by Corey Koepper
‘FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM’ ★★★★ (OUT OF 5)
RATED PG-13 2H 13 MIN
NOV 18 2016 ADVENTURE/FANTASY
DIRECTOR: DAVID YATES
RATED PG-13 1H 56 MIN
NOV 11 2016 DRAMA/SCI-FI
DIRECTOR: DENIS VILLENEUVE
Five years after Harry Potter graced the screen in his final chapter, J.K. Rowling’s inviting world of witches and wizards might seem comforting to reenter. It definitely can’t be too much to ask for some great fantasy escapism, especially when our own world, currently in the midst of fearful unease, seems incrementally more fragmented and divisive than when we last left Rowling’s.
In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s original screenplay, freed from the constraints of her beloved original books, finds a creative expansion that addresses these tensions and dangers of the real, contemporary world, but balances them with a story infused with visual wonder and humanity. The resulting start to a new franchise is smart and meaningful, with darker aspects that only enhance the surrounding magic.
Arrival, taking an approach that couldn’t be more different, is a slow burning science-fiction epic that also finds hope in a gloomy world of uncertainties. Ambitious, thoughtful, and thoroughly well made, it’s the type of movie that proves how artistic vision can seep through even at the studio-constructed, $50ish million level of filmmaking. One of the year’s best, Denis Villeneuve’s profoundly emotional, first-contact alien feature is an ode to communication as humanity’s most powerful unifier.
It might be easy for cynics to throw jabs at Fantastic Beasts or Arrival for any number of reasons, but the delivery of their messages is ideal for such an uneasy time. Both create sci-fi or fantasy worlds that are incredibly immersive and enjoyable to experience, without scrapping a sense of a real-life consequence and conflict. At their best, I think it’s possible for holiday blockbusters to let you have your pumpkin pie and eat it, too. Beasts and Arrival are proof that big-budget genre movies can be an entertaining, two-hour escape from the complexities of our personal worlds, and still have enriching ideas to carry back into them.
Arriving in 1920s-era New York City, wide-eyed wizard Newt Scamander (played with appealing, nerdy perfection by Eddie Redmayne), is a studier and protector of magical creatures, which he happens to carry within his magical suitcase of near-limitless space. The more lighthearted, funny side of Beast‘s story involves a few of these critters getting loose within the city, and Newt’s incidental recruiting of a kind-hearted, clumsy wannabe baker and “no-maj” (the American term for muggle), named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to help him contain the quirky creatures and prevent the magical world from being exposed.
Watching the meticulously created CGI beasts of Rowling’s imagination come to life are definitely a big part of the fun, and should be exciting for both fans and those who aren’t as swept up in the pop culture phenomenon. Newt’s niffler, an adorable, platypus-rodent-looking-scurrier that’s attracted to shiny things, is a definite highlight. The self-titled element of Fantastic Beasts is also the part that will be most appealing to kids, whereas the darker aspects of the story, somehow balanced in a way that doesn’t make the movie feel tonally all over the place, might be more engaging to the adult crowd.
The larger framework of Beast‘s period adventure involves a literal witch hunt, led by a cult of fearful non-magical folk who blame violent acts, that have been sporadically occurring across the city, on dark forces they quite don’t understand (but that they assume is their literal interpretation of evil itself). This anti-magic sentiment only stokes further tension among the congress governing America’s extra secret wizarding community, which holds onto backwards customs and distancing parameters between the two worlds, including the law that magical and non-magical people can’t get married, to prevent any tinge of conflict.
Terrorism, politics, and conflicting values all entwine as Newt and his creatures become involved, as does the terrific Katherine Waterston as a demoted auror for the U.S. wizarding government, and her mind-reading sister, played by Alison Sudol. All of this fits within the franchise shell of making dark wizard Grindelwald (a rarely seen Johnny Depp) the key villain of the new series, but the movie works best when it sticks to the core storytelling of its current installment, instead of subplots that throw its pacing a bit off. Colin Farrell, meanwhile, plays a shady government wizard whose motivations never become clear until they need to be, as he takes young, unwilling extremist member Credence (Ezra Miller) under his wing, and possibly begins to manipulate him.
Director David Yates, having helmed the last four installments of Harry Potter, is fully in control of combining the visual necessities of the franchise with striking, period production design. The movie is beautifully shot from beginning to end, expanding on the visual style of the series through capturing a new time and place, and even through having fun with editing misdirection that suits certain magical spells. Most impressive are the interior visuals, deep shadows and all, that aspire to the audacity Sweeney Todd or the detail of Robert Egger’s awesome indie horror film The Witch. Beasts sometimes even rivals the latter’s intoxicatingly creepy atmosphere, as its Salem-ist revival collides with the series’ more familiar definition of witchcraft.
Paralleling current societal conflicts in many ways, especially as they pertain to American politics, Fantastic Beasts is very clear about its message of tolerance, diplomacy, and unity (a theme certainly shared with Arrival), and effectively channels them through characters that are as empathetic and sophisticated as you’d hope, based on Rowling’s earlier work. From showing the consequences of magical children forced to suppress their magic, to the gentle sadness of magic to non-magic romance that society deems impractical, Rowling and Yates remain storytellers that are as intelligently observant as they are enchanting.
Arrival, more in the vein of a cerebral, 2001-style experience, also features fantastic creatures at the crux its story. As they appear in spacecraft at 12 different locations across the globe, Louise Banks, in a magnetic, breathtaking performance by Amy Adams, is a linguist who is summoned to make contact and attempt to communicate with the U.S.-based aliens, stationed in their ship at a remote Montana field. Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner, is also roped into the U.S. government’s attempt to ask what may prove to be a very difficult question – “What is your purpose on Earth?”
Revealing much more about Arrival‘s premise, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, and adapted by Eric Heisserer, would be a bad move. The film, like very few of its blockbuster-caliber budget, unfolds like a series of tones and feelings that complement its developing ideas. It’s something you let wash over you, like a good piece of music. And the music itself, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, is an incredible achievement – it always allows you to fully experience a moment, nudging you toward the beauty and terror inherent in any given instant.
Denis Villeneuve, having last directed the drug cartel thriller Sicario, continues to orchestrate atmosphere and suspense to an impressive degree. It always feels like Villeneuve is in grand control over all the elements at his disposal, from Jóhannsson’s music and Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography, to the incredible talent onscreen. Like Christopher Nolan or David Fincher, he’s representative of what a visionary, big-budget director, at his or her best, has the potential to be.
This is not an action-heavy movie, like Beasts, and will probably be baffling to those expecting something more along the lines of Independence Day. It’s also more contained and focused than Interstellar, for example, but no less ambitious. Also sharing elements of Solaris and Contact, the film still manages to find its own plane of uniqueness.
Arrival is slow-building and features few locations, its pace and long takes necessary for grounding us in Louise’s perspective – awe and wonder unfold before our eyes as they do for her, and the tension, resulting from encountering an unpredictable force that begs to be understood, is emotionally exhilarating. The film is always thrilling, even in moments of prolonged stillness and anticipation. Through its color scheme of muted greens and blues, to amber colored flashes of memory from another time, Arrival captures a hazy, uncertain world where what seems most true to us, most real, at any given time, are our emotions.
The ideas come later. And as the ingenuity of Arrival‘s structure reveals itself to the audience in its final third, the ideas take form in realizing that what we have seen throughout the movie, the way its scenes are ordered and cut, and how they are shown in relation to Louise’s state of being in any given scene, has amounted to a greater vision that leads to significant emotional impact. We are ultimately left with the idea that communication will be the key to our survival across the expanse of time, the answer to living among those of different opinions and values in a world of consistent, and often violent, temperament.
Adams is amazing, and because the film’s visual and narrative techniques plant us in her world so effectively, her journey becomes a singular experience. As the camera tracks her walking through a room of military officials desperately searching for answers, the focus remains on her, the solutions to an unprecedented situation lying within her heart and mind. Her eyes, yearning for connection, are emotive and honest, the complexity that envelops her carrying through to the tiniest physical details, from the shake of her hands to the uneasiness of her voice. Louise comes to represent expanded awareness in a form that is still uniquely human, and as her perceptions change, the effect is equally moving for the audience.
The most 2001-esque scene occurs early on, as the radiation suited team first enters the U.S.-based spaceship. In a scene of relentless suspense and awe, subtle moments, such as the camera gradually tilting up to reveal a shift of gravity, through which the crew can now walk on the vertical sides of the ship, are effective and memorable. But the device that Arrival uses equally well, in this scene among others, is reaction. News breaks of the aliens’ arrival as Louise is teaching a college linguistics course. Without showing the TV screen, a shot holds on the faces of Louise and her students as they watch the events unfold on the news, amazed and terrified. This captures the power of the moment better than, for example, a montage of TV news broadcasts would.
Fantastic Beasts, meanwhile, opens with a sequence of magical, moving newspaper headlines and articles, establishing much-needed context for the new period in which the movie is set, but enacting a familiar device that reintroduces audiences to a world they likely already love and are happy to reenter. More focused on confronting the unknown, Arrival’s style and techniques are naturally different. But both films are examples of how big-budget entertainment can be both escapism and something more; a chance for audiences to enter imaginatively created worlds, each containing a unique brand of magic, without disengaging from their own.