Review – When Harry Met Newt (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”)

Looks like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter just got a lot bigger! Super author J.K. Rowling has gone the Peter Jackson route by exploding her little book with a mind-numbing five-picture deal! Five movies? Well, let’s just see how the first one is, shall we?
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Way before Harry Potter’s birth and Albus Dumbledore’s tenure (it’s 1926 in NYC), we meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British ‘magizoologist’ who captures and studies some of the weirdest, cutest, and oddest magical creatures known (and unknown) to both the magical and ‘no-mag’s’ (Muggles out here in America) world. Good work if you can get it, I suppose. He’s here in the good ol’ USA to release a giant Thunderbird to Utah, but… well, things get a little sidetracked for him.

It’s not bad enough his magical suitcase has some latch problems, but once he’s downtown he gets accosted by a group of right-wing witch bigots calling themselves the Second Salemers, led by truly sinister MaryLou Barebone (Samantha Morton), her adopted son, creepy-looking Creedence (Ezra Miller) and weird daughter Chastity (Jenn Murray). Trouble starts when a Nifler (a little platypus-like thingy that steals shiny objects) escapes into a bank and Newt accidentally meets ‘no-mag’ Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a wanna-be baker there for a bakery store loan. But, wouldn’t ya know it, their identical suitcases get switched!

While Jacob is off with Newt’s secret cargo in tow, Newt is hauled away to our magical HQ by an ex-Auror who thinks he’s the reason for recent mysterious magical trouble in town. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) introduces Newt to the Woolworth Bldg (aka MACUSA-Magical Congress of the USA), and her boss, President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), who really can’t be bothered with Newt. But no-nonsense Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) smells trouble. Later, feeling sorry for Newt and Jacob, Tina takes them home to meet her ditzy blonde bombshell sister, Queenie (Allison Sudol), who also can read minds and takes an instant shine to Jacob.

But work takes precedence and Newt has to capture his released beasts (thanks to Jacob’s blunder) and a quick trip to Newt’s hidden menagerie is a site to behold for Jacob’s no-mag eyes. Meanwhile, there’s a massive malevolent force in NYC tearing up the streets and killing snot-nosed senators who deserve it. It’s called an Obscurial, but nobody knows what (or who) it may be… or does Graves? While Graves has their attention focused on Newt as the culprit, he’s got the weird kid Creedence on a spy mission within the Salemers to find the special child that IS the Obscurial.

The two stories converge at the end with creatures, mayhem, and a surprise twist (with a surprise actor popping up) to give the movie a proper ending with no loose ends, even though there’s more sequels to come. From Rowling’s original 2001 ‘textbook’ of the same name (there is no story narrative, just a dictionary-type directory), this is Rowling’s first screenplay attempt, with Steve Kloves (her past screenwriter liaison) as producer. Harry Potter director David Yates is back and that’s just the icing on the cake with this perfect trifecta of writer/producer/director.

Rowling makes a decent screenwriter, having written the world-renowned Potter series, and I’m sure she had help from long-time friend, Kloves. Yates adds his magical touch to this picture, so much so, that you feel that you’re watching #9 in the Harry Potter movie series, sans Harry and his friends. Redmayne is your bumbling, shy, Hugh Grant-mumbling Brit that drives the movie, but Fogel is the comic relief gem along with Sudol. Waterson is excellent as Tina, matching Redmayne’s shyness, but also has the tenacity for her work. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of HP, you’re gonna love this movie.

 The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1996)

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There have been many film adaptations of H.G. Wells bizarre novel about a mad doctor and his gruesome experimentation’s of man (or is it beast?). But this is the one that everyone talks about for it’s truly off-the-wall production, acting choices, surreal direction, characters and plot. Really, you have to see this one!

With a screenplay by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson, this non-nonsensical version pretty much follows the story of Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) who gets marooned on a creepy island somewhere in the middle of the Java Sea after a plane crash. He’s told, once he’s rescued, that he can use the radio by Dr. Montgomery (Val Kilmer), the island’s resident flunky and former neurosurgeon. He’s introduced to the island’s head honcho, Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando–wearing white pancake makeup, a bedsheet, and ice bucket for a hat) plus his very strange daughter, Aissa (Fairusa Balk).

But things are not what they seem on this island as Montgomery and Moreau have done something fantastic. Morose and diabolical, but fantastic. They’ve taken the natives on this island and cross-bred them with animal DNA to form… hybrids! Why? Heck, why not!? These living nightmares, like half-lion/half-man or half-leopard/half-man have established their own village with the Sayer of the Law (Ron Perlman) as their hybrid spokesperson-thingy. Meanwhile, Dr. Moreau keeps these creatures in check with cranial implants that give them excruciating pain, should they disobey.

But it looks like Montgomery ain’t getting off this nutty island soon and he’s getting real worried about his own DNA changing. What are those funny bumps on his arms? And geez-Louise, that little ‘mini-me’ version of Moreau (Nelson de la Rosa) is really creeping him out. Things go very bad when a hybrid eats a rabbit (they’re not suppose to eat meat, y’see) and a smart Hyena-Swine mix figures out how to remove the brain-pain inducer. Uh-oh. Free of implants, the hybrids revolt against their aggressors and all hell breaks loose.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, this is one of the weirdest versions ever put on film. It bombed HUGE at the box office and people laughed at the ridiculous  performances of Kilmer and Brando, who looked like they were sleepwalking through the whole picture. Plagued by every conceivable problem from script changes to weather problems to actors making strange requests on the set, this movie is the equivalent of Murphy’s Law: everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. In fact, rent the documentary, Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau to see what I mean. It’s not only fascinating, but deeply absorbing.

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