If ever a film franchise looked to be in decline, I submit to you, the Fantastic Beasts movies. Begun in 2016 as a presumed five-part series, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was the one writing the screenplays this time and going back to 1920s America. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, chronicling bashful magical animal caretaker Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), made $800 million worldwide. In the years since, Rowling has burned through much of her good will with transphobic comments, Johnny Depp has been replaced as series villain Grindelwald by Mads Mikkelsen, and 2018’s Crimes of Grindelwald made $150 million less than its predecessor. Now with COVID transforming the box-office, the question remains whether the Wizarding World franchise (as Warner Brothers has been calling the Harry Potter universe) can survive without its Boy Who Lived. The third film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, finds young(er) Dumbledore (Jude Law) confronting his old foe –- franchise fatigue.
It’s hard for me to fathom anyone, even the most ardent of Harry Potter fans, watching this movie and exclaiming, “I can’t wait for two more of these!” The Secrets of Dumbledore feels more like a regular episode of an ongoing TV series than a story that demanded to be told as a big screen adventure, something that meaningfully reassembles the key characters and moves the larger wizarding world story forward. By the end of the movie, Wizard Hitler still looks like Wizard Hitler. The end. The last movie set the stage for a looming wizard-vs-wizard civil war that would push the magic world to choose its sides. That’s why it’s so bizarre to then go right into a weird election conspiracy with a weird magic deer creature. This is a fantasy world with crazy characters and weird rules and I can’t adequately explain why this whole plot point with a magic deer wrings so silly and ridiculous for me. It’s like if we replaced our electoral system with letting the groundhog choose the president on Groundhog Day. Why bother with democratic elections when we can just have a pure magical creature provide its endorsement? The big scheme for Grindelwald to rig the election at any costs, which has a bizarre 2020 Donald Trump political parallel that also makes me dislike the plot more. The entire movie is hinging on this little creature making its opinion known, so why not guard it better if it’s so integral to their foundation of wizarding governance (warning: animal cruelty early)? This plot line does not work for me, and it feels clumsy both in contemporary political parallels as well as an effort to find reason to continue inserting Newt Scamander into these movies. The franchise began as a light distraction with a goofy zookeeper for magical creatures. Now it’s become a political thriller about the fate of the world against Wizard Hitler. It’s a bit different tonally, and perhaps it’s time to let Newt tend to his animals off-screen, much like what has happened to Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), the co-lead of the other movies, casually “staying home.”
This is also the first Fantastic Beasts movie where Rowling is sharing screenplay credit, with Steve Kloves, the man who adapted all but one of the Harry Potter movies. It feels like another act of trying to salvage this franchise. I’ve read plenty of critics claiming that this movie corrects the screenwriting miscues of the past films, and to this I do not agree. Reaching out for help from an industry veteran used to adapting Rowling’s imagination is a smart move, but the movie still suffers like the previous Fantastic Beast movie from a plot overburdened with incident and less on substance, willfully obtuse and convoluted in its plotting. Since Grindelwald gains the power to see into the future, a power that is woefully underutilized, the only way to disguise Dumbledore’s plot to uncover election fraud is through sheer confusion. They have to make things purposely confusing and hard to follow on purpose, dear reader. A purposely convoluted and confusing movie is the only way they can beat the bad guy. It’s like Kloves is speaking directly to the audience and admitting defeat at keeping anything clear. I went to brush up by reading the Wikipedia summary for this review and even that made me tired. A wizard heist is a great setup, but Secrets of Dumbledore cannot live up to that potential. The set pieces don’t lean into what a wizard heist could bestow. There’s one memorable sequence where Newt and his brother must escape from a crustacean prison by literal crab-walking. It’s the only light in an otherwise dismal, overwhelmingly grey movie. It all feels less transporting and more plodding.
What even are the “secrets of Dumbledore”? If it’s that he’s gay, well at least the movie finally has the temerity to finally say that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were more than just really special friends who decided to wear vials of each other’s blood as necklaces. The movie unequivocally confirms that they were lovers, had a relationship, and yet it’s all also contained in a prologue flashback that can easily be cut for foreign markets that would object. So congrats, Warner Brothers, for going far enough to at least say Dumbledore and Grindelwald were boyfriends at one point. However, this secret has been publicly known since Rowling outed Dumbledore in the late 2000s, so that’s not it. I guess we’re carrying over the revelation at the end of 2018 that Credence (Ezra Miller) is a Dumbledore, except that it’s revealed he’s the son of Dumbledore’s brother, meaning the big reveal in 2018 was… Dumbledore had a nephew? This character has even less screen time than the other two movies and it feels like the filmmakers are actively trying to work him back to the sidelines (perhaps Miller’s penchant for legal trouble accelerating matters). This all seems pretty minor, and I suspect the filmmakers are ret-conning a direction they thought would be pivotal and have since changed their minds. That’s all I can gather as what might constitute a “secret of Dumbledore,” although allow me to posit a different theory why the third movie has this subtitle. This is a franchise that has been leaking cultural cache and fan interest, and so the producers say, “Nobody knows a Newt or a Grindelwald. They know Dumbledore. They care about Dumbledore. That’s the title.” It’s about rescuing a flagging franchise with the only character that reaches forward to Harry Potter.
It’s also a little strange that the movie doesn’t even comment that Grindelwald’s appearance has changed. This is made more confusing because of that prologue flashback where Grindelwald had the face of Mikkelsen, so I guess he just chose to hang as Depp for a while. Even a passing reference to this being his “preferred form” would have sufficed. It was established that the big bad wizard could alter his visage, but we shouldn’t just go movie-by-movie with a brand-new actor (really the third actor in three films) as the main antagonist without even the barest of references for the audience. I guess it’s just all assumed.
I think this franchise also needs a break from David Yates as its visual steward, the same director of the last two Beasts films and the last four Potter movies. This is the dankest, most greyed out blockbuster movie I can recall. Yates’ muted color palate and somber handling of the material has begun to drain the fun and magic from this universe for me. I said 2020’s Ammonite was “all grey skies, grey pebbles, grey shores, grey bonnets, grey leggings, grey carts, grey houses, grey this, grey that, irrepressible grey.” This movie is the Ammonite of studio blockbusters (it’s not quite Zack Snyder’s Justice League, where color is not allowed to exist by force of law). The last time someone else directed a Wizarding World picture was 2005’s Goblet of Fire. Yates has served his time, although considering he’s only helmed one non-Potter movie in the same ensuing years (2016’s The Legend of Tarzan), maybe he’s just as reluctant to walk away from this universe.
My personal interest in this franchise has been decreasing with each additional movie, and at this point I’d be content if the planned fourth and fifth movies stayed purely theoretical. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore feels, front to back, like a filler movie, a story that is rambling and haphazard (but on purpose!) and a franchise that has outgrown its initial parameters and is struggling to explain why these adventures are persisting and what the overall appeal would be. If you’re happy to just step back into this special world one last time, then you’ll at least walk away satisfied. I still enjoy Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalksi, the Muggle pulled into the crazy world, the character that should have been the protagonist of the series. Mikkelsen is an upgrade for any franchise. I liked Jessica Williams (Booksmart) and her posh British accent. The special effects are solid if a bit twitchy. I just don’t see the driving force to continue this series, and Warner Brothers as of this writing has not greenlit either of the two proposed sequels to close Fantastic Beasts out, so we may end as a trilogy after all. If that’s the case, what will the legacy be for Fantastic Beasts? It feels like a franchise that started in one direction and was quickly course corrected to another, leeching the initial charm and light-hearted energy. Just like The Matrix universe, I think there are more creative stories that can be told here, but maybe it’s time to allow some fresh voices into the creative process. Maybe it’s time for Rowling to gracefully open her storytelling sandbox for others to dabble within. In many ways, it feels like the fan community and even the movies themselves have simply grown beyond Rowling.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Two new movies have been released for streaming, both coincidentally starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and both are highly political, one by design and the other through fortuitous circumstances of history regrettably repeating itself, and both are simultaneously everything you would expect from their creative forces and worth watching in our tumultuous times.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama depicting the injustices applied to a dispirit group of anti-war activists who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The various men of different backgrounds and affiliations had their reasons for being there to protest, whether it was building public support to end the Vietnam War, to gain personal publicity, or to get laid, and tensions mounted inside and out the group as the police plan to send a message, harassed protesters, and in one amazingly prescient moment, remove their badges and name tags to then inflict state-sanctioned violence. This is an Aaron Sorkin movie through and through, and his second offering as a director after 2017’s Molly’s Game, and the best thing about the Oscar-winning wordsmith is that watching one of his movies feels like you’ve just downloaded a complete syllabus. The sheer audacious density of information can be overwhelming, but when Sorkin is able to get into his well-established rhythms, the actors feel like wonderful pieces in an orchestra playing to its peak. The real-life story of the activists has plenty of juicy drama and intriguing characters and intra-group conflicts breaking open, mostly between the divided poles of political leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and counter-culture prankster Abbie Hoffman (Cohen). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen, HBO’s Watchmen) could have gotten his own movie and suffers many of the worst indignities as a member of the Black Panthers who was grafted onto the case in order to make the rest of the indicted men seem scarier by association. The consistent interference by the trial judge (Frank Langella) is shocking. It’s so transparently biased, racist, and unprofessional that I have to believe that many of these anecdotes actually happened because otherwise they seem so absurdly prejudicial that nobody would believe this happened. For a movie with such a sizeable cast of trial litigants, lawyers on both sides, friends and family, and maybe every police officer in Chicago, it’s impressive that Sorkin is able to provide so many with great Sorkin moments, meaning those grandstanding speeches, cutting one-liners, and intensive cross-examination. Not everyone is on the same level of importance. Several of the Chicago 7 are merely bodies on screen, two of the guys serve as little more than a quip-peddling Greek chorus. You sense there’s more being left out to fit into a crammed yet tidy narrative that plays to our demands for satisfying character arcs, reconciliation, and a morally stirring final stand. As a director, Sorkin doesn’t distinguish himself but he lets his meaty script and the performances of his actors get all the attention. The editing, like in Molly’s Game, can be a bit jumpy but it’s to serve the sheer size of information being downloaded during the 129 minutes. The political parallels for today are remarkable and a condemnation of our modern times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an invigorating and, at points, exhausting film going experience that can feel like a retro, overstuffed special episode of The West Wing. It’s everything you should expect and want in an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama, so if you’re already in that anxious camp then this Netflix original will be preaching to the overly verbose choir.
Secretly filmed over the past year, Sacha Baron Cohen reprises his outlandish Borat character to once again lampoon people’s not-so-hidden prejudices, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny, which seem to have only gotten worse since the first Borat movie in 2006. The flimsy story follows international journalist Borat returning to America to help improve the standing of his home nation Kazakhstan by offering his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to the Trump administration. It’s really just a platform for Cohen to adopt a series of disguises (his Borat is too recognizable) and dupe some rubes while exploiting their ignorance and patience. Much of the entertainment comes from the cringe-inducing interactions of how far Cohen and Bakalova will go, marveling at their improvisational skills and also dreading what lines they might cross next. I was laughing fairly consistently, though the schitck naturally won’t be as funny the second time around, even with a 14-year gap in movies. I was really impressed by Bakalova and her own commitment and quick-thinking, keeping pace with a pro like Cohen and really stealing the show because Borat can’t go out in public as before. There are some outrageous moments that work, like Cohen imitating a country singer leading an anti-masking crowd into a singalong with ridiculous verses, and some that simply don’t, like an ongoing stretch where Bakalova explains the appeal of masturbation to a gaggle of deadly silent Republican ladies. Sometimes the comedy seems so broadly caricatured that it’s questionable whether its helpful or harmful, especially the anti-Semitic tropes that Cohen embraces as means of satire. Saying something outrageous to an outraged or shocked party isn’t quite enough. When compiling these hidden camera comedies, they thrive on the oxygen given to them by the targets of the prank. If they don’t really engage, it can feel a bit tired and desperate. I’d say the ratio of hits-to-misses is about half and half but the movie has enough big moments to keep fans happy. The most notorious moment has already been widely disseminated through social media and serves as the climax of the movie, strangely both as the high-point of pranks with big names but also as the emotional catharsis. Tutar poses as a foreign journalist and interviews Trump surrogate Rudy “America’s mayor” Giuliani, who drinks, goes into a hotel bedroom alone with Bakalova, and then lays on the bed while slipping his hand down his pants (like a gentleman does). Borat realizes he doesn’t want to offer his daughter to this creepy, sleazy man and rescues her because he truly does care about her. Borat 2, or Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, takes a scattershot approach to satire and squarely aims at the science-denying MAGA crowd celebrating the excesses of their leader (who doesn’t sound that different from Borat, come to think of it). It might be more admirable in intent than execution but the new Borat can provide a few belly laughs and a more than a few groans as Cohen attempts to make American funny again.
Trial of the Chicago 7: B+
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: B-
It’s been deemed “Gravity in a hot air balloon” and that succinct blurb is both unfair and also entirely accurate. Based on true events, we follow a pair of nineteenth century scientists pushing the bounds of understanding when it comes to weather atmospherics. When it’s up in the clouds, The Aeronauts can be a thrilling, visually gorgeous, and viscerally compelling movie about survival. Director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) uses modern camera techniques and lenses to make this old timey survival story feel immersive and alive. The film does an agreeable job of letting an audience understand the dangers that await and the mini-goals needed to avoid those dangers as well as the rising stakes or their limited options. The special effects team on this movie perform a minor miracle with how they’re able to translate what I assume was just a balloon basket and a giant green screen stage into a soaring, visually rich landscape of awe and terror. Felicity Jones is our protagonist, a woman who yearns to be accepted as a scientist as well as recovering from a personal tragedy, and she performs some impressive feats of physical acting when the film requires her to be very limited. Her co-star Eddie Redmayne does his usual Redmayne bashful, mumbly, soft-spoken, head-tilting stuff. Where The Aeronauts suffers is that half of the movie is derived of flashbacks for both of the characters to provide motivations why they ended up in that balloon basket. Imagine if half of Gravity was watching Sanda Bullock on Earth mourning the death of her daughter and deciding whether or not to go into space. It’s filler, plain and simple, and there’s too much of it. The motivations are pretty standard (wishing to prove one’s self, earn the respect of disapproving parental figures) and the information doesn’t add to the balloon sequences, like they learned some crucial detail that ends up saving their lives. The Aeronauts is legitimately a movie I would recommend seeing on the biggest screen possible to really enjoy the arresting and nerve-wracking visuals. Also, feel free to duck out for bathroom breaks every time the movies disappointingly decides to come back to Earth.
Nate’s Grade: B
When they adjusted the Hobbit movies so there was going to be three instead of two, it required some very noticeable padding and filler material to meet out that requirement. The second Fantastic Beasts film (of a planned five film series, expanded from a trilogy) feels exactly that way, a mostly table-setting movie with more incidents than plot, a few pertinent revelations, and not much in the manner of resolution. The second Fantastic Beasts does improve on its predecessor in several regards. It introduces a formidable villain that’s well played by Johnny Depp. It introduces a compelling younger version of Albus Dumbledore that’s played by the dashing Jude Law. It also finds more purpose for its hero, the shy magical zookeeper Newt (Eddie Redmayne), as the series inches closer to a wizards-vs-wizards world war. Things take a turn for the darker; within the First Act, a baby is murdered. They didn’t even do that in the new Halloween. The larger world building of Beasts, written by author J.K. Rowling for the screen and directed by longtime stalwart David Yates, has been its biggest draw. The supporting characters are back, though not everyone has much to do. Rowling is improving as a screenwriter but she still has trouble executing exposition-heavy scenes, resorting to sequence after sequence of characters prattling on. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of consequence until the very end, so we endure characters running through underdeveloped and contrived storylines. One of these involves Katherine Waterston mistakenly believing Newt is engaged (his brother is) and somehow, despite having access to magic let alone other forms of media, never findings out the easy truth. It’s stuff like that that show me Rowling was struggling to find material for every character to push them forward on this now extended journey. Crimes of Gindelwald is an overall step in the right direction for the prequel series even if this individual movie has trouble standing on its own magical merits.
Nate’s Grade: B-
It’s not quite one of their bests but even a mid-level Aardman movie still presents enough pleasures to justify one viewing. Early Man is in that big-eyed, big-toothed stop-motion clay animation style they’re renowned for, so it makes even more visual sense that we’re following cavemen. What I wasn’t expecting was that the entire movie would be a sports film about the cavemen facing the team of elite soccer players of the Bronze Age. Once that realization settled in, I began lowering my expectations, which lowered further from the less imaginative use of comedy. I chuckled here and there but this is a comedy that relies much upon slapstick. It’s at its best when it veers off into strange tangents or really doubles down on its absurdities, like a pig posing as a masseuse or a recording pigeon that acts out its messages. The character work is pretty minimal and relies upon a lot of stock characters, with the supporting players given one trait or less. While lacking in some areas, Early Man is still an amusing story that has its moments of goofy whimsy even amidst the sports clichés. I especially enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s vocal performance as the ignorant, effete leader of the Bronze Age. It’s no Chicken Run or Pirates: Band of Misfits, but the gentle comic rhythms of an Aardman movie can still be refreshing.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-
While you watch The Danish Girl, you can feel the full weight of everybody’s good intentions. The filmmakers and cast all seem to realize that they are telling a story that will humanize and help others better understand trans issues. It’s the first sexual reassignment surgery and a community that is still fighting for wider acceptance. Nobody wants to screw up this story and do a disservice to representing the stories of the trans community. You feel the earnest good intentions with every frame, and yet I would argue those same good intentions end up paralyzing the movie and its impact.
Lili Erbe (Eddie Redmayne) is living her life as Einar Wegener, a Danish landscape painter of some renown in the 1920s. His wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is a portrait artist trying to be more than the wife of a famous painter. One day, Gerda’s model is absent and she asks Einar to step in. He puts on stockings, holds a gown to his body, and it’s a revelation. Soon after Einar is wearing women’s garments under his clothes and Gerda dresses him up with makeup and a wig. It’s a fun diversion and something of a turn-on for Gerda, and then her husband informs her that Lili isn’t the costume, Einar is. Lili tries to find a sense of explanation with disdainful psychiatrists and doctors but is deemed aberrant. Lili is struggling with this crisis of identity and self-acceptance, and then a new beginning emerges with a helpful doctor who can physically transform Lili from a man into a woman. The surgery is not without risk but Lili is willing to do whatever it takes to feel whole (note: since Lili is the chosen gender identity for the film’s subject, I shall be referring to her as Lili and using feminine pronouns).
Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) gives a suitably affecting performance that is full of empathy and a halting sense of fragility. He seems like he’s about to crumble at any moment, his nervous smile and pleading and confused eyes communicating Lili’s trepidation and flights of exciting discovery. Redmayne’s delicate androgynous features and long-limbed dancer’s body play to his strengths, as he adjusts his physicality to reflect his mind’s experimentation of what it would be like to be a woman. There’s a rather lovely visual where Lili visits a peep show in Paris. After a few minutes of bashful eye contact, she begins to mimic the peep show model’s physical poses, and the camera’s focus melts between the two. It feels like a dance between the two and in this simple visual much is communicated. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie lacks the impact of this poignant visual. Redmayne too often retreats into his stable of nervous gesticulations and halted speech. It’s a performance that feels too detached and too opaque to make you feel the full turmoil of Lili. There’s an interesting moment when, dressed as Lili, a smitten man kisses her without permission. Lili is upset at the lack of consideration, to which the man replies, “I couldn’t chance you saying no.” That little moment highlights the challenges of women in a society that doesn’t respect their agency. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t present more scenes that explore this new dynamic that Lili will have to adjust to. Instead the move repeatedly falls back on her as Brave and Strong. As presented, Lili is more catalyst than a fleshed-out character, which is remarkable considering the movie is reportedly about her struggles. Rather, the real focus of the story seems to be Gerda, who, incidentally, is the only person on screen referred to as “the Danish girl.”
Gerda is given equal attention in the screen adaptation by Lucinda Coxon (The Crimson Petal and the White), which is generous and will likely leave several viewers confused. First, Gerda is given the most complete character arc and a surprising amount of consideration for her perspective. I suppose she could be the audience’s entry point into this story, the relatable position for many audience members trying to better understand a loved one saying they were born in the wrong body. The movie presents greater empathy for Gerda’s plight than it does Lili, which is definitely unexpected and perhaps misplaced. Surely finding the courage to embrace a controversial identity that precious few will even acknowledge, let alone the bastions of contemporary medical science declaring such thinking to be signs of a degenerative brain, is a bit more of a risk than being a supportive spouse. I don’t want to mitigate Gerda’s own personal struggles dealing with the outward transformation of Einar into Lili. It’s a position that deserves deep empathy and the movie has it in spades, as we watch Gerda try to be supportive while the person she fell in love with erases himself. Vikander (Ex Machina) also kills it. Her performance is full of the breadth of emotions that I found wanting in her screen partner. Vikander’s face registers all the complicated emotions; she’s in a sense saying goodbye to her husband and a specific life they shared, and while for her it can feel like mourning, for Lili it is a rebirth. Viankder’s compassionate and nuanced performance as Gerda is the exclamation on one hell of a year for the Swedish actress.
Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) gives everything the proper stately appearance with his signature visual indulgences (the man loves his asymmetrical one-shots and generous head room in the camera frame). There are several landscapes or venues that look gorgeous or given a dream-like sense just from Hooper’s framing. His handling of his actors is first-rate, and there’s a comfortable sensuality to scenes between Einar and Gerda, further communicating just how enraptured each is with the other. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a bit over excited to explain all the many emotions you should be feeling, but other than that the technical aspects of The Danish Girl are pleasing to the senses and enhance the story. I just wish the screenplay gave us so much more to think about when it comes to Lili.
As a strange aside, I’d like to question what the MPAA is referring to with its disclaimer that The Danish Girl is R-rated for such content as “full nudity.” I understand the concept of partial nudity since you’re only seeing a fraction of the form, but what exactly makes one’s nudity full? Do they mean “complete” as in you see everything, front to back? If so, I thought that content was already covered in the oft-used term of “graphic nudity.” For you ratings aficionados out there, or people who are intrigued with arcane movie trivia like myself, I’ve discovered that “graphic” often means two things: the sight of a penis or pubic hair. If its breasts, bottoms, or female genitals absent the appearance of hair, it’s commonly categorized plainly as “nudity.” There’s likely a larger essay on why male genitals are thought of as “graphic,” and especially why seeing pubic hair on women is somehow a sight in need of more forewarning than simply “nudity,” but I’ll set that bit of cultural soul-searching aside for a later day. If you must know, there’s a brief shot of Redmayne tucking his genitals behind his legs and creating the image of a woman. I double-checked and the MPAA hasn’t revised the rating rationale for 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (also a prominent film tuck display), but I’ll let you know, dear reader, if any more information comes across my news desk on this very weird subject.
Tasteful to a fault, The Danish Girl is a reserved biopic that goes about its story with a sincere and earnest sense of responsibility. It wants to tell its story correctly instead of telling its story in the best-developed and executed fashion, and there is a difference. The performances are strong, though Viankder is the standout as the film’s surprising focus. Redmayne feels too timid and fragile to make Lili’s story resonate beyond common human compassion. The screenplay doesn’t place us insider her mind. Instead, we’re treated more to how Lili’s choices are impacting her supportive but anguished wife. In 1930, a mere four months after the fourth and final surgery, Lili died from complications related to the operation, lending a greater sense of tragedy (this fact is left out of the concluding text). It’s a movie that feels too distant even from itself. Everything is so reserved, so tasteful, so artfully opaque, so afraid of making the wrong step that The Danish Girl ends up being an Oscar-bait biopic that feels too hesitant and bloodless.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Few would dispute the imaginative powers of Andy and Lana Wachowski. They probably got a free pass from Warner Brothers after creating The Matrix, one of those culture-changing movies that come along so rarely. I was leery of Jupiter Ascending, their newest original science-fiction opus, when Warner Brothers delayed its summer release by nine months. The trailers and commercials were also doing a dandy job of hiding what exactly the movie was about besides cool visuals. I was holding out hope, thinking that maybe Jupiter would be silly but fun in a Fifth Element way, but instead ladies and gentlemen, we have an heir to 1980’s campy Flash Gordon.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an unhappy maid who cleans toilets for a living. Then one day she becomes the most important person in the universe. She discovers she is the reincarnation of the matriarch of House Abrasax, whose three children, Titus (Douglas Booth), Kalique (Tuppance Middleto), and Balem (Eddie Redmayne), are fighting over their inheritance. The biggest prize of them all is Earth, and now the appearance of Jupiter complicates ownership. Various alien species are sent to kill her, but Jupiter has a savior in disgraced galactic solider Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). He’s a “splice,” a result of gene splicing people with animals. He rescues Jupiter and they head off world to explore the much larger, much stranger universe.
Right away, mere moments after leaving the theater, I knew the first step to make Jupiter Ascending a significantly better movie: completely remove the title character. First off, her name is awful and makes me think she’d be a character in the Jetsons universe. Mostly, she’s a terrible protagonist because she is merely a fairy tale wish fulfillment masquerading as a person. Her normal life is miserable but secretly she’s a space princess who is the reincarnation of a space queen. Allow me to momentarily pause and question this line of monarchy and inheritance law. Apparently Jupiter shares some genes with the deceased Lady Abrasax, but she has no direct bloodline. Does that automatically thrust her into another family’s inheritance squabbles? Why should they even consider her claim valid? Why does that place her at the top of the pecking order? When did we start recognizing reincarnation with inheritance law?
Back to the matter at hand, Jupiter is an annoyingly weak character that’s supposed to follow the arc of weak to strong, inactive to active. Except she doesn’t. Beyond accepting her incredible new position, there’s really not much that changes for her. She remains, from start to finish, weak-willed, gullible, always in need of saving, and so wretchedly annoying and without merit. Her cousin arranges her with a doctor for Jupiter to donate her eggs, but he expects a majority of the money. Why does she need this middleman in this arrangement? It’s another reminder how dim the character is and devoid of agency. And then all of a sudden a romance materializes between her and Caine because of course it does. I use “materializes” because there is no actual setup of any kind beyond the fact that Kunis and Tatum are attractive specimens. Their romantic dialogue will produce dangerously violent eye rolls.
The Wachoswkis are certainly imaginative filmmakers but their ambitious world-building impulses get the better of them and their story. The imagination is on full display when it comes to the visuals, the production design, costumes, and alien designs. There’s a grand mixture of creatures big and small, and even an elephant pilot because why not? However, the storytelling meant to house these cool things is notably deficient. Jupiter Ascending feels less like a story that naturally develops and whose complications arise in a semi-logistical fashion. It feels like somebody guiding you on a tour of Weird Stuff. It’s not so much a story as a collection of Weird Stuff, Weird Incidents, Weird Places, and Weird Creatures. You feel like you’re being skipped off from one exhibit to another, especially when Jupiter is kidnapped and threatened by each of the three Abrasax children in a row. Seriously, the entire scenario is on repeat, so when Jupiter continues making naïve choices, you can slap yourself extra hard having been through this purgatory just moments before. It’s only a matter of time before she gives in to whatever Abrasax demands again. There’s a general sense of repetition to the plot compounded by Jupiter’s incessant need to be saved (she seems to be falling a lot, out of spaceships, buildings, vehicles, etc., which also gets tiresome). The scheming Abrasax children seem to just slide in and out as the plot requires, with little in the way of resolution.
It’s impossible to discuss the film without acknowledging how damn goofy the whole enterprise comes across. Caine is part wolf, part albino, part human, and apparently part angel since he got his wings removed as a punishment. Does that seem like a good combination of elements or like the aftermath of a drunken writing session? Let’s just run down some of these names: Jupiter Jones, Balem, Kalique, Stinger, Gemma Chatterjee, Phylo Percadium, Chicanery Night (!). To be fair, it’s not like Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader are less preposterous names. Caine has a pair of anti-gravity boots but they’re really just hovering rollerblades. There’s just something silly about watching a guy rollerblade, even if you attach a futuristic spin to it. There’s a hidden factory beneath the stormy Eye of Jupiter, and yet this same important factory seems ready made to fall apart if the slightest projectile pierces its exterior (it’s the Death Star all over again). There are weird small aliens, weird alien bounty hunters who can turn invisible but don’t, weird space police that are really bad at their jobs, weird robots with human faces, and there’s also weird stereotypical Russian immigrants for Jupiter’s obnoxious family. Perhaps all the goofy camp will enchant you but I never got onboard mostly because the story and central characters left me so thoroughly unengaged.
Another ongoing problem is that the Wachowskis are constantly telling you things rather than showing you and allowing the story to organically develop. There are no less than three times when Character A looks at Character B and literally verbalizes what they are thinking or feeling in this moment. It’s lazy screenwriting, beholden to constantly having to explain everything to an audience because either you think they are dumb or your plot is far too convoluted; either way, a problem. Such sample pieces of dialogue include these informational asides: “Bees are genetically programmed to recognize royalty,” and, mere seconds later, “Bees don’t lie.” There you have it; bees don’t lie. Now you know.
The most frustrating part of Jupiter Ascending is that there is a genuinely interesting movie buried under so much of this silly nonsense and ear-clanging noise. The starting premise that Earth is nothing more than a stock portfolio for an alien species, that’s good. The idea that a trio of siblings is squabbling over who gets their galactic inheritance, which includes the deed to Earth, that’s good. The idea that human life is seeded on planets merely to be harvested into an eternal youth elixir for the rich and powerful, that’s even better. It’s not exactly a nuanced critique of capitalism but it’ll do. I’m disappointed that we don’t find out more about a larger market for this rejuvenation technique. There has to be more customers for such a miracle product than one rich family. If this were an intergalactic King Lear or even a space version of Margin Call, it would be far more exciting and creative. Instead, the bigger ideas are grounded into pulp so that we can have more CGI-drenched action sequences. There’s one segment that tonally breaks away from the film, diving headlong into Douglas Adams-style satire on bureaucracy. Like most of the film, it has its moments of entertainment, but it comes from nowhere and has trouble fitting with everything else. I’ll give credit where it’s due and praise the special effects, as well as the overall production design. It’s too bad that the action too often feels like a bunch of pixels exploding, failing to provide a sense of immersion. It’s hard to get a feel for most of the action and its use of space, save for portions of the finale. There is one very fun and well-choreographed fight between Caine and a… dragon… sentry guy (I don’t really know what to call these winged henchmen). That fight is exciting. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them. Bring on more dragon sentry guys.
Kunis is certainly miscast on the part, though I doubt any actress could pull off such a lackluster heroine who is always needing to be rescued. Kunis is more adept in the realm of comedy (Ted) or seduction (Black Swan), neither of which is featured with Jupiter. Let me say one more reason this Jupiter Jones character is awful; part of her struggle concerns whether or not to marry a playboy space prince. I don’t know if the Wachowskis believed that Jupiter was supposed to be a “strong” figure, but reducing feminine value to her being married feels rather reductive for sci-fi (not that there isn’t a storied history of women being treated as objects of fantasy in the genre). Tatum’s (22 Jump Street) remarkable charms are dulled by his silly albino beard and general guard dog characterization. He’s less a character than a protector who inexplicably instantly falls in love with his charge. Both actors will no doubt rebound in short order.
Reserve some pity for poor Eddie Redmayne, a man who will be experiencing the highs and lows of acting this month. He’s the frontrunner to win Best Actor for his stirring work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, which is what makes his performance here even more astonishingly awful. He speaks in this effete whisper for the entire movie, one that is hardly audible at all, except for the occasional line where he screams and spasms, making the contrast all the more funny. He constantly holds his head back like he’s in danger of nosebleeds. This is a performance of such startling misdirection that I physically felt bad for Redmayne. He seemed to be reaching out to me, pleading through his glassy eyes, communicating, “Help me, help me.” Even if his character’s vocal range wasn’t so nonthreatening, Balem makes for a terrible main villain. As a rich lord with power at his disposal, he works, but late in the movie all of that is removed, and he has to be a physical threat. After 90 minutes of watching him on screen, you will never be able to see him as a credible physical threat, and even the movie doesn’t fully treat him this way, and yet the plot still places him in this role. He’s not a heavy. Balem is laughable but he’s another component of a generally laughable movie.
Jupiter Ascending is a rarity in Hollywood, a big-budget epic that overpowers you with a singular sense of style and imagination; it just so happens that so much of the creative fireworks are laughably terrible. The Wachowskis don’t do anything in half-measure, and the film is put in overdrive. There’s a mess of characters and peculiar details to make this world feel larger than life and tethered to the idea of fun. Then why oh why did we have to be saddled with such boring, one-dimensional characters and a secret princess storyline lifted from countless sources? In the past, the Wachoswkis have found ways to turn pop philosophy and pop-culture into an entertaining alchemy that separated them from the sci-fi pack of imitators, which were legion. I still have great fondness for the original Matrix (you can keep the sequels), V for Vendetta, and especially Cloud Atlas of late. The Wachowskis are ambitious filmmakers and they have the imagination and narrative sensibilities to achieve great things. It’s just that with Jupiter Ascending it feels like their real passion was in all the background artifacts, the minutia of the worlds, the alien costumes and makeup, the histories of worlds. It certainly wasn’t on a story or characters or a credible romance. And yet even after all of these words, I have to admit that Jupiter Ascending is entertaining, just not in the way its creators may have intended. It reminds me of 2014’s disastrous Winter’s Tale, a passion project that was so baffling and bafflingly terrible. If you’re curious and willing to part with some money, gather some friends and check out Jupiter Ascending. Just make sure you’ll have suitable time planned afterwards to discuss its particular brand of big screen lunacy.
Nate’s Grade: C
A biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant men in the world, stricken with ALS and given only two years to live, should be resolutely fascinating and inspirational. And it is at points, but there’s still a gnawing dissatisfaction with The Theory of Everything, a sense that there isn’t more to it, that it lacks a center, that, primarily, it should be better. The film follows Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a PhD student who immediately falls in love with Jane (Felicity Jones). Shortly after their courtship, he is diagnosed with ALS and rather than preparing for the end, he pushes forward to great intellectual discovery and achievement, though the hardships and care for his physical disability places tremendous strain on his marriage to Jane. The film does a nice job of examining how a relationship comes to an end and without having to cite one party or another as a villain. It’s so measured and understanding and empathetic, but it’s also somewhat docile and hesitant, keeping its distance when it could dive deeper into Hawking and his family. Theory is far too reliant upon the tropes of biopics, speeding through significant moments for Stephen and Jane with an almost comical degree (watch how quickly the kids multiply). The moments that stray from this formula are the ones that stick the most, like a shocking moment where Stephen exits his chair to pick up a fallen pencil, a striking and poignant moment so effectively communicating the desires of its character. The film needed more creative detours. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has a good command of his visuals but I was left wanting a more daring approach to a story of human endurance, like 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The real reason to watch the film is the amazing performance by Redmayne (Les Miserables). The physical control he’s able to have over his body in the latter stages is astounding, but his performance is much more than just a collection of tics. There’s a moment late in the film where, even in his limited facial configuration, he breaks your heart with the richness of his acting. It’s such a great performance that you just wish the rest of The Theory of Everything could measure up.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I have no qualms with my heterosexual nature to make the following statement: I love a good musical. Why shouldn’t I? None other than Martin Scorsese said any true film lover is a fan of horror movies and musicals, two genres uniquely suited to the visual flourishes of cinema. My tastes tend to run toward the more offbeat, like Avenue Q and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd and Dancer in the Dark. My favorite movie musical of all time is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, but that’s probably because I’m a movie lover first and foremost. A well-done movie musical can sweep you off your feet. The polarizing Moulin Rouge! is still my favorite film of 2001; I love every messy, ambitious, transporting second of it. And that’s what the best musicals and, in general, best films achieve: they transport us to another realm. Since the success of 2002’s Chicago, there’s been a run of hit-or-miss movie musicals proliferating the big screen. It’s hard to think of any longstanding Broadway hits that have yet to make the leap (you’ll get your turn, Book of Mormon). Of course it also works the other way, with plenty of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, like Shrek, Elf, Ghost, Catch Me if You Can, Newsies, A Christmas Story, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and Tony-winner for Best Musical, Once. Then you get movies turned into musicals and back into movie musicals, like The Producers and Hairspray. It seems like Broadway and Hollywood are stuck in a loop, feeding off one another’s spoils.
In 2012, two high-profile musicals got the big screen treatment: Rock of Ages and Les Miserables. The former is from 2009 whereas the latter is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, beginning in 1980 and spanning continents. Rock of Ages was savaged by critics and bombed at the box-office, whereas Les Miz is soaring this holiday season and is seen as a major Oscar contender. Of course one of these films is about the outrage of the lower classes being exploited by an unfair system that benefits the rich, and the other has Tom Cruise and a monkey named “Hey Man.” Having seen both films recently, and Les Miserables more than once, I think they present an interesting discussion on the pitfalls of adapting a popular theatrical show to film. You won’t have to wait long to figure out which movie succeeds and which falters badly.
Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. Prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is nearing the end of his twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced Valjean will never reform and go back to a life of crime. After help from a kindly bishop, Valjean flees his parole and sets up a new life as a businessman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s workers, gets thrown out and tumbles down a chain of regrettable circumstances. She becomes a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean recognizes poor Fantine on the street and, horrified at his own neglect leading her to this path, takes it upon himself to care for her and her daughter. Years later, the teenaged Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen for the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius enlists his good friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help find out who Cosette is, all the while ignorant that Eponine is clearly in love with him. The young people of France are riled up about class abuses and exploitation, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. Javert is also becoming suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, so Valjean feels the need to flee once again. However, Cosette’s love and the bravery of the young revolutionaries makes Valjean decide to stop running from his past.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made the ballsy but ultimately brilliant decision to have his performers sing live. Every line, every note, every performance is captured in the moment; there is nary a second of lip-synching. I cannot overstate how blessed this decision was. It places the emphasis on the performances, and that’s exactly what something as big and deeply felt as Les Miserables required for the big screen. Look, Hollywood actors are never going to be able to outdo trained and professional theatrical singers. What I expect from movie stars is movie-star level performances, and Hooper understands this. These actors aren’t playing to the cheap seats, belting the tunes with power and over exaggerated dramatics (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style given the theatrical setting). In many ways, this is a more intimate Les Miserables, and it still maintains its charms and magic. There is no choreography, short of perhaps the more jovial “Master of the House” number, and Hooper puts us right in the muck of life in a 19th century impoverished slum. This is one dirty movie with lots of grimy period details, creating a reality that can only be implied on stage. The more visceral version of Les Miserables demands performances that are more naturalistic and less bombastic, to a degree. I am a cinephile first but I genuinely prefer my musicals with trained actors to trained singers. A great actor can add so much inflection and personality through the prism of song, whereas a great singer is concentrating on the notes first and foremost. I value performance over nailing the mechanics, and more movie musicals should follow Hooper’s path. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do the movie musical experience right.
I don’t know if Hooper was exactly the right man for the job but he certainly does the beloved stage show justice. Hooper’s visual tics are still present. The man loves to film in close-ups and at all sorts of tilted Dutch angles; he also loves filming a conversation between two people where neither one will be in the same shot. It’s a peculiarity that I never really warmed up to. However, Hooper generally has the best interests of his movie at stake, capitalizing on the large outpouring of feeling. This is a Big Musical with big emotions, and it’s easy to be swept up in its exuberant earnestness and humanism. It even has a famous concluding line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at under lesser circumstances. Now, thinking back, you’ll realize that many of these people were simply painfully naïve and that there was a slew of death for no good reason. Purists may chafe at some altered lyrics and truncated songs, but really this is pretty much the closest version of the famous stage show you’ll ever see adapted. Not one of the songs has been cut (in fact a new one was written for the film by the original composers), and at a lengthy 157 minutes, it’s practically as long as the stage show, and just about sung through every moment. There are probably ten total lines that are merely spoken. I predict hardcore Les Miz fans will lap up every second.
Les Miserables also boasts some fortuitous casting (Taylor Swift at one point was rumored to be up for a role… shudder), none more than Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises). She is nothing less than perfect as Fantine. There isn’t a false note during any of her acting. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful, so breathtaking, so intensely felt, that it ranks up there with some of the best moments in all of 2012 movies. And oh can this woman sing her ass off too. You feel every flicker of anger and devastation, the grain in her voice, on the verge of tears and fury. This woman deserves every accolade they can come up with this year. This woman is a total lock for Best Supporting Actress. She’s wonderful during every moment of her screen time and the lengths and emotional ferocity of her performance, and subsequent pitfalls the character endures, left me reaching for the tissues at several points.
The other standout amidst a pretty stellar cast is Barks. This is her first film work though she has plenty of experience with her character, portraying Eponine in the 25th anniversary run of Les Miserables. Her singing is terrific, as you’d imagine, but her acting is just as strong. Her rendition of “On My Own” is a showstopper of a number. Barks naturally transitions to the demands of film. I was completely on Team Eponine and found her to be an infinitely better catch than Cosette. After people get a glimpse of this woman, she is going to get plenty more acting offers, and a few concerned inquiries into the size of her waist, which at times looks like it might be the size of The Rock’s neck. Hooper also has the good sense to film both “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” in unbroken takes; focus tightly pinned on our outstanding actresses, letting the skill of their performances sell the big emotions.
Of course the crux of the tale rests on two men, Valjean and Javert, and the rest of the cast does kind of get saddled in underdeveloped roles made more apparent as a movie. It seems blasphemous to say I was a little disappointed with both lead actors. Crowe (Robin Hood) is easily the weakest singer of the cast but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He has a lower register and sings his parts like a rock musician rather than a Broadway player. Fans of the stage show will have to adjust their expectations for a more subdued Javert. Still, having an actor of Crowe’s talents is definitely a plus even if his singing is adequate. Jackman (Real Steel) is a Tony-winning thespian, so I held him to a higher standard. He’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jean Valjean, and Jackman does an admittedly fine job with the bigger emotional parts. I just expected more from his vocal abilities but it’s not a major detraction. As my mother noted, it’s not too difficult to spot the classically trained singers in the cast. Also, for eagle-eyed Les Miz fans, look for the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop in this movie.
There is the tricky nature of translating a Broadway production into some variance of period reality. There’s plenty of relevance with the class struggle illustrated in the second half of the movie (Bane would approve). It’s an obvious statement but film is a different medium than the theater and affords different opportunities. The depressing reality of lower class life and the vultures that preyed on others is striking, yes, but sort of conflicts with the comic relief characters represented by the scheming Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). When the seriousness of the period is inflated, they feel like they sort of belong in a different movie. Then there’s just the conflict between stage reality and film reality. On the stage we’ll accept Marius falling madly in love with Cosette at first sight. When it’s on film, the guy comes across as a callous chump, oblivious to Eponine’s pining. He ignores the friend he’s had for years for some blonde in a bonnet. And the final number, reuniting all the dead cast members, works better as a curtain call than a finale to a film. These are just the quirks of theater one must just accept. I wouldn’t say the songs and music is in the same category as Sondheim or Webber, but there are definitely some hummable tunes here made all the more swooning. You’ll have a fine pick of songs to get stuck in your head for days (mine: “Look Down”).
Earlier this year, Rock of Ages came and quickly left the box-office, failing to make a splash with the American public despite a healthy enough run on Broadway and touring the country. The stage show is a jukebox musical set to the head-banging tunes of 1980s hair metal. Adam Shankman, the director behind the bouncy and thoroughly entertaining 2007 Hairspray movie musical, was tasked with bringing Rock of Ages to the screen with the same finesse. Cherie (Julianne Hough) a hopeful singer just off the bus from Oklahoma, meets up with Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice kid who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a rock club running afoul with the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The club owners (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) are relying on fickle, burned-out, taciturn, and overall mysterious rock legend Stacy Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save their club from financial ruin. Along the way, Cherie and Drew look for their big breaks, fall in love, get pulled apart, and reunite in time for one final sendoff to leave the audience tapping their toes.
Allow me to elucidate on my main problem with the rise in jukebox musicals: I find them to be, with rare exception, exceedingly lazy. The musical number is meant to advance the narrative and give insights into character and situation, just like any other aspect of plot. You’ll find great original tunes that do this. When you’re dealing with pop songs that the public is well familiar with, then your job becomes even harder, and I find many are just not up to the task. Too often jukebox musicals are designed to merely string together a pre-packaged and time-tested number of hit songs, utilizing the faintest of narrative threads to get from one song to the next. The appeal of jukebox musicals lies not with the story or characters but waiting for the next recognizable song and wondering how it will, poorly, fit into this new context. You’ll notice that these jukebox musicals seem to have twice as many song numbers. They know their selling point, and more singing means less time spent developing characters and story. And so my impression of the jukebox musical is one of a cynical cash grab following the bare minimum of narratives to achieve the status of musical so it can be resold with low risk. I’m simplifying things in my ire, yes, but there’s a definite reason that jukebox musicals have sprouted like mad in the past few years. They don’t require as much work and the audience seems to hold them to a lesser standard. Much like the worst of Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans), it seems just recognizing the familiar has become the core draw of entertainment.
And this is one of the main problems with Rock of Ages. I’ve never seen the stage show, but my God for something that purports to live the rock and roll lifestyle, it’s certainly so tame and scrubbed clean of anything dangerous. This feels like your grandparents’ idea of what “modern” rock music is. After a cursory search online, I’ve found that the movie makes some significant changes to convert a story about rock and roll hedonism into sanitized family friendly fare (spoilers to follow, theatergoers): apparently in the stage version, Cherie and Jaxx had sex, Jaxx remains a creep and flees the country on statutory rape charges, though before that he and Cherie share a lap dance/duet to “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” the family values crusader characters were new inventions, the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, the best singer in the film) is considerably beefed up to provide Jaxx his happy ending, and they don’t even use the song “Oh Cherie.” I’m not a stickler for adaptation changes, but clearly it feels like Rock of Ages had every edge carefully sanded down to reach out to the widest array of mainstream filmgoers (Shankman says he cut Cherie’s lap dance number because it tested poorly with mothers). The funny part is that the movie lambastes a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) for playing to demo numbers, shooting for pandering mass appeal rather than the art, man. Feel the hypocrisy.
The first hour of Rock of Ages is mildly passable mostly because of the goofy supporting cast, but then the movie just keeps going, getting more and more tedious with every protracted minute. The second half involves Cherie and Drew apart and finding new lows; for him it’s selling his soul to join in a boy band, and for her it’s selling herself, working as a stripper. Let’s look back at that sentence. One of those life choices is not nearly as upsetting as the other. Nothing against the hard-working strippers in this country, but Cherie taking to the pole is definitely more of a moral compromise for the character than whatever the hell Drew endures. It’s this leaden second hour that made me lose faith that Rock of Ages would even provide a morsel of cheesy entertainment. It has the misfortune of two of the blandest leads I’ve ever seen in a musical. Hogue (Footloose) and Boneta (Mean Girls 2) are both physically blessed specimens of human genetics, but oh are these kids boring boring boring. Their love story is completely malnourished and you couldn’t scrape together one interesting thing about them combined. The fact that Rock of Ages further strips away any interesting personality from Cherie (see above) makes them even more disastrously boring. To be stuck with these two for another hour of vapid griping, only to magically get back together, is interminable. Thank God they pumped up the side characters because that is the only time when Rock of Ages even challenges for your attention. Cruise isn’t the best singer but he’s pretty good belting out 80s rock hits, and the man has his natural charisma and stage presence to spare.
So I guess where Rock of Ages goes wrong, and where Les Miserables succeeds, is thinking of how best to translate the experience of the stage to the medium of film. Shankman does a pitiful job staging his musical numbers, with lackluster choreography that rarely takes advantage of the sets and characters. Worse, Shankman feels like he strays from the tone and angle of the stage show, sanitizing the rock and roll lifestyle and looking for ways to squeeze in bland happy endings. In other words, he doesn’t capture enough of the essence of the original stage show to please neophytes and fans of the Broadway show. With Les Miserables, I think most fans of the stage show, and they are legion, will walk away feeling satisfied with the results, content that real artists treated the long-running musical with justice. Hooper opens up the world of the stage show, utilizing the parameters of film, and the emphasis on performance over singing mechanics maximizes the unique power of film. Les Miserables is a grand movie musical smartly adapted to the opportunities of film. Rock of Ages is a sloppy, neutered, criminally boring mess poorly developed and poorly translated to the silver screen. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Oh, and guys, if you see Les Miserables, it will get you super laid with your girlfriend (I have anecdotal evidence).
Les Miserables: B+
Rock of Ages: C-