Category: Movies

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the 2018 sequel to the 2016’s film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The second attempt at expanding the Harry Potter’s universe by J.K. Rowling has been received with mix sentiment at best. Much has been said about the multimillionaire author’s casting choices and changes to the Harry Potter lore, but beyond all that, Crimes of Grindelwald suffers from something far worse: missed potential.

Director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling, who have worked together since Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, reunite to continue Newt Scamander’s story. Along with returning actors such as Eddie Redmayne (Newt), Ezra Miller (Credence), Dan Fogler (Jacob) and Katherine Waterson (Tina), Crimes of Grindelwald officially introduces Johnny Deep as the titular villain and Jude Law as a younger, dashier version of Albus Dumbledore.

The film opens with a spectacular magical prison break that promises a far different movie, then briefly returns to Newt. Six months after his New York adventure, the wizard has been banned from traveling internationally but is offered the opportunity to regain his status if he agrees to hunt down Credence. He categorically refuses to do so, instead deciding to take upon Dumbledore’s mission – to help Credence instead of killing him.

But this is merely one of the many plots we are expected to follow. An intricate web of motivations and politics, Crimes of Grindelwald attempts to explain itself between beast-filled action scenes and long-drawn expositional dialogue. With four main characters, five secondary characters, and a small group of villains, the script pulls and pushes us around from one set piece to another, assuming the viewer will care enough to pay attention.

Sometimes James Newton Howard’s score will become whimsical, announcing a pause to the dreary events and the start of funny little sequences where the titular fantastical beasts decide to pop up and make themselves known. But those are short and often too disconnected from everything else. They feel like a desperate attempt at connecting the radically different promises the series has made to its audience.

Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them also suffered from a lack of focus, but at least it had its heart in the right place, taking its time to introduce the main four characters and establish their dynamics. Unfortunately, the sequel keeps them separated for a good portion of the movie and they disappear among everything else. No matter what was happening, Harry, Ron, and Hermione faced it together, coming up with plans and sharing information. Unlike them, Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie have the tendency to keep things to themselves and wander off alone.

The real frustration is that Crimes of Grindelwald has exciting and compelling stories to tell. One of the new side characters, Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), has a powerful backstory, yet in a movie stuffed with so many subplots to the point there is no clear main plot, she spends most of the time standing around. The same can be said for Credence and Nagini (Claudia Kim), Voldemort’s future snake pet, who are together in most scenes but rarely interact in a meaningful way.

The problem with a mystery story that takes this long to unravel itself is that while the ending might make sense, the journey to get that is cluttered with red herrings and dead ends. It seems J.K. Rowling has forgotten that what made her previous series magical had nothing to do with secret siblings and blood packs, and everything to do with small victories and character moments. Whatever mystery Harry had to face, he and his friends would be the focus. The political machinations and betrayals of adults remained in the background, merely supporting the main trio’s journey.

This time J.K. Rowling is less concerned with character growth and more determined to tell Dumbledore’s backstory through the eyes of poor Newt, whose shy and introverted nature might’ve offered a different kind of journey, challenging Hollywood’s formulaic heroes, but in this particular plot feels lost and reactive. With three more movies planned, it’s hard to dismiss the series altogether, yet one must wonder if there’s enough interest to keep audiences coming back. Will the increasingly convoluted plots scare away casual viewers? And will Rowling’s constant changes to her own lore turn her fans against the series? It’s too early to tell, but perhaps too late to fix it.

Crimes of Grindelwald give us thousands of pieces of different puzzles, and as such, we never have the chance to see the entire picture. Too concerned to move its pawns to the right places at the right times, the movie never stops to tell us why we should care.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Film Review

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a 2016 comedy adventure film written and directed by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows), starring Sam Neill and Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2). A light-hearted tale with an edge, the film showcases Waititi’s ability to balance dark humor and the fantastical with broader themes, such as coming of age, grieving, family, and abandonment issues. Surprisingly heartfelt, the film also offers plenty of action.

Brought to a remote farm by Paula, a child-services worker, Ricky is a troubled foster kid with a history of bad behavior. This new family, an eccentric outdoorsy couple, is his last shot before being sent to juvenile lockup. Despite his initial misgivings and a botched attempt at escaping, Ricky quickly warms up to Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata). Her husband Hector (Neil) however, does his best to keep the boy at arm’s length. Things seem to be going well, but then Bella dies suddenly, leaving both Ricky and Hector feeling adrift. Desperate not to go to juvenile prison, Ricky strikes out alone into the bush to avoid child-services. Begrudgingly, Uncle Hector goes after him and, thanks to a series of misunderstands, a national manhunt for them begins.

The movie is a canopy of heartfelt connections and off-putting jokes, not leaning too much on either element, but just enough that the journey is an interesting one. The relationship between Hector and Ricky never feels overdone, and while neither character grows or changes over the course the story, they certainly soften enough to each other in a way that feels entirely natural. When placed next to a maelstrom of crazy and wacky characters, they become the much-needed straight-man. This doesn’t mean they are too serious themselves as even Hector occasionally joins in on the fun.

Waititi’s referential humor is on full display, with nods to The Lord of the Rings, Pixar’s Up, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, classic 80’s New Zealand manhunt movies, Shane Black, gangster and rap culture. This pastiche of influences is mirrored on his directional choices of camera and soundtrack, as he commits entirely to music montages and lightning-fast cuts that highlight his comedy. These techniques are a departure from his other work but signal his desire to explore different styles and not to limit himself as a director.

Similar to his previous work on What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi blends the outrageous with a grounding reality, but unlike the supernatural society in his vampire comedy, the bush and the country of New Zealand don’t offer the same leeway for wackiness, which results in a slightly more schizophrenic tone that could put off part of the audience. In one moment, Paula and the police offer chasing Ricky and Hector arrive on a tank. In another, a literal Bushman appears out of nowhere to facilitate the movie’s third act. While still very much amusing and exciting, some of it pushes the limit of credulity a bit too far. When reality comes knocking in, the stark contrast might feel sudden to the average viewer. But those more familiar with Waititi’s influences might appreciate his use of the tropes to the betterment of his characters and humor.

Overall, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fun, engaging narrative that contains Waititi’s usual off-putting humor and brings out an excellent performance from both Neil and Dennison. A must-see for any fan of Waititi’s work as well anyone interested in a different kind of journey into the beautiful wilderness of New Zealand. But a fair warning for those who care about animals: this movie is surprising cruel to wild boars, and it does contain a dog’s death.

Six Badass Female Characters in Horror and Thriller Movies

The horror and thriller genre have long been seen as the worst offenders of female victimhood exploitation, with its female characters screaming at the screen as they are dragged off into the dark. But since the 70’s, these victims began to fight back. The era of the “Final Girl” was born and after that, its evolution continued.

What is a good, strong female character is always shifting, as feminist theory and its opponents struggle in a never-ending battle for this elusive creature. My list of badass female characters might not be your list, but I tried to be fair to these characters. My requirement is simple: in the context of their movie, are they badass? 

If the character has shown intelligence, bravery, or acted logically with the information given to them, they are probably badass. With one caveat: the movie does not sexualize their suffering, punish them for their sexuality (or “femininity”), nor objectify them with the camera. A character can be the final girl and kill the villain, but if the movie doesn’t respect them as characters, they are not good representation and, thus, are not badass to me.

With that in mind, my chosen six badass female characters are:

Clarice (The Silence of the Lambs)

(Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

The movie spends a considerable amount showing us Clarice in vulnerable positions. She’s tasked with dealing with the manipulative Lecter, has semen throw in her face, and needs to reveal extremely personal information to a cannibal in order to continue the case and save a girl’s life. Despite this, Clarice never falters in her mission. She meets all her challenges with determination and uses her intelligence to retrieve clues from Lecter as well to find Buffalo Bill. What makes Clarice such a great character is that her small appearance and gender are used as a source of tension, but not of titillation. She comes off as delicate, yet because of this, her victories are all that more impressive. She refuses to bow down to the expectation of fragility, which makes her truly badass.

Maddie (Hush)

(Hush, 2016)

Maddie is another character whose apparent fragility (being deaf) is used as a tool to build tension, but in a twist, Maddie quickly proves that assumption to be grossly wrong. Even the villain underestimates her, and for this, he pays. Smart, resourceful, brave, and above all, human, she fights for her survival until the very end. The movie pulls no punches: Maddie is hurt multiple times and fails at escaping and overcoming her attacker. Yet, she doesn’t give up the fight. Using all tool available to her (including her writer’s mind and an alarm for the deaf), she survives. Despite not having a lot of dialogue, Maddie’s personality is revealed via her actions. Witty and smart, we root for her since the start.

Ripley (Alien)

(Ripley, Alien. Saving cats since 1979)

Any list of badass characters without Ripley would be a failure. Ripley represents a major step for female characters in Hollywood. Originally written as a male, Ripley challenged a lot of stereotypes of the time (some which continue to this day). Her gender is only one aspect of her character, and she’s not defined by the usual female roles (damsel in distress, eye candy, and monster bait). We see her clash with others, we see her struggle, we see her tired and scared. Ripley proved a female protagonist could be successful in the box office and with audiences. And it’s almost criminal that she’s still so alone in the pantheon of kickass heroines.

Lorraine (The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2)

(Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring 2)

With great power comes great responsibility, and that isn’t just for Marvel superheroes. Lorraine is, in some ways, a superhero herself. Her supernatural abilities are a great toll on her, yet, she uses them for good again and again. Despite being a target of danger, Lorraine and her husband work to help people and quell murderous spirits. While she’s scared of the evil she attracts, she always tries to comfort others and make them feel safe. She and her husband make a great couple, always trusting and supportive of each other (a rarity in horror movies). Her empathy and courage are why she’s a hero and a badass one.

Erin (You’re Next)

(You’re Next, 2011)

The outsider to the machinations and betrayals of a rich family, Erin has no inclination to become another victim of the bloodthirsty assassins that invade her boyfriend’s house. Revealing herself to be more than the girlfriend character, she transforms the house into a bobby-trapped nightmare and manages to rack the biggest kill count of all the characters in this list. A true heroine of the slasher genre, her actions end in blood and gory bits. Among a cast of annoying and unlikeable characters, Erin shines brightly as the daughter of a survivalist who’s ready to do what it takes to make to the end of the movie.

Casey (Split)

(Split, 2016)

Kidnapped by a man with a multiple personality disorder, Casey has to learn to navigate his psyche in order to find a way to survive and escape her captivity. She keeps her cool and manages to hold off the “Beast” as long as possible, never surrendering to fear. Around her, a cast of other victimized female characters also display smarts and bravery but fall short of the supernatural threat they face. While “spared” by the Beast in the end, Casey would have not stopped fighting even against immeasurable odds. Her history of abuse isn’t glorified; instead it adds another layer to her character.

The Force Awakens vs A New Hope – How similar are they really?

Star Wars The Force Awakens Review

The Force Awakens is fantastic. It’s a fun, funny, cute, emotional, thrilling movie that encapsulated everything Star Wars should be about. I enjoyed a lot and cannot wait for episode VIII. But it has been going around that it’s too similar to A New Hope and not original enough.

Now, the first time I left the theater, I had this same impression. Starkiller base, the hologram of an evil Emperor, a masked villain, the cantina scene, the desert, ice, and forest planets… But by the second viewing, I focused a lot more on what on what was new and was able to enjoy it even more.

Of course, it’s undeniable that The Force Awakens references many things of the original trilogy, but does it outright copies A New Hope? And, in the end, does it really matter if it does?

Well, it seems that the answer is: yes and… no. Let’s analyze both movies and see where they are similar.


The Revenge of the Three Act Structure

Starkiller Base and the Death Star

A New Hope has a very clear, straightforward plot. A boy is called on a journey, refuses it but has no choice but to face the dangers ahead to become a hero. He loses his mentor along the way but overcomes many challenges, learning something about himself and his abilities to triumph.

This translates into three fundamental acts. Act 1: Introduction of the world, the characters, and the dangers they will face. Act2: The first challenge and lowest point for the hero (mentor dies, or the hero is defeated). Act 3: Rise and triumph against Evil.

Bam. That’s the plot of A New Hope. It’s also the plot of The Force Awakens. Rey is called on a journey, refuses, but has no choice but to leave home and become a hero. In middle point of the plot, she loses (is captured), then learns about herself and her powers to triumph against the villain.

Like A New Hope, The Force Awakens relies heavily on the Three-Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey.

But there’s more…

The Attack of the References

BB-8 and R2D2

I mentioned earlier that The Force Awakens references a lot of elements from the Original Trilogy. These are not wink-wink moments at the audience, and apart from the obvious references (Kylo’s mask, BB-8 being the new R2D2, the hologram chess game, Luke’s training sphere, etc.), they are completely integrated into the plot. Which means if you take out them, the whole house of cards falls…

Not only the structure is similar, but the plot beats follow A New Hope’s timeline almost perfectly. I saw the older movie (the Special Edition sadly), took a few notes and then went back to see The Force Awakens. It’s surprising how close the timing is.

For example, the first 10 minutes are almost the same. The players change, and the scenes are sleek and fast-paced, but it’s the same plot: Imperials/First Order attack the Rebellion/Resistance and capture Leia/Poe, Vader/Kylo has a short antagonizing conversation with Leia/Poe and the droids escape to desert planets.

Kylo and Vader arrive in style

Thankfully instead of the slow-moving scene of the Jawas capturing R2D2, we get Finn and Poe escaping to Jakku.

But Rey and Luke’s introductions are next, and the principle is the same here too. Rey is an orphan, but she also longs for something she doesn’t have, like Luke. Her finding BB-8 is the trigger for the start of her journey, just like Luke meeting R2D2 and C3PO was for him.

Han and Chewie appear at the 40-45 mark in both movies. The demonstrations of the power of the Death Star and the Starkiller base happen at the one-hour mark, and the attack on both bases occur at the 1h50 mark as well. Probably done on purpose.

At the 1h30-1h40 mark Ben, Luke’s mentor, dies and so does Rey’s and Finn’s mentor.

Two-hours in, both Rey and Luke win against their opponents. The bases are destroyed with a single decisive shot.

Even when some things don’t align perfectly, they still mirror a lot of scenes in A New Hope. For example, Rey and Finn are forced to leave the planet in the Millenium Falcon under an attack of the First Order, so do Luke, Han, and Ben. The escape itself is similar to the Death Star escape, with plenty of references and very similar camera shots. Finn and Poe reunite in a scene very similar to how Luke and Biggs reunite. Kylo feels like he turns violent at any second and his subordinates/fellow Imperials don’t like him/are afraid of him, much like Darth Vader.

Bros Poe, Finn, Luke and Biggs

Not everything is the same, of course. There’s no rescue operation akin to Leia’s (Poe escapes with Finn instead). Rey’s kidnapping is not the main focus of the Resistance’s plan, and she frees herself. Rey and Finn are not directly responsible for Starkiller base being destroyed. No trash compactor scene. But are these differences enough?

A New Hope for the Hero’s Journey

Okay, so clearly The Force Awakens is very, very similar to A New Hope. It continually borrows from the Original Trilogy: plot points, scenes, and even some characters. But why I still enjoyed the movie? And why I don’t think it matters?

Well, for starters, many, many stories are constructed with the three-act structure–it’s a tried and true way of creating plots, but just it’s a tool. If you simplify the plots of 80% of all movies, you will arrive at the same plot structure. Does that mean none of them are original? Of course not.

The use of the Hero’s Journey is not a terribly original idea, but this move uses it in a way that’s new and refreshing.

Rey and Luke, they hate sand!

Luke’s journey is as straightforward as it can get; it follows the template very closely. In no moment do we wonder who’s the main character of A New Hope. We know it’s Luke. Han and Leia only factor in the plot 60 minutes in and even then their contributions are not as big as Luke’s.

But The Force Awakens doesn’t do that. It introduces us to Finn, and it builds him quickly and easily as someone to root for. Finn is a unique character with a unique background. He doesn’t fit any of the Original Trilogy characters in role or personality. He takes the reins of his life and escapes the First Order. So the audience concludes: this is his hero journey.

And the audience also assumes there’s no room for anyone else. But here’s the great thing: there is! Rey comes in, and she also is on her personal hero’s journey. In this century, in this age of cinema, there’s room for everyone.

Not only that but unlike Luke, Rey doesn’t reveal “herself” as the hero for the audience until she realizes that, in fact, she has a bigger role to play. We find out with her that she’s the one who has to face against Kylo, that she’s the one with the Force, not Finn. This is a nice twist on the usual Hero’s Journey structure, and it works beautifully.

Rey’s motivation is also the opposite of Luke. She doesn’t want to leave her planet and seek adventure. She’s waiting for her family and leaving Jakku is emotionally conflicting for her. Finn wants to escape the First Order above everything else–until Rey is captured. His character arc is extremely personal and not a mirror for Luke’s or even Han’s.

Meanwhile, Han is also on a journey to reclaim something he lost. He also has an emotional arc to fulfill here.

It doesn’t stop with the heroes either. Kylo is on a journey of self-discovery just as Finn and Rey, he has a character arc and conflicting emotions, unlike Darth Vader. He’s not done baking, as Buffy would say, and that’s very rewarding for a character. (Not for a villain, but he has two movies to get there).

Everyone gets conflicting emotions and arcs. This is not like A New Hope at all. Apart from Luke, only Han “changed” in A New Hope (in a span of a few minutes), but that was nothing compared to The Force Awakens’ ensemble cast.

While The Force Awakens references a lot of elements from A New Hope, in the end, when it matters the movie offers us new, compelling characters and emotional arcs.

The Popular Culture Strikes Back

I don’t blame The Force Awakens for using the same formula that made A New Hope so appealing and successful– the last true Star Wars movie was 30 years ago, and while the original trilogy is still very alive in Star Wars fan minds, 30 years was a long time ago, in a far, far away galaxy. After George Lucas tried to do something different and was hated for it, it was time to get back to the roots of the franchise and introduce a true Star Wars movie to a new generation.

And the result is a movie that is everything a Star War movie should be about but faster and more inclusive. Is it a cinema work of art? Is it a fantastic achievement of direction and storytelling? No. This is not Fury Road; this is not Inception, or The Hateful Eight. And it isn’t supposed to be.

It’s an homage; it’s a fast-paced celebration of the old Star Wars that sometimes doesn’t stop enough for us to enjoy the scenery, but it has a new and bright beating heart under that A New Hope ribcage. And wasn’t that what everyone wanted? Wasn’t that what the franchise needed? For me, that’s a huge yes.