Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Ever since 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 left theaters and was release on DVD, Potter fans all over the world were overcome with a deep sadness as the film signified the end of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling created an entire wizarding world through her best selling novels, which would eventually become blockbuster hits, and as each film was released, the universe she created kept growing and growing.  When the news of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released, all was good in the world. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Rowling would choose to gift fans with more of the fantastic world she created by writing the Fantastic Beasts screenplay. I mean, how on earth could she just stop writing about the Potter universe and all of its glory?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the better-known books the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry use in their studies. The textbook was written by Newt Scamander, a famous Magizoologist (an individual who studies magical creatures). The textbook contains information that Scamander gathered from studying a vast amount of magical creatures from all over the world. The film follows Scamander on his journey to the United States in 1926, as he is performing research for what will soon become an invaluable vault of information for all witches and wizards. Scamander is perhaps the most compassionate individual in the wizarding world, as he has dedicated his life to trying to understand all magical creatures during a time when they were outlawed and unappreciated. Scamander arrives in the United States by way of New York City with a briefcase filled with magical creatures. His goal with visiting the US is to release a Thunderbird name Frank to his home in Arizona. Of course, a briefcase full of magical creatures would become quite difficult to maintain for Scamander and majority of them eventually escape and run the busy streets of NYC.

The first beast to slither its way out of the briefcase is a Niffler, a small platypus-like creature that is drawn to any and all things shiny. As Scamander is attempting to catch the escaped Niffler in a large city bank (full of shiny coins), he meets a “No-Maj” (non-magic folk, aka “Muggle”) named Jacob Kowalkski. Kowalski is at the bank attempting to get a loan to open up his dream bakery. It doesn’t take long for Kowalski to get mixed up in the wizarding world, which is pretty much unknown to all No-Majs. The two become a duo comparable to Batman and Robin, and it’s one of the best bromances in cinema history.

As Scamander attempts to locate all of his escaped beasts, he runs into trouble with The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MCUSA), and everything becomes a total shit show. The film’s female lead, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, works for the MCUSA. She comes off as a total pain in the ass at the film’s beginning because she rats out Scamander to the MCUSA, but she quickly becomes an extremely likeable character. Tina has achieved role model status with me. She’s a powerful, intelligent witch who is out to do the right thing. It just takes her a little bit to find out what the right thing really is. Tina’s sister, Queenie Goldstein, is quite the opposite of Tina. Queenie is full of giggles and smiles, has sunny blonde hair, and sports a bright pink coat for most of the movie, while Tina is more on the serious side. I remember cringing a little bit when Queenie first makes her appearance because I assumed she was going to be the ditzy-blonde-girl type of character, but that’s not the case at all. Queenie is simply sweet and optimistic, and she is responsible for saving the day just as much as the rest of the crew. All in all, the leading ladies in Fantastic Beasts are totally impressive, but of course, I would expect nothing less from the mind of Rowling.

There are a lot of things to pay attention to in Fantastic Beasts because everything is a piece of a giant puzzle that will reach completion once the 5th film in the series is released. That’s right, there will be five Fantastic Beast films! And I’m here for that. The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!

-Britnee Lombas

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

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fourstar

Acclaimed, visionary animator Hayao Miyazaki recently announced that he’ll be returning from what has been a very brief “retirement” to work on a 3D-animation short film, which is exciting news for rabid fans of Studio Ghibli & innovative visual craft of all kinds. Not being especially well-versed in Ghibli’s or Miyazaki’s history, I didn’t realize that this decision was a case of history repeating itself. Miyazaki had “retired”several times before in the past, once doubling back on his resolve to return to the director’s chair (does that idiom translate to animation?) to helm the somewhat troubled production of 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Whether or not Miyazaki was brought in as a pinch-hitter/afterthought on a project that apparently needed a strong guiding hand, Howl’s Moving Castle was well worth the animation giant’s time & efforts. It’s not the most mindblowing or heartwarming film among the few Ghibli titles I’ve seen but it is a singularly magical experience that the world is better off for being enriched with (with its context as a pacifist take on the war in Iraq being especially fascinating). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Miyazaki in the few works I’ve seen from him it’s that the world is all too lucky to have him & we should all be grateful for each precious gift he delivers on his own time.

I call Howl’s Moving Castle magical because it’s a film that values the folklore of magic, wizards, and witches over the more human realm of physical labor & constant war. A lover’s quarrel between The Wicked Witch of the Waste(land) & a frivolous, vain wizard named Howl claims the health & well-being of an innocent passerby, a young hat shop clerk whose meeting of Howl in passing enraged the jealous, possessive witch. This jealousy inspires the wicked witch to cast a spell that ages the hat shop girl horribly, so that she loses her precious youth & beauty to an old, withered body that upends her life. Determined to win back her cursed youth, the girl moves into Howl’s castle, which is indeed a moving, walking, transitive structure that would serve as event the most casual of steam punk’s wet dream. What she discovers is that he wizard is in a perpetual state of adolescence, in desperate need of someone to care for his body & home, and prone to teen angst temper tantrums that result in him summoning “the spirits of darkness” when he’s bummed & exclaiming things like “I see no point in living if I cant be beautiful!” Howl is in no shape to deal with the crushing realities of a hard-fought war & ends up needing the help & emotional support of the cursed hat shop girl just as much as she needs him.

What feels so right about the approach to magic in Howl’s Moving Castle is just how fluid everything feels in the details. The rules of the curse seem to change from scene to scene as the girl’s age fluctuates depending on her mood. Enemies who initially appear to be pure evil soon reveal themselves to be hurt, vulnerable souls in need of repair. Physical spaces (especially the titular castle) & people’s bodies (especially the wizard’s) change constantly, directly reflecting the ebb & flow of a universe that can be hopelessly cruel or endlessly wonderful depending on the tides of fate in life’s current direction. The only thing that seemingly doesn’t change is the way the film values magic & fluidity over the concrete, destructive concerns of governments & war.

Appropriately enough, it’s that exact value system that makes Miyazaki & other folks at Ghibli feel like such a gift & a blessing. They’re constantly exploring new ideas & techniques within their craft, but their general spirit is deeply rooted in an old world magic & tradition that feels both authentic & endlessly endearing. It’s a testament to how powerful the the studio’s output is that I was greatly impressed by Howl’s Moving Castle, but still hung up on the Ghibli flim about racoon testicles that I had just watched a few days before. Every Miyazaki work is worthy of attention & adoration to some degree and Howl’s Moving Castle was no exception to that rule. It wasn’t the most spectacular, wonderful, magical animated feature I’d ever seen or anything like that,but I still felt like I was lucky to have seen the film, which feels like par for the course for Miyazaki & his peers. May his retirement never be permanent & may the studio never officially close its doors. May our luck never run out.

-Brandon Ledet

Seventh Son (2015)

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three star

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Okay, here’s the thing: Seventh Son is a bad movie. It’s just awful. It’s already been called “staggeringly bad” “a creative miscarriage”, “a quickly forgotten pile of junk”, and maybe “the worst movie of the year”. I’m not arguing with any of those assessments. They’re true enough. I’ll even back up the complaints that the bland, medieval fantasy epic is even politically regressive. Indeed, its main plot involves two white men beating up & setting fire to the movie’s only female & POC-cast characters, who are all invariably evil. So, yeah. Seventh Son is a bad movie in almost all ways you can mean that phrase.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a mind-numbingly dumb & old-fashioned attempt at establishing a franchise (à la I, Frankenstein & Dracula Untold), but I honestly found the blatantly simple-minded picture kinda low-key entertaining. Watching a drunken, wizardly Jeff Bridges battle a half Dragon/half Disney villain Julianne Moore was lizard-brain cool enough to forgive almost any cliché plot points or b.s. franchise ambitions for me. This is the kind of fantasy realm nonsense that is overstuffed with dragons, blood moons, witches, ghosts, evil queens, ogres, and haunted forests. Better yet, it’s overstuffed with laughable scenery-chewing from two actually-great actors redefining what slumming it truly means. Jeff Bridges mumbling wizardly nonsense and a metal-clawed Julianne Moore cooing commands like, “Help yourself to the blood cakes, little one” were enough to make me glad that I gave the movie a shot despite it’s (well-deserved) awful reputation.

I’m not saying that you should support Seventh Son with your hard-earned dollars or even give it a chance when it’s streaming for free. I’d just be lying if I said I hated it. It’s a laughable failure of a film that won me over by laughter more than it lost me with its failure, especially in the final minutes when it promises (threatens?) a sequel that most certainly ain’t coming. Thankfully.

-Brandon Ledet