Saturday, August 26, 2017

Prequel and Sequels

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): written by J.K. Rowling; directed by David Yates; starring Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Colin Farrell (Graves), Katherine Waterston (Tina), Alison Sudol (Queenie), Dan Fogler (Jacob), Ezra Miller (Credence), and Johnny Depp (Grindenwald): A Harry Potter prequel (one of at least four, apparently) set in New York in the 1920's. The rare modern movie whose charms lie almost entirely on the CGI end of things. Eddie Redmayne, mumbling and whispering and retiring, was a terrible choice to play the lead: he's perpetually drowned out by pretty much everything else in the movie. 

The film might have been 25% better if David Tennant had played Scamander in full blustery Doctor Who mode. Between this and his performance in Jupiter Ascending, bad in a different way, Redmayne really needs to avoid potential tent-pole blockbusters. He's too finely tuned an actor to look comfortable in front of a green-screen battling for attention with giant birds and immense balls of crackly darkness.

J.K. Rowling's first original screenplay is a mess, vague and unfocused and rambling for the first hour. Characters we don't care about whiz by, leaving only Eddie Fogler's Muggle-out-of-water baker and Alison Sudol's perky telepath to cheer for, and be cheered by. A movie about the two of them and their magical bakery would be a Potter prequel I could get behind. The appearance of Johnny Depp at the end inspires the wrong kind of dread for the future of the series. Lightly recommended.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): based on characters created by Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, John Romita, and others; written by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon, and Alvin Sargent; starring Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Alfred Molina (Dr. Octopus), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), and J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson): 15 years further into The Superhero-Movie Age, Spider-Man 2 seems smarter and more human than ever. The actors charm, the villain is more of a tragic figure than anything else, and everything hinges not on a final fist-fight but on a final appeal to a doomed character's humanity. 

In terms of choreography and spectacle, the final battle isn't quite as interesting as two earlier set-pieces, though that may explain the sudden left-hand turn the plot takes at its conclusion away from all-out punchiness. Only the decision to have Spider-Man's webs be biological rather than mechanical is a drag: the fun of Spider-Man's encounters with super-villains in the comic books sprang partially from his scientific and engineering prowess deployed in the service of stopping said super-villains, and Spidey could really use some high-test webbing when he battles the homicidal, cybernetic arms of Dr. Octopus! Highly recommended.

The Dark Tower (2017): adapted by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel from the series by Stephen King; directed by Nikolaj Arcel; starring Idris Elba (Roland), Tom Taylor (Jake), and Matthew McConaughey (Walter): Shortly before its release, The Dark Tower was called a sequel to the 8-novel+ Stephen King series by its creators. And it actually makes sense as one if you've read the series. 

Is it a great movie? No. It's bracingly short and compact, though maybe 20 minutes' more questing and world-building would have been nice. Idris Elba does fine work as a more tortured Roland the Gunslinger than we see in the novels. Tom Taylor does fine work as Jake, the boy on 'our' Earth who dreams of the Gunslinger and his fantastic quest to save the Dark Tower at the centre of reality. And Matthew McConaughey is suitably smarmy and smug as Walter, the Man in Black who's trying to bring down the Dark Tower in service to his own dark god(s). 

There are Stephen King Easter Eggs galore (Hello, Charlie the Choo-Choo! Hello, Room 1408!). There are rat-men and assorted other servants of darkness. Its weakness is occasionally seeming rushed, though that's better than bloat in my book any day. The Dark Tower also understatedly offers a multi-racial cast, something that seems to have gone unremarked upon the curious critical rush to pan the movie. Oh, well. Recommended.

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