Harry Potter is back in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! No, wait, this isn’t The Cursed Child, though it is filled all of your favorite Harry Potter characters! Ok, maybe not, but you might recognize a few names here or there. But it is set in the beloved world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series! Well alright, it’s actually set in the 1920s in New York, filled with unfamiliar magical slang and completely foreign to both our protagonist and to viewers. Still, this is the Harry Potter spinoff that everyone has yearned for since the series concluded! No, it’s not? So why should anyone care about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, when it seemingly lacks everything that audiences grew to love about the Harry Potter saga? For starters, it’s an exciting, dark, fun, funny, emotional, and immensely creative film set in a rich and fascinating world that is strong enough to stand on its own. It deepens and broadens the Harry Potter universe, showing us previously unexplored aspects, locations, and eras of the wizarding world providing new insights and a greater context for the events that shaped the life of the Boy Who Lived. And it kicks off a five film series in a way that’s far more topical, political, relevant, and just more interesting than any of the Harry Potter films that came before (matching the tone of the later books much more closely than the movies). And most importantly to me at least, this is the story that J.K. Rowling wanted to tell, that she thought would be the most compelling way to expand and explore the universe she created. As far as I’m concerned she was right, and I can’t wait to see more.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding, seemingly showing no signs of stopping. Each new film brings us new heroes to fight new villains, new locations or planets filled with people to save, and new clashes and conflicts to bring characters together or drive them apart. But while Doctor Strange certainly continues the trend, it broadens the universe in entirely new ways, pushing not only the boundaries of superhero storytelling but of visual craftsmanship. It’s a mind-bending head trip of a film, which attempts to introduce a spiritual aspect to an otherwise science fiction series, all while serving up some of the most creative and exhilarating action sequences in recent memory. Doctor Strange may stick to the tried and true Marvel origin story formula, but it’s a fun ride anchored by a strong cast and impressive effects, and it offers an intriguing glimpse into the potential future of this ever-expanding Universe.
Now You See Me was a pleasant surprise for me. I went into the under-the-radar hit three years ago with no expectations and came out having thoroughly enjoyed myself. It combined a winning cast with a sense of visual flair to tell a fun, twisting story that that kept me engaged and guessing throughout. But while it ended with a surprising reveal and a cliffhanger, I never really felt that it needed a sequel. Nevertheless, Now You See Me 2 is now in theaters, and I went into it with much higher expectations based on my experience with the first. The sequel mostly succeeds, reuniting almost all of its talented cast and giving us a film that captures a lot of what made the original feel special while throwing in some new wrinkles to keep things feeling fresh. I may not have been clamoring for Now You See Me 2, but I’m generally pleased it’s here.
X-Men: Apocalypse is a mess. That can be ok sometimes, because some of the best movies of all time are a little messy, and even some of the biggest messes are captivating or interesting in spite of their flaws. But Apocalypse is just a mess with nothing to redeem it. The previous main film in the X-Men series (now 9 movies, depending on how you count), Days of Future Past, was also a mess, but that was partly by design. It went out of its way in an attempt to have it all, combining the original cast with the First Class reboot cast in one extravaganza, with the saga’s most popular character, Wolverine, at the center, and the result had its moments seemingly in spite of itself. This follow-up doesn’t attempt anything nearly as bold or ambitious, yet it fails to deliver on nearly every front. It’s flash and spectacle filled with no substance, yet even the flash and spectacle are generally uninteresting. It tells a story that isn’t worth telling that tries to pander both to comic-book geeks and to simple fans of the movies, yet none of those moments have any impact. It’s filled with actors who often very clearly would rather be in any other movie than this one. It tries to give us something new while retreading some of the same plotlines we’ve already seen in the last 16 years of X-Men movies, but disregards what made the X-Men so special in the first place, all while ignoring any of the basic logic or continuity required for mutli-film sagas in general or the history of this franchise in particular. X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t necessarily aggressively or offensively bad, it’s just generally pointless, and, with the exception of two scenes, utterly forgettable.
I should have known. When a lady down in the front of my full theater pulled out her cell phone during the pre-show warning to turn off your cell phone in order to scroll through an email full of pictures with her husband, zooming in on each one and discussing it, and continued doing this into Eye in the Sky’s opening credits until I yelled for her to put her phone away, I should have known things were going to go badly. We’ve all had movies ruined by rude audience members, people who won’t put away their cell phones (or don’t know how to put them on silent), never stop talking, eat loud or foul-smelling food, kick your seat, etc. But far more rare is an experience where a movie is ruined because of the audience’s reaction to it, either because they simply did not get the movie’s intentions or because you had a very different emotional response than the people surrounding you in the dark. I endured just such an event while seeing Eye in the Sky, and it not only made it impossible to fully enjoy the film from that moment on but it also destroyed a good bit of my faith in humanity. I was disgusted.
(Stephen has been attempting to learn the Urdu language)
‘I was repeating phrases from this little book. It is all I could get, apart from the Fort William grammar, which is in my cabin. It is a phrase-book, and I believe it must have been compiled by a disappointed man: My horse has been eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear; I wish to hire a palanquin; there are no palanquins in this town, sir – all my money has been stolen; I wish to speak to the Collector: the Collector is dead, sir – I have been beaten by evil men. Yet salacious too, poor burning soul: Woman, wilt thou lie with me?’
HMS Surprise – Patrick O’Brian
People often like to compare the current “revival” phase of Walt Disney Animation with the well-known Disney Renaissance era of the 1990s, matching recent computer animated films to their highly successful hand-drawn counterparts from 20 years ago. Bolt is paired with Oliver & Company, which both kicked off their respective phases, which makes Tangled the modern equivalent of The Little Mermaid and Frozen the partner of Beauty and the Beast. (What people do with Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, or why The Princess and the Frog usually gets left out, I have no idea, which is why I tend to avoid that debate.) But even the most hardcore Disney fan will have trouble finding which of the previous 54 Disney animated Zootopia most resembles, for the simple reason that Disney has never made a film like Zootopia before. By combining the familiar sight of anthropomorphized animals wearing clothes, recalling everything from the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, through Robin Hood, and even up to Chicken Little, a clever detective story, the style of a buddy cop movie, and a brilliantly realized world, Zootopia is one of Disney’s most fun and clever movies. But it’s Zootopia’s message and its deeper themes which set it apart, themes that could not be more relevant to the world we live in today.
Once again, it’s time for Oscar predictions. I did pretty well last year, getting 16 correct once again (that seems to be what I always get [seriously, I didn’t even have to edit this sentence]). There are some tight races this year, but also a few sure things, so it’s bound to be an interesting evening. I can’t wait to see how Chris Rock tackles the shocking lack of diversity among the nominees. And while awards shows always seem fairly out of touch with popular opinion, I’ll always be a fan of the Oscars. So read on for my (dicey) predictions, as well as my picks if I could hand out the statues as I see fit. And then let me know who you think will be a big winner Sunday night!
Best Short Film, Live Action:
Prediction: Ave Maria
My Pick: N/A
Best Short Film, Animated:
Prediction: Sanjay’s Super Team
My Pick: Sanjay’s Super Team
The Coen Brothers mainly make two distinctive types of films. On the one hand, many of their films fall into the category of quirky comedies, such as Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?. On the other hand, they’ve also dabbled in more serious, yet still unique, dramas like No Country for Old Men and True Grit. Hail, Caesar!, a farcical romp through a 1950s Hollywood studio, falls squarely into the first category, and as such is the funniest film the Coen Brothers have made in years, particularly for classic film fans. It’s a return to form for the writing/directing pair, combining an all-star cast with a distinct storytelling style and comedy that demands a fair amount from viewers in able to fully appreciate it. The end result is a film that feels different from anything we’ve seen onscreen lately and is bound to please any fans of the Coens or of the golden age of Hollywood.
The Finest Hours is decidedly old-fashioned. In many ways it takes its storytelling style from the time period in which the film is set, giving us pacing, characters, and performances which feel like they belong back in the early 1950s as if the film itself could have been showing in a theatre in snowy Chatham, Massachusetts on that fateful day in February of 1952. This old-fashioned approach will probably be enough to keep most viewers away, but to me it’s the film’s greatest strength. The film tells a heroic story in an understated way, perfectly matching the modesty of the historic figures involved. That along with a solid cast who really fit with the feel of the time period, some impressive visual effects, and a steady storytelling hand combine to make The Finest Hours a far better and more engaging film than it has any right to be.