Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – A Review

Image result for fantastic beasts and where to find them movie posterDavid Yates directs Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol and Colin Farrell in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In an original story by J K Rowling taking us back to world of witchcraft and wizardry that she created when she introduced us to the boy who lived. The story of Newt Scamander was a mere footnote in the story of Harry Potter and his 7 years of education at Hogwarts. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the title of one of the textbooks Harry, Ron and Hermione studied. With this movie Rowling takes the world of wizardry outside of the confines of Hogwarts, there have been tantalising glimpses in the 7 novels but with Pottermore and now this 5 movie franchise the possibilities are potentially endless. Was that a book called “Casandra and her Cat Gustavo” that Kowalski was reading? Wasn’t Casandra the name of the Divination teacher Trelawney’s great-great-grandmother? Surely nothing in Ms Rowling’s world is coincidence.

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The story starts with our hero Newt landing in New York in the 1920s with a suitcase full of magical creatures. The creatures are let lose in the city and with the help of No-Maj (muggle to us potterheads) baker Kowalski, ex-aurorer Tina and her leglimense sister Queenie, Newt tries to capture them before they get in harm’s way.  There are mentions of dark wizard Grindlewald terrorising Europe, growing tensions between the magical and non-magical folks of America and a mysterious dark force causing mayhem on the streets of New York. As with all her stories Rowling skilfully creates entire worlds in the most unusual of ways. There is a veritable forest filled with magical creatures inside Newt’s suitcase, a ministry of magic with a very Gatsby-esque aesthetic, every character is intricately layered.

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Eddie Redmayne is quite the chameleon actor; he is shy and retiring like Einar from The Danish Girl when talking to his fellow humans and comes alive and is intelligent and compassionate in equal measure like Stephen Hawking from Theory of Everything when it comes to talking to his Beasts. Katherine Waterston is her father’s daughter and brings a Sam Waterston familiarity to her character she is earnest and likeable yet a bit skittish and jumpy. Alison Sudol brings the 1920s-glamorous oomph. Dan Fogler is fantastic as the No-Maj wannabe baker who ends up in the enchanting magical world and instead of being freaked out like most adults would do, he is wide eyed and precocious like a child. Ezra Miller brings back the creepy, devil child freakishness that he first burst onto the screens with, in We need to talk about Kevin. Samantha Morton plays Mary Lou a Umbridge like character who hates magic and Witches and Wizards and recruits the orphans in her care to keep an eye out on the suspicious magical activities in New York. Collin Farrell is fantastic, however  I think he  is potentially miscast as Director of Magical Security. I don’t want to reveal more secrets but I wish Farrell was cast in the Big Reveal character instead given that the subsequent films are going to feature that character prominently and an actor of Farrell’s age, and physical disposition is more suited to that character than the direction Yates went in.

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Rowling and Yates use Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to setup the magical universe and in the process, take their time setting up things like giggle water, the blind pig speakeasy and the obscurius but by no means is the story any less impressive as a result. Like the very first time we hear Hagrid say “You’re a wizard Harry” the viewer, a Harry Potter devout (yours truly) or a newbie Redmayne enthusiast (the wife) walks away sufficiently mesmerized and entertained excited about the possibilities with the stories to be told. This however is not a children’s movie; this is decidedly dark and future stories will tell tales of malice the likes of which Dumbledore has locked away in his pensieve.

The camera work by Philippe Rousselot is lush with sepia toned Newyork of the 1920s. Coleen Atwood’s costumes and the Production design and Sets are rich and layered and the next best thing to actually reading Ms Rowling’s writing. James Newton Howard provides an excellent accompanying soundtrack but I find the lack of a distinctive signature sound, like he did with Harry Potter which sounded like the wings of the snitch unfolding, a bit of a bummer.

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Ms Rowling is often credited with reviving the publishing industry when she brought the world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter to pages. With Fantastic Beasts, she may very well be responsible for saving Warner Bros studios that has gone in a terrible direction with Justice League with Snyder at the helm of that franchise. With her west-end play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and now with this spin-off, she proves that there is a lot more magic still left in her to share with the world. She is the queen of storytelling and long may she reign!

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Whether a Potterhead or not this is a fantastic movie only a precursor of things to come. There is loads to like here and with his present lucky streak Eddie Redmayne can do no wrong. Do not miss Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Into The Woods – A Review

Rob Marshall directs Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden and Anna Kendrick with a host of other stars in Into the Woods an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s hugely popular stage musical by the same name. The musical takes popular children’s tale of Cinderella, Rapunzel,Jack and the beanstalk, the little red riding hood and mashes them together to tell the story of the characters after the happily ever after.

James Corden and Emily Blunt play the baker and his wife who live next door to the witch Meryl Streep. The witch tells the baker and his wife that they cannot have kids because of a spell she cast on his father many years ago and that she would help them lift the spell if they help her make a potion before the blue moon. For the potion the baker and his wife must find 4 things from the different fairytale characters, cow as white as milk from Jack, a cape as red as blood from little red riding hood, hair as yellow as corn from Rapunzel and slipper of gold  from Cinderella.

The four main characters played by Blunt, Corden, Kendrick and Streep take up the most time on screen and are brilliant both individually and also together bouncing off witty, banter-y songs of each other. The opening number where the witch speaks of her garden was one of the highlights for me. Another song featuring 2 brothers, both princes, one to Cinderella and one to Rapunzel, both preening peacocks each trying to out-do the other is by far the most guffaw-inducing number of the movie. Chris Pine channels his inner Elvis and is at his charismatic best. Often I have found Pine to be too broody for my liking but here as the posturing prince charming he has perfect comic timing and the smolder to suit his princely ways.  Meryl Streep is the goddess at whose altar I pray, so it should come as no surprise that I love her in everything she does. But here as the witch she is mesmerizing both as the old ugly one and the young beautiful one as well. I saw an interview with Sondheim where he spoke of Streep being able to bring color to her singing and I wondered what he meant. But when you hear her sing “Stay With me” to Rapunzel you want to get up on your feet and give her a standing ovation as would be customary in a stage show. She is majestic and I wish she does more musicals. Kendrick sure has the pipes as does Blunt, but the standout for me once again is Daniel Huttlestone as jack who first shone bright on the screen as Gavroche in Les Miserables. He bounces around with boundless energy up and down the beanstalk trying to buy back the cow he sold to the baker.

Sondheim’s musical was much loved when it first appeared on stage some 30 years ago and admired for its witty sense of humor and intelligent songs. Bringing him onboard they have kept the essence of the original story alive and the humor carries through. However the first act is stronger than the second and it suffers a little bit due to overcrowding and trying to tie up loose ends with the stories. Having said that I wish a little more attention was paid to the beautiful Crishtine Baranski as Cinderella’s evil step mother and the story of Rapunzel and her mother the Witch been fleshed out a little more.  There is always a little more to the fairy tales than it meets the eyes and Sondheim writes that beautifully. The story of Little Red Riding Hood played by Lilla Crawford and the Wolf played by Johnny Depp ends up being a creepy story of a pedophile wolf who stalks Red. Depp chews up the scenery in the brief appearance and is brilliantly creepy as Mr Wolf. It is a story of the consequences of wishes. Each of the characters wishes for something but then when the wishes come true they are unable to come to term with the consequences of the events that unfold. They lie, steal, cheat and run from all they wished for. This is a story with many layers which are ripe for peeling away with multiple viewing. It is not a child’s version of the fairy tale but a more grown up one only if you looked closely. However having said that there is something in it for everyone, even the kids because as fairy tales themselves they are told beautifully.

This is a truly amazingly crafted movie with wonderful singing by all its stars. The production is lush and detailed and Coleen Atwood’s costume design very fairy tale worthy. This is a movie for all ages and worthy of being enjoyed in a theatre. I hope you are as lucky to have an excellent audience as I did who laughed at the right moments, clapped generously and sang along with the credits.  Take your family Into the Woods and enjoy a Musical done well.

On a side note this will be Meryl Streep’s 19th Oscar Nomination and very likely 4th Win. To those who roll their eyes at the mention of her name go watch Into the Woods and then tell me if anyone else could’ve been a better Witch, wild and erratic yet restrained and vulnerable. Take a bow Ms Streep.