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Rating History

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
9 days ago via Flixster
½

I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by this spin-off (prequel of sorts?) of the popular Harry Potter franchise.

It should be said that if Fantastic Beasts accomplishes anything, it would be that it manages to pave it's own way rather than being a retread of the previous Potter material. It feels fresh.

Certainly though it does accomplish more than this as well.

The film is a bit scattered, especially in the first half. We are thrown in to a universe in which the wizards are already fully developed, so instead of a the characters developing into their role (as the kids do in Harry Potter), the film plays as a sort of fantastical mystery in which we slowly begin to figure out who the characters actually are. This comes together in the second half, but as the mystery begins to play out we are taken on a number of side plots and characters that cause the film to zig and zag a bit before finding its stride.

The influence of Rowling can be felt in Fantastic Beasts, both in the imaginative world and in the sort of twisty plot devices she likes to give to certain of her characters. Director David Yates compliments this with some rather beautiful scenes, a great eye for the subtle details, and developing a wonderful sense of tension.

There are some key performances in the film that each manage to be effective in their own way. Dan Folger is perfect in his role, and where he could have simply been the comic relief, he steals some scenes and proves his role to be important for the story. What I really loved though was the chemistry between Redmayne (Newt) and Waterston (Porpentina). To come back to the use of subtlety, I couldn't help but smile at the way they develop their growing relationship in the film through facial expressions and body language. It just goes to show that sexual tension can be developed in modest ways. It really was a joy to watch them together on screen, as they are both very quirky but very charming in their own ways.

The other thing the film does fairly well is create a meaningful and effective villain. The backdrop of this film is New York City rather than England, and the director uses this setting to really draw out some of the different nuances as we watch the battle between good and evil develop. It is never over the top, even as we begin to see NYC get destroyed. For all of the ways that I have seen NYC destroyed on film this was probably one of the most intimate and creative. And given that one of the powers of the wizards is to be able to put the crumbled pieces back together, we also get to see some wonderful CGI work going in both directions.

Given that the story has shifted to American soil, the story story has a decidedly American theme. There is one humorous moment when we get a nod towards Hogwarts, but the themes that develop (I won't spoil it) play on America's own history, which is a part of what allows this film to pave it's own path.

Although the first half is scattered, and the film is somewhat paced, it still succeeds at being a worthy spin off. There are more than a few stand out scenes, and I think the characters manage to be quite memorable. I also thought it was entertaining. Some might find the pacing a bit slow at points, but I think that is simply a part of it's more ground level approach. It manages not to get too lost in it's world of magic, while also allowing the magic to have a bit of fun with the surrounding world.

Doctor Strange
22 days ago via Flixster

Marvel certainly has a way of taking a collective comic book franchise that continues to teeter on the line of exhaustion and making it feel fresh and exciting. That Dr. Strange manages to find its own niche in a universe that is full of otherworldly and down to earth hero's is not simply a testament to the source material, but an example of how good storytelling/adaptation, interesting characters, and creative on-screen visuals can go a long way in creating a successful niche.

It is no secret that director Scott Derrickson had the innovation of the film Inception close at hand when trying to marry the magic of Dr. Strange's eventual journey with the natural setting of his scientific interests (as a successful Doctor). The influence here is rather obvious. What is interesting though is that, whereas the visuals in Inception felt groundbreaking (in the same way the Matrix was back when it was first released), here they feel more subdued and simply melded into the story itself. Dr. Strange doesn't push into new territory (although the technical effects, especially when we get close ups of the feet and the chase, are definitely impressive), and it doesn't have the benefit of a film like Inception in doing something new, but this also allows the film to utilize this to benefit the story instead.

To this end, there is a curious choice to immerse us in this visual universe right from the opening sequence, throwing us into the magic with nothing in the way of explanation. I think this allows the director to really play on one of the film's central themes, which is the difficulty we sometimes face in seeing beyond ourselves and the world, and accepting that there is more to this world than we can see on the surface. The film asks the audience to enter into the same process as the characters by challenging our perceptions (as viewers) right off the hop. And it helps to personalize the journey that eventually unfolds.

Dr. Strange occupies a place in-between the brainy and earthly origins of Iron Man and the other-worldy focus of Thor. The main character, played by Cumberbatch, does an excellent job of occupying this space. It is not hard to see that Cumberbatch could easily have automatic chemistry with any of the other Marvel players, as his story understands the challenges that each character faces. He also can bring some insight into what it means to live into their abilities with a profound sense of spiritual and moral force. When Dr. Strange is forced to face himself, he is also forced to come to terms with the idea that this world (and his abilities) were not all about him. Whether a doctor in the hospital or a doctor learning the mystical arts of magic, the real battle is the war that happens inside of his own soul and his own sense of purpose. And this battle seems to have relevance for the other Marvel players across the board. More so, as a story in its own right, it has something to powerful to say to us as viewers.

Dr. Strange was written by a Christian with a strong grasp of Eastern mysticism. I think this plays a big part in allowing the film to challenge some of the more Western sensibilities that might keep us from being able to walk this world between the natural and the magical. It understands the relevance of the modern enlightenment, but it also remains grounded in the necessary place of the ancient practices that keep notions of accomplishment and progressiveness from becoming gods to themselves. This spiritual heart seeps in (and through) without being preachy, and has a rather astute way of challenging our assumptions before we are even aware of them ourselves (just like Dr. Strange's mysterious and complicated teacher).

The film ultimatley refelcts a wonderful balance. It's entertaining. It's a visual wonder. It's fun (and rather funny in all the right ways). It's important. It's magical. It's relatable. It's a wonderful addition to the marvel cinematic universe.

Lights Out
Lights Out (2016)
32 days ago via Flixster
½

On the surface this is a film about the stuff that lurks in the shadows, something it does with great effect (and little in the way of C.G.I.). The image of a shadowy figure that gets closer every time you turn the lights off and on is creepy, and it should leave you a little leery (if you watch it after sundown) of venturing off to the bathroom afterwards without turning the lights back on first.

Underneath this is a story about loss and family struggle. Sophie is a mother who suffers with mental illness, and having lost her husband and pushed away her daughter, she now lives with her young son in a home where he is largely neglected.

As child and family services suggest concern for the well-being of this young boy, the daughter brings her own broken and past relationship with her mother as she attempts to re-enter the family picture. But as all of this stuff begins to come to the surface, a greater mystery about the strange being (and its relationship to the mothers mental well being) begins to also emerge. What follows are some genuine scares (of the "what's lurking around the corner" variety) and some complex family dynamics.

Perhaps the most powerful picture in the film is that of the mother/daughter relationship, two characters fighting over (or for) independence and respect. They both need each other, but they both struggle with being type-cast by each other. And at the center of it is the mental illness itself, something that eventually becomes personified in the mysterious being itself.

Lights Out has something worthwhile to say about the ways those of us who struggle with mental illness struggle with the impact we know our actions have on others. It has something to say about the struggle to accept ourselves as we are when we feel like people would be better off without us. It also has something to say about the ways in which people still need those of us who struggle with mental illness in their lives, despite our resistance to believing this to be true.

Above all, the films narrative shows just how much the weight of these struggles, whether mental illness or dealing with broken families and loss, can keep us from being able to engage with the stuff that really matters. The more I consider it the more tragic the story kind of becomes. But it nevertheless remains a kind of powerful one as well.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
51 days ago via Flixster

There are more than a few great moments in Miss Pergrine's Home For Peculiar Children that help disguise the film's flaws and make it a worthy adaptaion. Burton brings his familiar trademark style to the table, and it is a perfect fit for the materials darkly whimsical background and visual prose. The first visit to the house, the dropping of the bomb/resetting of the loop, and the boat scene are imagined on screen in a series of beautiful cinematic sequences, giving us much to look at along the journey.

However, the flaws of the film follow the book's lead and revolve around the characters themselves, who remain surprisingly one dimensional for a film that is supposed to celebrate our peculiarities.

Given the jump from page to screen, I actually think the screenwriters did a decent job with what they had to work with. Choices like the one to leave out the best friend in the beginning of the story, or the way it connects the psychiatrist to the developing story, help to avoid too much clutter. But the push to clean up the narrative also results in one that moves too quickly. The choice to streamline the character of Emma (my least favorite character in the book) away from the monotonous back and forth tween-age banter of the novel actually helps make her character intriguing as one who struggles with loss, rejection and belonging, but the way the film avoids exploring the more mature elements of Jake that we find in the book (my favorite character) seems to diminish his depth on-screen. All of this also creates a sensitive dance between the books rather complicated theories and formulas (surrounding the loops and the threat of the Hollows), something that the film does it's best to explain without overly dwelling or talking us through it.

And all of the sideshow that emulates from the peculiar children themselves simply ends up lacking in any significant backstory at all. We know that they are unique, but we really aren't given much of a chance to know who they are underneath. This was the whole idea of building a story around unknown, antique pictures, giving a story to untold stories. They remain largely untold here, as they did in the book as well.

The best part of the book is the tension that develops between Jake's persistent struggle with understanding the fantastical stories of his grandfather and struggling with what's real on the other side of these stories allure. It is out of this that we find the wonderful mundanity of his present but distant father who continues to struggle with his own demons and the absence of his father in his own life. The film is attentive enough to narrow its focus towards these dynamics, but for every time this narrative has an opportunity to move forward it ends up cutting to the next scene. This is equally unfortunate as Burton's attention to design and set gives us all the more reason to linger on the scenes for just a little bit longer as well.

Eva Green does do a great job of letting us into her character with her limited screen time. She uses her visual presence and facial expressions to turn Miss Peregrine into likely the most interesting and layered character in the story. Jackson also does a decent job of balancing the dark with the whimsical, not going too over the top but giving us just enough of a sense of danger as well to keep the story's good versus evil motif's relevant and important. And the much more subdued relationship between Jake and Emma retains enough chemistry to allow the final moments of the film to emotionally resonate. The actors as a whole are all good, but just aren't given enough time to tell the whole story.

There was opportunity for the film to really explore the setting of the war as the backdrop to the story of the children themselves. This whole dynamic was one of the more intuitive themes of the book, one that bridges the struggles of the grandson and the grandfather across a generation. It is also the element that allows the loop itself to distinguish itself from the modern world, even as it is intended to remind us that our struggles remain much the same across the barriers of time. But Burton just doesn't give this time to develop in a serious way, instead leaving it to linger in the visuals. As I said, this works well enough to make this a worthwhile film, but it's hard not to bemoan missed potential.

The Conjuring 2
52 days ago via Flixster

A fantastic return to the genre of the horror film with this sequel to the second highest grossing horror film of all time (The Exorcist is first).

It's longer than the first, which means it's also slightly more layered. Wan brings a deft hand to moving us between the two interweaving stories, the Hodgson family who represent the heart of the mystery, and that of the Warren's who have been solicited out of retirement to see if they can help with the mystery.

The mystery of-course surrounds the documented story of the true Hodgson families brush with the spirits that seem to haunt their house beyond their control. The tension builds as the outside sources attempt to rationalize the spirits as an elaborate hoax (or something else along those lines), and the attempt to bring in the Warren's to really help determine this.

Every great horror story begins with these sorts of questions that travel the line between faith and doubt. As they say, the monsters that we feel might be there are much scarier than the ones that we see in all their glory, and this is where Wan does his best work. He really humanizes the film, even as he gives great respect to the material itself. There is a sense in which the desire is to really dive underneath the experience of the true to life characters themselves. For the Warren's this is a story of self-discovery, as much as it is about their own journey of faith. For the Hodgson's it is a story of desperation. This desperation exists only if we are willing to hear their actual story, and The Conjuring bridges the gap between entertainment and intention to this end.

As for the pacing of the film itself, the scares are well crafted and well placed, and the sequences draw up the perfect amount of dread. It leaves us wondering and questioning, and then it throws our wonder and our questions for a loop, which is what makes the experience of The Conjuring so worthwhile. The first was one of my favorites of the genre. This lives up to it for sure.