“Surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe what Captain America: The First Avenger is to the “Marvel” one. Bear with me here. In the obvious, both films are set in a golden-hued America of yesteryear where art deco glitter and workaday charm belie a dark societal underbelly of xenophobic, segregated bullying. In a more esoteric way, both films are surprising throwbacks to a slower paced, quieter, more subdued (escapist fantasy and overindulgent special effects notwithstanding) kind of film-making, where whimsy and poignancy meet and where heartbroken underdogs have their day.

I like cinema like that – Frank Capra, The Wizard of Oz, Howard Hawks, Saturday matinee cliffhangers, and so on, and even latter day homages like The Rocketeer or Dick Tracy. Modern audiences aren’t always sprung on this kind of retro storytelling – though Fantastic Beasts‘ box office returns seem to buck that trend.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (and the movie adaptations) focused, in a Brit boarding school milieu, on young wizarding students overcoming adversity, championing inclusion, and saving the day. Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Once and Future KingA Separate Peace meets Bewitched. Directed by longtime series helmer David Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a Harry Potter prequel of sorts that explores the American side of this magical world, nearly a century earlier (1926 to be exact) – is a different animal altogether (pun intended).

Newt Scamander (portrayed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne with the same shaggy-dog, twitchy, social misfit schtick he employed in The Theory of Everything) is a Hogwarts dropout who has dedicated himself to rescuing, rehabilitating, and protecting the mythical, magical animals of this world, woebegone creatures that neither muggle nor wizard seem to treat with honor or respect. He ventures across the pond for mysterious reasons, and some of his furry and feathered friends escape his watchful eye to frolic in a Jazz Age Manhattan. Spirited hijinks ensue, with surprisingly genuine peril and minimal lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In fact, Redmayne frets that these runaway critters are now “surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” If Al Gore and PETA collaborated on a Harry Potter backstory, I suspect it wouldn’t be too different from the screenplay J.K. Rowling crafted here. Again: ok by me.

Redmayne is joined by a fabulous rogues’ gallery of character actors:

  • Katherine Waterston, suggesting Maura Tierney’s introspective authority as a low-level American wizard cop;
  • Dan Fogler, the Putnam County Spelling Bee-Tony winner bringing limited comic relief as a sadsack “Non-Maj” and wannabe baker along for the ride;
  • Alison Sudol, breathily transfixing – a Marilyn Monroe with Jessica Chastain’s flint – as Waterston’s mind-reading sis;
  • Ezra Miller, delivering the film’s most refreshingly unsettling moments as a glowering, abused Jimmy Fallon doppelganger (with an Oliver Cromwell haircuit) concealing a deep, dark secret;
  • Samantha Morton, always so ethereally captivating, this time as an ominous, muckraking evangelical;
  • Jon Voight, another great presence, when not getting tripped up by his own politics, ironically cast as a William Randolph Hearst-ish proto-Trump;
  • Carmen Ejogo, stately and evocative as the president of American wizarding society, tangled  in her own bureaucratic machinations;
  • Ron Perlman, nearly unrecognizable as an  Edward G. Robinson-ish mobster troll (literally, a troll), who runs muscle and intel from the murky corners of a Grimms’ fairy tale speakeasy;
  • And Colin Farrell, arguably the best of the bunch, having an understated field day, full of stylish gravitas, as Newt’s chief nemesis, maneuvering chess pieces to ignite a race war between wizards and humans.

Unlike other entries in the Harry Potter canon, Fantastic Beasts unfolds less like a picaresque and more like a candy-colored potboiler. (Technicolor noir?) Why is Newt in America? What is the political endgame for the various players introduced? Why is there such loathing and fear for these beautiful, mischievous creatures Newt hides and hauls around in a battered brown suitcase, a valise that magically hides a portal to Rowling’s version of the world’s grooviest “no-kill” shelter? By the film’s predictably cacophonous denouement (my only criticism), many answers are provided, but enough dangling threads are left to tee up (no doubt) another (very profitable) series of films. I think I’ll be packing my suitcase to tag along.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Feed the right wolf.” Disney’s Tomorrowland (2015 film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Find the ones who haven’t given up. They are the future.” So says George Clooney at the end of Brad Bird’s latest Disney offering Tomorrowland, inspired as much by Disney’s ubiquitous theme parks (from which it derives its inspiration) as it does Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and … Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

In fact, this may be the first children’s film that directly addresses – so darkly, so interestingly, so strangely – global warming among other mankind-created global calamities. I can’t recall the last kiddie flick that depicted so darn many mushroom clouds, or had such a nihilistic sentiment at its gooey center. Good for Brad Bird.

Clearly a passion project for the director, the film suffers, alas, from a narrative lumpiness. It is composed almost like a junior novella, with very abrupt chapter breaks, and an unclear sense of the overall purpose until the crackerjack final act.

Regardless, the journey is an entertaining and worthwhile one, at least philosophically. As I find myself personally at a crossroads in life – looking back at what erroneously seemed an idyllic small-town, all-American way-of-life and now dreaming of a much-needed present/future state when we all can embrace empathy, kindness, and love, regardless our geographically defined boundaries – the film hit a raw nerve for me.

Ostensibly, the film is about Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton, a young, overeager space-loving kid horrified that America has given up on all dreams of galactic exploration. Casey discovers a magic pin that gives her glimpses of a sparkling utopia where we all live hand-in-hand, driving electric cars, zipping to-and-fro in bullet shaped sky-trains, and all wearing flowing garb designed in collaboration between Vera Wang and Judy Jetson (?). (Oh, and everybody in the future is fit. No fast food, no gluten, and, yeah, I bet vegan. Go figure.)

In truth? The film is really about George Clooney’s Frank Walker, a bright-eyed young boy born of nuclear optimism now a middle-aged sot calcified by millennial atrophy. He sees a world that he hoped would be (pushed to be), its limitless potential now squandered by petty greed and intentional hate. The classic baby boomer dilemma.

Casey sparks a reluctant optimism in Frank, as they meet cute, amidst a gaggle of murderous robots blowing up Frank’s steampunk farmhouse. They travel to Tomorrowland in hopes of preventing global catastrophe. Tomorrowland, you see, is an alternate dimension designed as a free-thinking societal construct, intended to gather humanity’s best and brightest in order to effect great change, but now turned to seed. Hugh Laurie, all glowering smarm, is its chief magistrate.

Robertson, who unfortunately has the acting range of a peanut, mugs and screams shamelessly, but Clooney with his oily charm is the perfect antidote. It takes quite a bit of screen time for him to finally emerge, but when he does the film starts firing on all cylinders.

Tomorrowland (the place … in the film) is a marvel of design, taking many cues from but never limited by the aesthetic of Disney’s theme park Tomorrowland(s) as well as the original designs for EPCOT – all swooping spirals, glittering towers, and burnished concrete.

As I understand it, Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury were pals, and they and their creative legacies share a similar take on the “future,” a concept as nebulous as it is thrilling. For these mid-century marvels, the future is a pearly veneer with a toxic venom ever curdling underneath. Both men telegraphed a healthy agnosticism and distrust of humanity – see Bambi, for one – with a deep desire to see us collectively rise above our own insularity and self-absorption … once and for all. Fat chance.

Brad Bird does a fine job capturing and forwarding this idea in Tomorrowland. The film is not perfect, a bit tedious at times, but it is a worthwhile summer blockbuster exercise in challenging how stunted we have become. At one point Casey says something to this effect: “There are two wolves. One bright and hopeful and one dark and cynical. Which wolf wins? Whichever one you feed. Feed the right wolf.”

Feed the right wolf.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

We’ll find ourselves floating down the street in our useless leather-seated SUVs when the polar ice caps finally evaporate: Cowspiracy

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

God love people like John Mola and Susie Duncan Sexton and Kim Elizabeth Johnson. If it weren’t for folks like them, I’d have no social conscience at all. The former two (John and Susie) supply me with the information and the education on how poorly we treat this planet and all of its inhabitants, and the latter (Kim) keeps me informed about similarly-themed events here in Southeast Michigan (though I have been plenty remiss in availing myself of all the opportunities).

And all three set a fabulous example for sustainable living, kind diets, and compassionate hearts.

Last night, per Kim’s invitation, I went to Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre for a special presentation (benefiting wonderful VegMichigan) of the film Cowspiracy. Yes, you read that title correctly. Cowspiracy. What is this documentary about? Well, in short, it’s about how willfully reckless we all are with this planet’s future in our rampant (some might say rabid) consumption of animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, etc.).

The documentary filmmakers posit that most of us could give one whit about the environmental impact the food we eat creates. We have been conditioned to see our food as simply a commodity – disassociated from its source (i.e. living beings like you and me) – by culture, family, big-ag industries, grocery stores, and even our own environmental action groups.

(Shame on you, Sierra Club! Bunch of well-scrubbed yuppies bedecked in Ralph Lauren plaids and denims who fancy themselves latter day Ansel Adamses for whom mountain ranges hold more appeal than living beings. Yeah, I said it. What strikes you in watching these talking heads is just how self-satisfied and out. of. touch. they really are.)

The film in its casual, loping, conversational style visits all quadrants of the food industry, from factory farming to lobbying groups, from so-called “humane” organic ranches to various environmental action groups. Cowspiracy‘s central thesis is that there is no sector – not energy, not manufacturing – that is having a larger negative impact on the environment (e.g. greenhouse gasses, pollution, global warming, deforestation) than meat/dairy/poultry/fish. Nor is there an industry more in denial – malicious or otherwise – about said impact.

Let me add that I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly four years now, and after seeing tonight’s film I’m likely to go full vegan. Yes, I love animals, and, yes, some of the aforementioned family members helped pave the way for me. However, the tipping point as captured in this film is that this “industry” is not only supplying us with a food product we don’t actually need (and is quite unhealthy for us) but is destroying the planet in the process.

The land and resources (and, yes, lives) gobbled up to create one (gross) Big Mac is mind-numbing. You, like some of the interviewees in this film, may chalk that up to some hippie dippy mentality. But if you give this film a chance, it gives a logical argument to why we all need to eat much differently…or we’ll find ourselves floating down the street in our useless leather-seated SUVs when the polar ice caps finally evaporate.

Limiting oneself to dairy or eggs or fish and eliminating red meat, pork, or poultry just doesn’t cut it. The carbon impact of these “foods” on the environment is, well, ridiculous. The amount of grains and beans produced to feed animals that we, in turn, consume is, as they say, a “false economy. ” The film is not a polemic. You won’t feel chastised watching it (unlike how you probably feel reading this review) but you will be entertained and enlightened, and, well, you’re gonna laugh … a lot.

What this film does so very well is humanize the impact that animal products have on our economy and our environment. Our guide in the film, Kip Andersen (also the film’s director and co-producer), looks like he took a left turn out of Ann Arbor’s SkatePark and, whoa, decided to make a moooovie, man. And he is perfect. Clearly a sensitive soul, Andersen has been deeply impacted by Al Gore’s seminal An Inconvenient Truth, but, through the course of Cowspiracy which builds on the foundation laid in Gore’s documentary, our eyes are opened as Andersen’s eyes are opened, discovering truths even too inconvenient for Mr. Gore.

Anyone who has ever watched a Frank Capra movie (or, hell, a Martin Scorsese one) knows that people don’t like change. Don’t mess with my family, my food, my culture … but when those life choices are destroying us all, a change is long overdue. That’s the epiphany Andersen has during the course of this film.

There is a very real and frightening issue bearing down on all of us, namely that our rampant consumption of meat is unsustainable. Yes, for animal lovers like myself that is a no-brainer. Eat more carrots. But the carbon footprint of meat production is destroying this planet. Cowspiracy does a beautiful job without being ham-handed (no pun intended) or overbearing, illustrating the very practical impracticality of turning all that grain into a nasty fast-food burger.

If you give this film a chance, you will be highly entertained. It’s a breezy 90-plus minutes, and the movie is making its way to festivals around the country and hopefully soon will be available on home video and via streaming. Dare we not ask the question, the intimate question, of how what we eat affects not only ourselves but the entire world around us?

Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” Godzilla (2014)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Godzilla, Warner Brothers’ reboot of the classic Japanese movie monster, is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong. I was highly entertained, even entranced, but I also feel like I was just hit over the head by a 2X4 for the last two hours.

Like the similar postmodern reinvention in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or even, for that matter, this spring’s Noah), Godzilla, directed with a surprisingly sure hand by relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, is positioned as pointed popcorn allegory for how abysmally we humans treat this planet and the ungodly vengeance Mother Nature should unleash on us self-important ants.

In all fairness, Toho Studios’ original Godzilla series took its cues from a mid-century world traumatized by the threat of nuclear Armageddon (as evidenced by the real-life bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima), so Edwards is just following that argument to its logical post-9/11, post-global warming, post-Inconvenient Truth conclusion.

The 2014 edition (let’s all just agree to forget the inane Jurassic Park-meets-Independence Day debacle that was 1998’s Matthew Broderick-starring effort) is a tension-filled marvel. Edwards wisely gives us plenty of footage of the titular “monster” and his battles with the Mothra-esque MUTO creatures, but he keeps the shots murky and smoke-filled, the pacing methodically coiled, and the shocks Hitchockian in their “did I see that or didn’t I?” simplicity. Alexandre Desplat’s score is brain-thumpingly martial.

The narrative is straight-up Saturday afternoon matinee with a healthily cynical gloss of 21st century ecological nightmare. The first half of the movie is all set up as we are introduced to a scientist (a hammy Bryan Cranston saddled with an epically bad hairpiece … guess the budget got eaten up by CGI) who loses his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a tragic nuclear power plant accident that may or may not be giant-lizard-related. Flash-forward 15 years, and Cranston’s now-adult son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, all grown up from his Kick-Ass years and looking like a steroidal Joaquin Phoenix) has tired of his papa’s conspiratorial theories as to what really offed mama.

There’s a gibberish-spewing Japanese scientist (an awfully wooden Ken Watanabe) and a gibberish-spewing British scientist (the always crackerjack Sally Hawkins) and an authoritatively gibberish-spewing American general (the genius David Strathairn who could make tax code seem fascinating).

At one point in the film, Watanabe says to Strathairn: “The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” (I loved that!)

I kept expecting Kevin McCarthy or Gene Barry to show up wearing fedoras covering up their sweaty brows as they rattled through unnecessarily expository dialogue (see: 1953’s War of the Worlds or 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers… but preferably if you are 10 years old and it’s 1982 and there is nothing else on television).

Of course, Taylor-Johnson has chosen a military career, much to the chagrin of his academic dad. He is returning from service in some unidentified locale, eager to reignite all-American family time with his perpetually anxious wife (Elizabeth Olsen, spinning gold out of a thankless role) and his toddler son. As mayhem ensues and the various screaming creatures destroy Honolulu … and Las Vegas … and San Francisco … somehow Taylor-Johnson’s character managers to be in every setting, save the day, and find another means of transport to get him closer to home. Ah, Hollywood logic.

But, here’s the thing … it all works, pretty marvelously. There are no winky-nudge-nudge sexist/racist/xenophobic Michael Bay-style jokes/asides/quips and the carnage (while PG-13 friendly) is believable and haunting (and any movie that blows up Las Vegas is ok in my book). The pacing is ominous and steady and relentless, and, without being a shrill polemic, the film reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that how we treat (or mis-treat) this planet has dire consequences for us all …

In this case, primordial creatures who’ve lived in the earth’s core for eons until the lure of radioactive weapons and waste draw them out will obliterate us all in some kind of H.P. Lovecraft/Ray Bradbury fever dream … but, hey, I said it was an allegory!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.