-mariachi-1992-a-good-but-rocky-start-to-the-mexico-trilogy/

and “Desperado”: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/desperado/

As we complete the Mexico Trilogy.

Edward Scissorhands (1990): Tim Burton’s Magnum Opus

Edward Scissorhands

 

“Edward Scissorhands” is the best of Tim Burton’s work I have seen and without a doubt his magnum opus. It is this story that captures his eclectic darkness that satires the usual, which in this case is suburbia while giving us the story of an outcast who happens to be the most human of all the characters. Suffice to say, I am glad this film was requested for the holidays, as it had been sometimes since I’ve seen it.

“Edward Scissorhands” was directed by Tim Burton, who also co-wrote the original story and was one of the producers on the production as well. The screenplay was by Caroline Thompson, who also co-wrote the story with him, and the other producer was Denise De Novi.

The premise of the story begins with an old lady telling the story of why snow exists by telling her about Edward (Johnny Depp), a boy who was created by an inventor (Vincent Price) but died before he could finish Edward leaving him with only scissors for hands. From here it kicks off with an Avon saleswoman named Peg (Dianne Wiest) who takes him after she decides to try the old mansion on the hill and discovers him there. From here the story unfolds as Edward reveals the dark underbelly and artificiality of the town and is found to be the most real person there.

The Pros: The Beginning and Flashbacks – One thing that the beginning does well is capture the inventor (Vincent Price’s) desire and love of creation. His mansion is full of robots and we see how wanting to give a robot a heart lead to his creation of Edward. We also see how the inventor treated Edward just like a son and how much he meant to him. These flashbacks are our only glimpse of Price’s character, but they are great as they reveal a mad scientist who has a heart and cares far more about people than most of the folks in the town.

The Outsider – Edward Scissorhands is the outsider and how he is treated is at first fear, but later he’s exploited as he’s a genius at using his scissorhands to do haircuts, groom dogs and shape hedges…this leads to the town taking him for granted and turning on him the moment he goes against their wishes. The only allies he has are the black cop, Kim and Peg.

Social Pressure and Ostracization – As accepting as the Oggs are initially of Edward, they don’t stick up for him when others like Jim and Kim or the neighbors exploit him. They stand by powerless except for Peg who screams to leave him alone and Kim who at this point has fallen in love with him and takes his hand to show the mob after he has saved her from her abusive boyfriend Jim. This is after the cop fakes killing him so he can escape…showing that there are people who understand that feeling of being outcast.

Peg Oggs – Peg Oggs is a woman who takes in Edward because she sees he is alone and cares for him. She never exploits him, unlike her husband which is a nice contrast to her blatantly trying to do that as a saleswoman. This contrast adds depth to her character, though she is powerless to social pressure and never stands up for herself, so never stands up for Edward. Dianne Wiest does a good job.

Kim Oggs – Winona Ryder is great as the selfish teen who grows to become selfless by the end. This first happens when she sees how kind Edward is but later when Edward is exploited by Jim when Jim is stealing from his father she leaves him and realizes how unhealthy Jim was for her. Her arc is fantastic and she sticks with Edward till the end as a friend and eventually as a lover. She is the one telling the story too and there is a sadness since she never went to see him again for his own protection and won’t anymore. In that way snow are her tears of loss as much as Edward’s.

Edward Scissorhands – This is one of the greatest roles I’ve seen Johnny Depp play. He plays a sensitive character just trying to fit in, who is the outcast and doesn’t understand society. He does understand how he was used in the end though. His heart is pure and you can tell his Inventor put the most investment into that versus on finishing up his body. The only ones who really appreciate it are Kim and Peg, which is part of makes it such a tragedy. This character is Burton in his zone and he never reaches this level of quality storytelling again, at least so far in my experience.

Okay: The Neighbors – The neighbors function mostly as ideas and that hurts the satire as true characters are the best forms of satire as they pay tribute to reality and pull from reality. The neighbors are all stereotypes…there is the religious woman afraid of all who are different and the one who sleeps around with all the guys. It isn’t bad but the fact that they are stereotype and archetypes doesn’t help the script. Mr. Oggs and his son are the same way.

The Music – The music isn’t super memorable, but isn’t bad either. It is not Elfman’s greatest work for sure.

The Cons: Jim the Bully – One dimensional baddie with an abusive father. He’s never sympathetic and is the kind of bully you see on the shallowest of kids shows or films. Wasn’t impressed given how great all the other aspects of this film are.

This film is about finding that love and acceptance and how tragic the fear of the mob can be against those are different. The characters and cinematography are unique and rich and the world feels lived in…and you actually care about what happens to Edward and the Oggs as society exploits and later rejects them. This is a tragedy and a romance as well as being a great satire of what suburbia and other groups can become, when people are lost and all that is seen is what you can get out of them.

This was the perfect film to end for the films that were requested on facebook related to the Holidays. The theme of love and sacrifice are things that Edward and Kim exemplify well in how they care for each other and in Edward’s case care for the tow, as well as the story of outcasts which is a such a major part and why giving and caring for the less fortunate is so important. The world is full of outcasts, just looking for acceptance or a warm place with friends or family over these winter days. Happy Holidays all.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10. One dimensional caricatures do bring it down in places but besides that it is solidly great and a favorite film.