Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

I thoroughly enjoyed a return to the wizarding world, in the company of my mom, sister Linda and grandson Dayan. We were a mixed group, in regards to familiarity with the Harry Potter universe, and that did not affect anyone’s receptivity of the film or the shared joy we experienced in viewing it. 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, and Colin Farrell. The fantasy adventure was directed by David Yates. This was the debut screenplay for JK Rowling, who also authored the book that the movie is based upon. The film carries a PG-13 rating, for adult themes and mild fantasy violence, and has a run time of 2 hours and 13 minutes. 

Newt Scamander (Redmayne) is newly arrived to New York City, in 1926. He carries a mysterious suitcase, from which emanates the growls and roars of wild beasts. Newt immediately creates a stir in the city when one of his magical creatures, a Niffler, escapes from the suitcase. 

Amid the chaos created as Newt attempts to capture the thieving little Niffler in a bank, the young wizard from England meets two unlikely allies. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) hopes to secure a bank loan to fund his dream of owning a bakery. Jacob is a Muggle, in British terms, a No-Maj (non magical person) as the Americans call them. Friendly and genuine, Jacob accidently grabs the wrong suitcase when he and Newt part company. 

Tina Goldstein (Waterston) observes Newt using magic as he at last captures the mischievous creature. Alarmed that he will expose the wizard community, she takes him into headquarters for questioning. Tina also expresses concern that Jacob left without having his memory wiped. 

However, the American President of Magic and her council aren’t interested in Newt or his suitcase. There is a dark presence making itself known in the city. Newt and Tina are sent away while the council discusses how to discover what is terrifying the people of NYC and how to protect the wizard community. 

Only Percival Graves (Farrell), Director of Magical Security, senses there is more to Newt and his seemingly innocent arrival. 

After finding Jacob and retrieving his suitcase, Newt realizes several beasts have escaped into the city. His fear is not that the magical animals will hurt the citizens of NYC, but that humans will harm his creatures. Newt’s desire is that those in the wizarding world will come to understand and appreciate the fantastic beasts he’s been collecting, studying and writing about. He intends to publish a book about his creatures. 

With Jacob, Tina and her sister Queenie (Sudol) helping him, Newt searches for the missing beasts. As the animals lead them on merry chases throughout the city, the sinister darkness grows, and becomes a threat that must be dealt with when a human life is taken. 

Fantastic Beasts was an incredibly fun and interesting movie to watch. I am familiar with the Harry Potter movies but one does not have to be to appreciate this latest film from the creative genius of JK Rowling. Set approximately 70 years before Harry Potter heads off to Hogwarts School, this story is another adventure set in the same universe, and not a prequel. 

There are, however, plenty of connections between the two stories. As Fantastic Beasts is set to be told in five movies, it is very possible that more bridges between the worlds of Newt Scamander and Harry Potter will be formed. The obvious first link is that the book Newt writes, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is later seen as a textbook used by Harry Potter and his friends in the Hogwarts Library. 

I found much to love about this movie. Eddie Redmayne played the somewhat shy wizard perfectly. I first watched Redmayne portray Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything. He is a gifted and versatile actor who brought charm and compassion to the role of Newt. 

And I couldn’t help but adore Jacob, the No-Maj in the group. He has a good heart, an easy smile, and big dreams. The sisters completing the group of friends bring respectability and warmth into the relationships, with Tina being earnest and rule abiding while Queenie’s tender heart and feelings for Jacob made the audience sigh. 

My own emotions and reactions ran the gamut during the film. I laughed and cheered and sighed, and teared up more than once. It was painful and revealing to watch a major character live under rigid self imposed repression. Such severe denial of self had catastrophic consequences…and I felt sorrow for what the character endured. There is a strong reminder there for me, for all of us, to live as authentic people, whether wizards or muggles, embracing our gifts and sharing them openly with the world, for the benefit of all. 

I left the theater with questions and a great deal of speculation about what will happen next to these endearing characters introduced in the first film. I am filled with anticipation for the next installment in the Fantastic Beasts movies.

Movie Review: Middle School The Worst Years of My Life

I saw previews for this live action movie several times this past summer. Every time, my grandchildren Joey, Oliver and Aubrey piped up that they wanted to see Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. The movie opened over the weekend and an opportunity presented itself this afternoon to take those three to see an after school matinee. With stormy weather  rolling through the area and unrelenting rain, a movie sounded perfect. 

Middle School stars Griffin Gluck, Alexa Nisenson, Thomas Barbusca, Isabela Moner, Adam Pally, Retta, Andrew Daly, Rob Riggle and Lauren Graham. The comedy adventure, based on the book with the same title by James Patterson, was directed by Steve Carr. The film carries a PG rating, for some crude humor, and has a run time of 1 hour and 38 minutes. 

It’s the first day of school for middle schooler Rafe (Gluck) and his little sister Georgia (Nisenson). Along with the usual first day jitters, Rafe and his friend Leo (Barbusca) know with grim certainty that this school they are transferring into is their last chance to shape up before being sent to a military-type boarding school. 

Placed in a class with other kids who are struggling, Rafe meets his unconventional home room teacher, Mr. Teller (Pally), and appreciates his humor and relaxed teaching stule. He also has uncomfortable encounters almost immediately with the rigid, rule oriented Principal Dwight (Daly) and his dutiful enforcer, Vice Principal Stricker (Retta). 

Rafe uses art as a way of processing his world and the pain and confusion often found there. He carries a notebook with him everywhere, sketching monsters and heroes and life situations. When a comical and unflattering drawing ends up in Principal Dwight’s hand, Rafe is labeled a rule breaker. His notebook with all of his drawings is purposefully destroyed by the principal, in a bucket of acid. 

That callous act begins a war between Rafe and the rule bound authoritarians in the school. With the help of Leo, Georgia and a new friend, Jeanne (Moner), Rafe launches an anti-rule campaign using the motto Rules Aren’t For Everyone. His intention at school is to break every rule, without revealing that he is the rule breaker. At home, he sizes up his mother’s (Graham) new self centered boyfriend (Riggle). 

Life has been tough for Rafe the last 24 months…and yet attending this new middle school might be ushering in the worst years of his life. 

This was a fun movie, with an undercurrent of sadness, which I didn’t expect. The previews highlighted the humor in the film. What wasn’t revealed until today was that Rafe, a very creative boy, is troubled by a tragedy in his family. He works through his feelings and pain by drawing. 

Rafe’s sketches come to animated life during scenes that are interwoven with the live action, adding an interesting perspective from the main character’s bright, artistic mind. 

While Joey, Oliver and Aubrey laughed at the pranks Rafe and friends pull, to make a point that rules can go too far, I was curious about their take on elementary and middle school in general. I thought a movie was the perfect rainy day activity, but apparently we were the only ones who did, at least in regard to this particular movie. We had the entite theater to ourselves. We sat in the top row of seats and discussed the story as it unfolded. 

My heart was drawn toward Rafe. The rules, 138 of them, were exaggerated (No laughing, anywhere. Silence in the hallways.) and yet I am a frequest visitor to the schools of my grandchildren. The rules depicted in the movie aren’t so far from the reality that I have observed. I get that there has to be order and management. I also long to see more creativity allowed, less labeling and bullying of students who are different, and more encouragement. 

The movie, while playful at times, brings up deeper truths for adults to ponder such as the vital role exceptional teachers play in the lives of kids, the power of creativity, the stymying effect of too many rules and the importance of recognizing that every child has gifts to offer. Every…child. 

My three grandkids liked the movie and we discussed it while at the theater and during the car ride home. Joey, who is in middle school this year, and sketches beautifully, shared his thoughts on rules…there are too many of them…and promptly began to draw in the car. Oliver and Aubrey agreed that there seems to be many rules in school.

There was an unexpected plot twist toward the end of the movie, that none of us saw coming. The kids reacted with surprise and questions. I was surprised as well and I’ll now have to view this film again. 

During the last 15 minutes of the movie, I turned to the kids, who had been caught up in the story, and told them that for the remainder of the film, they could go sit anywhere they chose in the darkened theater. It was, after all, an empty theater and we were watching a movie about breaking free of constraints. 

I didn’t have to repeat myself. Off they dashed, delighted. I expected them to scatter, sitting apart from each other. Instead, the three sat together on the front row, their heads tilted back to take in the huge movie screen. I watched them, as they watched the conclusion of the movie. 

Little rule breakers. I don’t want them to be defiant. I want them to be curious. And ask questions if they need to be asked. Most of all, I want them to grow up engaging their creativity and unafraid to be who they are. I’ll be a rule breaker with them. 


Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Sometimes a movie trailer captures my interest, creating anticipation for the upcoming release. Such was the case with this film. I had not heard of it. But I saw previews for it several times, while at the theater to watch another movie. Florence Foster Jenkins trailers not only caught my attention, they pierced my heart as well. In the middle of a busy and full week, I slipped away late this afternoon to watch this enchanting film. 

Florence Foster Jenkins stars Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg. This comedic biography was directed by Stephen Frears and carries a PG-13 rating for brief suggestive material. The film has a run time of 1 hour and 56 minutes.  

Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a New York socialite during the early to mid 1900s, has a passion for music. She lives for all things musical, using her influence and wealth to support the arts in her city. She has a loving husband, St. Clair (Grant), a former small time actor, and a circle of adoring friends. 

Florence loves to sing. Nothing touches her heart more deeply than listening to a stirring aria. She has employed various voice teachers throughout her life and devotes herself to her craft. 

The only problem is, Florence can’t sing. 

She doesn’t realize this truth about herself. Her doting husband has shielded her from any unkind or critical remarks, arranging small performances with carefully selected guests whenever Florence feels the urge to sing before an audience. 

However, when Florence decides to begin another round of voice lessons, St. Clair finds his role of greatest supporter and secret protector a challenge. Florence hires a promising young pianist, Cosme McMoon (Helberg), to accompany her. 

Although initially shocked by his generous patron’s singing abilities, Cosme learns to see past Florence’s musical shortcomings. He becomes an ally of St. Clair’s, protecting Florence from ridicule as well. 

Encouraged, Florence unleashes her singing voice on the city and the world, releasing an album and pursuing her lifelong dream of performing in Carnegie Hall, before a sold out audience. 

Is it talent that matters most? Or is it doing what she loves?

This movie was all that the previews hinted it would be…funny, inspiring, deeply moving. I laughed out loud several times. However during most of the film I watched through tear filled eyes and chuckled around a lump in my throat. 

What an amazing woman Florence was. Meryl Streep captures well her child-like whimsy and sense of self. Florence sang her heart out, and delighted in the opportunity to do so. Hugh Grant is one of my favorite actors. It is always a pleasure to watch him perform. His sense of comedic timing is perfect. This was a meaty role that brought him out of semiretirement. I appreciated St. Clair’s devotion to his wife. He never wavered in supporting her dream, although as he pointed out to Cosme, love takes on many forms. 

The real Florence pictured alongside Meryl’s character. 

And it was a joy to see Simon Helberg, most well known for playing Howard on the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, take on another role. His character, who often had giggling fits, was reminiscent of a young Mozart. 

This movie was a love story, a biography, and an inspirational piece about what is possible when one follows passion.  Florence did what she loved, not caring what anyone else thought or said, as long as she could look into her husband’s eyes and see acceptance and encouragement there. 

I appreciate movies based on true events, and real people. It was worth sitting through end credits to see actual black and white photos of Florence, St. Clair and Cosme. Florence’s performance from her only record played as credits rolled, verifying that technically, she might have been the world’s worst singer. Oh, but she had heart. Florence told her husband, “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing!” 

Yes, she did. She sang. She was beautiful. I would have been standing and cheering and applauding Florence Foster Jenkins. 

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

I enjoyed a Sunday afternoon movie, in the delightful company of my grandson Jonathan, daughter Elissa and son-in-law Josh. Jonathan chose to see Ghostbusters, the recent reboot of a movie by the same name, released in 1984. This was actually my second viewing of this film, having watched it recently with granddaughter Aubrey, who chose this movie over the kid flick, The Secret Life of Pets. I had not done a review yet, so this was the perfect opportunity to catch more details as I watched again. 

Ghostbusters stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth and Neil Casey. This comedy/sci-fi was directed by Paul Feig and has a run time of 1 hour and 56 minutes. The movie is rated PG-13 for supernatural action and crude humor. 

In this remake of a classic, the gender roles are switched. The Ghostbusters team is made up of Abby Yates (McCarthy), a scientist studying the paranormal, her nuclear engineer, Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), subway worker turned ghost hunter Patty Tolan (Jones) and Abby’s former scientific partner Erin Gilbert (Wiig). 

Erin has distanced herself from Abby and the supernatural, teaching at the prestigious Columbia University, and seeking tenure. Her hopes are dashed as Abby shows back up in her life. Erin confronts her old friend over the reappearance of a book about ghosts that they cowrote years ago. Abby agrees to withdraw the book if Erin will introduce her at the Aldridge mansion, where a malevolent ghost has been sighted. 

There is indeed a ghost in the mansion. And not just there. Apparitions are appearing all over NYC. Erin loses her job at the university and rejoins Abby. The team settles into a new office and hires an attractive assistant, Kevin (Hemsworth), to answer the phone and carry equipment. Patty supplies a vehicle, a hearse from her uncle’s funeral home, and coveralls to protect against sliming. The girls are in business, ghostbusters who use science and engineering to tackle the paranormal. 

They encounter a suspicious man, Rowan (Casey), who is the force behind the recent ghost sighting. He is intent on creating a vortex and unleashing the unhappy dead on the city. It’s mayhem, madness and lots of restless ghosts against the determined Ghostbusters team. 

This was a fun movie to watch. Although the first 15 minutes was a bit scary…Jonathan called it creepy and Aubrey crawled into my lap…the rest of the film was a humorous romp. I saw the original Ghostbusters film years ago and I enjoyed this remake with the gender twist. Melissa McCarthy was brilliant, and well supported by the rest of the cast. There were numerous nods to the original movie and great surprise cameos. 

Chris Hemsworth is always a pleasure to watch on the big screen. Known for playing more serious characters, such as Thor, it’s great to see him in a comedic role where he can offer his gifts in a fresh way. It is worth sitting through the credits to catch extra movie scenes and enjoy Chris as he dances! 

While much of the humor went over my grandchildren’s heads, they both enjoyed the movie. Jonathan said he loved the film and hope they make a sequel. He also said he would purchase this one when it is available. Aubrey loved Ghostbusters as well. It was interesting that as a young girl she liked seeing the women portrayed as smart and scientific. She told me, after we watched the movie, that when she grew up she wouldn’t want to be a ghostbuster, but she would like to learn about science and make cool gadgets. That’s a powerful message for girls offered within a comedy. 

Elissa, Josh and I enjoyed the movie for what it was, a playful, fun adventure with generous dollops of laugh out loud humor. Being familiar with the original film probably enhances the viewing experience but isn’t necessary. We loved hearing the classic theme song and catching the references to the 1984 movie. 

Got ghosts? Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! 

A Walk in the Woods Movie Review

I felt drawn to having a quiet evening at home, watching a movie. I enjoy using my Amazon Video app on my phone to select a film by way of Amazon Prime. Tonight the movie that caught my eye was A Walk in the Woods, based on the 1998 book by travel writer Bill Bryson. 

A Walk in the Woods stars Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. This comedy/adventure/biography was directed by Ken Kwapis and has a run time of 1 hour and 44 minutes. The film is rated R for language and some sexual references. 

Bill Bryson (Redford) appears to have an ideal life. He’s a popular travelogue writer who has traveled the world, and returned to live in the US. He has a long-lasting marriage to his beautiful wife, Catherine (Thompson), and healthy children and grandchildren. He lives comfortably in New Hampshire. And he feels stifled. In the past four and a half years, he’s only written forewords for other people’s books. 

Restless after attending a friend’s funeral, Bill goes for a walk and comes across the Appalachian Trail near his home. An idea is born. In spite of his age, and lack of hiking experience, Bill decides to walk the 2,200 mile trail that  stretches from Georgia to Maine. 

Although his wife and family try to persuade him of the folly of such a trip, Bill persists in his plans. He at last agrees to take a hiking companion. His old friend Stephen Katz (Nolte) begs to go. A recovering alcoholic, Stephen has a couple of warrants out on him and he hopes to lay low for a while, avoiding arrest. Overweight, with bad knees, Stephen makes an unlikely hiker. Nevertheless, the two fly to Georgia in April to begin their adventure. 

Getting off to a slow start, the hike is full of mishaps and bad weather and strange encounters. But Bill and Stephen rebuild their friendship, share funny memories and stumble upon amazing and beautiful vistas. Along the way, they discover that the trail represents life. They have no idea what’s ahead or where they will end up or who they will meet…but they will give the experience their best efforts. 

I was drawn to this movie because of the creative book I’m working through, Walking in This World. There is much correlation to be found between walking adventurously on trails and walking through life. This film captures that parallel well. The relationship between the two old friends was humorous, although at times I cringed over Stephen’s vocalized low opinion of women. As their shared journey continued, Nolte’s character settled down, opened up, and got beneath the wise cracks and generalizing. 

Bill walked through his restlessness and his feelings of being boxed in. Being exposed to nature and the many twists and turns, literally, along the trail, reconnected him with himself…and his creativity and his desire to write. He saw himself differently, and from that position, he was able to see others differently as well. 

I like the John Muir quote that Bill shared: 

“Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.”

Sometimes, we have to break free from that which constrains us and go on an adventure.