Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:08 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2019

Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a little less fantastic than the first film in this new series set in the Harry Potter universe. It serves as something of a bridge between the first Potterverse film set in the past and outside of England and whatever chapter comes next. The first film introduced us to a new set of characters and settings, taking place mostly in New York in the 1920’s.

J.K. Rowling is still more of a novelist than a screenwriter, and the screenplay is unwieldy and cumbersome, with too little investment in the characters, too much focus on the secondary details, and too little attention to the stakes of the story.

As we glimpsed at the end of the last movie, our evil villain is Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp with bleached out hair and one light blue contact lens. And he’s something of a wizarding world white nationalist. While magics and non-magics (muggles in the UK, no-majs in the US) have existed peacefully side by side for centuries, Grindelwald wants the “pure-blood” magic people to reign over the mixed-race magics and the humans.

Our hero is still Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is much more comfortable with magical creatures, even the destructive and dangerous ones, than he is with people, magic or not. With people he looks away and mumbles. With creatures, he instinctively knows how to make them feel safe, maybe because he feels safe with them.

Really, that’s plenty for a movie. But Rowling piles on lots of characters and lots of storylines and lots of world capitals — so many we might forget we’re not in a Bond movie, except that they all have the same chilly, sepulchral, beige color scheme. The movie is cluttered with layers of references to the Potterverse, including a visit to Hogwarts (young Dumbledore!), boggarts, polyjuice potion, and an encounter with Nicolas Flamel. And it is cluttered with mini-plots that don’t go anywhere (as Chekov should have said, if you’re going to introduce a character who turns into a snake in the first act, that snake better save the day in the third) or mini-plots you wish didn’t go anywhere (a search for a lost brother, a romantic misunderstanding that would have seemed tired in a “Brady Bunch” episode). Plus, don’t put the wildly talented Ezra Miller in a movie and give him nothing to do but look glum.

Instead of a missing puzzle piece in a complex, thoroughly imagined world, it is more like fan service. There is much to look at and much to enjoy but I can’t say that it’s Fantastic.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: What would your boggart be and how would you make it ridiculous? Why do Grindelwald’s followers believe he is right?

If you like this, try: the “Harry Potter” series and the first “Fantastic Beasts” film

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Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Movies -- format Series/Sequel

Murder on the Orient Express

Posted on November 9, 2017 at 5:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Plot concerns a murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, racism is raised as an issue
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017

One of Agatha Christie’s most beloved mysteries has returned to the screen with another all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” this time starring Sir Kenneth Branagh, who also directed, as the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It does not have the lush glamour of the 1974 original, directed by Sidney Lumet, and the tone is uneven, but the tricky puzzle is still fun to try to solve, for those who have not read the book or seen the earlier film, and the international cast makes it entertaining.

We first see Poirot in Jerusalem by the Wailing Wall, one of the most sacred locations in the world. It is before WWII and Israel is not yet a state. A priceless relic has been stolen and the suspects, as Poirot notes, are right out of the set-up for a joke: a rabbi, an imam, and a priest. Poirot neatly solves the crime and even more neatly blocks the culprit’s attempt to flee. He explains that he is what decades later would be called obsessive-compulsive, so aware of patterns that he becomes deeply distressed when they are not symmetrical. He even refuses to eat two boiled eggs because they don’t match. But what causes him enormous anxiety in life turns out to be ideal for solving crime. “The imperfections stand out,” he explains. “It makes most of life unbearable but it is useful in the detection of crime.”

When he says he is going to take a nice long train ride and relax with a book by Dickens, we know he will soon be solving another mystery.  As his friend, a handsome but louche train company official, says, a train combines three things: boredom, anonymity, and a gentle rocking motion, and that can lead to all kinds of fascinating possibilities.

Of course, in order to have a mystery, we have to have suspects and clues, so much of the film is taken up with introducing us to the cast of characters, a very international group, as one might expect on a train from Istanbul to Paris. It includes a friendly governess (“Star Wars'” Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham), a British doctor of African heritage (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot), a professor (Willem Dafoe), an elderly countess (Dame Judi Dench), an Italian-American car dealer (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a shy missionary (Penelope Cruz).

Some additions to the storyline are more distracting than illuminating. More seriously, they take away from our chance to get to know the very large cast of characters and that takes away from the sense of mystery and the stakes of the outcome.  Shifts in tone give the film a disquieting inconsistency and flashy camera moves, like an extended shot looking down at the characters’ heads, serve no purpose except to make us wonder what they are supposed to be doing.  Poirot is famously proud of his mustache, and so any depiction of the character must have some impressive facial hair.  Branagh’s is close to farcical, making us wonder whether it merited or required its own trailer on set. One thing we know about Christie and her famous creations — they always knew exactly where they wanted us to be. This movie does not.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references including prostitute, some racist comments, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Did Poirot make the right choice? What were the most important clues? What can you learn from him about observing significant details?

If you like this try: the original version with Albert Finney and other movies based on Agatha Christie stories like “Death on the Nile”

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Based on a book Crime DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format Mystery Remake

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Posted on May 26, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Copyright 2016 Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” the movie has almost no relationship to Alice Through the Looking Glass, the book by Lewis Carroll in spirit, character, or storyline. That might possibly be all right if the spirit, character, or storyline were in any way worthwhile, but it is not. Gorgeous production design and some cool stunts do not make up for a story that begins as passable and ends as painful.

Tim Burton, who produced this one, previously gave us an “Alice in Wonderland” with an adult Alice (Mia Wasikowska) replacing the little girl of the story and spending way too much time in the above-ground “real” world as she attends a party, turns down a proposal of marriage from the odious Haimish (Leo Bill), and accepts instead the offer from his father to serve as crew on a merchant ship.

In “Looking Glass,” we first see Alice, now captain of the ship, in an exciting escape from pirates that show us her courage and love of adventure. But when the ship returns to port in London, she finds that Hamish’s father has died, leaving him in charge, and he refuses to let her go back to sea. In his home, she finds a mirror over a fireplace that is a portal back to Wonderland, led by the former caterpillar, now-butterfly (voice of of the much-missed Alan Rickman).

Having already imported the talking flowers, chess pieces, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Jabberwocky from “Through the Looking Glass” into the first film, conflating the first story’s Queen of Hearts (the “Off with the head!” one) with the second story’s Red Queen (the chess one) this movie takes — but makes no use of — the first book’s characters like the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit, and then has a completely invented story about time travel.

This has many disagreeable aspects, but the worst is when it puts Sasha Baron Cohen as the embodiment of Time into a scene with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and allows them to try to out-grotesque each other in a manner clearly intended to be charming. It is not.

Neither is the plot, which relies heavily on just the kind of treacly heartstrings-plucking backstories that Carroll would never have allowed, asking us to feel sympathy for outrageous behavior and affection for caricatures. The first film’s attempt to create a warm, devoted friendship between Alice and the Mad Hatter was rather ooky. In the sequel, we are asked to believe that she has returned to do whatever it takes to help him because they love each other so much.

To paraphrase the folks behind “Seinfeld,” in the Alice world, there should be no hugging and no apologizing — and no heartfelt professions of affection, especially when they are not in any way justified by the characters’ history with each other.

Alice is needed on the other side of the mirror because the Mad Hatter has found something that has convinced him that his family is still alive, and not killed by the Jabberwock as he had thought. Why is this so important? Is it because he misses them so? Not really. It is because he feels bad about his behavior and needs to see them again so he can be forgiven. The disconnect between the expressions of devotion and the narcissistic reality of behavior is disturbingly cynical. Alice decides the only way she can save his family is to go back in time to the Jabberwock battle, which means she has to retrieve the chronosphere from Time himself, and that leads to more time travel as she solves various not-very-mysterious mysteries and Time chases her to get it back. Not that any of it makes any sense, logically or emotionally.

The production design is imaginative and witty, but it is buried under a gormless, hyperactive mess of a film. The book is endlessly witty and imaginative and delightful with all kinds of wordplay, math puzzles, and chess references from Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson), a math professor.  The movie wastes all of that opportunity.  Look at the title — the movie should be about a reverse world, not a heist/time travel saga that only concludes you can’t change history.  If I had the chronosphere, I’d use it to go back to the moment I sat down to watch this movie so I could go home.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy peril with many disturbing images, discussion of loss of parents, brief image of someone dying, and bullying.

Family discussion: If you could go back in time, what time would you pick? Why did the Hatter and the White Queen have a hard time telling their families how they felt?

If you like this, try: the many other movie Alice stories including the Disney animated version and the Kate Beckinsale version of “Through the Looking Glass” and the books by Lewis Carroll

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book Fantasy Remake Series/Sequel

Opening This Month: September 2015

Posted on September 1, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Happy September! Fall is when we see fewer sequels, superheroes and shootouts, more dramas based on real stories or best-selling books. Here’s what we have to look forward to this month:

September 2

A Walk in the Woods Bill Bryson’s book about his trek through the Appalachian Trail is now a film starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson.

September 4

Learning to Drive Katha Pollitt’s essay about getting her first driver’s license after a breakup has been softened a bit for this movie with Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley.

Transporter Refueled Newcomer Ed Skrein takes over the role of the implacable driver for hire, this time driving three gorgeous female bank robbers in Sia wigs.

September 11

The Visit M. Night Shyamalan returned to spookiness with this story of children who find there is some very, very creepy stuff going on in their grandparents’ house.

The Perfect Guy A lobbyist played by Sanaa Lathan gets into an intense and steamy rebound relationship after a painful breakup. She is flattered by his attention, but then….

September 18

Black Mass Johnny Depp plays one of the most notorious gangsters of the century, Boston’s Whitey Bulger, at times an FBI informant, and now in prison for 19 murders.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials They escaped the maze in the first film. Now what’s beyond the maze is even more dangerous.

September 25

Hotel Transylvania 2 All the spooks and monsters are back, as Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Jonathan (Andy Samberg) have a baby and grandpa Dracula (Adam Sandler) wants to make sure his grandchild continues his vampire heritage.

The Intern Writer-director Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated”) has two Oscar winners in this film: Anne Hathaway as a harried mom with a quickly expanding business and Robert De Niro as a retired executive who becomes her intern.

99 Homes Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, and Michael Shannon star in this searing drama about desperate people trying to make the best of a collapsing economy, surrounded by foreclosed homes.

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