Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Given the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise, further adventures from the famous boy wizard seemed inevitable. It’s to J.K. Rowling’s credit, then, that she resists the temptation to simply pick up where she left off and instead open up an entirely new saga in a new era and a new location. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might lack the emotional heft of its predecessor, but with some dark twists and a generous helping of Rowling’s inexhaustible imagination, it has a beguiling magic all its own.

It helps that this new adventure is far removed from Hogwart’s ever shifting corridors with the action apparating to New York during the Roaring Twenties. The Big Apple is as dazzling as ever, the ornate period trappings infused with Rowling’s incredible knack for fantastical world building. Inanimate objects spring to life all over the place, odd creatures pop up in the background and every frame looks like it’s been sprinkled with fairy dust, creating a world that feels warmly familiar and yet fresh and enticing at the same time.

Into this bustling metropolis stumbles Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, the wizarding world’s foremost magizoolologist on the last leg of an expedition to examine the globe’s most magical beasts. Redmayne is impeccable casting as wizarding-Hugh Grant Newt, a fumbling, well-mannered Brit who’s better with animals than people. He’s certainly an endearing presence but doesn’t quite convince as the courageous hero needed to carry a franchise. Perhaps he should ask his old pal Professor Dumbledore for help?

Fresh off the boat, he bumps into walking comic relief Jacob, a NoMaj who carries a suitcase indentical to Newt’s own Tardis-inspired luggage. The inevitable mix up and ensuing slapstick attempts to recapture Newt’s escaped critters is the film’s weakest part. The ‘beasts’ are impressively bonkers – snake birds, clingy saplings, a kleptomaniac platypus – but they feel entirely irrelevant in comparison to the darker events happening elsewhere.

Those hoping to be distracted from the US election’s bitter fallout will be dismayed to find the themes of prejudice and intolerance rear their ugly heads again. A shadowy opening forewarns of dark magician Grindewald ransacking muggle targets across Europe while American authorities MACUSA, led by imperious President Seraphina Picquery, scramble to keep their people concealed. Meanwhile, Picquery’s top agent Graves (Collin Farell) investigates a powerful force that seems to be levelling parts of Manhatten at random.

Many of these supporting players offer more impact than the leads. This is especially true of Samantha Mortan’s cruel Mary Lou Barebone, who uses her Oliver-style orphanage to spread the word of her anti-witch cult The Second Salemers, and Ezra Miller’s tortured Credence, who suffers the brunt of her abuse.

If Fantastic Beasts pales in comparison to Harry Potter in any area, it’s the near complete absence of emotional stakes. Whereas Harry versus Voldemort was a battle steeped in a long, bitter history, these characters are so far removed from each other that their supposed connection fails to resonate. We’re left with yet another CGI monster obliterating skyscrapers in place of a thematically poignant resolution.

Not that any of this is ruinous; far from it. Despite its flaws, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers unparalleled visuals and a dazzling ambition that’s been sorely missing these past few years. And with much of the heavy lifting now out of the way, there’s plenty of room to explore the saga’s darker angles in future instalments. On the basis of what we’ve seen here, this adventure will have us all spell-bound for years to come.

 

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Arrival

If you thought you were in for an ordinary alien invasion movie, Arrival wastes no time in subverting your expectations. Rather than the typical sci-fi blockbuster bombast – here the world’s landmarks remain firmly rooted to their foundations – the arrival of the movie’s potentially threatening E.T.s is heralded by a series of smartphone notifications rippling out among a group of stunned college students. It’s a fantastically grounded approach that’s emblematic of a movie that has more on its mind than the next attention-grabbing set-piece. And while director Denis Villeneuve sometimes overwhelms the plot with complexities, in an era of identikit sequels, a little ambition and innovation is more than welcome.

Expanded from a Ted Chiang short story, Arrival follows Amy Adams’ Dr Louise Banks, a world-renowned linguist who has seemingly shut herself off from the world after the heart-wrenching death of her teenage daughter and now buries herself in work to avoid confronting her pain. But before you scrunch up your nose at this grieving hero cliche, rest assured that Louise’s emotional thread is inventively connected with the plight of Earth’s unexpected guests. The downside of this complicated backstory is that it makes it hard for Louise’s grief to fully resonate, and it’s fortunate that Villeneuve has Adams on hand to convincingly sell her sadness, confusion and frustration with exceptional subtlety.

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Louise is shoved out of her funk when Forest Whitaker’s sceptical military chief choppers onto her lawn to request her help in deciphering the inky coffee-mug-stain symbols of the aliens’ language. It turns out each of the dozen rocky alien monoliths that suddenly appeared at random points across the globe open a hatch every 18 hours, allowing a delegation of scientists into their gravity-bending interior. The heptapods, as they are called, are an unnerving yet majestic creation, resembling a mix of octopus, whale and gnarled fingers, who emerge from a foreboding sea of swirling white mist to converse with their reluctant hosts.

Given the film explores such heady concepts as linguistics and semantics, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the plot is heavy going at times, particularly during Louise’s first interactions with the Heptapods which get bogged down in the need to lay the building blocks of language in order to move forward. But then we get to a stunning mid-film revelation that turns everything we thought we knew on its head. Suddenly, all the mysteries we’ve been bombarded with so far – Why are the aliens here? Why only 12 pods? – finally gain clarity. The plot also benefits from the imposition of a ticking clock, adding a much-needed sense of urgency and propulsion as Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (a suitably charming Jeremy Renner) race to understand the Heptapods’ message before the Chinese and the Russians blow their nuclear loads.

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Arrival is a beautifully crafted experience that challenges viewers to think differently, and yet unfolds with the breathless intensity of thriller. And like all the best sci-fi movies, it has more to say about humanity than it does its alien visitors; most pertinently, about the importance of communication, co-operation and trust in order to cross cultural divides and resolve the world’s most challenging problems. At a time when our planet feels more divided than every before, that’s message that’s well worth taking the time to hear.

Runtime: 116 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 10 November 2016;

Director: Denis Villeneuve; Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer;

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

The Accountant

After two disappointing outings as an antihero – in 2003’s disastrous Daredevil and this year’s overblown Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ben Affleck must be hoping it’s third time’s the charm with this clunky and transparent attempt to give autistic youngsters their very own cinematic action hero.

On the surface, Affleck’s titular number cruncher Christian Wolff appears to be your garden-variety everyman. A middle-aged, middle class suburbanite, he runs a small accountancy firm in a quiet town and helps the local farmers work the tax system just enough to make ends meet. But like almost any superhero you’d care to mention, Christian also has an extraordinary alter-ego that belies his modest day job.

You see, Christian has a highly-functioning form of autism. And in cinematic terms that means he’s not just a gifted math whizz who struggles with social interactions; he’s also a highly-skilled, incredibly deadly assassin who uses his Special Set of Skills to uncook the books of some of the most dangerous criminal organizations around the world. But when the Treasury, led by J.K. Simmons grouchy agent and Cynthia Addai-Robinson’s plucky rookie, starts sniffing around his shady affairs, Christian reluctantly agrees to track down some missing millions for a legit robotics company in the hope of throwing his pursuers off the scent.

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What follows is a lunkheaded cross between an intolerably dry finance drama and a wacky action thriller as Christian and Anna Kendrick’s naive junior accountant uncover an internal embezzlement scheme that can only be brought down by crunching fist-fights, exuberant shoot-outs and a trash can full of magic markers. These John Wick-esque fight scenes are where The Accountant is at its most entertaining by far, turning Affleck’s rigid pencil-pusher into an outlandish action hero as he glides through moves with silky smooth precision, rolling, ducking and grappling through a hail of bullets and racking up a body count that would make Keanu Reeves baulk. It’s only when director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) tries to draw deeper meanings out of his nonsensical plot that the film starts to falter.

Of primary concern is what exactly O’Connor is attempting to say about people with autism. On the one hand, The Accountant gets a lot of things right in its depiction of the condition. Christian is uncomfortable with eye contact, struggles with social cues and flies into a tantrum whenever he is unable to complete a task. Most refreshingly, he also learns to modify his behaviour in order to cope relatively comfortably with everyday life.

But then we get to those schlocky dust-ups in the films final third where Christian enters full Kill Bot-mode, which seems to confuse a difficulty in expressing empathy with the inability to actually feel it. There’s certainly an argument to be made for this type of bonkers action hero using Asperger’s as his super-power, but the suggestion that Christian is somehow abnormal because of his condition sits uncomfortably with his otherwise rounded portrayal.

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Affleck at least makes a decent fist of the role, convincing as both a calculated mercenary as well as handling his character’s more emotional beats, but his supporting cast sadly lack shading and believable motivations to really register. The financial conspiracy side of things also underwhelms, relying heavily on cliche-riddled plot twists, while the infrequent flashbacks to Christian’s troubled childhood with a stereotypical military father – who of course tries to toughen up his son using martial arts training – seem to express an unsettlingly crass notion that we should be surprised a person with autism would care about his family.

There are a lot of bold and ambitious ideas driving The Accountant but an inauspicious combination of botched revelations and muddled characterization makes following it more confusing than filling out a tax return and only marginally more fun.

Runtime: 128 mins; Genre: Action/Thriller; Released: 4 November 2016;

Director: Gavin O’Connor; Writer: Bill Dubuque;

Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K Simmons, Jon Bernthal

This review was first featured on FlickFeast.com