Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ constrained by messy storytelling

An edited version of this review originally ran in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.


I’ll admit it: I was one of seemingly the very few who wasn’t particularly enamored by the idea of a new franchise set in what can only be referred to now as a Harry Potter cinematic universe.

Having read the Harry Potter books and watched each of the previous eight movies more than a few times, I was perfectly satisfied with the universe J.K. Rowling has created. The amount of breadth, even before the advent of Pottermore, was enriching to the point that I was content even with the more ambiguous details in the history of Rowling’s world.

After watching “Fantastic Beasts” – the first in a reported five films which will attempt to turn that ambiguity into canon – my mind hasn’t really changed, and I don’t find myself counting down the days until the sequel.

That being said, “Fantastic Beasts” does add some new things to the wizarding world many are so familiar with, and as long as you can get past the messy tangle of narratives and frustratingly expendable characters, the film becomes an entertaining and satisfying watch for most fans.


While “Fantastic Beasts” is as visually spectacular as we’ve come to expect from the universe, the film suffers from being perhaps the toughest to follow out of all nine movies in the universe. Rowling definitely wrote the screenplay; while it has its moments of storytelling grandeur, a novel would instead be the best way to tell her ambitious story with its multitude of storylines that intersect in confusing ways.

Some characters are clearly not needed, and as a result the motives and stories of others are not as fleshed out as they could be. One particular moment of emotional appeal at the film’s end is nowhere as effective as it should be.

It also slows the movie down to the speed of a Cleansweep Eleven broomstick after a Firebolt-esque start. The first act is exceptionally well-done, focusing on Newt Scamander and what he’s hiding in his suitcase. An early sequence in a New York bank is hilarious and moves along swiftly, but the moment it becomes clear that Scamander’s story disappointingly won’t be the focus for much of the movie the story becomes less organic, its plot cues more forced.

It’s almost as if Rowling was so concerned about writing a predictable story that she offered a number of plotlines in the hopes that at least one will be compelling.

“Fantastic Beasts” does introduce new themes that haven’t been explored in the universe, including Muggle – sorry, “No Maj” – paranoia and the fragile line that keeps wizarding society under the covers. They initially appear to be much darker stories when compared to the Potter films, but when you remember that those centered around a terrorist with no regards for the lives of schoolchildren, “Fantastic Beasts” isn’t incredibly provocative.

David Yates – who also directed the last four Potter entries – provides an aesthetic much like the one fans fell in love with before, despite the change in setting. Trademark visual cues like the logo hovering ominously through the clouds and moving pictures in newspapers bringing us up to speed on backstory are used. Even the film’s bureaucrats are frustratingly closed-minded, much like Ministry of Magic politicians.


The varied, imaginative creature design is also top-notch, the spotlighted beasts providing memorable sequences of their own that make for the film’s highlights.

Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl) its the world about as believably as one would expect, and when the film isn’t pretending to make lead protagonists out of other characters, his scenes steal the show. He is a vehicle of confident naiveté, his nervous smile and even his gait rounding out a fantastic turn as the title character.

Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice, Steve Jobs) also effectively embraces her role as a former Auror who has fallen from grace, conveying a quietly determined performance opposite Redmayne’s clumsy Scamander.

Tight, cohesive narratives helped make the Potter films so strong. The main problem with “Fantastic Beasts” is that isn’t sure where to focus its storytelling efforts. Because of that, it’s tough to walk away with the same amount of wonder as some of the strongest Potter entries.


“Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler       

Directed by David Yates


Review: ‘Arrival’ a near perfect sci-fi tale

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.

Maintaining good communication – whether between governments of countries or two people in a relationship – isn’t always easy. Sometimes the mediation of an outside party is necessary.

For director Denis Villeneuve, it takes a visit aliens for humanity to discover its communicative flaws. At least, that’s the premise of “Arrival,” a film depicting a close encounters of a thrilling kind that takes the audience on a mesmerizing ride as intelligent as it is poignant.

Like some of the best sci-fi, “Arrival” utilizes an outlandish concept to make very relevant comments on the state of humanity, with Villeneuve deconstructing a concept as simple as communication by reminding us of the paranoia that can manifest when we take communication for granted.


The story is told through the eyes of Louise Banks, a linguistics professor recruited by the military, along with another expert in Jeremy Renner’s (“The Hurt Locker,” “The Avengers”)Ian Donnelly, to help communicate with extra terrestrial beings. We don’t know if these aliens come in peace; all we know is they come via one of 12 pods resembling a slice of fruit in different places around the globe. And every day they hover a few dozen feet above the surface, humanity grows even more weary.

With “Arrival,” Villeneuve begins to cement himself as one of the premiere directors in Hollywood at exploring deep themes through multilayered, provocative stories. Like “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” his latest is a slow-burning escalation towards a mind-bending, tense finish that eventually places a new connotation on its title.

To be clear, this isn’t particularly an alien invasion movie – our visitors never even set foot on Earth – and the audience shouldn’t expect the normal sort of blockbuster action associated with that moniker. These are thrills of a much more subdued kind.

Amy Adams (“Man of Steel,” “American Hustle”) gives a subtle but powerhouse performance as Banks, the ever-anxious but curious expert whose personal ties to the mission anchor themselves in her believable quest to be able to communicate with our visitors. Renner is also terrific in what has to be the most vulnerable role we’ve ever seen him in.

“Arrival” isn’t just thematically astounding; the film is totally immersive, engaging nearly all our senses. Conversations between characters through headsets limit outside noise. We feel as claustrophobic as Banks does when she enters the alien craft in a hazmat suit. The IMAX-worthy camerawork is sweeping and gorgeous, bold in portraying the film’s grand scale. The music is daringly ambiguous too; conveying a tone that is all at once threating and captivating.


The way “Arrival” plays with light, in particular, provides its own symbolic value. It makes excellent use of a dark, brooding aesthetic, with shadows playing a prominent role. Half-clouded faces and environments tease moral flaws, and the brightness associated with the spaceship’s interior resonates with the film’s central questions: Is language a gift, or a weapon?

In other words, it is very much like Villeneuve’s previous works as far as his focus on the visuals. It’s incredibly well-directed in that regard; all of the film’s elements work closely in tandem to deliver a memorable experience that rivals the best sci-fi of recent years, maybe decades.


“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Directed by Denis Villeneuve


Review: Doctor Strange’s visuals overshadowed by strong characterization

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – the entire superhero genre, in fact – is at a bit of a crossroads. Watching characters like Iron Man, Captain America and, soon, the third different Spider-Man this century grace the big screen has become a regular event seemingly more common than teen novel adaptations.

It’s led to a bit of an oversaturation of the same thing over and over, and Hollywood knows it.

As a result, just when we think we’ve seen it all, along comes the R-rated “Deadpool,” the fresh “Guardians of the Galaxy and the ambitious “Captain America: Civil War” to reshape how the genre can take advantage of the film medium.

The production of “Doctor Strange” takes that philosophy to heart, with excitement having been stirred about its “Inception”-influenced visuals and the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch to the MCU.

And so we get Marvel Studio’s first feature-length debut since “Guardians,” and it turns out to be, in many ways, not your run-of-the-mill MCU flick. At this point, that’s a great thing. The action teases to be some of the most immersive we’ve seen from a superhero movie in years, and Cumberbatch is an immediately welcome addition as the selfish doctor-turned-magician.

It’s a tantalizing start to a film that, after about two hours, fails to deliver on its promise of being a totally fresh experience. It’s clearly an origin story, but in trying to be something different in terms of aesthetic, it ends up an underwhelming and familiar experience.

“Doctor Strange” is formulaic to a fault in terms of its narrative – there’s simply too much recycled material – and an overreliance on its visuals. It’s clear that it is functioning on the gamble that its special effects take a revolutionary turn. But while for the first time in a long time I found myself wishing I was watching in an IMAX theater, the film’s Rubik’s cube-on-LSD set pieces don’t necessarily mess with the plot in a seamless way.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

In fact, the film explicitly introduces a pretty big loophole that essentially erases any sense of stakes that could be suggested when seeing a city literally being folded unto itself. What we see onscreen almost seems to reflect just how muddled the bigger MCU narrative has become with the addition of film’s lore.

As far as the elephant in the room, yes, the role of Brit Tilda Swinton in an environment clearly evoking an Asian aesthetic sticks out like a sore thumb. Swinton is fine as a Supreme Powerful Do-Gooder, but it feels out of place and inappropriate of Marvel Studios to utilize imagery, architecture and even other characters of Asian origin without going the full distance with arguably the film’s most important persona.

Despite its weak direction, there is some new material that “Doctor Strange” brings to the table. For a movie universe with seemingly so little attention in the prospect of finality, death is a major theme here, as is its inevitability.

Also, Strange himself is a decidedly morally ambiguous character, with a sense of arrogance that isn’t simply replaced with heroism the first time he dons the cape. Instead, the audience welcomes a more dynamic internal journey.

Dare I say it, Strange’s characterization is actually more fascinating to witness then when he engages in what amounts to not much more than combat with glorified metaphysical scepters and weapons, using the very concept of time itself to defeat a villain it doesn’t seem like he has any business even confronting just an hour and a half after first discovering his powers.

For all intents and purposes, the MCU has backed itself into a corner with “Doctor Strange,” a film that suggests powers and abilities that can bring an end to any plight the beloved Avengers might face. Here’s hoping the studio is aware of that fact, and has thought far enough ahead to make Strange’s future adventures more memorable.



Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong

Directed by Scott Derrickson


The Warning Track: Champions in Chicago. Finally.


Those two numbers put together still don’t quite make half of 108, as in 108 years, but 5-3 is now the bigger number in Chicago, and forever will be.

Or, even more appropriately, Bryant to Rizzo, for a groundball out that the 2016 Cubs managed to make look easy.

It wasn’t an easy play. It wasn’t an easy season, and it hasn’t been an easy 108 years. But the wait is finally over, with that 5-3 slow roller to third.

People knew their story, and people know their story. No longer is it a story of curses, of billy goats, of the most unfortunate of fan interferences in the history of the sport, of Lovable Losers.

It’s a story of odds-defiers. These Cubs became only the sixth team to come back from a 3-games-to-1 World Series deficit to win it all.

It’s a story of focus on one goal that was finally reached Thursday morning, at approximately 12:47 a.m. ET. The Cubs this year boasted the reigning NL Manager of the Year and Cy Young honoree, and will almost certainly feature this year’s NL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner once again. They won the division for the first time since 2008. They had the best record in baseball, and for much of the season were threatening for the best 162-game record in history.

Of course, it wasn’t enough. Now those narratives are all relegated to the sidelines.

It’s a story of fulfilled promises. Joe Maddon, arguably a Hall of Famer already even without a ring, coming to a city desperate to end the longest drought in American professional sports. The prospects with the highest expectations since before they were drafted – Kris Bryant, Addison Russel, Javier Baez, Anthony Baez – never succumbing to the pressure.

Hell, the combined age of that core group of gritty, unrelenting and, perhaps, dynastic athletes doesn’t even sniff 108.

Before this, the 112th Fall Classic in the history of Major League Baseball, I said that the Cleveland Indians winning it all would be the better story than the Cubs ending their drought, what with their scrappy attitude and the challenges they overcame to get to October, let along going 7-1 against two teams in Boston and Toronto that most had favored against them.

When 39-year-old David Ross homered to take the Cubs’ lead back to three, I thought I was wrong. When Ben Zobrist hit the game-winning double in the 10th, I knew I was.

So many numbers have been associated with the Cubs’ misery over the years. 53 managers since 1908. 2003, as in the fateful 2003 NLCS. 39,465, as in the days that have passed since their last championship, a span that saw the careers of Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and countless other icons begin and end.

But the only number that matters now?

5-3. Bryant-Rizzo.

A curse lifted. A team simultaneously closing the chapter and beginning an entirely new story.

Go, Cubs, Go.

Review: Trust me, you’re already ahead of “Joneses


(An edited version of this review first appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.) 


Comedy is subjective, the notion of creating a successful entry in the genre as much of a gamble as anything in Hollywood. What directors and writers and producers perceive as funny could go through one ear and out the other of moviegoers.

You can come to a consensus about the quality of an actor’s performance, sure, or even how strongly a score impacts a movie’s tone. But you’ll never be able to convince a die-hard “Ace Ventura” fan that Will Ferrell is a funnier actor than Jim Carrey, or find widespread agreement that “Superbad” offers more laughs than “40-Year-Old Virgin.”

It’s inevitable, then, that some will think “Keeping Up With The Joneses,” in all its lazy and (to this critic) unfunny glory is the greatest comedy ever created, ensuring that directors in the future know that utilizing everything in the cliché playbook guarantees, at the very least, some filled seats in the theater.

Nevermind comparing “Keeping Up With The Joneses” to, say, the works of Mel Brooks, who offered comedy that is simultaneously cutting social commentary while also remembering that there’s more to a film than “Joneses” provides.


Logic and emotion, for example. Director Greg Mottle (Adventureland, Superbad) could have utilized some of that. Really, any bit of substance to create something memorable out of a film that anyone can predict the major plot points to as they settle into their seats.

The chronic issue with these kinds of films is that – because people are going to be okay with choosing to pay $10 for a ticket (I could think of several things to better spend $10 on) to this – they’re going to keep getting made.

And it’s easy to understand why. People like the superficial comedy, the kind of jokes that mean nothing beyond the on-screen moment in which they happen. What’s the fun anyway in thinking too hard about why something is funny or not? Hell, even cringeworthy quips about the pros and cons of the “hyena” sex position, we’ll take that over jokes of substance that speak to contemporary race relations, for instance. Politics be damned.

That’s what makes it so hard for this critic and, I’m sure, for others who aren’t easily fooled by Hollywood’s recycled moneymaking tactics. Movies like “Keeping Up With The Joneses” believe they are so smug in the way that they can (attempt to) create what passes as humor out of the absence of logic.


I’ll give this to “Joneses”: the acting is tolerable. A couple notches above tolerable, actually; Zach Galifianakis (Th Hangover, BirdMan) makes the best of what he’s given as we can expect him to; Jon Hamm’s (Mad Men, The Town) nuanced performance as a smooth but troubled spy is as enticing as it is seductive; Isla Fisher’s (Now You See Me, Wedding Crashers) bits are memorable for someone who hasn’t done much in the realm of comedy.

They work with what they have. Unfortunately, what they have isn’t very much, but I guess actors just need to make a paycheck every once in a while.

You’ve seen this movie before, trust me. You’ve probably seen it in shortened SNL skit form, or otherwise read one of countless novels that utilize a similar premise. So should you see this film?

Let me put it this way: if just the thought of pairing up the charismatic and smooth Hamm with his contrast in Galifianakis for an action comedy flick makes you chuckle… buy a ticket, for God’s sake, you’ll have a riot.

For those that need a movie to justify that pairing and what they’re truly capable of…rest assured, this isn’t it.


“Keeping Up With The Joneses” is rated PG-13 for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language

Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot

Directed by Greg Mottola