Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

Starring
Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton
Director
David Yates

J.K. Rowling dreamed up the entire Harry Potterverse, and there isn’t a person on the planet who understands these characters better than she does. She has probably written a back story for Mrs. Norris the cat. However, when it comes to the much-anticipated “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” she is making her screenwriting debut, and it is clear that she still has much to learn about writing a script versus writing a novel. What made the film adaptations of her Potter books so successful was that she packed her stories to the gills with details and allowed an experienced screenwriter (usually Steve Kloves, who is an executive producer here) to pare them down, making them leaner and better. Rowling does not appear to have written a novel of “Fantastic Beasts” that she could then dissect like Kloves did her books. In retrospect, that feels like a mistake.

Seventy years before Harry Potter’s story begins, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is wandering the streets of New York City with a suitcase full of trouble. (Think of it as a zoo inside a suitcase-shaped TARDIS.) When one of the suitcase’s inhabitants escapes in a bank, Newt inadvertently picks up someone else’s suitcase, causing aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to bring home, and subsequently release, several of Newt’s magical creatures. This comes at a time when the city is already dealing with a dark force that is scaring the muggle population (or ‘no-maj,’ as they’re known in America), which has given birth to a witch hunt movement by a group calling themselves the New Salemers. Newt needs help, and he gains some at-first reluctant assistance from Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a federal agent of magic, and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).

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Movie Review: “Nocturnal Animals”

Starring
Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber
Director
Tom Ford

It’s been seven years since fashion designer Tom Ford made his directorial debut with “A Single Man,” and although that movie was an impressive showcase for Ford’s visual panache that netted Colin Firth a much-deserved Oscar nomination, it left audiences wondering if he would be able to replicate that success. It may have taken a little longer than expected (after all, he has a fashion empire to run), but Ford confirms his debut was no fluke with a more ambitious and confident follow-up that’s every bit as stylish. Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan,” “Nocturnal Animals” is a dark and disturbing adult thriller that gets under your skin and stays there, and while it’s not always a pleasant experience, that’s what makes it so effective.

The film opens in truly shocking style with a montage of obese, mostly naked women dancing in a shower of glitter that turns out to be part of an art show curated by Los Angeles gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). Susan has everything she could possibly want – a dashing husband (Armie Hammer), a luxurious mansion and a supportive group of wealthy friends – but she’s not happy, trapped in an unfulfilling career and a loveless marriage that’s on the verge of falling apart. One day, Susan receives a package containing a manuscript from her ex-husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she left 20 years earlier when he was still just a struggling writer, and is surprised to discover that the unpublished novel, titled “Nocturnal Animals,” has been dedicated to her.

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Movie Review: “Bleed for This”

Starring
Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciarán Hinds, Katey Sagal, Ted Levine
Director
Ben Younger

Boxing movies tend to follow a very clear formula. If it’s an underdog story, it’s typically obvious what conflicts will arise and, whether won or not, there’s the catharsis that comes after the final boxing match. The newest entry in the subgenre, “Bleed for This,” checks a lot of boxes, but it isn’t without heart or a good, albeit familiar, story to tell. Writer/director Ben Younger’s film entertains with some immersive boxing scenes, a real sense of time and place, and some standout supporting performances.

The movie is based on the true story of Vinny “The Pazamanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller), a boxer who didn’t believe in quitting and won three championships in three different weight classes. The story begins with the local Providence boxer having just gained some notoriety after winning two world title fights. At the beginning of the film, we see Vinny taking a beating from Roger Mayweather for the lightweight championship. His trainer Lou (Ted Levine) tells him he should throw in the towel and leave boxing forever. That’s something Vinny isn’t going to do, so Lou teams him up with fellow underdog Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), Mike Tyson’s former trainer. Rooney convinces Vinny to move up a weight class, and the gamble pays off in their first fight together. After a rousing victory and some hope, Vinny gets into a brutal car wreck, leaving him with a broken neck. The doctor tells him he’ll never box again, but Vinny doesn’t know how to do anything else. Boxing is his life, so with Kevin’s help and his family’s support, he trains hard enough to return to boxing in a year’s time to fight the biggest, and most dangerous, match of his career.

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Movie Review: “Arrival”

Starring
Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director
Denis Villeneuve

Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve makes movies that block out the world. From the first to the last frame, his films keep you engaged and, more often than not, transfixed. Building on the success of past movies like “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” the director’s latest film, “Arrival,” is arguably the most emotional, thought-provoking and visceral experience he’s crafted yet.

Based on Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” “Arrival” is a grounded alien invasion tale that poses the question: If first contact was made, how would we communicate with extraterrestrials? That becomes a terrifying reality when mysterious ships begin to land around the world. It’s an unsettling day full of fear and paranoia, but some believe that the aliens may be a symbol of hope and not terror. To find out the aliens’ motivations, Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in by the U.S. government to interpret their language and find a way to communicate. At the start of the film, Louise is tired and haunted by visions of her dead daughter, but with the world at stake, she’ll do everything she can to maintain peace between Earth and these beautiful and sparsely designed extraterrestrials, working with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to form a plan before China declares war on the visitors.

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Movie Review: “Doctor Strange”

Starring
Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong
Director
Scott Derrickson

Like many of the filmmakers involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scott Derrickson (who’s best known for horror films like “Sinister”) may not seem like the obvious choice to direct a “Doctor Strange” movie. Then again, it’s pretty amazing that a film called “Doctor Strange” exists at all, because it’s arguably one of the weirder properties under the Marvel banner. That uniqueness ends up working in its favor, however, as Derrickson has basically made a psychedelic kung fu/fantasy movie that is without question the most visually stunning film that Marvel has ever produced. Joining the ranks of other B-list characters like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, “Doctor Strange” marries its inventive visuals with the usual superhero story beats to deliver the best solo origin movie since director Jon Favreau kicked off the MCU with “Iron Man.”

The two films have a lot in common, beginning with their titular characters. Like Tony Stark, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a bit of an egomaniac – a brilliant neurosurgeon whose own hubris leads to his downfall. After he’s injured in a near-fatal car accident that renders his hands unusable, Strange tries every surgery and experimental treatment available in an attempt to save his career. When traditional medicine fails him, the bitter and defeated Strange goes looking for a miracle cure in Nepal, where he’s introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorcerer who commands a mysterious order of warrior monks, including Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), charged with protecting Earth from supernatural threats. Though Strange is skeptical at first, the Ancient One opens his mind to the infinite power and knowledge that the universe contains, ultimately taking him on as a student of the mystic arts. But after a former acolyte named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) steals a forbidden ritual from the Ancient One and goes rogue, amassing his own army of zealots to bring about world destruction, Strange must put aside his selfishness to help stop him.

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