Other worlds and where to find them

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(M) There’s a lot of magic in Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spin-off from the Harry Pot­ter fran­chise that marks JK Rowl­ing’s screen­writ­ing de­but. It’s well-shot, acted with charm, fun and a lit­tle dark. The ad­ven­ture is ig­nited not by magic but a sleight-of-hand that has been used by film­mak­ers for a long time: the suit­case swap. Be­ing a bit older than the HP gen­er­a­tion, I thought of Peter Bog­danovich’s 1972 screw­ball com­edy What’s Up Doc?

This film is di­rected by David Yates, who was in charge of the fi­nal four Harry Pot­ters. Set in New York in 1926 (54 years be­fore Harry was born), it’s a sort of pre­quel and is the first of a five-part se­ries. It’s based on Rowl­ing’s 2001 book about mag­i­cal crea­tures, which she wrote as Newt Sca­man­der, fash­ion­ing it as a text­book he pub­lished that was stud­ied at Hog­warts.

We first meet Sca­man­der, who was ex­pelled from Hog­warts and works at the Bri­tish Min­istry of Magic, en­ter­ing New York via El­lis is­land. The bril­liant Ed­die Red­mayne in­hab­its him with all the ner­vous­ness, tics and anx­ious eye con­tact we have come to ex­pect. He has a brown suit­case and it’s clear there’s some­thing alive in­side. But he makes it through Cus­toms.

The en­cased beast — and it’s far from alone in there — is a Nif­fler (it looks like a black platy­pus) that’s ob­sessed with shiny ob­jects and so, nat­u­rally enough, scoots to the bank. Sca­man­der goes in pur­suit and bumps into Ja­cob Kowal­ski (Dan Fogler), a fac­tory worker who is seek­ing a loan to start a cake shop. Ja­cob is a full hu­man, a No-Mag in the Amer­i­can idiom. (“We call them Mug­gles,” Sca­man­der notes.)

Ja­cob also has a brown suit­case, full of pas­tries. Well, we know what will hap­pen next. That No-Mag is go­ing to open the case that he shouldn’t know about, let alone have. Beast own­er­ship is banned in the US. The head of Amer­i­can mag­i­cal se­cu­rity is pow­er­ful wiz­ard Per­ci­val Graves (Colin Far­rell).

The film opens with news cov­er­age of havoc wrecked in Europe by dark wiz­ard Gellert Grindel­wald (Johnny Depp, though we see him but briefly). While wiz­ards, witches and hu­mans are liv­ing in peace, there’s con­stant con­cern that war will break out. This makes Sca­man­der’s de­ci­sion to bring beasts into the US, at least one of which he plans to re­lease, a bit undiplo­matic. He’s a mag­ic­zo­ol­o­gist who wants to pro­tect beasts and prop­a­gate their num­bers.

So we have an edgy fan­tasy thriller in which Sca­man­der and Ja­cob and beasts must avoid be­ing rounded up by Graves, and also dodge anti-magic cam­paigner Mary Lou Bare­bone (Sa­man­tha Mor­ton). Her un­usual adopted son Cre­dence (Ezra Miller) will be­come im­por­tant. They are helped by witch Tina Gold­stein (Kather­ine Water­ston), who thinks she should be higher in the min­istry, and her Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe-like sis­ter Quee­nie (an en­chant­ing Alison Su­dol), who de­vel­ops a crush on Ja­cob. Jon Voight pops up as a news­pa­per ty­coon.

The are nods to the HP canon. There are laugh-aloud mo­ments, such as Ja­cob be­ing pur­sued by an in-sea­son beast that re­sem­bles a large (and amorous) rhino. Fogler and Red­mayne ex­cel in their in­ter­ac­tions with the crea­tures. But there are sin­is­ter flashes, too. The mid-1920s set­ting re­minds us of the Pro­hi­bi­tion era, and there are echoes of an­other time of right­eous law and or­der, the Salem witch tri­als.

Pre-De­pres­sion New York, all steel and con­crete, feels alive and real in the cam­er­a­work of Philippe Rous­selot, who won an Os­car in 1993 for Robert Red­ford’s A River Runs Through It. At the same time, the frag­ile lines be­tween dif­fer­ent sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion, the quick­en­ing to anger, is some­thing with rel­e­vance to­day.

The script does weaken to­wards the end, mov­ing into ob­vi­ous and sen­ti­men­tal places. Rowl­ing rightly likes to be in charge of the uni­verse she cre­ated, but tighter writ­ing would have helped. Over­all this is an en­joy­able open­ing to what prom­ises to be an­other pop­u­lar film se­ries about a world that, while not quite ours, seems close to it. The same idea of a world that’s not quite real flows through the bit­ter­sweet Ital­ian film Like Crazy, di­rected by Paolo Virzi. This dra­ma­com­edy has echoes of Ri­d­ley Scott’s Thelma & Louise and Mi­los For­man’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whether it will end as ter­ri­bly as it does for Thelma and Louise or Jack Ni­chol­son’s Ran­dle McMur­phy is some­thing you will worry about from the out­set.

The film opens with a young woman push­ing a baby boy in a stroller. She stops on a high bridge and looks at the wa­ter a long drop be­low.

That’s all we see. We then cut to a Tus­can villa, which we soon learn is a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion. Beatrice (Va­le­ria Bruni Tedeschi) is a beau­ti­ful, well-dressed woman who acts as though she owns the joint, telling pa­tients how to be­have. “Close your legs,” she says to a cou­ple of probable sex ad­dicts.

She men­tions an aris­to­cratic back­ground, a rich lawyer hus­band and high-level friend­ships, in­clud­ing with Bill Clin­ton. “Hil­lary is a bitch Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Like Crazy, but he’s a doll.” Her fam­ily, she says, do­nated the villa to the good cause of help­ing peo­ple with men­tal health prob­lems. It turns out she is one of them, a pa­tient. How much of her self­told life story is true we will find out in time.

There’s a new ar­rival, the woman we saw on the bridge. Donatella (Mi­caela Ra­maz­zotti, who is mar­ried to the di­rec­tor) is also beau­ti­ful but anorexic, tat­tooed and de­pressed. We won­der what hap­pened to her baby.

Beatrice, an ef­fu­sive, di­rect, dis­turbed woman — “She never stops talk­ing, not even in her sleep,” says a fel­low pa­tient — be­friends Donatella. They are se­lected for day leave, to work at a lo­cal nurs­ery. They do not re­turn.

“What are we do­ing?” Donatella asks. “We’re hav­ing fun,” Beatrice de­clares. They go shop­ping, to a fancy restau­rant, a night­club. They steal a con­vert­ible. They meet old flames.

There are a lot of laughs, par­tic­u­larly from Beatrice’s non-stop talk­ing, but there’s a un­nerv­ing ten­sion too. This story about dam­aged peo­ple is full of un­der­stand­ing.

The two lead ac­tresses are su­perb and Virzi keeps the plot road real and clear of cliched speed humps. The emo­tional end­ing is beau­ti­fully han­dled. “We’re crazy, aren’t we?” Donatella asks at one point. “Tech­ni­cally, yes,” Beatrice replies.

Dan Fogler, Ed­die Red­mayne and Kather­ine Water­ston in

above; the run­aways in

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.