FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)
The set-up: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young British wizard and collector of fantastic beasts, arrives in New York in 1926 to seek out another oddity for his already overstuffed magical suitcase of colorful creatures. But when they are accidentally set free, he creates a dilemma for the wizarding community there, which seeks to keep magic secret from No-Majs (the American version of Muggles) and to fend off anti-magic sentiment that is rising in the wake of mysterious attacks from an invisible, destructive being. Aided by two sympathetic wizards and an open-minded No-Maj, Newt seeks to rescue his animal friends and stop the creature on the loose before it insinuates a major public showdown between the wizard and No-Maj worlds.
The breakdown: Fantastic Beasts… is JK Rowling’s first original screenplay and the first of five prequel films to the Harry Potter series. At its best moments it invokes the enchantment and wonder of her other books, especially with the colorful creatures in Newt’s secret zoo and through the journey undertaken by the four lead characters. But it is undercut somewhat by plot holes and underdeveloped characters. Rowling compresses too much into two hours; it needed perhaps 20 more minutes to further flesh things out. This is still a promising start to the series. Let’s hope for more cohesiveness with the next entry.
The set-up: In 17th century Japan, two Jesuit priests from Portugal (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) track down their mentor and reputedly fallen priest Padre Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary who has reportedly renounced his Christian beliefs and disappeared, to redeem his soul. They also seek to empower Japanese Christians hiding their faith from persecuting authorities who want to expunge the religion from their country. But the deeper they get into the culture and on their quest, the more the priests must grapple with their own sense of faith and try to comprehend the suffering inflicted on their fellow believers.
The breakdown: As much a meditation on faith as intolerance, Silence, which is based on a true story, pits stubbornly devout Father Rodrigues (Garfield) against a country with its own religious foundations and Buddhist officials that want him to commit apostasy to get Japanese Christians to relinquish their religious vows. The muted response from God throughout terrible torture rituals he witnesses makes Rodrigues question his mission and beliefs. (“God heard their prayers as they died. But did He hear their screams?” he muses.) You don’t have to be among the faithful to appreciate the story’s daunting test of faith, and Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning, Oscar-nominated cinematography balances a somber tone with gorgeous natural scenery. Many big budget action movies overstuff a 2 1/2-hour running time with as many effects and sequences as possible. Silence wisely draws things out to allow breathing room for the larger questions it raises. The Blu-ray/DVD documentary shows how committed everyone was to a project that Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks first embarked upon in 1990. Garfield even studied and practiced Jesuit rituals in order to realistically depict his character.
DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
The set-up: Arrogant surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) crashes his car and permanently damages his hands, precipitating a trek to Kamar-Taj on a quest for an unorthodox way to cure his condition. Instead he is enlisted by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) as a candidate for sorcery training and soon becomes embroiled in a conflict with otherworldly villains wanting to subject our dimension and our world to their sinister whims. Strange must get past his own ego to become a hero.
The breakdown: Of all the Marvel adaptations, I was concerned that this would get f-ed up, but thankfully the company delivered a solid debut adventure for our Sorcerer Supreme that combines the gravitas needed for the role with a healthy sense of humor, not to mention a wisely warranted use of spectacular digital effects. The Blu-ray and DVD releases come packed with over 80 minutes of bonus material that cover the effects, fight choreography, music, and more. Here’s hoping for a great sequel.
BEING THERE (1979)
The set-up: After his employer dies, a simpleton gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers) goes out into the world and serendipitously befriends a major D.C. businessman and political figure (Melvyn Douglas) who begins to take his ramblings about gardening as a sort of veiled political gospel. As Chance the gardener (rechristened Chaunchey Gardiner through misinterpretation) enchants those around him, more and more people begin to take his musings seriously even though he himself has no clue of his burgeoning influence.
The breakdown: One of Sellers’ final roles before his death, Chauncey ranks as one of his greatest ever. Supported by Douglas as a stern but kind authority figure and Shirley MacLaine as his wife who develops amorous feelings for Chauncey, Sellers brilliantly embodies an idiot savant; or, at least, the first half of that term since his “genius” is all a creation of other people’s personal projections. Co-adapted by Jerzy Kosiński from his book, Hal Ashby’s Oscar-winning film really explores how in politics perception is everything. While the inanity and insanity of last year’s election was predicted by Idiocracy, the idea of an idiot rising up intelligent people is also echoed in Being There, which is a timeless satire about how we often invent what we want to see in people we elevate to iconic status. (And by the way, this movie is way smarter than the overrated Forrest Gump.) There are some great bonus features on Criterion’s reissue, including vintage TV interviews with Sellers and Kosiński from the time period. They may make you long for the day when talk show hosts were generally smarter and more informed.
TECHNOLOGY RUN AMOK
We’ve always had a love/hate affair with technology. When it works well we’re elated, but when it short circuits we’re infuriated. And the latter makes for great cinematic fodder.
A wonderfully weird sci-fi thriller from 1977, Demon Seed, finds Julie Christie playing an estranged housewife to a scientist obsessed with a huge artificial intelligence experiment named Proteus, which is a massive, sentient supercomputer. After morally objecting to corporate edicts he is given and seeking to escape “the box,” Proteus transfers himself to a terminal in her computer controlled home and holds her hostage through various robotic technology, seeking to breed with her and live in flesh. Adapted for the screen, the premise of Dean Koontz’s book was twisted and strange, and it made for an oddball film to be sure, but its examination of technological corruption made it a prescient story. Demon Seed is not a great movie but it is interesting and worthy of a look and a remake. Koontz thought the same of his original text. He rewrote his 1973 book for the 1997 version.
Exploring the world of the subconscious, 1984’s Dreamscape examines dream manipulation experiments in which university scientists (Max Von Sydow and Kate Capshaw) use psychics to dive into people’s nightmares to save them from their fears. At first, womanizing and gambling psychic Alex Gardner (a young and smart-alecky Dennis Quaid) is happy to be onboard and useful, but he soon learns that outside influences are trying to poison the secret program and twist its objectives for foul ends. He must find a way to prevent that from happening. Many of the film’s surreal effects have held up well, and Quaid’s roguish charm and natural chemistry with Capshaw enliven the mix. In looking back on the film, the actor has fond memories of its creation. Director Joseph Ruben went on to direct the cult horror flick The Stepfather three years later.
CURIOUS & UNUSUAL DEATHS: Season 2 (2012)
This Canadian series features 13 20-minute episodes each focusing on three strange and unintended fatalities; everything from home repairs to home remedies to electrocution and drowning. While some of the endings can be telegraphed from the opening, the show fascinates through its recreations interspersed with interviews with scientific and military experts. One episode chronicles famous deaths (Brandon Lee, Rasputin, and Isadora Duncan). These are fun, fact-filled shows that one can absorb in small or large doses. Hopefully the first season will pop up on Netflix soon.