Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The Thunderbird is one of the many gorgeous creatures Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has in his suitcase in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. (Source: New York Daily News)

The world was introduced to Harry Potter in 1997. A special boy with a special power who went to a special school of witchcraft and wizardry. Along with his friends, he must defeat the one who killed his parents when he was a baby. The phenomenon began to spread. Not to mention the films chronicling his seven-year journey as he tries to get rid of the evil Lord Voldemort. Now, J.K. Rowling has written her first screenplay taken place 70 years before our beloved hero goes to Hogwarts. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them brings back the magic while adding something fresh to the table.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a magizoologist who has finished his global quest to research the many creatures in the magical world. He arrives in New York City with a suitcase filled with magnificent creatures. Since this is 1926, the city is having a conflict between the witches, wizards and the No-Maj population (the American idiom for “muggle”). Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the head of The Magical Congress for the United States of America (MACUSA), is doing everything he can for the community.

Thinking this might be a quick stop, Newt gets into some risky situations including getting his suitcase misplaced and accidently letting some creatures loose. He joins forces with No-Maj and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Wasterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) to save these creatures before leaving for Arizona.

As a huge Harry Potter fan, I am pleased how Rowling brought the wizarding world to the United States. The ninth entry might have not been good if it relied too much on hinting factors to the other films, or just adapting the textbook written by Rowling (in disguise of Newt). The part of Rowling’s genius as a writer is she makes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in a world of its own. It’s okay to not see any of the Harry Potter films to get an idea on what’s going on.

Director David Yates feels right at home expanding the Harry Potter universe with James Newton Howard accompanying another fantastic score (with hints of John Williams’ theme sprinkled here and there). Shifting the magic with the history, the dark with the humorous. After being nominated for two Oscars (winning one for The Theory of Everything), Eddie Redmayne was born to be in the Harry Potter universe. In fact, he auditioned to play Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets before earning the part of Newt Scamander. Better late than never, I suppose.

Anyhow—Redmayne is certainly having a ball here as Scamander. He is compassionate about his studies. He never gets in the way with his past troubles. He has that professor charm. When he shows Jacob—Fogler, in a hysterical performance—the magical creatures for the first time before his very eyes, he is ecstatic. You know they are in for one wild ride.

Despite the first act being a little clunky, the introduction of the wizard culture to America is quite a treasure! Let’s see where the sequels will go from here.

3/4

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Movie Review: Doctor Strange

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Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) walks out in style in Doctor Strange, Marvel’s latest entry in its ongoing film franchise. (Source: IMDb)

No other actor looked so cool putting on a cape than Benedict Cumberbatch.

Captain America: Civil War started this past summer with a bang. Not only was it a wonderful conclusion to the greatest film trilogy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also leaves the door open for one of the longest running film franchises; going on since 2008 with Iron Man. The audience introduces more characters leading up to—what might be—the biggest battle in film history (The Avengers: Infinity War). Doctor Strange, the latest MCU film, is a little more than your basic origin story.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of New York City’s most brilliant neurosurgeons. One night, he gets into a car accident, causing him to lose his job due to serious damage to his hands. Strange goes on a journey to find a cure in Nepal. At Kamar-Taj, he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) shows him the astral plane and alternate dimensions. He reluctantly trains of becoming a sorcerer. When he learns that the enclave is at war with a team of evil sorcerers, led by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), Strange and his mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) try to defeat the evil mastermind once and for all.

Scott Derrickson creates an origin story mildly different than the previous entries. Strange is a—literally and figuratively—broken protagonist who is willing to change. His spirituality is put to the test when he learns about controlling time. There is plenty of humor thrown in the mix. Notably, when he pokes fun at Master Wong (Benedict Wong) and his [one-word] name and using his wits to outsmart Kaecilius and his minions once they finally meet. There is an Inception-vibe through the stunning action sequences and visual effects, which is provided by Michael Giacchino’s magnificent score (powerful chorus, too).

Despite being somewhat formulaic and Mikkelson’s Kaecilius not quite topping Loki and Zemo as the best villain (a little bit more depth would have certainly done the trick), Doctor Strange provides enough wit and wonder to outweigh its flaws.

3.5/4

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

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Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) springs into the battle to save his troops in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. (Source: The A.V.Club)

What a better way to celebrate Veteran’s Day than review a new World War II movie?

Mel Gibson, who is never shy of controversy, returns to the director’s chair ten years after Apocalypto. Braveheart is easily one of the best epics ever made. While The Passion of the Christ split audiences and critics, he still created the most graphic depiction of Jesus’ final hours. It’s no surprise that his latest film Hacksaw Ridge will come across as graphic and powerful as his first two directorial feats. Gibson has made another miraculous achievement. It features themes familiar from his previous films—faith and courage.

Based on a true story, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, in the performance of his career) is a pacifist living in the hills of Virginia. He promises to never pick up a gun in his life. Traumatized from serving in World War I, his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving) forbids him to join the army. Desmond and his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) soon go behind his back to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

While drafted, his religious beliefs test his soldiers including Captain Jack Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn). Since he is a Seventh-Day Adventist, he refuses to train on Saturdays because it’s his Sabbath. The only position he can be in the army is a medic. When his soldiers go into combat, he goes out in the middle of the battlefield to save them while thinking of his hometown sweetheart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).

Gibson and writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan (The Pacific) mix the realism of the war with old-fashioned drama. Every shot breathes the 1940s; from the old cars to the fashion. Especially with scenes with Desmond and Dorothy, it becomes witty without being too sappy. Once we learn about Doss’ refusal to carry a gun, we know why.

There are plenty of laughs given at the army camp, notably from Vaughn when he is showing his inner R. Lee Ermey. Once the Battle of Okinawa starts, the audience is in for the most graphic war sequence since the opening scene on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. I had never felt anything to what’s being shown on screen. Bullets, bodies flying everywhere, grenades and bombs going off, and smoke rising.

Garfield’s Doss is so committed to do anything without having to carry a gun in the middle of a battlefield (“Lord, please help me get one more,” he prays aloud as he’s saving his troops). He—no spoilers—ended up saving 75 lives, which earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. With his death in 2006, he left behind a great legacy behind. I would be surprised if Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t get any Oscar recognition. Seeing this movie with my father will be something I will never forget.

4/4

“Carrie”: Chilling Stephen King Adaptation Holds Up 40 Years Later

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Sissy Spacek behind the scenes of Carrie (Source: IMDb).

In 1975, Jaws sounded like your a typical B-movie premise. However, the main focus in this horror/thriller blockbuster is the humanity behind our three heroes while going out into the Atlantic Ocean to kill a great white shark. Not only did it make audiences scared of going in the ocean, it also changed the face of horror forever. Meanwhile, before directing Scarface, Brian De Palma got his hands on a hardcover book by an unknown (at the time) author named Stephen King. The book is Carrie.

Carrie (1976) was certainly ahead of its time. It became the first adaptation by King, eventually helmed as “The King of Horror”. Many of his books and short stories have been adapted into wonderful films (Stand by Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) as well as some bad ones (The Mist). 40 years to the day, it still guarantees to frighten generations of filmgoers. While the movie can be viewed as a supernatural horror film, it also can be viewed as a high school film and a film about adolescent angst. De Palma is the only master filmmaker to create such a work of art!

It’s hard not to write about Carrie without giving spoilers. Make sure you have seen the movie.

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“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Source: Times Union)

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a shy and lonely girl. She’s a senior at Bates High School—one of many homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—who is always getting picked on or ignored by her peers. At home, she gets abused by her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie, who came back under the spotlight 15 years after The Hustler), a religious freak who goes out of her way to use her beliefs on her. One day, Carrie gets invited to the upcoming senior prom by Tommy Ross (William Katt), despite the dismay of her mother. No one knows, besides her mother, that she has telekinesis, the power to move things with her mind. She has no idea what she is in for at the prom.

Stephen King wrote Carrie in an epistolary style—telling the narrative in the form of letters, newspaper articles, magazine editorials, and investigative reports. Lawrence D. Cohen kept the book’s nature in his screenplay; however, he decided to get rid of the novel’s structure and tell the movie’s narrative in a straightforward fashion. A few changes from the book have been made, such as the shocking ending (in which Stephen King loved) and a scene where it would have been too dangerous and over-the-top. Unlike the book, the audience sympathizes with Carrie from the opening scene where she and her classmates are taking a shower and changing up after gym class. A long tracking shot (in slow-motion) moves through the locker room where the girls are in the nude and ends on Carrie taking a shower. All of a sudden, she has her first period. Without having an idea what to do, her classmates–queen-bee Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), Sue Snell (Amy Irving), Norma (P.J. Soles, who would go on to star in John Carpenter’s Halloween) and others begin to throw tampons at poor Carrie chanting “Plug it up!” until Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) breaks up the commotion. Later, her mother convinces Carrie that menstruation is a sin, and locks her in a closet with Catholic imagery (including an eerie-looking figurine of St. Sebastian) to pray “and ask to be forgiven”.

A year after her stunning performance in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Sissy Spacek worked as a set designer with her husband Jack Fisk (who also worked as the set designer for Carrie) for De Palma’s cult hit Phantom of the Paradise (1974). In her autobiography, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, she described her experience as “the hardest job I ever did.” After making a mess with one of the sets, De Palma went as far as calling her “as the worst, no-talent set decorator he’d ever worked with.”[1]

But, Spacek impressed the hell out of De Palma at her audition where she walked in with Vaseline in her hair without washing her face, and feeling bad for herself. Everybody, including some the cast of Carrie, auditioned for Star Wars (William Katt auditioned for Luke Skywalker before being cast as  Tommy Ross). Spacek captures the frustration and optimism of Carrie to perfection. I can relate to her struggle with my own experiences with bullies in middle school and my early years of high school. She and Piper Laurie received Oscar nominations for their performance, which is unusual and surprising for a horror film. As amazing as Spacek’s performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), the fact that Spacek got snubbed for her first Oscar is actually depressing. Along with Laurie (who described the movie as a dark comedy due to her terrifying, over-the-top performance), Spacek is absolutely electrifying!

As mean-spirited as Carrie is, De Palma does deliver with its moments of dark humor and tender moments. Carrie sees Miss Collins as her only positive role model. When Carrie tells her Tommy invited her to the prom (because Sue felt guilty for becoming a part of the shower incident, she decided to make it up for it by doing her boyfriend a favor to take her), Miss Collins becomes ecstatic. “I know who he goes around with, he’s just trying to trick me again,” Carrie says. Miss Collins convinces her how beautiful she is.

Meanwhile, after being banned from the upcoming prom for ditching detention, Chris and her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta, in his first major film role, where he, at one point in the film, comes up with Larry the Cable Guy’s catchphrase) decide to go out of their way to humiliate Carrie at the prom. They decide to make her Prom Queen and dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her. The prom sequence is where Brian De Palma showcases his talents.

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“Carrie…We’re here…And we’re together.” (Source: Blastr)

Early on in the prom, Tommy and Carrie decide to share at least one slow dance together. The scene is set up with a camera spinning around them while they are dancing. It starts off slow and picks up speed to the point of going out of control. This is the only moment in the film—if not, her entire life—where Carrie has experienced true happiness. At the same time, however, it hints at what is going to happen to her next. De Palma uses the slow-motion technique as a way of making the sequence as a fantasy before making the shift to the cruel reality, especially in the sequence where Carrie is announced Prom Queen before eventually having her “Cinderella moment” ruined after having her baptismal bloodbath (“You’re a woman now,” Carrie’s mother says to her earlier in the film).

At this moment, Carrie releases her telekinetic powers upon the senior class and faculty. Unlike the 2013 remake (I’ll talk about it some other time), where she uses her powers like an X-Men mutant, she uses her powers through her emotions. Case in point, in the film’s most iconic sequence, she gets really pissed off (take notice of the blood-red lights). With the use of the split-screen, she uses her powers to her full advantage with her eyes wide open. Her presence on the stage sends shivers down my spine.

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“They’re all gonna laugh at you!” (Source: Moviefone)

It’s rare for a horror film, like Carrie, to have so much humanity. Brian De Palma and his team manage to make a film superior to Stephen King’s first novel. With the 2002 television remake and the 2013 theatrical remake, neither compare to the magic of the 1976 classic. It’s such a shame Brian De Palma didn’t have a great filmmaking career after Mission: Impossible (1996), which led him to eventually retire. Nevertheless, Carrie is one of those horror movies that I will continue to watch for a long time.

[1] Sissy Spacek, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life. p. 156, 158.