Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Most everyone in the world knows the basics of Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived. It single-handedly saved the life of Barnes and Noble and also delighted movie audiences throughout the ‘00s. If you did manage to escape the pop culture commotion, you might be a little worse off. The clever writing and world-building helped to promote fantasy among young readers. Yet, that wizarding world essentially came to a close in 2011 as the final movie in the franchise was released.
J.K. Rowling ventured into other projects, but they haven’t seen the insane success of Harry Potter, which is precisely why she is back, fortunately for audiences.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them begins the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard who pursues…fantastic beasts from every hidden corner of the world. His journeys take him to New York in 1926. However, bad luck tends to follow him, which is especially unfortunate because his suitcase (which is bigger on the inside) is full of creatures. His misdeeds catch the eye of former auror, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and together they seek to catch every escaped creature.
While every wizard is distracted with the exploits of Scamander, evil plans are coming to fruition.
Fantastic Beasts certainly skews older than previous Harry Potter movies. The books/movies became progressively darker as the series went on and Fantastic Beasts seems like the natural follow-up. 1920s New York is a new industrial metropolis with a gritty side. Politicians are corrupt, magic is taboo and magical speakeasys are plentiful.
There is a challenging mix of violence and wonder to Fantastic Beasts. Unless your children under 10 are brave, I cannot recommend this. There is a fair amount of horror involved and terrifying situations, especially near the end. This violence is counterpoint to the energetic pursuits of Scamander’s creatures. Each of these chases is unique and clever, even approaching the concept of boss battles in video games. There’s a mass of CG instead of practical effects, but it all looks semi-believable.
The reason Fantastic Beasts has the potential to be embraced by fans and non-fans alike is that they’re all starting from scratch. JK Rowling wrote the screenplay and there’s no book to base it on. Okay fans, I know there’s a FBAWTFT book, but it’s written in textbook form and the narrative has little to do with this movie, so take it easy! There is so much going on, that this movie should be seen twice to fully take in the narrative and the small details. Also, it’s nice that no one will ever have to hear “It was good except they left out my favorite part from the book” again.
Redmayne may actually be the weakest part of the cast. He mumbles unintelligibly and is in dire need of a speaking coach. Scamander is purposely clumsy and awkward, but it’s laid on pretty thick. I’m hoping that in sequels, his character undergoes growth and becomes confident instead of constantly frail. He’s at his best when he tricks the creatures into getting into the suitcase.
Aside from a few Redmayne stumbles, the cast is phenomenal. Waterston feels like a natural fit to this wizarding world. Unlike the previous HP movies, the audience gets an muggle/nonmaj anchor in Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). His wrong-place-wrong-time act surprisingly never gets old. We get to see actual magic from his eyes. The cast is rounded up by fantastic performances by Colin Farrell, Allison Sudol, Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller.
Do not go into Fantastic Beasts hoping for a similar story structure to the HP series. Instead, it charts its own course and makes a few unexpected turns along the way. It’s more of a crime story than the typical “go to school and fight the big bad at the end of the year” plot.
I’ll stop here before revealing anything further. I think this is a shining example how to build a new franchise. It is essentially a spinoff that stands alone, but also gets you excited for the future of the series. Magic has returned to Hogwarts….errr New York. B+
The Edge of Seventeen
By now, it’s clear that Hollywood has a love/hate relationship with High School. They love to hate it. For decades, we’ve seen cinematic examples of the lonely, awkward, hormone-filled hallways of high school in anywhere, USA. Whether or not we shared those exact experiences, we can all relate to the stormy few years trying to find out who we were (years before we actually find out).
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is the essence of the overdramatic, self-imposed outcast. She hates what cliques represent and doesn’t fit in with anyone, by choice. Her life is seemingly destroyed when her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating Nadine’s brother. Nadine is then forced to suffer through much of the school year alone (in her mind). Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is a mess who doesn’t know how to raise dramatic teens. Her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), is a mentor of sorts, who is constantly trading barbs with Nadine. Lastly, there is also a shy boy in class that clearly has a crush on Nadine, but can’t quite get the words out.
Nadine is such an annoying, sky-is-falling character that it’s almost impossible to feel any empathy for her. Any misfortune that falls on her is actually caused by her selfish actions. She cuts people out that care for her and has a smart-mouth comment for anyone that tries to put her in her place. Basically, she’s a teenage girl.
In all the ways listed above, I have to credit Steinfeld’s performance. She’s the least likable character in her own movie and it’s actually on purpose. I almost wish the movie ended with Nadine’s mom sending her to that boot camp that Maury Povich has for terrible kids. Sadly, that never happens. Sequel?
In a movie that explores the complex inner workings of a teen girl, it’s actually the male characters that are portrayed in the best light. Woody Harrelson shows up in a supporting role that absolutely carries the movie. Every single one of his lines are comic gold that will catch you off guard. Newcomer Hayden Szeto is the boy that likes Nadine and goes to decent lengths to prove it. His comic timing in regards to awkwardness is near art.
The Edge of Seventeen is a surprisingly hilarious movie that stands on the shoulders of high school movie giants that came before. There are shades of Juno, without the pretentiousness. There are elements of John Hughes classics, but may not have the same replay factor. I couldn’t recommend this on the big screen, but will be a solid rental. B