Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Fantastic Beasts’ title card may bear the same familiar font and sweeping melody of its big brother, but the film is a far cry from Harry Potter. For one, it takes place in 1920s New York; a more grimy, unromanticized version than we’re used to. This New York is saturated in a general unease with the wizarding community, rather than the embracing of magic seen in the Harry Potter franchise, and thus each wizard and witch is forced into hiding, unable to reveal themselves under the judgement of the No-Maj (America’s less-than-subtle equivalent of a Muggle). So when Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist wonderfully realised by Eddie Redmayne, inadvertently lets loose an array of creatures, or, ‘Fantastic Beasts’, to run amok in the city, you can imagine the chaos it would cause.

And sure, it does cause chaos, but to what effect? Fantastic Beasts takes a while to get going – penned by JK Rowling herself, it’s a film composed of two major plotlines: the escape and subsequent capture of Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts, and the concept of an Obscurus and its relation to the leading members of the Second Salem (an organisation keen on stamping out magic and exposing magicians). Sadly, the plotline the film adopts as its title is both the least interesting and the least relevant of the two.

The film plunges straight into action without first establishing character motivations or defining a significant threat that the protagonists face. A mole-like creature called a Niffler with an affinity for treasure, easily the film’s most memorable critter, escapes from Scamander’s case to provoke an entertaining sequence in which Scamander scurries around a bank looking for it. Here, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an endearingly bumbling No-Maj who’s needed as the audience’s perspective. After a brief(case) mix-up, he accidentally involves himself in the wizarding world, much to the disdain of Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a demoted Auror (investigator of crimes related to the Dark Arts). We’re not sure why Scamander’s in New York, nor the consequences of letting the Niffler loose, and so these opening few scenes lack significance if not entertainment, stripping the film of any momentum. When the main protagonists of Scamander, Tina and Kowalski involve themselves with one another, such as during a dinner scene at Tina’s residence, it comes across as unimportant – there’s simply no driving force behind it all.

We are introduced to The Second Salem, a magic-hating organisation, but it’s not made clearer until the film’s second act how exactly they’re important to the story. Bluntly put, the pacing is dreadful. It takes too long to learn how this plotline interacts with the main protagonists, and when it does, it just casts the realisation that there wasn’t much point to the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ storyline in the first place. That’s not to say that there’s no enjoyment to be had watching Eddie Redmayne attempt to woo a weird rhino-esque creature with an unorthodox mating display in order to capture it, but the scenes lack substance, and are, surprisingly, unmemorable. There’s no moments of wonder created akin to Harry’s first ride on the Hippogriff – most of the magic has seemingly died with the Potter saga.

Kowalski certainly seems taken aback, however, by his discovery of magic. His journey in Scamander’s briefcase is a highlight of the film, signalling how the divide between No-Maj and wizard needn’t be. Fantastic Beasts deals with these politics skillfully – it’s a simple oppressed-minority structure that applies to our world as much as it does the wizarding world, but is integrated well into the story and gives various scenes superb heft. Some of these scenes involve Percival Graves, played with manipulative assertion by Colin Farrell. He’s a senior Auror who works in league with Ezra Miller’s Credence, a member of the Second Salem, and his performance is brash and menacing. This contrasts well with Scamander’s inherent introversion, where Redmayne gives a certain charm to the character that would come across as cloying in the hands of a less capable actor. His performance isn’t the caricaturish loner either – he’s as introverted with humans as he is extroverted to his various creatures, supporting his affixion with the beasts. The roles in Fantastic Beasts are testament to JK Rowling’s knack for churning out interesting, believable characters – the one misstep is Tina Goldstein, her one-note, soapy characterisation wasted on Katherine Waterston’s talent.

Yet her writing, in this instance, doesn’t extend to a sophisticated or restrained plot. The film juggles too much – when it works, it’s awe-inspiring. But there’s an inordinate amount of loose plotlines, all culminating in an exhaustive final battle sequence. As the latest entry in the Wizarding World, it’s a disappointment rather than a failure. There are, however, moments of intrigue and awe to be had among its plodding narrative – Fantastic Beasts is a film jam-packed with superfluous storylines, but also a film jam-packed with mature themes and exciting new characters.

Arrival

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There seems to have been something of a sci-fi Renaissance recently, with each year supplying a groundbreaking hallmark of the genre. 2013 was Gravity, a film with unrivalled effects, visually astounding and constantly breathtaking. 2014 was Interstellar, offering intense cinematic and emotional spectacle. And 2015 was The Martian, giving us an inspiring appraisal of the good of humanity. 2016, then, can only belong to Arrival, a film that serves as a cry for intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi, not needing to rely on bucketloads of CGI or showy futuristic lingo.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with the weight of the world thrust upon her when twelve egg-shaped UFOs carrying aliens appear, dotted seemingly at random across the planet: she must translate their dialect in order to discover the purpose of their arrival before the threat of military retaliation is fulfilled. Assisting her is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who’s devoted to Banks as much as he is to his job. Her unorthodox approach to the task at hand is garnering results, but growing distrust and paranoia spread across the research camp and various governing bodies altogether threaten to derail the mission entirely.

The film functions as both a metaphor for the growing separation and antagonism between the world as a whole, and a philosophical insight towards many ideas that if I were to reveal them to you, would spoil the movie’s emotional impact. It is not necessarily, however, an alien flick. The aliens in Arrival serve as a vehicle for the film’s integral themes. That’s not to say that their presence isn’t worthwhile, but that venturing into this film in want of a gun-ho alien quasi-horror wouldn’t fulfill expectations.

Denis Villeneuve’s take is much more intellectual – but this is to be expected from a director with such a mature filmography. His influence on Arrival isn’t as tangible as usual – he instead allows the film’s superb script, written by Eric Heisserer, and based on Ted Chiang’s short story, The Story of Your Life, to prosper. It’s a wonderful script, made poignant and dramatic through the overbearing tension and uncertainty it creates, emphasised by the twisting narrative. Villeneuve’s role is to maintain these emotions, and he handles this incredibly effectively. Memories of Bank’s daughter, whom she lost to cancer, are intertwined in the story seamlessly, and he sustains the uncertainty behind both the unknown purpose of the aliens’ arrival, and their odd, potentially threatening behaviour.

Despite the less significant (though still just as important) role Villeneuve has to Arrival’s success, there’s still room for his directorial flourishes: he employs a visual trick, that was also used in one of his previous films, Enemy, to establish how entrenched Banks is in the alien language she’s trying to decipher. His record of creating visually interesting films doesn’t go amiss either; Roger Deakins may not be at the helm this time, but Bradford Young displays a keen eye for stunning visuals – a long take of clouds scrolling past the alien vessel during our first proper look at it is as beautiful as it is calculated. Slow pans of the ship’s surface during Banks’ introduction to its interior are particularly effective in conveying the alienness of the whole ordeal, and its power to overwhelm – which it indeed does, as we hear the diegetic sound of Banks’ heavy, stumbling breathing, amid Jóhann Jóhannsson’s droning, otherworldly score. The film as a whole manages to overwhelm, and astound, not necessarily with spectacle as in Gravity and Interstellar, but simply with a sharp, powerful script.

Amy Adams herself is remarkable as Banks, conveying her utter confusion and determination beautifully; although each other actor delivers serviceable performances, this is a film that belongs to her, her character saturated with complex philosophical ideas about humanity and its intent. The film often hinges on Banks’ reaction to revelations, and Adams certainly delivers.

Jeremy Renner’s character’s bum-note of a final line aside, Arrival is a cerebral, imaginative, emotionally satisfying sci-fi that bears potent metaphysical concepts and a tour-de-force performance from Amy Adams. It’s a brilliant, brilliant addition to an ever-evolving genre. I can’t wait for 2017’s sci-fi showpiece, whatever it is…

The Accountant

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Ignore the uninspired title – The Accountant is a film heavy on gun-toting action and comparatively light on office space mundanity. Our number-cracking hero, Christian Wolff, is played with straight-faced indifference by Ben Affleck – he’s a bulky genius of a man, on the spectrum to some degree (though it is never definitively disclosed to what extent), and throughout the film we observe the makings of his confused characterisation via various flashbacks. He was a troubled child, with a stern father that enforced rigorous and vigorous martial arts training on both him and his brother, tidily explaining away Wolff’s effective brawling and focus on fatherhood.

This ‘high-functioning’ accountant in question is tasked with investigating a company’s mis-managing of money, by the company itself.. uncovering their dodgy dealing…before it’s erased by the company…wait what? And J.K. Simmons gets involved as Ray King, a financial crimes director, I think, that attempts to track Wolff down…or does he? Then Anna Kendrick also appears as the company’s in-house accountant, and faux-love interest..or does she even have a particular point to the story? It’s all rather difficult to follow, or doesn’t make any sense, or both. Subplots seem shoehorned in and without purpose, buzzwords are thrown around in confusion, and the story never stops to explain anything that’s going on. The film’s jargon isn’t nearly as complex as in films such as this year’s The Big Short, but it’s also not as deftly handled either, and so manages to be a tediously baffling mixture of financing that’s too difficult to understand or too difficult to care about understanding, and unrealistic action set-pieces that are somehow just as dull.

The narrative is barmy on so many levels, buckling under the weight of its own ridiculousness. Wolff is a superhero of sorts, his form of autism fetishised rather than fleshed out – he’s super-intelligent, barely takes a punch in fights, and his shooting is pin-point accurate to a fault. His is a character that director Gavin O’Connor fails to root in reality, his attributes tritely displayed, window-writing and all. There’s barely any substance applied to Wolff’s autism, and so the best Affleck can do is stare vacantly and act expressionless – luckily that’s something he’s very good at. Thankfully, this film acknowledges its own slightness, and so doesn’t stray too far into overwrought sentimentality, instead opting for silly action sequences and a nonsensical narrative.

In some ways, there’s almost a delight to be had revelling in the stupidity of it all. There’s no denying its enjoyability, though most of it stems from laughing at the film rather than with it, and there’s a certain charm to the way Wolff’s character is performed by Affleck. Sadly, this doesn’t salvage The Accountant, a film too troubled with irrational decision making and irrelevant plotlines.

Crucially, and perhaps most damning of all, it’s a predictable fare, bereft of any of the thrills or shocks we would expect from its increasingly-Bourne-like premise. The Accountant is brash and clumsy – extending to its inability to hide a blatant Chekhov’s Gun, with just enough humour, at its own expense, to support a plot in desperate need of a reworking.

-Gus Edgar

Nocturnal Animals

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Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) thoughts towards Nocturnal Animals hits it right on the nose: “It’s violent and it’s sad”. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ in this context is a typescript of Morrow’s ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first effort at a novel, and bears more than a few similarities to the way in which the couple broke up to be merely coincidental…

Morrow herself is an art gallery owner, specialising in an oddball raunch that dominates the screen during the film’s opening credits. She’s stranded in a loveless marriage to a hunky husband (Armie Hammer) who’s more occupied with work (and other women) than anything regarding his wife. Cue the ex-husband’s typescript, sent to Morrow at a time when she’s in desperate want of connection. A way to contact her ex again – just what she needs, right? Not quite.

The novel within a film plunges headfirst into a highway scene with a ferocious intensity that rivals Sicario’s border crossing scene last year. It’s a jagged, welcome tonal shift, tinged with uncertainty over what’s going to happen. In fact, the whole narrative of Nocturnal Animals – both the film itself and its titular typescript – is unpredictable, and we can’t help but sympathise with the main character’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) hapless plight in this thrilling revenge story.

Back in the real world – shot with fusty gusto – Morrow is mulling over the story and recollecting haunted memories of her prior life with her ex-husband. There’s a sense of disconnect, of lack of relevance, but suddenly parallels between their romance and the typescript’s narrative become apparent, building to a devastating final scene that’s as electrifying as it is inevitable. The film is endlessly evolving, bludgeoning past brutal plot points and descending into irresistible, dirty delirium, heightened by Abel Korzeniowski’s sublimely tempestuous score. Yet director Tom Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey give control to the chaos, with an assuredness applied to the kinetic camerawork, the brooding pans of musty citylife and desolate deserts. The danger and immorality on display really is tangible.

One source of danger comes in the form of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s terrifying and unhinged Ray Marcus, who torments Gyllenhaal and his fictional family. This is Johnson’ best performance of his career, committing to his character’s sleaziness and repugnancy, and preventing Ray from becoming caricaturish. Another brilliantly absurd character is the cop looking for him, played by Michael Shannon with straight-faced hilarity. He’s a character inflicted with lung cancer, who continues to smoke (“Well, yep, that’s how it works”), and nearly steals the show with his deadpan delivery and questionable morals. Other recognisable, or renowned actors, are relegated to the sidelines, however: Michael Sheen and Jena Malone each feature in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, but at least their fleeting moments are highlights.

I’ve seen this film twice now, which I suppose is testament to how the film grips – and then sinks its claws into you. It’s menacing, and bold, and each scene is displayed with enough unwavering confidence and dedication by Ford (save for one Gyllenhaal outburst) that it all holds together. That this is only his sophomoric effort, after his acclaimed ‘A Single Man’, is truly astonishing. He may not just be a fashion designer, but he uses his considerable expertise in that field to capture beautiful imagery and symbolic costume design, and boy, it works.

Ford has birthed a film that’s dripping with grime but presented with gloss, creating an almost ugly beauty that’s visually fascinating. It’s a savage study of an intricate relationship, furnished with the bravado of a director that knows how to handle a script that’s jet-black in both themes and humour, and bolstered by a blistering score and vivid camerawork.

Doctor Strange

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Benedict Cumberbatch is an arrogant, lovable genius who solves problems against seemingly insurmountable odds. No, he’s not Sherlock, but Doctor Stephen Strange, one of the more barmy entries in Marvel Studios’ roster of superheroes. After suffering an accident due to his own arrogance, his job as a renowned neurosurgeon is put out of action. To return to work, Strange strives to restore the use of his hands, finally stumbling across a mysterious ‘cult’ based in Nepal…

There, with the aid of Tilda Swinton’s ‘The Ancient One’, an enigmatic figure with dark secrets, he trains his mind, in a rushed but intriguing 20-minute sequence. He’s arrogant and foolish, but his mentors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo and Benedict Wong’s, er, Wong, see his potential. Will he overcome his own hubris to achieve greatness? Do I really even need to ask that question?

Strange’s narrative arc is a familiar one – the fall, the redemption, the shortcomings, the solution – but director Scott Derrickson manages to prevent this flick from becoming another stale offering in the Marvel universe. For one, it does away with the use of technical jargon and scientific explanations, and embraces the mesmerising, nonsensical world of magic while keeping a straight face. Its opening battle, where buildings twist and turn like bloodthirsty cogs, is only a fleeting glance at the world’s potential, and each burst of psychedelic brawling thereafter are intelligently differentiated from one another. It’s a world steeped in preposterous magical concepts of mirror dimensions and astral forms, but it works, because it’s just as believable as any other film in its franchise.

Sadly, with so many otherworldly concepts to get through, Doctor Strange does become bogged down in exposition. It’s still fascinating to listen to, much owing to Tilda Swinton’s reliably excellent delivery, but results in very little time afforded to developing characters such as, say, Mads Mikkelsen’s barely-fleshed-out baddie. It’s disappointing to see his character treated that way when Marvel finally shows a real awareness to its tired formula – the film may have found a cure to third act CGI-heavy explosive showdowns, but weak villains seems to be a recurring problem in need of similar treatment.

Yet when these mind-boggling concepts are put to use, the effects are often astounding. Running up skyscrapers, hopping between continents, reversing time – its visceral, excellent cinema, unique and purposeful, with enough ingenuity to prevent drawing any unearned comparisons to Inception. Further still, there are moments of quiet brilliance that shine through amid the crazed conflicts. A scene that takes place in suspended rain, with lightning sprawling across the screen like a cracked window, is both memorable in imagery, and extremely poignant. It’s sharp, mature writing, that functions as a worthy sendoff and a way to calm the film’s prior breakneck pace.

Oddly, despite the inherent silliness of the film’s ideas, its one of the most sensible Marvel films to date. Derrickson, who has worked beforehand on various horror films such as Sinister, makes clear in the film’s opening scene that there’s a real sense of menace and danger. Tragedy, desperation, and various inner conflicts are dealt with astutely, and Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is as complex a character as any in the Marvel universe. Perhaps this also serves as reasoning for why the film’s comedic beats aren’t quite so successful, misplaced in almost every scene to give a light-hearted spirit that isn’t needed (save for a terrific exchange between Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius and Cumberbatch’s Strange).

It may not be quite as odd as its namesake, but the film is certainly as imaginative as any Marvel film has dared so far, offering visual splendour, an impressive amount of maturity, and a great character in Doctor Stephen Strange.

 -Gus Edgar