Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler
Directed by: David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”)
Written by: J.K. Rowling (debut)
You didn’t really think Warner Bros. would let a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise vanish just because they were out of novels to adapt, did you? After magically stretching seven books about a boy wizard named Harry Potter into eight hit movies, multiple theme park attractions, and piles of merchandise taller than a stack of coins in a Gringott’s vault, the studio turned to author J.K. Rowling to reach back into the cauldron and conjure up a five-film prequel series based on a slim fictional textbook used in Hogwarts and published for us Muggles in 2001, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Set in 1926, the film focuses on the author of the fictional reference book, world traveler and magical creature wrangler Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he makes his way to New York City with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts, including some snake-like dragons with egg shells of silver and a mischievous platypus-looking niffler that can’t help but swipe shiny things. The latter causes trouble when he escapes at a bank, causing Scamander to inadvertently expose a baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who is a No-Maj—the American word for the now-familiar Muggle—to the world of wizardry. This is dangerous, you see, as there are those out to destroy witches and wizards, namely the New Salem organization who wants to them see burned at the stake. Scamander attracts the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Magical Congress of the United States of America (aka MACUSA) agent who attempts to detain Scamander—only for the pair to stumble upon a brewing wizarding war after some magical creature begins murdering No-Majs.
First-time screenwriter Rowling ably expands her “Harry Potter” universe admirably, albeit a tad shakily as the movie first unfurls. The film takes a while to get to know Redmayne’s shy, soft-spoken Scamanader and “Fantastic Beasts” feels a tad adrift until we finally get to see what’s inside of his case. When the hunt begins for Newt’s escaped creatures, “Fantastic Beasts” shimmers to life, juxtaposing the whimsical with the supernaturally dreadful in the way Yates’ later Potter films did so well (when they weren’t being split in two for maximum profits, that is). Prior knowledge of the Potterverse isn’t necessary, and at times the whole affair can feel a little bit like it’s setting the table for the next four films promised in the series—which, after a high-profile cameo at the end of this one, pledge to dive deep into magical warfare. Get your wands ready.
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne
Directed by: The Wachowskis (“The Matrix”)
Written by: The Wachowskis (“The Matrix”)
When the Wachowskis released “The Matrix” in 1999, they created a space for themselves in the big-budget movie landscape. With an original idea and modest budget, the imaginative sci-fi thriller won four Oscars (yes, technical awards still count) and gave the Wachowskis good will in the Hollywood world. Then an interesting thing happened…The Wachowskis became divisive. The 2nd and 3rd entries in “The Matrix” franchise were not as beloved as the first and while “Speed Racer” was pretty universally disliked, “Cloud Atlas” was one of the most polarizing films of the last few years with equal parts love and hatred. One thing that can’t be contested, however, is the post-“Matrix” box office performance with “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas” making $44 and $27 million domestic respectively, and both with a $100 million dollar budget. And yet here we are, over 15 years removed from “The Matrix,” with the Wachowskis being handed over $175 million for their latest sci-fi entry “Jupiter Ascending,” despite their recent box office and critical disappointments. At this point, perhaps Warner Brothers should find a better place to dump their money.
As a maid in Chicago, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) sees her life change when she is rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically mutated, ex-military hunter, and taken to another planet where she finds out she might be the heir to controlling the planet Earth. Caine and others must fight to keep her safe from a power hungry villain (Eddie Redmayne) keen on restoring his ownership of Earth, which he believes to be his.
The first half of “Jupiter Ascending” feels like it sets a record for the largest amount of expository dialogue in a single film. Nearly every time Kunis’ character speaks in the first act or two, it is to ask a question about why, where or what something is. This leads to a series of inane responses by a rambling Tatum who spouts futuristic mumbo-jumbo that, not so shockingly, is mostly inconsequential to the plot or anything that happens thereinafter. The Wachowskis essentially use this exposition and introduction of a bunch of characters to build their own unique world, which is met with middling results.
Visually, the world they create can be stunning with great set pieces and truly impressive special effects. There’s a chase scene that happens in downtown Chicago where the duo get to flex their free flowing camera and sequence choreography muscles that is particularly exhilarating and a reminder of how unique The Wachowskis can be. Yet everything seems to be undone by the innate silliness of everything else.
Many characters in the film are spliced with DNA of other species including Tatum with a wolf, Sean Bean’s character with a bee, and an unintentionally (I think?) hilarious Elephant-spliced pilot. But it is more than just character design. One of the tools that Caine uses are gravity defying boots that allow him to surf the sky. The problem is that whenever Tatum is utilizing the boots, he moves exactly like one moves when rollerblading, making for hilarious scenes of Tatum “skating” through mid-air or around corners. It is funny every time it happens, which is a lot.
Even looking past some of the goofier elements, the screenplay is repetitive and convoluted, with the Wachowskis trying to pack in so many different details to a story and world that isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Mix that with a bunch of actors who feel completely out of place, especially a particularly dreadful Redmayne, and you get a complete disaster of a film. There’s some unintentional comedy gold here as well as a few action sequences that are legitimately impressive and fun that can help boost entertainment value, but not nearly enough to make “Jupiter Ascending” a journey worth taking.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox
Directed by: James Marsh (“Man on Wire”)
Written by: Anthony McCarten (“Death of a Superhero”)
After pointing out all the scientific inaccuracies last year in the space drama “Gravity,” famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”) recently applauded filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi adventure “Interstellar” for its depiction of some of the mind-bending elements of the universe, including wormholes, gravitational fields and time dilations. One might wonder how deGrasse Tyson would react to a feature film on the life of arguably the greatest scientific mind living today having little science at all.
In “The Theory of Everything,” esteemed British cosmologist Stephen Hawking might mention singularity theorems and thermodynamics to impress his colleagues, but it all comes secondary to matters of the heart. In doing so, the film explores a touching relationship based on love and mutual respect and the idea that whatever genius concepts floating around inside Hawking’s head at the time were far too important to allow a strained marriage (or a neurodegenerative disease, for that matter) to get in the way.
Adapted from Hawking’s first wife Jane’s 2008 memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, “The Theory of Everything” vaguely explains just how influential Hawking’s discoveries were to those attempting to understand the “underlying order of the world,” but this isn’t the kind of film made for science geeks hoping to get an inside look at Hawking’s process or how his bestseller A Brief History of Time affected others’ research on theoretical physics. Instead, Oscar-winning documentarian James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Death of a Superhero”) scale the narrative back to a much simpler equation and focus on the courtship and a large portion of Stephen and Jane’s life together. The fragile “love overcomes all” theme probably wouldn’t be something Hawking himself would deem logical since there is no mathematical equation to explain the complexities of the human heart, but the extraordinary performances given by actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones—as Stephen and Jane—make for a solid argument.
It’s especially true for Redmayne, who lends himself entirely to capturing every uncomfortable nuance of Hawking’s being once his disease has taken over his body. From a physical standpoint alone, liken what Redmayne does to Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” or Mathieu Amalric in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Churning out an all-too-familiar biopic script, McCarten should have followed in his subject’s footsteps and broken boundaries. The screenplay’s shortcomings, however, do not take away from Redmayne’s finely-tuned characterization or Jones’ epitomizing devotion. Even if it doesn’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things, there’s still definite value in what they project on screen.