Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

2016 #182
David Yates | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When J.K. Rowling wrote the seven-book Harry Potter series, she didn’t just make it all up as she went along — it was well planned in advance. And she didn’t just envisage a seven-book story, either — she built a whole world, including a massive history that is only fleetingly referred to in Potter itself. It’s part of that history that the five-film Fantastic Beasts series is setting out to explore. (Despite sharing a title with a short tie-in book Rowling once wrote, Fantastic Beasts isn’t somehow an adaptation of that tiny tome, despite what some pithily moronic internet commenters who think they’re funny would believe.)

Set many decades before Potter, Fantastic Beasts introduces us to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard who’s travelled to New York while researching his book on magical creatures — or “fantastic beasts”. There, he finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the local magic council and a puritanical group who want to destroy all wizards, while some creature or force is terrorising the city.

Although labelled by some as a prequel, that’s only technically true — it is set before the Potter stories, but it’s a new story in that universe rather than a tale that leads directly into the existing narrative. As such, it’s pretty newbie friendly. It reuses familiar iconography from Potter, but it does so in neat ways — there are things that are instantly recognisable to fans, but their function is not reliant on familiarity for the sake of newcomers or the less well-versed. It’s also opening up new parts of the Potterverse — or, as they want us to call it now, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World — primarily, taking us to the USA for the first time.

Fantastic Americans and where to find them

As a new story, it develops its own particular tone and style, distinct from that of the previous movies. That partly comes from the characters we’re following: Potter is about schoolchildren, this is about adults. It’s still a 12A/PG-13, of course, but there’s a lot of wiggle-room within that category. Perhaps this is why some have found it tonally inconsistent, but I enjoyed the mix of whimsy with darkness. The overall effect was good fun, with strong action scenes and some really good — even magical — visuals. The story is bolstered by a couple of well-constructed final act twists. I found at least one to be pretty guessable, but that doesn’t detract from it being put together neatly throughout the film.

As for the widely discussed fact that this is to be the first of five movies, that fortunately doesn’t define this opening instalment. Seeds for future films are obvious because we recognise actors and, as movie-literate viewers, know how films establish things for future use; but leaving that extra-textual knowledge aside, there’s no reason this doesn’t work as a standalone adventure. People who’ve said otherwise are talking poppycock. Even stuff that initially looks like it’s purely franchise-setup has a purpose within this individual movie.

Fantastic Beasts has been dismissed in some quarters as no more than a cash-grab attempt to extend a franchise, but I thought it was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of 2016.

4 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

2015 #169
The Wachowskis | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Ah, the Wachowskis. They made Bound, and no one much cared. Then they made The Matrix, and they were the biggest thing in blockbusterdom since George Lucas took us to a galaxy far, far away. Then they made the Matrix sequels, and no one cared again. Following a period when I don’t think I was alone in wondering if they were ever going to make anything else, they managed to return to the realm of mega-budgeted sci-fi action (I guess the Matrix sequels cleaned up at the box office and that’s all that matters). First there was Speed Racer (which I called “a candy-coloured masterpiece”), then Cloud Atlas (which I haven’t got round to still), and most recently Sense8 (which I certainly haven’t got time for — there’s way too much promising telly to spend time on a show I haven’t heard anyone talk about since its release day).

And earlier this year there was Jupiter Ascending, best known (as far as I’m aware) for provoking speculation it would cost Eddie Redmayne the Oscar for Theory of Everything because it came out during voting season and he was so gosh darn bad in it. And it’s also known for being just generally dreadful and universally disdained.

But, hey, look — Channing Tatum! 2015 is (as mentioned) the year of Channing Tatum for me. And this is a big sci-fi blockbuster, so chances are it would cross my visual cortex eventually regardless (though there are so many sci-fi blockbusters these days that they don’t feel nearly as precious as they did even ten years ago). And the universal disdain wasn’t actually universal — I have actually seen some people praise this film. I know, right?

Sadly, I still thought Jupiter Ascending was awful.

The plot… oh, do I have to explain the plot? It’s some rubbish about a cleaner (Mila Kunis) getting attacked by aliens and some alien crossbreed in magic flying shoes (Channing Tatum) coming to her rescue, and taking her to a half-bee man (Sean Bean — there has to be a “Sean Bee-n” joke here…), and then into space, because she’s… nope, not the Chosen One (makes a change, at least) but a reincarnation of someone important, and her surviving family members (Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Eddie Redmayne) have a vested interest in her — which may or not be that they want her dead (again).

You might thank me for clarifying that, because it’s mindbogglingly messy in the telling. A sheen of originality, partially aided by world-building so dense it’s conveyed in massive infodumps that blur into incomprehensibility, tries to mask the fact that Jupiter Ascending is immensely derivative, including of the Wachowskis’ own work. One of the best bits, a gently satirical sequence of red tape and bureaucracy, is all but lifted wholesale from Hitchhikers or the films of Terry Gilliam — who turns up in a cameo as if to underline the point. Elsewhere you might recall David Lynch’s Dune or The Fifth Element — the latter in particular, although there the campiness was deliberate.

Some praise the visuals, claiming the film at least looks fabulous. Parts of the film carry a level of extravagance and detail thus far found exclusively in a certain genre of sci-fi novel cover art, presumably because CGI has finally reached a point where it can replicate all that on screen in motion. I guess it works for some people, but while it’s not bad, it also didn’t do much for me. And every time something almost works, something else undermines it, like Tatum’s make-up, or his flying boots, or Redmayne’s bizarre, affected performance. Though, to be honest, I think he’s so bad he’s good, a phrase you often hear bandied around but rarely see actually happen.

All things considered, the worst part of Jupiter Ascending is its first half-hour or so. Once it gets past that dreadfully messy first act, it settles down into something that works as passable entertainment. Sure, you might spend the rest of the time (and it does feel like a long time) playing “spot the influence”, or wondering just how exactly Redmayne’s performance came about, or, if you’re versed in British TV, going, “oh, it’s them, from… um… that other thing!” (Eventually there’s a whole spaceship full of “people off British TV”.)

But hey, at least it’s not dull.

2 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending debuts on Sky Movies Premiere tonight at 4pm and 8pm.

Haiku Review

Ev’ry August film
reviewed in haiku form. (And
you thought drabbles short!)

I can’t even remember what gave me the idea, but the other day I started writing haiku-sized reviews of films I’d watched, and before I knew it had written one for every film from August. So, in what may or may not become a new regular feature, I’m going to share them with you. You lucky, lucky people.

Technically a haiku is more than just the 5-7-5 syllable structure most people know: it should be about nature, and (to quote Wikipedia) “the essence of haiku is ‘cutting’… often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.” Obviously these haiku have nothing to do with the first of those conditions; as to the second, well, it comes and goes. At times, I’ve tried; others, less so. Hopefully none are just 17-syllable sentences split in three. Nonetheless, I don’t promise poetic quality with these.


Contagion
Gwyneth Paltrow eats,
whole world at risk of grim death.
Scares ’cause it could be.

End of Watch
Cops film selves, sort of.
Inconsistent P.O.V.
undermines reel-ism.

Inherent Vice [review]
Pynchon’s comedy
filmed by P.T. Anderson.
Laughs for weed users.

Interstellar [review]
Two-Thousand-And-One,
A Space-Time Anomaly.
Mainly, spectacle.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Uncommon premise
raises expectations, but
promise is squandered.

Life of Pi [review]
Tiger on a boat:
CG extravaganza!
Better than the truth.

Monsters: Dark Continent [review]
Genre transplanted,
but soldiers pose same quand’ry:
aren’t we the monsters?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This: way the world ends —
not with a bang or whimper,
but a love story.

Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle’s debut.
Cold cash leads friends to distrust
and dismemberment.

Sherlock Holmes (1922) [review]
Moriarty v.
Barrymore. Gillette-derived
slight Sherlock silent.

Shivers
Amateur work by:
biologist, kills neighbours;
Cronenberg, upsets.

Space Station 76 [review]
Groovy future fun,
undercut by theme of frac-
tured relationships.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Epic history,
too personalised for some.
Piqued insight abounds.

Stranger by the Lake
French gays have the sex
with a killer in their midst.
A slow-burn beauty.

The Theory of Everything [review]
Eddie Redmayne won
awards, but the film’s heart is
Felicity Jones.

The Thing (2011) [review]
Under prequel’s guise,
computers doodle a mere
Carpenter rehash.

The Haiku Review may return next month. We’ll see how things go.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

2015 #114
James Marsh | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Biopic of genius cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his wife/caregiver Jane, on whose memoir the film is based.

Felicity Jones gives a first-class performance as Jane, building genuine poignancy by being impeccably understated. Eddie Redmayne contorts himself into the form of Hawking with uncanny accuracy, a truly remarkable performance of a truly remarkable man.

Unfortunately, it’s an unremarkably-made film — not bad, just clichéd biopic. Occasional moments of filmmaking flair rub shoulders with bizarre choices, like dousing random sequences in extreme colour.

But the focus remains on the characters, and with people as extraordinary as these — Stephen and Jane both — that’s warranted.

4 out of 5