Other worlds and where to find them
(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