Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (Includes spoilers)

WARNING! Here be spoilers!

I wasn’t overly keen on going to see this, but MWF is a massive fan of the Harry Potter films. My scepticism was born out of the fact that I wasn’t overly fussed on the earlier series and that knowing they planned five films based on one slim book made me think I was in for lots of padding as a money making exercise.

Thankfully I was proven wrong.

Set in the New York of 1926 this deals with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a British wizard who has traveled the world collecting and studying magical creatures. Many of which he keeps in his charmed suitcase.

Arriving in America he encounters a magical society very different from that which exists in Britain. The major difference is that American wizards have no interaction with muggles, or No-Majs as their known in the States. While distracted by an anti-witchcraft preacher Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) his suitcase becomes mixed up with that of No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and one of the critters gets loose. Newt recaptures it but before he can wipe Kowalski’s memory the man flees and Newt is arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). 
However it turns out that Kowalski still has the wrong case and Tina is a disgraced Auror (magic cop) and nobody listens to her. She and Newt go to find Kowalski, who has already met some of the other beasts, three of whom have escaped. Kowalski is injured and in an attempt to hide him from the authorities they take him to Tina’s flat which she shares with her more cheerful, mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who Kowalski takes a shine to.

Meanwhile, Barebone and her adopted children continue to spread anti-magic propaganda although her son Credence (Ezra Miller) is working with Graves (Colin Farrell) a high-ranking Auror who promises to rescue him from his abusive home if he helps him find a magical child who is in danger.

A magical beast kills a prominent No-Maj and Newt is blamed, despite him identifying the real killer as an Obscurus a rare energy formed when a witch or wizard represses their magic creating a dark, lethal force which they have no control over and eventually kills them. 

At this point it’s revealed that Graves is dodgy which comes as no real surprise as he’s played by Colin Farrell. 

I can’t believe he turned out to be a wrong ‘un, said nobody

He has been playing Credence and thinks the Obscurus is tied to his adopted sister, but it turns out it’s actually Credence and the Obscurus is stronger than any of them suspected.
Can Newt and friends save the boy? Or will he be lured to the dark side by Graves? What will become of Kowalski when it’s all over?

The plot is simple enough and well done, but the real strength here are the characters. In the Harry Potter films the problems for me were that in the early films the kid performers are weak (Grint would remain shaky throughout) and the characters annoying. Seriously at most points at least one of what Potterheads call “the Golden Trio” are being a bit of a twerp.

Here all four heroes are well performed and likeable enough, and special mention should go to Sudol and Fogler who make their characters immensely likeable and craft a downright adorable fledgling romance.

Adorable- Queenie and Kowalski hit it off

Having Kowalski at the centre for much of the film is a great touch as the wonder is seen through his eyes and his delight his infectious. It’s his wide eyed joy and acceptance of what he sees which wins you over to him, and shows that in some ways he’s already ahead of wizarding characters in terms of his attitude towards magical creatures.
He also forms a good duo with Newt, ably portrayed by Redmayne who manages to inject just the right amount of eccentricity into the role. Newt’s genuine attachment to his animal charges is affecting and his conservationist style outlook won me over pretty damn quick.

Also a big plus are strong female heroines, with Queenie starting out as a seemingly ditzy blonde who steps up when needed and Tina as a slightly neurotic but noble figure who wants to help others and who shows a flexibility that the wizarding government lacks.

The overall tone is nailed just right with some very funny moments and quite a bit of whimsy, but just enough peril to keep you gripped. Towards the end the film delivers an emotional knockout which I found genuinely moving and I left eagerly awaiting more in the series.

As expected the effects are great, and the magical creatures on display are glorious, with each given a personality of their own.

Some of the Fantastic Beasts

All in all I found this a very fun and entertaining film, with solid characters and a decent plot. The performances are great across the board (even Johnny Depp’s brief appearance is well done, lacking his usual OTT touches) and I was utterly charmed by this glorious movie. For my money it might actually surpass the Harry Potter movies.

Verdict: Incredibly well done this movie has enough warmth and charm to avoid seeming like a needless cash in. The main characters are all extremely engaging and the story, while predictable in places, is gripping enough. I went in sceptical and came out eager for more. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Too Much Information by Dave Gorman

I’m a big fan of Dave Gorman, who has a witty and rather warm way of looking at the world. His stand up and writing is clever, well structured and, most importantly, very funny. In this book he turns his attention to all the little things that buzz around in modern life and which we kind of ignore, but are rather weird when you think about him.

Some of the material here will be familiar if you’ve watched his show on Dave, Dave Gorman’s Modern Life is Goodish as there is a bit of overlap. But there’s more here and a greater depth, and it is interesting how much we let wash over us. He highlights the odd quirks and foibles of the internet age with a wry look and while it’s mocking the tone is easy and avoids nastiness.

He seems aware that he’s over thinking things in places but his general thrust is that we do need to pay attention as otherwise these rude things will just become “how things are done”. 

It’s written in quick, bitesize entries and this means it’s the kind of book you can dip in and out of when you have a few spare minutes.

Verdict: A clever and funny read, an easy and light read. Gorman’s tone is warm and avoids being too nasty. A good read to dip in and out of. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Give the Boys a Great Big Hand by Ed McBain

This is another cracking instalment in the 87th Precinct series and is quite an interesting one. It opens with a patrolman seeing someone leaving a bag at a bus stop, and doing his duty he looks in the bag to find a severed hand.

With nothing else to go on, Steve Carella and the other detectives begin trying to find who the hand belonged to and who left it at the bus stop.

Their investigation leads them to two missing men, but they have no further leads, until they find an unexpected connection between the men, a stripper named Bubbles. The problem? Bubbles is missing too.

Like the other stories in the series this is a well crafted crime story which is helped by McBain’s knack for character and humour. The story unfolds at a decent pace and the shifts between different detectives keeps it fresh and further develops the characters who have been built up over the series.

It’s not the strongest in the series, with a slightly rushed ending, but it’s still an entertaining book and solid thriller.

Verdict: A well done thriller as can be expected from McBain, with a decent plot and some nice touches. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson

Finally the US Presidential election is drawing to a close. The process is so long and convoluted that by now everyone just wants it over with. I’m hoping that Hilary Clinton emerges as the victor because despite her flaws the alternative is terrifying.

Donald Trump is an irresponsible narcissist who would be too much if he was a fictitious character. Nobody would buy it. But sadly truth is stranger than fiction and The Donald (contender for lamest nickname ever) is a walking, talking embodiment of some of the worst personality traits out there. That he has made it to the final two is depressing.

As with the Brexit result in the UK, Trump’s success has emboldened bigots and racists. They see the popularity as a sign that the tide is turning and more people are agreeing with them. After the election, regardless of result, the hornet’s nest of hate, fear and anger which has been stirred up will not disappear overnight.

Trump has found favour with the far right and the “alt-right”, which is the focus of this short book by Jon Ronson. It focuses on an old acquaintance of Ronson’s, Alex Jones who he met while investigating conspiracy theories for Them and who some may know for his intense rants online on topics like government cover ups, Satanism and Justin Bieber.

Jones in full flow

It’s an interesting and well done read, with Ronson amiable and honest in his writing. He admits that, despite Jones’ more out there theories, he likes the man. He talks about attending Trump’s rallies and of the almost cult like atmosphere, of how the fringe appears to have taken over the centre.

It’s hardly new ground, although I did learn some more about the background of Trump’s associates and it’s interesting to have a snapshot into the supporters. It’s almpst sad that Jones is shown to have fallen for Trump’s platitudes and attempts to win his support in a way a more experienced media figures saw through.

Ronson also touches on how polarised politics have become and how entrenched positions have become, it’s an interesting look at the current political landscape in the US as they prepare for their election.

Verdict: A short, well written piece by Ronson which gives a quick look at the fringe players in the Trump story and his rallies. It’s not comprehensive but it’s still a decent and insightful read. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #5: Bambi

This is a Disney movie largely remembered for the death of one character and the fact it has made generations of children cry.

The shooting of Bambi’s mother is the film’s most famous moment and I won’t lie, it’s done remarkably well with the death happening off camera and Bambi only realising what’s happened after the fact. His dad breaks the news to him in a rather blunt manner “your mother can’t be with you anymore”. Dude, soften the blow a little.

And devastated Bambi’s reaction gives the heartstrings a massive yank.

The whole movie is a pretty decent “life of animals” tale, starting with Bambi’s birth and following the eponymous deer to adulthood. Sure some of it is sentimental and softened, but there’s still a dark edge, mainly from man but there are acknowledgements that nature is rough.

Bambi has to fight when another stag steps to his girl, in a sequence which is shot in a stark, dramatic style which makes it so different from the rest of the movie.

The real villain here is man, who after killing Bambi’s mum then run through the woods guns blazing and then start a fire. Mankind does not come off well in this movie, and some of it is harsh. One bleak scene involved some birds cowering in the undergrowth before one cracks under pressure and takes flight, we then see her body hit the deck. It’s not quite at the grim level of The Animals of Farthing Wood, but it’s got a whole lot more edge than I remember.

Heck, Bambi kills a bunch of dogs after causing a rock slide on to them. It might be a softened version of the natural world, but it doesn’t completely ignore the fact that nature can be brutal.

The circle of life is completed when Bambi becomes a dad himself, which follows a sequence where our hero and his friends become “twitterpated” which is basically  Disney slang for overcome with lust. Seriously, there is some visual innuendo going on here which had clearly flown way over my head when I first saw this movie.

Character wise it’s a little flat and the songs aren’t particularly great, but it’s episodic style works and it keeps moving. Also it handles the shifts in tone quite well and is genuinely moving in places. Also it’s very pretty to look at.

Disney Score: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Film Review: Doctor Strange

Marvel continue to expand their cinematic universe here, taking a second tier character and moving into the more mystical aspects of the universe. I’ve always kinda dug the Doctor Strange character and the way the comics mixed magic into the superhero world and the movie works in much the same way.

Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who lives a life of luxury. His over confidence rubs colleagues up the wrong way but he is respected for his skills, especially by his ex, ER doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who he continues to have a flirtatious relationship.
While driving to a speaking engagement and distracted by his phone Strange crashes, severely damaging his hands. Unable to continue his career he burns through his savings in a futile search for a way to fix his hands and sinks into bitterness, pushing Christine away after he becomes angry at her perceived pity. Meeting a man who recovered from irreversible paralysis, Strange learns he was healed after visiting a place called Kamar-Taj, in Katmandu. Using the last of his money Strange travels in search of answers.

There he finds a mysterious group headed by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who speaks of spirit and magic. Strange dismisses this as nonsense until the Ancient One shows him his astral form and the different dimensions. She is reluctant to teach the arrogant Strange but her student Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) urges her to take him on and finally she agrees.

Strange is introduced to a secret world, discovering the forces and powers at work I’m the universe and becoming adept at the mystic arts. Kamar-Taj is linked to three sanctums which exert a sort of force field that protects Earth from interdimensional attack.

His photographic memory allows him to learn spells quickly, and he frequents the library run by taciturn sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong). He reads a book which has been damaged, learning that pages were stolen by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One who has gone rogue, aligning himself with a Dormammu a powerful being from the Dark Dimension who seeks to absorb more dimensions into his power. Kaecilius believes that this will save mankind from the ravages of time and death. He is disillusioned with the Ancient One and believes she has lied to her followers.

Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) practicing the dark arts

After they attack the London sanctum Strange escapes to New York where he attempts to stop Kaecilius and his followers. Despite his inexperience he manages to hold them off until Mordo and the Ancient One arrive to help, but New York falls. Strange and his allies realise that the final sanctum in Hong Kong must be protected and rush there to make a final stand against Kaecilius.

Can they stop the Dark Dimension from engulfing the Earth? Has the Ancient One been hiding things from her followers? And will Strange heal his hands, or does he now have a greater goal to pursue?

I really enjoyed this film which went in a slightly new direction for Marvel and was extremely good fun. The visuals, especially during a trippy sequence where Strange is sent flying through alternate dimensions are glorious and the psychedelic feel works. Plot wise it’s formulaic in places- arrogant self absorbed hero has to realise there is a bigger game at work, adjust his priorities and triumph.

But the formula is carried off well, in large part thanks to Cumberbatch, who can do arrogant genius in his sleep (Sherlock, The Imitation Game, Star Trek Into Darkness) and here he is entertaining as the strutting Strange. He also does a good job keeping the character’s glib nature even when he finds himself out of his depth.

It also works because he gives brief glimpses of vulnerability cracking through the bravado but like Marvel’s other bearded hero Tony Stark, he has the quick wits to get out of most situations.

The rest of the cast is a little less impressive, with Mikkelsen being a rather dull villain and the Ancient One not getting much depth. Worst of all is how criminally underused the always charming Rachel McAdams is. She has very little to do and it’s a shame that a good actress doesn’t get anything to sink her teeth into.

Underused- McAdams as Christine Palmer

However Ejifor carries himself with class as Mordo and his rigid world view sets him up to clash with Strange’s reckless use of magic and should develop nicely in further instalments.
The final face off is rather smartly done, and the effects are glorious. The fight scenes are well done, particularly a sequence where Strange and a foe battle in the astral plane and their actions cross over into the real world. Another nice touch is that Strange’s Cloak of Levitation is given a personality of itself, kind of like the magic carpet in Aladdin

It’s not the strongest Marvel movie but it’s incredibly good fun and takes the MCU in new directions while still feeling part of it in terms of tone and characters. Definitely left me wanting to see more of the good Doctor.

Verdict: Lots of fun and with great visuals, the film is carried by a charismatic performance from Cumberbatch. The action sequences are handled well and it’s an interesting and entertaining addition to the Marvel Universe. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Big Race by Michael Brick

A cross country motorcycle race featuring a host of odd characters from across the USA. The whole thing set up by a man with a questionable past and dodging allegations of being a con man, but who claims to be doing it to help the Native American community that adopted him. 

That all sounds very interesting doesn’t it? That’s what attracted me to pick this up on my Kindle, but unfortunately as a read it doesn’t quite measure up to the premise or reader expectation.

It’s a Kindle single so part of this is down to length but a larger problem is that Brick never probes that deeply. There are hints that the organiser of the challenge is an eccentric, suspicious chap but it never gets to whether he is a con man or not.

In fact Brick struggles to capture a sense of any of the players beyond brief, simple sketches. And as the book unfolds all the questions that are set up go unanswered. Worst of all the writer is quite a way from the action of the race.

Brick talks about wanting to work out more about Jim Red Cloud, but never delves that deep and instead relies on a couple of hints and a sneaking suspicion he holds, but the man remains a mystery.

The writing is readable and unfussy, which isn’t always a bad thing, but here it just feels flat in places and the lack of humour or genuine insight makes this an immensely forgettable book.

Verdict: An intriguing premise is let down by shallow examination and lack of any real narrative arc. Too brief and light to make much of an impact or satisfy the reader. 3/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #42: The Thing (1982)

My Dad introduced me to the films of John Carpenter, and this is one of my favourites, a tense, gripping sci-fi horror.

Set almost entirely on a remote Ameeican research base in the Arctic it deals with a group of scientists and their support team who must confront a shapeshifting alien beast that assumes the appearance and mannerisms of anything it devours.

The unease starts right at the top when a sled dog races across the icy wilderness, pursued by a helicopter. The pilot is killed in an accidental explosion and the passenger begins firing at the dog only to be shot by Garry (Donald Moffat) the commander. The dog is put in the kennels and after they ID the man as being from a Norwegian base they investigate.

Right away you have questions about what the hell is going on and why they wanted to kill that dog so badly, and then the plot thickens as they find the Norwegian base in disarray, with a burnt grotesque humanoid form outside in the ice.

It turns out the Norwegians found something in the ice and when it woke up it made short work of them and they tried stopping it. The alien being could change shape, hence the weird body, and escaped. Disguised as a dog.

At this point animal lovers might want to look away as the dog-Thing snacks on the dogs. It’s all pretty grizzly and they only stop it when one of the team blasts it with a flamethrower.

This member of the team, MacReady is played by Kurt Russell and that’s an indicator that this is going to be a good movie as the Russell and Carpenter team was dynamite (Escape from New York, Big Trouble I’m Little China). Russell is on great form here as the tough, quiet MacReady who is way out of his depth and not entirely sure how it all works, but who endures through grit and common sense.

“I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done”

It’s his simple reasoning that leads to the blood test that sets up one of the film’s best sequences. Working out that every tiny part of the creature can live separately he comes up with a test. Using blood samples and a hot piece of metal he will work out who’s human and who isn’t.

The whole scene is grippingly tense with the characters eyeballing each other and the unease growing. The final jump scare still gets me out of my seat after repeated viewings and it’s this, not the gleefully gory physical effects that I remember.

Trust breaks down quickly

That’s not to say the effects aren’t great. I’m a big fan of old school effects that look like you can reach out and touch, and the grizzly creations here are very well done, especially a scene where the chest of one opens up to sever the arms of the man trying to revive him. My Dad is not a fan of this scene, possibly because he’s a doctor himself. 
The alien is gory and with no distinct shape it appears as mutant, horrifying blends of the forms it has devoured.

Dude, you fugly.

While the creature has an ick factor that holds up the film’s real success is the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia that Carpenter creates. Just as the characters aren’t sure of who they can trust, the audience is never sure of who’s still human. Even MacReady’s movements can’t be accounted for.
It means you never know who is going to turn on who and it keeps you on edge for long periods.

This all builds to what I think is one of the greatest endings of all time. With the base in ruins after a massive explosion MacReady sits alone in the snow. And then Childs (Keith David) appears. Childs went missing a short while earlier and the two sit opposite each other, neither trusting the other, when asked what are they going to do MacReady delivers the last line of the movie; “Why don’t we just wait here a while? See what happens.”

It’s a remarkably bleak ending, but works extremely well and leaves lots of questions. Is the beast really dead? Is Childs human? What will happen if/when a rescue team arrives?

It’s a great movie, with solid performances from all involved this is an unsettling thriller that sticks with you and rises above the gore to be a genuinely clever thriller. And it can be rewatched over and over without losing it’s appeal.

This is the first John Carpenter movie I’ve included on my favourites list, but it won’t be the last.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: She by H. Rider Haggard 

This is the second book by Haggard I’ve read, having quite enjoyed King Solomon’s Mines and intrigued by the premise of this book, which sees a journey to find a mysterious, mythical queen known as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. I’d seen a bit of the Ursula Andress movie and it seemed a fun adventure story.

Which it is. In places.

The central premise is a neat idea, as is the way it’s set up with an ages long story passed through a family for centuries, but it’s in the telling of this story that Haggard starts dropping the ball.

He talks about the story of a woman who escaped She and the son she bore, and her hope they would return to the kingdom, and describes it as being done in several languages. This is fair enough, but he shows the different languages and drags this section out far too long. Less is more, dude.

The other problem I had is there’s something of an anti-Semitic vibe to comments that She and others make, and as, with Solomon’s Mines, the ideas about different races are very outdated. 

And while there are a few thrills early on, far too much of it is a slog and while our narrator talks about how fascinating She is I couldn’t help finding her infuriating.

It’s a decent premise but feels like a wasted opportunity. and the climax is unsatisfying and flat. And the narrator is poorly chosen, with a self pitying streak which makes him appear whiny and rather pompous too.

Quite disappointing really.

Verdict: There are some nice ideas here but it never delivers on a good idea and there’s not enough action to keep it going. The finale falls flat and it’s a slog in places. 3/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Underground

Inspired by a Daily Post prompt.

And I should warn you right here, this is a bit of a grim blog. So consider yourself warned.

I’m not a very brave guy. I have a lot of fears. Off the top of my head- clowns, spiders, zombies, heights and that I’m actually allergic to nuts but have been brainwashed into forgetting this and am one Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup away from death.

But high on the list? 

Being buried alive.

A few years ago I went and saw Ryan Reynolds in Buried and left the cinema shaking, and I can’t think of a film that has left me so shaken. if you haven’t seen it, it’s a cracking thriller from what I remember.

Shout out to the “groundbreaking” pun

I can’t remember when I first heard about people being buried alive, I think it came from being told people used to get bricked into walls back in medieval times or something. But it chilled me then.

I’m claustrophobic and as a kid had problems with the dark, so it makes sense that this would mess with me, but unlike a lot of fears this one gets worse the older you get. 

And knowledge is not power here.

As a kid I thought it would suck. As an adult I realised that was a massive understatement.

Not just the enclosed space but the just knowing it was all over. That would be the worst part. If you have a terminal illness you can say goodbye to your loved ones, but just knowing you were trapped?

Forget Kill Bill in the real world you ain’t getting out. And that’s what terrifies me. You hear those “they thought they were dead” stories and they usually have a happy ending, I mean the person was alive after all, and probably headed for a big pay out from the doctor who dropped the ball.

But I can’t be alone in thinking what about the folks who woke up after the burial? How many coffins have scratch marks on the inside?

This has to be the most morbid entry I’ve ever written. Blame bingeing on The Walking Dead and being tired, I guess. Although I suppose it is kinda reassuring that if there ever are zombies a lot of them will be trapped six feet under.

I am painfully aware that should I ever become a masked crime fighter I have just told my enemies how to get rid of me in the worst way.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.