December 12

5 reasons to like ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (film)

I’m assuming you know what the film is about. If not, go read a synopsis and come back to this listicle.

It also helps if you know some things about the Potterverse and don’t mind spoilers.

Jacob Kowalski Newt Scamander bowtruckle
No-maj Jacob Kowalski and magizoologist Newt Scamander with a bowtruckle © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

1. Eddie Redmayne

Eddie is a great actor in the right role. Let’s pause a moment and consider that he won an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking, a real person, in The Theory of Everything, and also that he can belt out a tune as he did as Marius in Les Misérables although Marius is a ponce for running off with Cosette (yes, I’m Team Eponine). Also consider his catastrophic turn as the elder Abrasax sibling in the glorious mess that was Jupiter Ascending (“I. Give. Life!” is unforgettably bad but so utterly quotable, bless).

The Edster is perfect as Newt Scamander, a wizard who we discover was very close to being kicked out of Hogwarts (it’s complicated) but who seems to have an affinity with magical animals. The role calls for a certain level of diffidence when it comes to dealing with other people that never strays into meekness and Eddie traverses this fine line very skilfully.

The filmic Potterverse hasn’t cast so perfectly since sending Kenneth Branagh in as Gilderoy Lockhart.

2. Effects of repression

We get to find out what happens to a witch/wizard when they don’t get their [insert magical school] letter and are left to a world that doesn’t want them to be magic because magic is scary to those who don’t understand it and also sometimes no-majs (muggles) are jealous they don’t have any powers.

Turns out if your powers are repressed it forms a deadly force called an obscurus, which the witch/wizard cannot control and may kill its host. A powerful metaphor for so many other things the world tries to repress.

3. More than what it seems

Those of us who were impressed by Hermione’s handbag with the Undetectable Extension Charm in HP7, love the way Newt’s suitcase becomes different temperature controlled environments for his various beasts. (By the by, the production values for the animals were top notch, from the cheeky shiny-thing-seeking, havoc-causing niffler to Newt’s pocket bowtruckle.)

And just like Newt’s suitcase, the movie is about more than what you think it is. On the surface it’s a sort of fish-out-of-water chase escapade designed so children can understand it but actually it touches more mature issues.

As I mentioned before, the effects of repression is a key one, but there’s also politics, as evidenced by the tension around magical folk having to go underground because no-majs want to lock them up (the most obvious antagonists are the Salemists in this regard) and a throwaway line you might not have caught in relation to maj/no-maj pairings with Newt mentioning the US has “rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people” as they are not allowed to befriend, let alone marry them.

Newt’s mission, in essence, is to encourage understanding between species—whether wizard/beast or maj/no-maj—to reduce hostility and perhaps even foster bonds.

4. Love is complicated

Too often we get the story of high school sweethearts marrying and having children who then go on to the same school (er herm, all of HP). I’m not a huge fan of romance and romance tokenism but I like the two love stories in the film, the first between legilimen Queenie and no-maj Jacob, an unlikely pairing but very sweet. Through his interactions with various no-majs we get to see that Jacob is rarely understood and Queenie, who can read his mind, understands him perfectly and likes what she reads.

Then there’s the awkwardness of Newt and former auror Tina whose relationship from the outset is built on conflict, Newt being a lawbreaker and Tina resolved to regain her position, before realising they are after the same thing—keeping New York safe—albeit for different reasons.

After noticing a picture of a girl in his suitcase, Queenie talks to Newt about his past love Leta LeStrange. We discover they used to be close at school but there was hurt there. Queenie reads Newt and then says “she was a taker, you need a giver”. When Newt is about to depart New York Tina asks, obliquely, after Leta. Newt mentions that he doesn’t know what Leta does these days, suggesting he hasn’t seen her for some time. Both of them make it very clear they want to see each other again. They do not kiss. Perfectly in character for both.

5. Don’t worry

As Newt and his no-maj offsider Jacob set off on a madcap midnight adventure to recover all the escaped beasts, the magizoologist adopts a rather casual tone about the increasingly high stakes affair. Don’t worry, he urges Jacob: “My philosophy is that if you worry, you suffer twice.” Best.

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October 20

Looper (film)

I want to start on a foundation that establishes that I had no real idea what this film was about but was keen to see it as I’d heard it was good. Also: time travel!
Generally speaking, it is quite good as an action film. The performances by the three leads are spot on, and the ensemble cast was also well picked and supported the drama where they were needed most—in the fray.
Also praiseworthy was Rian Johnson’s concept of the future: in the USA you could see the divide between the rich and the poor clearly and the cityscape was dilapidated enough to be a believable version of an America that was once great but had devolved into a slum-like state; in the Shanghai scenes you could see the Pearl Tower (currently one of the tallest buildings in the city) dwarfed by taller ones still, indicating China’s future growth, wealth and power. Pre-empting this visual presentation is a verbal encouragement by the boss character for Joe to learn Chinese instead of French.

The premise of ‘Looper’ is fairly straightforward: In the future, time travel is possible but it is outlawed. A criminal organisation uses it to send people to the past (before time travel has been invented) to be killed and disposed of without a trace. A looper is a killer who works for this organisation in the past. He is called a looper because eventually the person he kills is his future self, thereby closing the loop. When the looper kills himself he gets a huge payout and lives comfortably for the rest of his life until such time as he gets sent back in time to be killed. This is presumably so the mob have no loose ends.

*** there are spoilers in this review ***

I have a fair few problems with this. Firstly, why would you need a looper to know he killed his future self? None of his other targets are identified. Except for the payout of gold bars, the looper would never know that the person he just killed was himself so why tell him? Just keep using him and then retire him. Get another looper to kill the future self, who cares?

The second, quite major, problem is the time travel element. Now, I’ve heard a lot of talk about ‘Looper’ and I can generally put the audience into one of two camps: action movie and sci-fi. I tend to find that the action movie audience like the movie a lot more, they find it cerebral without being too taxing with enough shoot ’em ups to make it a pretty good film. They believe they have a grasp of the sci-fi element.

The sci-fi camp are less impressed. They understand all the concepts of time travel presented in the film but they don’t buy it because writer/director Rian Johnson has chosen to use a few theories in the one film and those few theories cannot coexist.

For example when one looper, Seth, fails to close his loop the gang hunts him down and then carves an address into his arm, knowing that his future self will bear the scars. As old Seth makes his way to the address, bits of him disappear—a foot, his nose etc—because the gang is hacking off bits from young Seth. Now if young Seth has all these deformities, how does he then grow to be old Seth, who is able to run from the young Seth when he is sent back in time to be killed? You cannot have a ‘one timeline’ theory (old Seth being affected by young Seth’s amputations) and a ‘many worlds’ theory (old Seth, who originally closed his loop successfully and went on to live a good life and this situation, where young Seth does not close his loop successfully so therefore cannot go on to live the life that old Seth has evidently already lived) coexist.

So this is a really bothersome part of the main story in which one version has young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) close his loop and grow up to be old Joe (Bruce Willis) and a second version in which young Joe fails to close his loop and has old Joe beat him up and escape.

When the two later meet in a cafe old Joe tries to explain things by saying his ‘memories’ are vague and are full of possibilities rather than concrete recollections. The only things that are clear are the things that young Joe has already done, not the things young Joe is about to do.

This is problematic because at the end of the film young Joe kills himself to prevent old Joe from existing to threaten a mother (Sarah) and her son Cid, a future threat to old Joe. Except if we go by the ‘one timeline’ theory this means that old Joe should not have existed at all to come back to threaten the two. Only, young Joe would never have killed himself if old Joe hadn’t come back and set all these events in motion, in which case we are dealing with a ‘many worlds’ theory. But in that case, young Joe killing himself would not have an effect on old Joe, who would have come from another ‘version’ of young Joe, one who had successfully closed his loop to become old Joe. GAH!

Even more problematic is the idea that young Joe has clearly made up his mind to protect Sarah and Cid and yet this understanding of the two has no effect on old Joe’s decision to kill Cid, which proves that this old Joe is not derived from the young Joe we have followed throughout the film.

As for Sarah and Cid, the son is creepy and Sarah sleeps with young Joe for no apparent plot consequence. Also, the fact that they are telekinetic feels tacked on, even though telekinesis was introduced at the start and becomes a big deal as young Joe learns the consequences of Cid’s powers.

All in all, the film appears all slick and macho and brainy but is actually a kind of mess. The only thing saving it is the performances by actors who probably didn’t question Johnson’s multiple uses of time travel theory too much and therefore gave a straight performance.

Film rating: 7/10 – actually quite a decent action film if you forgive all the time travel nonsense.
Enjoyment rating: 5/10 – except I didn’t forgive it.

October 6

Ruby Sparks (film)

*** there are spoilers in this review ***

I wanted to like this film so very much. It has been too long since Little Miss Sunshine and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris certainly deserved a free visit* after the masterful dose of quirkiness from that film.

The premise—a writer bringing a character to life from the page and interacting with her—had a whimsy I thought Dayton and Faris could really work with, and the trailer looked promisingly full of writer jokes. Someone also mentioned a surprise ending. Goody, I thought, something refreshing at last. It won’t be something lame like he stops writing about her and she ends up being a real person. And yet the most surprising thing about this ‘surprise’ ending was that it was no surprise at all.

First I’d like to say a few choice words about the good parts of this film. The performances were excellent. The rather diverse (from Annette Bening to Antonio Banderas to Steve Coogan in support) ensemble worked well and the two leads, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, had great chemistry as a duo. Zoe Kazan had the light-hearted kookiness of that other Z girl, Zooey Deschanel, but played her role with more vivacity.

If seen as a journey for Dano’s Calvin, the film works well. We get a sense of who he is because when he stops ‘writing’ her, Ruby is a foil for him: she enjoys a weekend with his family while the distance he keeps from his mother and her partner couldn’t be more clear, his solitude is more stark against her easy friendliness and his discomfort with writer’s block (his first book was a bestseller and he hasn’t written anything as hefty since) is played out against her burgeoning creativity as an artist.

Calvin writes Ruby because he wants to change all of those things. He wants to be emotionally engaged with someone, he wants company and he wants to write freely. When he gives Ruby up, he gets all of that in the most metafictitious sense: he writes a novel about a girl who springs from a writer’s imagination, which unblocks him and leads him to meet a ‘real’ Ruby. If you love it set it free, et cetera.

The other great thing about this film is that it is genuinely warm and funny. There aren’t a lot of one-liners, but it is generally good humoured and anything that can be played for laughs is woven in without malice.

Where the film falls down is in the idea of Ruby herself. The film is called Ruby Sparks so we want Ruby to be more than a figment, then we want her to be more than an unsurprising surprise ending but she never gets there. Curiously Kazan, who wrote the script and starred as Ruby Sparks, didn’t think to push the character further. So Ruby as a foil and an idea = good; Ruby as her own being = not well realised.

On the way home my partner and I thought of better endings for the film, or at least endings that weren’t as predictable, things like Calvin’s ex, who is also a writer and who we meet at his agent’s party, wrote him but lost control of her own creation, which is why he ends up being more successful than her. Or, it was a magic typewriter. Or something about Calvin’s mother also being a creative type.

The other factor that disappointed me was that the directors didn’t play enough with the story in a story in a story format (Calvin’s novel, which was Calvin’s life with Ruby, which was the film). I mean, that’s a meta meta fiction and an opportunity lost. If you want to see a good story in a story in a story, go rent Stranger than Fiction (2006).

Film rating: 6/10 – fair expectations, but disappointingly predictable
Enjoyment rating: 7/10

* Free visit: where you see a film because of a certain director/writer/actor even if you don’t really know what it’s about, because you enjoyed the last one of theirs so much. When you have a favourite director/screenwriter/actor and will see anything of theirs no matter what the reviews, it’s called a magnet.