Friday, January 13, 2017

The Uses of Magic: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them & A Monster Calls

Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Bored to distraction, my ears ringing from the fearful amplification, I slipped out of Rogue One about halfway through. Not a single sequence seemed to me to have been conceived with any imagination or wit; except for Mads Mikkelsen’s grieving, compromised father, there isn’t a memorable character or performance; and I was utterly perplexed by the lack of humor. What’s the purpose of making a sci-fi fantasy if there’s no distinction between the set-piece scenes and those of any run-of-the-mill, over-budgeted action picture – except for the fact that Rogue One’s are louder? The failings of this one-off entry in the Star Wars franchise seem even more glaring in a year that’s produced truly magical movie experiences like Doctor Strange (which is also one of the best acted of all Marvel pictures), the underappreciated Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton’s best film since Corpse Bride), Pete’s Dragon, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and A Monster Calls.

Fantastic Beasts did so well at the box office that the unkind reviews it got didn’t matter, but they irritated me nonetheless. The director, David Yates, who did the last four Harry Potters, is one of only a handful of current filmmakers with a genuine sense for visual scope – you can see it even in the work he did for British television before he shifted to features – and for whom that sense is intimately linked to the process of storytelling. (His last movie, released over the summer, was The Legend of Tarzan.) And it’s hard to find a more mesmerizing or wittier storyteller than J.K. Rowling, who is Yates’ hands-on collaborator this time around, producing original material about the wizarding world, set in New York during the early years of the Depression. The protagonist is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an English wizard and naturalist who collects magical creatures and is writing a book about them. He has sailed to the U.S. ostensibly to find something for his collection but really to return Frank, an enormous falcon known as a Thunderbird with silver and gold skin and two sets of wings, to the Arizona wilds from which he came. Frank’s temporary home is in the enchanted suitcase Newt carries with him, where he shares space with a host of other creatures that, he learns when he disembarks, have been declared illegal by MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America) – because they threaten the secrecy statute that hides the conduct of magicians from the rest of the population: No-Majs, as American wizards call Muggles.

Things go wrong for Newt from the outset. One of his animals, a Niffler, a beaked, silvery-haired, sharp-clawed mischief maker with a passion for hoarding shiny objects that looks like a cross between a duck and a muskrat, escapes from the suitcase at a bank, and Newt’s efforts to grab hold of him are witnessed by a No-Maj, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Jacob is trying to secure a loan so he can quit his soul-destroying job at a canning factory and open a bakery with his grandmother’s recipes; the only collateral he can offer to the stern-faced banker is a case full of pastries. (His disappointing interview with the unimaginative loan officer recalls Steve Martin’s attempt to get money to start a music store in Pennies from Heaven, set in the same period.) His involvement in Newt’s magical adventures spins off a classic farce premise: the two men inadvertently switch cases, and while Newt’s is in Jacob’s unwitting care, other creatures sneak out of it, too, including a Murtlap, which looks like a diminutive stuffed dinosaur and bites Jacob on the neck. When Newt tracks down his case, the first thing he has to do is treat Jacob so that he doesn’t suffer any of the possible side effects of a Murtlap bite, like flames streaming out of his ass.

Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

The British screenwriter and the British director have come up with an ironic running gag: the English wizarding world turns out to be far more progressive than that of the U.S., which is so repressive that it’s outlawed intermarriage between magic and No-Maj folk. (Newt finds the notion preposterous, and we who know that the heroine of the yet-to-come Harry Potter narrative is the result of one such intermarriage share his response.) And of course it’s not just a gag; Rowling is, as ever, the master of the mixed tone. The movie pits freedom against repression. It’s no accident that Rowling chose to set the movie during Prohibition; one of the villains, Henry Shaw (Josh Cowdery), the bigoted son of a wealthy newspaper publisher (Jon Voight), is campaigning for the Senate on a family-values platform that envisions the outlawing of alcohol as only the first of several measures intended to suppress other pleasures inimical to the Puritan palate. Another of the villains, with the Dickensian name Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), runs a soup kitchen that feeds starving kids and then sends them out with leaflets warning of the omnipresence of witches. She beats her own adoptive children for small infractions; the eldest, Credence (Ezra Miller – he was Patrick, the gay teen in The Perks of Being a Wallflower – in a soup-bowl haircut), is cowed by her, and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), who recites a gruesome rhyme about the fate of witches in a deep, flat voice, has a drained, crushed face that looks like any trace of happiness had been smashed out of it. Mary Lou is out of Dickens by way of the mother in Carrie. When a clerk in the MACUSA Wand Permit Office, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) – an Auror before she pissed off her superiors – spots Newt’s use of magic in public and turns him in, Madam Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), the U.S. wizard president, assumes that it’s one of his creatures that has been causing havoc in downtown Manhattan. But in fact the destruction is the work of an obscurial, a child wizard forced to bury his or her powers, which erupt in the form of an uncontrolled dark force called an obscurus. The obscurus on the one hand and wary-eyed Mary Lou on the other affirm the idea that repression is always the outgrowth of fear.

Tina still thinks of herself as an Auror; that’s why she collars Newt (and Jacob). But the tension that led to her demotion is evidence that she’s not in sync with MACUSA’s straitjacketing impulses, which have enabled one of its officers, Graves (Colin Farrell, in a hushed, subtly tense performance), to use the Congress as a blind for his own suspect activities. Tina is a do-gooder who really is motivated by good. Waterston, daughter of Sam, is tall and slender, with a long face that can look comically abashed and then grow flush with feeling; that’s when she’s truly beautiful. (She gets a mixture of sorrow and wonder that can knock your eye out.) Tina lives with her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a tinny-voiced strawberry blonde with a head full of peek-a-boo curls who can read minds. At first Tina isn’t sure what to do with Newt and Jacob, so she brings them home for dinner, where Queenie wins Jacob’s heart by calling him “honey” and conjuring up a luscious strudel out of the air. The Goldstein sisters are wizard versions of thirties archetypes, the hard-working career girl and the waitress with the heart of gold (Queenie works at MACUSA ferrying coffee to the desk jockeys), and their dialogue, like Jacob’s, is written in stylized period New Yorkese. The sisters and the two young men, the wizard and the No-Maj, end up forming a quartet who stand up for decency and – with Newt, protector of imperiled fantastic beasts, leading the way – freedom.

They’re quite a crew. Redmayne has a rumpled, almost sozzled look and a beguiling reticence. Newt describes himself as a seeker, and he looks like an adventurer in a children’s story, his wide eyes full of expectation and marvel, as if he were continually astonished by the world around him. When he handles his beloved creatures, even when he has to scold them, he wears an expression of indulgent bemusement. Fogler has a big square face embroidered by a downy mustache that is somehow simultaneously absurd and dashing. At first Jacob accepts his accidental inclusion in magical events with workmanlike graciousness, as if he’d been asked to lend a hand by a needy neighbor, but the weirder things become, the more he’s turned on. (When he sees Newt climb into his case, he emit a high howl.) I loved Fogler the first time I saw him, as William Barfree in the stage musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but though he works all the time in movies and on TV, this must be the best role he’s had since, in a character the filmmakers obviously adore and – like us – can’t get enough of. They give him a spectacular comic scene where he’s chased across the ice by a big, lopsided Erumpent in heat that resembles a hippo with a forehead like an outsize cerebellum, fire glimmering through the skin. When Jacob’s enchanted adventure is through and, reluctantly, Newt and the Goldstein sisters have to “obviate” him – make him forget, like all No-Majs who have seen what they’re not supposed to – he has a befogged moment like a man waking from a marvelous dream. (Yates may be alluding to the interlude in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom, his ass’ head removed, awakens with the vision of his fairy-queen lover hovering indistinctly in his head.) And then the filmmakers give him a deeply satisfying coda.

Samantha Morton, Jenn Murray, Ezra Miller, and Faith Wood-Blagrove in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

The movie, shot by the great Philippe Rousselot, looks magnificent. Production designers Stuart Craig and James Hambidge use old Victorian slum houses for the sinister richness of their associations; they’re another link to Dickens (and to other movies that evoke Dickens, like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man). The creatures are endlessly charming and hilarious – a buzzing metallic bug with blue highlights in its shell; a pair of equines called Graphorns with manes of hanging skin; blue-and-green snakes with fan-like collars and heads like baby chicks; thick rectangular things that look like walking sticks with glass eyes; a bird with electric blue peepers and loops of rope-like skin that can grow or shrink to fill the available space. Newt’s particular pet is a Bowtruckle named Pickett, which looks like a stalk with lime-green leaves (you have to look twice to see its tiny face). Pickett – whose name is a reference to his skill with locks – peeks shyly out of Newt’s pocket; Newt explains to Jacob that he has “attachment issues.” There’s a touching little scene where Newt has to pretend to barter him to a mercenary called Gnarlac (Ron Perlman) and distressed Pickett reaches out its leafy fingers toward him and squeals piteously. In one inspired sequence, Newt and Jacob rush through Central Park to the zoo, which the Erumpent, in its desperate search for a mate, has set upon, releasing the captive animals – a lion that stalks majestically down a Manhattan street, an ostrich that races across the snow, a seal and a monkey that play tricks on the two young men. The overlapping of magical and non-magical creatures has the effect of reminding us how much magic there is in real animals; I thought of the way animals are shot in the early-thirties Tarzan pictures or in the lovely, forgotten 1933 romance Zoo in Budapest.

The movie is full of wonderful physical comedy bits, like Redmayne swinging from a chandelier in a jewelry shop in an attempt to capture Dougal, the compulsively troublemaking Niffler. Yates often slips them into the back of the frame, as if he were tossing them off, while James Newton Howard’s playful soundtrack music underscores them. At these moments Fantastic Beasts rises to the level of a classic silent comedy. The movie isn’t perfect: except for Farrell, the MACUSA mucky-mucks are a dull lot, and a subplot about Shaw Sr.’s younger journalist son (Ronan Raftery) trying to impress a father who clearly favors his politico older brother isn’t interesting and comes to nothing. The climax, which involves a chase after the obscurus, is a letdown, though the scene that follows, where all of New York’s non-magical population has to be obviated while wizards stroll through the streets with their wands reversing the destruction, compensates for it. The movie is full of ticklish visual details, like paper creatures in the MACUSA Wand Permit Office that skitter across the desks and combat each other to pieces (a sort of magical version of shredding) and the photo of Jacob’s grandmother on his bureau, smiling back at him, is Fogler in drag. It’s sheer joy.

Felicity Jones and Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls.

In the midst of what has turned out to be an extraordinary year-end season for movies, it would be a pity to overlook A Monster Calls, the Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel. (Ness wrote the screenplay.) I struggled to make it through Bayona’s last, The Impossible, a tearjerker about a family separated by the Indonesian tsunami, which showcased poor Naomi Watts suffering as nobly as a heroine in a silent-movie serial. But when he gets to deal with fantasy – in the Gothic The Orphanage, his 2007 debut feature, or A Monster Calls – he’s a terrific filmmaker. A Monster Calls uses the supernatural as a metaphor for the psychological journey of the protagonist, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve-year-old in a rural English town who is dealing with far more than any boy his age should have to handle. His mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), is dying of cancer. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in Los Angeles with his new family, so Conor rarely gets to see him. He appears for a visit when Lizzie goes back into the hospital, but the relative Conor has to move in with is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), a stern real-estate agent with an ironclad set of rules, whom he feels no connection to. Meanwhile, he has to endure the continual bullying of a schoolmate (James Melville) who waits for him every day after school.

In the midst of this crisis, Conor is visited by a monster (Liam Neeson) who emerges, gargantuan and fiery, out of the hilltop yew tree the boy can see from his window. Unlike the amiable title character in Spielberg’s The BFG, this monster is fearful, but Conor isn’t frightened by him; he can’t be, since the monster represents reserves of anger and strength he finds within himself. The monster appears to him every day at the same hour for three days and tells him three stories, each one a fairy tale that exasperates him because its characters refuse to behave consistently and according to the black-and-white principles fables are supposed to illustrate, and because their meanings are skewed and elusive. What these stories teach, of course, is that life is complex and unpredictable and unresolvable, and that growing up – even when it’s forced on a child of Conor’s age – is a matter of acknowledging and negotiating those unsatisfying realities. That’s the monster’s first lesson, which he delivers while unleashing Conor’s fury at the unfairness of his situation, fury that results in his tearing apart the parlor of his proprietary grandmother’s house and in his sending Harry, the bully, to the hospital. (These sequences are rendered in magic-realist style: the monster may be inside Conor’s head, but the destruction the boy enacts is real.) On the fourth day the monster demands a story from Conor, insisting on the “truth” that haunts the boy’s nightmares, but which he hasn’t dared to admit even to himself. It’s a truth dark enough that Conor thinks he should be punished for it; in fact, his amazement that he’s punished for neither the damage he does to his grandmother’s parlor nor the revenge he takes on his tormentor in the school cafeteria is mixed with disappointment. He delivers those blows to Harry after the bigger boy has decided to stop whaling on him because, he realizes, Conor wants to be beaten up.

A Monster Calls is sumptuously designed by Eugenio Caballero and lit by Oscar Faura, and the sequences that dramatize the monster’s stories are rendered in exquisite, swirling pen-and-ink animation that suggests what a master modern illustrator might do with a new edition of The Arabian Nights. The production values enhance a strong script and a set of first-rate performances. Lewis MacDougall’s simultaneously tough and sensitive portrayal is the latest in a year full of remarkable performances by child actors. (Off the top of my head: Sunny Pawar in Lion, Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight, Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwe, Harvey Scrimshaw in The Witch, Suzu Hirose in Our Little Sister, Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in Sing Street, Michael Calvelli and Theo Taplitz in Little Men, and Oakes Fegley in Pete’s Dragon.) James Melville brings an air of pensive menace to his scenes as Conor’s antagonist. As the loving father who is honest about his own inadequacies, including the fact that he lives across the world from his son, Kebbell draws on a combination of warmth and self-deprecating humor. (He has a wonderful scene with McDougall where he tries to relay a sense of how his marriage to Conor’s mother fell apart.) In different but overlapping ways, Jones and Weaver convey uncompromising independence of spirit and love that are equally fierce, that challenge Conor and ultimately sustain him. As if the presence of two superb film actresses from two generations weren’t enough, the great Geraldine Chaplin shows up in a brief but memorable scene as the principal of Conor’s school. And behind his motion-capture suit, Liam Neeson gives his best performance in years as the monster, whose ferocity is undergirded with tenderness. When the monster narrates his stories, Neeson uses his superb vocal instrument to call up an entire world of enchantment. The movie inhabits that world and the world of real heartbreak at the same time. That is, of course, the agenda of any good fantasy, but in A Monster Calls it’s also the point of the movie.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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