Hacksaw Ridge (*****) So many ways to serve

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Hacksaw Ridge – 2016

Director Mel Gibson
Screenplay by Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn

There are very few war films I have seen that are this violent: the opening of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind. If ever one wanted to show the horror and glory in war, Mel Gibson has done it. In telling the story of Desmond Doss, a 7th Day Adventist who served with distinction in the Second World War, we see a glorious example of serving God and man without short shifting either.

Gibson’s style is at once simple and grand, gentle and wretched. I can’t recall the last time I saw such straightforward characterizations. The men on the screen are at once distinct and of their time.They border on parody when we first meet them, until one realizes that Americans in World War II has considerably less comfortable cynicism than we enjoy today.

Then there is Doss, who would seem peculiar at any time in history. He’s enthusiastic, optimistic and dedicated to honoring God and his country at once. These things converge for him in  a way different from most. He wants to serve America by being a medic, but does not want to learn how to fire a weapon. The logic is sound even if religion were not involved. Why would a medic want to see anyone hurt?

Garfield is excellent at capturing the depth of a man who seems at peace with the fact that most of the world does not understand his perspective. He’s not an asshole about it either. If they ask, he explains it in simple terms because he thinks quite literally. He is no fool, but his enthusiasm reminds of one who is unencumbered by the rationalizations most people put for their version of understanding the Bible.

Since when did sound logic make anyone popular? Doss suffers immeasurably through boot camp, but he always keeps moving forward. This punishment is endorsed by his Sergeant Howell (Vaughn) and his Captain Glover (Worthington). While not inherently cruel men, they see it as a matter of life and death for the other men that someone on their side won’t pick up a gun to defend them. They don’t see defense in any other capacity or possibility. So myopic is our own perspective at times.

Gibson doesn’t handle the process of mind expansion with any amount of hugging and learning moments. There will be plenty of men who die not knowing the true value of having a peaceful warrior on their side. There are even some who marvel while he is helping them that Doss would also take the time to help injured enemy combatants. He see’s life as life. They see some as right and some as wrong. It’s a worthy achievement that in a story celebrating this man’s achievements Gibson is wise enough to show that some of them will not ever be valued by the people with whom Doss served.

Back to the violence. There are at least two ways to see a war film. Philosophically and realistically. Sometimes one way informs the other. Only by seeing how brutal and horrific the circumstances were can we understand the true bravery of all soldiers. We also are served as a warning to those who think War is something done “over there” with no consequence to most people. It’s one thing to understand war in an intellectual way. It’s another when you experience viscerally at the base level.

The detail that Gibson puts into the battle scenes is legendary. This is above the level even of Braveheart. The strange thing is, for all of the meticulous attention paid to every action above the ridge, the wig applied to Doss’ girl back home (Palmer) is laughably bad.It seems such an easy thing to get right comparatively.

That’s a small quibble though. This is a great film, if you can stomach something as graphic as The Passion of the Christ. It’s done in an equally sacred manner, if you value life. To see lives so easily lost, you will be more heartened to find a man running all through the night, praying for the strength to save “just one more.”

(***** out of *****)

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Fences (*****) is powerful, unlimited

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Fences – 2016

Director Denzel Washington
Screenplay August Wilson
Starring Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney

Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.

There is a bushel of truth to be gleaned from observing the lives intersecting inside of Fences. There is almost certainly as much bullshit, too. The start of the film has an extremely flawed protagonist Troy Maxson (Washington) coming home from work with his friend Jim Bono (Henderson). Troy is spilling out the stories as fast as he can. Once in a while, Jim will point out little truths about Troy. Troy brushes them aside in time for them to arrive at his home and starts up with the bullshit stories again, this time with his loving wife Rose (Davis) jumping in and out of them with her own tolerant asides to the story. Troy’s stories are not complete fabrications. We get nuggets of true feeling scattered throughout. Even Rose knows to dust a little here and there. All parties know not to damage the illusion of happiness though.

Soon we see Troy’s son – Lyons (Hornsby) from his first marriage, before he spent 15 years in prison. Lyons wants to borrow some money from Troy. Troy is filled with indignant bluster. Rose gives it to Lyons. Troy’s relationship with Lyons could use some work that only a woman who is not his mother is willing to put in. This is a bad sign, but not nearly as bad as what is going on with Troy and Rose’s son, Cory (Henderson). Cory is a star athlete for his high school, and he’s getting some looks by colleges for a possible scholarships. Troy puts pressure on Cory to hold a job, go to high school and work around the house before he can play football, and is ready to pounce when he makes a choice to consolidate any of the options to focus on another. That Troy was once a baseball prospect himself before the leagues were integrated has something to do with this vitriol. Not knowing how to count his blessings and be supportive is another.

We also meet Troy’s brother, Gabriel, who suffered an injury in the Second World War. This injury has made him daft, but it also allowed a settlement that allowed Troy to buy a down payment on the house that he’s been paying on ever since. This was a source of concern for Troy when he had Gabriel living with him. It’s a source of embarrassment now that Gabriel decided he wanted to live down the street.

Troy is a classic Greek figure. He is king of his fragile domain and has a weary hold on what little he has been able to put together from scratch. He is on the verge of making a breakthrough in life when he makes a decision that begins to tear it all down.

It is then that we discover the true backbone of the story and the kingdom, now in shambles, has been Rose all along. Her work has been taken for granted, and so has her heart. She is bigger than Troy, though, in almost every measure.

Washington is as brave an actor as we have been blessed with in many generations. Here he is no different. His choice to absorb the flawed protagonist and make him good, but not all the way good is gutsy. Even more a risk is to allow him to be honest enough to embrace his faults, but not wise enough to understand his true purpose as a husband and a father. Troy is like many men I have known – including my father. He’s a man with faults I also struggle to overcome.

Washington’s best move – hands down – is giving the role of Rose to another of our greatest actors. Davis completely absorbs the role of the woman taken for granted. The breadth of her pain and despair is etched upon every line of her face and captured in the small of her back when she leans over in between chores. I have known this woman in my life, too. It wouldn’t be tough to guess of whom I might be speaking.

The conflict between Troy and his children – as well the constant salve being applied by Rose – gives another powerful demonstration of a truism that doesn’t have to be true. He won’t commit to a relationship with one. He is overbearing to the point of cruelty with another. He is too late for all of them. Who hasn’t felt this as a child and later wondered if they’ve repeated the mistake as a parent?

The rest of the cast is stellar and the story is exceptionally told. If there is a weakness, it’s in the obvious feel of a play rather than a film. This can be forgiven, though. Most probably would not have seen it otherwise. This is definitely one of the best films of the year, with a story that needs to be told, until men can learn from mistakes they see rather than just the ones they make themselves.

(***** out of *****)

The Lego Batman Movie (***1/2) is rife with life, the universe, everything

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The Lego Batman Movie – 2017

Director Chris McKay
Screenplay  Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Starring (Voices)  Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

It’s not as much a movie as a celebration of all things insanely tangential. The references are so thick you can go 2 seconds before getting another one. Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent / Two Face? Really?  Are you kidding?

Sure, we have Batman (Arnett) and Joker (Galifianakis) playing the bromance card harder than ever before. There is finally a Robin (Cera) who is a dream for everyone who wanted to yell at how odd the whole thing between he and Bruce Wayne feels. Barbara Gordon (Dawson) literally throwing her weight around. And do they ever get Alfred (Fiennes) wrong? They sure don’t miss a beat here.

It’s the type of film one could watch 100 times and find 1000 different things to enjoy or to be awed by. Even then, it’s more of a collection of moments than it is a film. There is the barest amount of hugging and learning. Thankfully everyone is laughing at romance all the way through.

The film is really a continuation of Arnett’s brilliant take on the caped crusader that we first saw in The Lego Movie in 2014. We get to see nicer versions of all of the bad guys and then let chaos abound. The dynamic between the principals is enough to keep the film’s plot above sea level. So confident were they in their choice for Barbara, I don’t think I have ever seen so much Batgirl in a film before.

It’s not a lot to go on, story wise, but it’s a ton of references that may not ever get old. A metric ton in scripter body weight can do that for you.There may be no issues with rewatch value here, but I think they’d be pushing it to make a second film. It feels like they poured everything into this one, along with way too much caffeine for the creators.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Nocturnal Animals (*) is weak

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Nocturnal Animals – 2016

Written and Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Nocturnal Animals is the kind of story shared by people I will never be associated with in real life. I suppose this would not inherently make their viewpoint any less valid to me. That they don’t know how to tell their story effectively might, though.

It’s the kind of story where someone leaves an abortion clinic after having the procedure performed and then tells the person she is having an affair with that she is “Catholic and I don’t even believe in abortion.”

She is Susan (Adams), a “debutante” like her mother (Linney). At one point, she married her college sweetheart, Edward (Gyllenhaal) and tried to deny her true self. Even if she was not artistic, she could appreciate someone who was, right? Wrong. Her mother told her it was wrong in one of many poorly played out scenes at a fancy restaurant. She resisted for a while, then she ended up with Hutton (Hammer) after breaking it off with Edward and killing their baby.

Years later, after having a child of their own who is now full grown, Susan and Hutton are breaking apart. Edward sends Susan a manuscript out of nowhere and she begins to read it. What follows are scenes truly worthy of the MST3K treatment. There are so many boring shots of Susan reading Edwards story in any of a variety of comfortable rooms, it lampoons itself.

Meanwhile, the story she reads is preposterous. A family of 3, driving on a seemingly desolate road, are accosted by three random rednecks. Gyllenhaal is a father figure here named Tony. He has another red head (Fisher) as his wife and they have a daughter that has red hair too. This is curious to no one. It’s obvious what they are meant to represent. Anyone that doesn’t know what happens when rednecks come across families at night on a desert road in a movie can keep watching, if they can make it through. If they do, they deserve a reward. They won’t get one.

Tony ends up working with Detective Andes (Shannon) to find the rednecks afterword. That Shannon is nominated for supporting actor is not surprising. He truly made bad dialogue and a worse premise sing. He should not win for this garbage of a film, though.

Ford’s incompetent storytelling lays waste to the best efforts of Gyllenhaal. Rarely have I seen him try so hard and come up with so little. Adams is horrible. It could be this performance that kept her from her nomination worthy performance in Arrival. Everyone else in this movie come across like mannequins reading bad dialogue. That’s the best I can give it.

Ford has no talent that I can see for the art of movie making. Most of his shots come across like those awkward photos of kids in the 70’s when you get the front view and a soft side view in one shot. It’s supposed to be poignant and deep. It only produces awkward chuckles.

(* out of *****)

The Founder (****) gives a decent take on who built that

the-founderThe Founder – 2016

Director John Lee Hancock
Screenplay by Robert D. Siegel
Starring  Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Laura Dern

If someone ever wanted to know exactly how it was two brothers making burgers in a humbly magnificent San Bernardino restaurant translated to the world’s most well known restaurant, this comes pretty close. It definitely piqued my interest, and then held it for its entire running time. Then, like the fast food itself, left me wanting more.

Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a miserable travelling salesman who constantly feeds himself motivational information as he goes from town to town pushing milkshake mixers. After getting a large order, he investigates the company. He discovers Dick and Mac McDonald (Lynch and Offerman), who have fashioned an incredibly efficient method for pushing out a simple menu at a profit. After some back and forth, he gets them to agree on the concept of franchising.

Success does not come instantly for Kroc in his venture. The brothers, especially Mac, are resistant to changes to their formula. In fact, they say no to just about everything. Kroc perseveres through a willingness to change, force of his own will and a fortuitous meeting or two. Two things Hancock and Siegel make sure of in this version of the story is that the success is definitely his, along with the sins.

The structure of the story at first is extremely compelling. Keaton, Lynch and Offerman do a great job of representing their respective viewpoints. We also get a passing view of Ray and his first wife, Ethel (Dern) as they (mostly she) struggle to keep the relationship together. Once we see Linda Cardellini as Joan, it’s pretty clear that this won’t happen.

Things really start picking up when he is overheard at a bank by Harry Sonneborn (Novak). Once Harry is in Ray’s ear, we see how all of his truly ambitious work can be made into a truly unique American success story.

At different points in life, I may have experienced this movie differently. At this point, I think I see it as the director and writer may have intended. Ray was not a really nice guy, but the McDonald brothers did not really lose anything by partnering with him. They were playing two different games. What’s equally amazing is considering the fact that Kroc didn’t even meet the brothers until late in his floundering career. It’s truly an amazing story from that perspective.

Just at the pinnacle of Kroc’s success, the story immediately gives out. We hear nothing of substance in the company’s growth to a worldwide phenomenon. In this manner, the makers were staying in the bounds of their story, that being the contrast between the low-key brothers and the higher energy businessman that ran away with their name and their formula for fast food.

I wish they could have stretched this out to perhaps another film or at least another hour, beyond the reach they allowed themselves. In this way, the movie feels a lot like that restaurant in San Bernardino. It’s fine start, but this story is worth a franchise.

(**** out of *****)

The Secret Life of Pets (***1/2) and Sing (*1/2) shows Illumination is just pumping them out there regardless of quality

secret_life_of_petsThe Secret Life of Pets – 2016

Directors  Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Screenplay by  Brian LynchCinco PaulKen Daurio
Starring (voice) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks

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Sing – 2016

Written and Directed by Garth Jennings
Starring (voice)  Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly

Pixar has been in the sequel age for a few years. Disney’s picking up their slack though. Dreamworks had a good run that has begun to slow down in the last few years. On the other hand, Illumination finally started putting out product that wasn’t related to Despicable Me in the last 4 years. Don’t worry, though, the movies were a success and will each have a sequel by 2020. By then we’ll have had another Despicable Me and one more take on The Grinch.

The two films this year, Pets and Sing, are pretty similar in terms of animated artistry. The visuals are distinct and cute. But not too cute. Research must have told them how much ugly is the right amount. The stories couldn’t be any more different.

First of all, The Secret Life Of Pets, is a pleasant surprise that filled the gap left in the summer for those who wanted to watch something after Finding Dory. The story is about 2 dogs who we’ll call Woody and Buzz. Woody has the best life with his owner fellow neighbor pets until his seeming nemesis, Buzz, comes along. They fight until they both get lost and it takes a concerted effort to get everyone back together again before the misunderstood miscreants ruin everything.

Woody and Buzz in this case are Max (C.K.) and Duke (Stonestreet). Their friends, while unremarkable, provide enough grist to get to the most entertaining parts of the film in Snowball (Hart), who is best described as a psychotic bunny, and Pops (Carvey) who reigns as a sort of unwieldy godfather type. Despite the obvious references to the superior Toy Story, it’s still above average with more than a few memorable moments.

Sing is another matter. Trying so hard to represent everyone that feels forgotten, it’s worse than forgettable. It’s maudlin. The story involves a group of misfits who tryout for a Muppets style show, but then have to settle for…a more Muppety kind of show. These Muppets are not at all interesting. Who they are, why they are there and what happens matters less than zero. In fact, the animation far outstrips anything you hear in the movie.

The vocal talent for Pets is superior, mostly for the inclusion of Louis C.K., Stonestreet, Slate and Carvey. Brooks makes a nice appearance as a bird of prey who’s fighting that urge for the prospect of gaining a friend. I know that McConaughey and Witherspoon are in Sing, but I can’t tell you how the movie is any better for it. Seth MacFarlane’s slightly sinister mouse Mike is the most memorable character that doesn’t beg for sympathy or laughs.

The animation for both is really neat. I was in awe of some of the scenery, and it really looks like Illumination is learning how to show off their talent without making it obvious. Duke’s flowing hair would have been awful a few years ago. Now he’s a wonder.

It’s plain that Illumination is banking on a distinct visual flair while sacrificing originality of story (and, in Sing’s case, distinct vocal talent). There are worse films out there, but it all makes me happy that my youngest one is 10 and I will likely be skipping more of the automatic animation viewing destinations in the future.

(***1/2 out of *****) The Secret Life of Pets
(*1/2 out of *****) Sing

Split (***) falls short of its potential

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Split – 2017

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula

For a guy who 15 years ago was all about potential to have gone through the ringer to eventually come to a film that is itself the very description of potential is saying something. I am just not sure what it is trying to say.

Taylor-Joy plays Casey, who along with two friends is kidnapped and brought to a secret hideout. Their captor, known to the world as Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy) is someone who suffers from multiple personality disorder. This manifests itself in 23 different personages residing within his person. They are working in concert in preparation for a 24th.

Her co-captives (Richardson and Sula), already uncomfortable with Casey, are even more put off by her decision not to work with them in an effort to escape. More contemplative, Casey recognizes early on the true nature of her kidnapper. During this time, the viewer is given glimpses into Casey’s past, which is nearly as horrific as her present.

Kevin is working with a psychologist named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley). She suspects there is something going on as Kevin keeps asking to meet with her. She is unable to piece it together until she gets an epiphany.

Things progress in an entertaining pace for the first 50 minutes, if for no other reason than Taylor-Joy and Buckley. Taylor-Joy gives such foreboding as to make one wonder who is really in danger as she keeps her reactions mostly under the vest. Indeed, it’s almost like she’s weighing her options of staying versus escaping. In two films, Anya Taylor-Joy has shown as much depth as an actress her age since Kate Winslet.

Good Lord, but it’s nice to see Betty Buckley has still got it going on. She has the presence of  a master, and it’s clear to see that she spends her time between gigs teaching the craft. Her inclusion within the story gives the character a depth that might be missing from your average supporting actor. We get a real inquisitive nature, a desperation to be taken seriously and concern for the welfare of each party at once with her portrayal. It is a dimension that would be easy to overlook, but Shyamalan does not.

It is unfortunate that Joaquin Phoenix was unable to work out a schedule to play as Kevin. As it stands, MCavoy is passable, but we get only 8 characters out of him and most of them are not different enough to register in the amount of time allotted. I nearly decided against watching the film after seeing the trailer enough to grow tired of Hedwig.

Shyamalan has trudged through Hollywood obscurity for many years to get back to the point where a film of his is considered a hot property.  He seems to have struck a chord here, but for me the story is a half step back of his last venture, The Visit. It definitely keeps one watching until the end, and it feels like he’s having fun making movies again.

Overall, it’s the very last scene that will keep people from forgetting this film. Even so, the payoff for the characters is underwhelming. While it’s easy to have low expectations from the obvious hint of future films in this universe, I am willing to see where it goes.

(*** out of *****)

Forgotten Gems: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (*****)

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – 1974

Director Joseph Sargent
Screenplay Peter Stone based on the book by John Godey
Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, Earl Hindman, Dick O’Neill, James Broderick, Tony Roberts, Lee Wallace

The characters of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (P123) feel as authentically New York as anything in the second half of the 20th Century. That each of the actors feel familiar but not too familiar is representative of the fact that they all lived and worked around the city. There are quick wits, quicker tempers and people with better things to do than listen to your demands, thanks.

The story should be familiar for those who saw that Tony Scott / Denzel / Travolta film a few years back. Four assailants named Mr.’s Blue, Green, Grey and Brown (anyone who likes Tarantino should see the connecti0n) take control of one section of a subway train. The people on it become their hostages in a ransom demand for a million dollars. Mr. Blue is a former mercenary (was Shaw ever anything else). Mr. Green (Balsam) used to work for the transit system.

Their plan seems pretty foolish to Lt. Zachary Garber of the Transit Police. There does not seem to be a plausible way for the kidnappers to escape. Mr. Blue is not so worried about this, and we’ll see why.

P123 is a violent and unsympathetic film. The characters are almost all unlikable on their surface, even if they have more self awareness than would seem on the surface. Everyone lives in that place where cynicism meets realism and they are all quite comfortable there. It is a perfect environment for one such as Matthau’s Garber to exist. This film would have failed, however, if he had been the only one to have that sarcastic quality. The people around him are just as intelligent and belligerent. This is their language of affection and effectiveness.

There are several examples of this language that involve a nuance that plainly is too complicated for today. A lighter version of this involves O’Neill’s Correll getting in Matthau’s face while he is translating a message from hostage takers. He looks up for a second and quickly says “…Will ya?” Most, including Correll, know how to fill in the gaps. Most of the snowflake generation would be saying “Will I what…?”

Other more nuanced instances include his interaction with some Japanese visitors who are studying the subway system. There are names Garber uses to describe them that are on their face, offensive and quite simply, wouldn’t be used today. The reaction from his more polite and advanced Japanese counterparts that immediately show Garber who the real primate is, and he acknowledges this in a very effective, but wordless way. It’s one of the real transcendent moments that art can provide, but there is no way the moralists of today would “tolerate” this.

It is impressive how much time the camera is not focused on the names at the top of the credits. In this way, we get much more of a flow to the story and it makes things like the rush to meet demands (and Garber’s handling of the negotiations) incredibly tense. There are so many characters that have an actual stake in the proceedings, it feels like a community is affected, not just a few streets cordoned off to allow cameras to roll.

Sargent never really achieved this level of greatness through the rest of a solid career. He is in complete cohesion with the writer (Charade‘s Stone) and the music (Shire, who had another classic the same year with The Conversation). Shaw, Balsam and Elizondo are aces, and this is definitely Matthau at his best. It even allows one to remember how good a character actor Tony Roberts was. There are no letdowns in this movie.

If you like a B-Movie plot pushed up to A+ execution or if you just want to see one of the best endings in the 1970’s, take some time to seek out The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

(***** out of *****)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens the Potter world (****1/2)

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – 2016

Director David Yates
Screenplay by J.K. Rowling based on the book of the same name
Starring  Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell

Before we go any further, I have to say this: I love this movie. It does much of what Harry Potter took 8 movies to do within the space of its two hours. More than anything, it breaks the feeling of claustrophobia we had in heading back to Hogwarts every single year and exploring the cracks and crevices within its bounds.

We begin in New York back in the prohibition era. Not only is alcohol restricted, there are severe limitations for American Wizards and Witches too. Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives, but he’s not planning on staying. He wants to head to Arizona, where he plans to give some of his magical beasts room to thrive. Soon after he arrives, he comes across an earnest and well-meaning muggle (Fogler). They are soon tied together, for better or worse. Mostly better, really.

He also encounters Mary Lou (Morton) a muggle who thinks Magic is dangerous and is soldiering the fight to tear it out by the root. She has adopted children conscripted into her army of fear. One of these, Creedence (Miller),  is conspiring with a high-ranking Auror wizard (Farrell) to find a very powerful child. What is an Auror? Essentially a Fed.

Another low ranking Auror (Waterston) takes it upon herself to investigate the doings for Scamander. Just about the time she figures out the depth of his and his muggle friend Jacob’s doings, they all get steeped into some big trouble.

The best parts about Fantastic Beasts… is the casual nature of the story. We know there will be fireworks, but for most of the movie, there is a concentrated effort on enjoying the wonder. The vehicle for this enjoyment is Fogler, who is essentially a stand in for the viewer. We want to be amazed and don’t want to be shooed away. The muggles in the Hogwarts films are necessarily bumpkins. They have no real chance for commentary, except for the negative kind. Smartly, they make Jacob a good guy, but an average guy. People can love him because of his character, not because he knows spells. Every discovery he makes in the film is a discovery for us. We get to breathe it in, with no feeling that we should disappear.

In allowing us the chance to gaze, the filmmakers use their time wisely in developing the rest of the story. Rowling has learned how to condense over the years and it pays off with a riveting last act. By the time we get to the chase, it’s almost easy to forget that they are destroying much of the city like happens in most movies these days. It’s a fair bet you can guess if the city stays destroyed or if anyone remembers it.

Colin Farrell is absolutely stunning in his role as Auror. Playing someone with questionable motives really suits him. He’s better here than anything I have seen him in outside of his work with Brendan Gleeson.

Waterston is a major find. She is so humbly engaging, she is impossible not to love. She is able to exhibit intelligence, compassion and the emergence of strength. Let’s hope she’s given more reins than Hermoine. Even better, her younger sister Queenie (Sudol) fits the times and makes magic fun as heck. She is an exceptional supporting character.

Fogler is incredible. If they find a way to incorporate him into the future movies and somehow connect him to Hogwarts, it will make everything so much better. The possibility is there to be a very exciting union with a wonderful Witch.

Redmayne is a natural Wizard. His quirks feel at home and much less annoying than in stuff like Jupiter Ascending. He is groomed into a believable awkward hero and definitely someone upon whom is worth investing 5 films.

The very biggest drawback is in the cameo. It was enough to almost cripple my enjoyment of the series going forward. If things go heavy in the direction of that star and the character, it’s hard to get excited.

Let’s see what happens, though. They made a lot of good moves in this film. I was tired of Harry Potter’s world. Let’s be glad we’re in an entirely different part of it now.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Girl with all the Gifts (*****) gives us hope

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The Girl with all the Gifts – 2016

Director Colm McCarthy
Screenplay M.R. Carey based on his novel of the same name
Starring Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Fisayo Akinade, Anthony Welsh, Anamaria Marinca, Amy Newy, Elise Reed

In an age where so many stories abound regarding the end of the world into a land filled with zombies, it is truly tough to parse an original story out of the mix. Let’s not forget about dystopian films too, for The Girl with all the Gifts is literally the representation of a society at the next stage with its children as objects of study, because they are a source of a hopeful future.

We begin with Melanie (Nanua), who is a prisoner, along with many other kids at a research facility. She is very polite to her captors. Indeed, it is apparent that she’s known no other life beyond captivity, so every behavior she’s experienced is normal to her. This includes being strapped to a chair, having guns pointed at her, being called horrible names. And her daily teaching sessions with her co-captors. Melanie loves learning, loves her fellow students and her teacher, Helen, most of all.

Indeed Helen shows her students genuine humanity, to the point of even touching Melanie on her head after being particularly moved by a story that the child wrote. This action brings an immediate lesson the commander of the base (Considine), who demonstrates what it is that requires these children to be placed in constraints.

That there is a plague of zombies is revealed even in the poster. The children have the duality of being afflicted and seemingly normal. They are not, of course. This doesn’t mean they are not bad. They’re just not polite eaters.

Looking for a cure to the fungus that is causing the zombification is Dr. Caroline (Close). She sees the key in Melanie and is about to close in when the base is overrun, leaving the central characters on the run. In the process, walls are broken down between the captors and Melanie.

The fascinating thing about The Girl with all the Gifts is it’s take on the premise that being human is the perfect destination. We have seen the crusted, horrible faces of the undead for so long, we don’t ever consider that they may not be dead at all. They are, perhaps, the next stage of the evolutionary process. The best thing about this movie is where other movies try to give answers, The Girl with all the Gifts asks questions.

Every conversation with Melanie and those who see her as afflicted is handled with such intelligence and curiosity, it is remarkable to watch. Melanie is anything but afflicted. Sure, she has an appetite, but her conscience is in fine working order. Her character is fascinating for her openness, genius and compassion. Nanua plays her perfectly and brings to life one of the best pre-pubescent characters that has ever graced the big screen.

The story wanders a bit through the middle, but it never loses focus on its purpose. That purpose is to show us that Melanie understands everything eventually, even if she can’t put a name to it right off. The discussion between her and Dr. Caroline regarding Schrodinger’s Cat is the key to understanding both characters.

All of the principals are exceptional, playing their part to perfection. Each has a part to play in the development of Melanie, even if they are only concerned with the survival of their kind.

The Girl with all the Gifts should be an essential story for us in order to attenuate our perspective on humanity. Is being human a static state, or is there something more to it? The questions it asks are eternal, even if we may not like the answers.

(***** out of *****)

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