Friday, November 18, 2016

Movie Review: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

Return to J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a new five part prequel series to Harry Potter.

In Fantastic Beasts, we are transported back to 1926 New York, during the height of the Jazz Age, where Rowling lifts the veil on the American Wizarding World for the first time.  It is here we meet British magizoologist, Newt Scamander, who is traveling the world cataloging magical creatures and keeping a literal zoo within his magically enchanted suitcase.  When Newt's suitcase is opened and some of his magical creatures escape, Newt must return them before getting arrested by MACUSA (the American equivalent to the Ministry of Magic), with the aid of an ex-auror named Tina, her sister Queenie, and a No-Maj (aka American Muggle) named Jacob.

Fantastic Beasts sees the return of many of the behind the scenes talent from the Harry Potter movies.  David Yates, the director of the last four Potter movies, has directed this one as well, while David Heyman, the producer of all eight Potter movies, is onboard here too, alongside Rowling and Steve Kloves, who wrote the screenplays for seven of the Potter movies but is merely a producer this time.  Of course the biggest draw of this movie is that it is the first screenplay ever written by J.K. Rowling herself.  While there was a fictional Hogwarts textbook that Rowling wrote about fifteen years ago that bears the same name, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, this movie is not so much an adaptation as it is the story that tells of how the author of that textbook, Newt Scamander, wrote it.

In all honesty, how much you enjoy Fantastic Beasts really all stems back to how much you love Rowling's Wizarding World.  If you are not already a fan of Rowling's work, this movie will not change your mind.  On top of that, this movie would not make a great entry point for someone who has never read a Harry Potter book or seen any of the movies.  If you don't know your Muggles from your Nifflers, you might be a little lost, with that all said, as a diehard fan of the books and movies from the Wizarding World, Fantastic Beasts is a more than satisfactory return to Rowling's imagination.

Like with all of Rowling's writings, there are deeper themes running underneath the whole story that help to give the story weight.  No theme is more prominent than that of tolerance and understanding, however the real draw of Rowling's writing is the colorful characters she creates.  Fantastic Beasts is no different, with these characters being brought to life by the great actors playing them.  Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander with an awkward sensibility that often finds him more attune to creatures than other people, but throughout the course of the movie you really get a sense for Newt's heart and come to love him for who he is.  Then there are sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol.  Tina is very straight to business while Queenie is a little more open and flirty, especially with Jacob, the No-Maj that tags along for the ride.  Actor Dan Fogler steals practically every scene he is in as Jacob, acting as the main source of comic relief for almost all of the movie, and Jacob's potential romance with Queenie is easily one of my favorite aspects of the whole story.  Then there are the titular fantastic beasts themselves, who all are characters in their own ways, in particular the platypus-like Niffler who garners many laughs.

Once the credits roll, you realize you've gone on a great adventure.  To compare the modest adventure in this movie to the grand ones in the Harry Potter stories is almost a little foolish.  Like the Star Wars prequels, we ultimately know where this story ends, but it is how we get there that is what makes Fantastic Beasts worthwhile.  Fantastic Beasts is definitely a different experience from the Harry Potter books and movies, but it also has all of the heart, humor, and thrills of those other stories to be a fantastic addition all on its own (pun definitely intended).

I give Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them a 9 out of 10!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Movie Review: "Doctor Strange"

Marvel continues its hit streak with Doctor Strange, the most peculiar movie to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Guardians of the Galaxy.  As far as superheroes go, Doctor Strange is easily one of the more obscure.  While many diehard comic book fans know who Doctor Strange is, the average person doesn't and that was clearly going to be the biggest hurdle for this movie to overcome.  As a fanboy who never really read much Doctor Strange, I went into this movie without any preconceived notions of what to expect and was more than satisfied.  I believe others who know nothing about Doctor Strange will be as well.

The titular Doctor Strange is a world famous neurosurgeon named Stephen Strange.  He is arrogant and exceptionally good at what he does, however when he injures his hands in a car wreck, he can no longer do his job.  Strange starts searching the world for a cure, eventually meeting the Ancient One, a sorcerer who trains him in the mystic arts.  Throughout the course of Strange's training, he discovers a new purpose for his life and realizes that there are larger things at play in the universe than just himself, placing him upon a path to safeguard Earth from supernatural threats.

The greatest thing about Doctor Strange is how mindblowingly original it is.  The action in this movie is not merely two super powered dudes slugging it out, it's not even two wizards casting spells at one another, this is sorcerers warping the realities of time and space with magic.  Streets fold in on themselves, portals to other dimensions are opened, and time is manipulated routinely throughout the movie.  Then there is arguably the coolest fight sequence of the year when Doctor Strange's astral form does ghost battle with a bad guy's astral form.

Director Scott Derrickson and his screenwriting partners, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, deserve huge kudos for being able to think outside the box.  Doctor Strange goes beyond most of the action movie norms to craft action that occasionally has shades of other movies, but cranks it all up to eleven.  Of course the biggest kudos should go to Marvel Studios' president and Doctor Strange producer, Kevin Feige.  Doctor Strange has long been a passion project for Feige.  He saw something in the comic book adventures that many others throughout the years didn't and his determination pays off for the audience.

When you really get right down to it, Doctor Strange is another base hit for Marvel Studios, if not completely a home run due to the usual trappings of superhero origin stories and being part of an interconnected universe of movies.  If Sherlock didn't already make Benedict Cumberbatch a mega star, his work as Doctor Strange will.  In a great many ways, Cumberbatch almost brings more cheek than Tony Stark, with a little more likability to boot.  Then there is Rachel McAdams who is likable as the obligatory love interest, Dr. Christine Palmer.  While McAdams essentially plays a role we've seen her do many times over in other movies, she helps further ground Strange's humanity.  Rounding out the cast are the likes of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, Benedict Wong as Wong, and Madds Mikkelsen as the bad guy, Kaecilius.  All play their parts well and further ground the absurdity through their acting.

All in all, Doctor Strange is a fun time at the movies.  The movie takes itself seriously enough to make it seem like the stakes matter, and yet it has the good, winking sense of humor of the first two Iron Man movies and Ant-Man to keep the movie feeling light.  When you really get right down to it, that is what people have come to expect from Marvel Studios and they continue to deliver on that promise with each subsequent movie, and Doctor Strange is no exception.

I give Doctor Strange a 9 out of 10!