Reviews of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Moana”

It was a magical weekend at the movies for me as I saw both “Moana” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” While there is the shared notion of things beyond our understanding working in the background or shadows, the events of one film are far darker than the other.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just arrived in America from his native England carrying a suitcase filled with magical creatures. When one of them escapes, he struggles to find it and, in the confusion, accidently swaps his suitcase with that of a cannery worker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Kowalski opens the case at his apartment and some of the creatures escape, threatening to expose the wizarding community in America. A magic cop named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) sees Scamander, realizes he’s a wizard, and brings him in to the offices of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) where she plans on charging him for being an unregistered wizard. When they open his case and see only pastries inside (Kowalski is a wannabe baker), Goldstein is dismissed as being incompetent. Meanwhile, a group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is trying to convince people witches and wizards are practicing in America and the group wants to establish witch trials with those convicted being executed. The group points to a recent rash of building destructions done by a dark amorphous force with no apparent explanation. To complicate matters more, there is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard that believes non-magical people (No-Maj’s in America, Muggles in England) should be ruled over by the magical and has been eliminating those that oppose him.

While it may not have the joy and whimsy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” does provide a pleasant entry into the adult wizarding world. It contains more magical animals than probably all the “Harry Potter” films combined along with a complex story that teases darker times to come. The entry of a younger version of a beloved character is mentioned and will likely be the focus of future films. Potter fans are probably clutching their wands in glee (which sounds dirtier than I intended).

Another pleasing aspect of the story is the introduction of a non-magical main character. While he is often comic relief Jacob Kowalski, as played by Dan Fogler, provides a relatable human character that proves helpful to his new wizard buddies frequently by accident. Kowalski also gets the first love story in this new franchise and it plays like a high schoolers first crush. It is painfully cute to see Kowalski and Tina Goldstein’s sister Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, making doe eyes at each other. Assuming the next film in the series doesn’t focus on completely different characters, it will be fun to see how a no-maj and a magical person deal with their differences as their relationship grows and as they face whatever peril comes their way next as Grindelwald is likely to be the baddie through the entire series.

The visual effects are overall spectacular with a few minor glitches. There is one particularly large beast that is featured near the end of the film and with which Newt physically interacts where the CGI was flat and the contact between the two looked awkward. Otherwise, the creatures and their effect on the physical environment is believable. The destructive force that is tearing up and through the streets of New York rarely looks the same twice and that’s the way it is meant to be as it is chaos personified. It is a great boss (to borrow a gaming term) since it is sometimes invisible, seemingly unstoppable and totally unpredictable. I look forward to seeing more magical creatures.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. People are shown being thrown around by various magical events. One character is shown shooting electrical bolts from his wand and shocking another character. A couple of people are killed by the unknown violent force and their faces are shown turned grey and with various cuts. Kowalski is bitten by one of the creatures in the suitcase. There are other scattered acts of mayhem.

“Harry Potter” fans will find much to enjoy in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” but those who are unfamiliar with wizards, muggles, Hogwarts and the like will probably be lost and refuse to invest the time to acquaint themselves with this magical realm. That’s ok as it means more popcorn at the theatre for the rest of us.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” gets five stars.


Ever since she was a small child, Moana (voiced by Auli’I Cravalho) has heard the story from her grandmother Tala (voiced by Rachel House) about how the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) had stolen the Heart of Creation, a magical stone, from Te Fiti, the creator of all islands. Stealing the stone leads to a creeping blackness that spreads death wherever it touches. Moana’s father, Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison) dismisses the stories as legends and urges Moana to prepare herself to become the leader of her people on their beautiful Pacific island. Between the coconuts and other crops growing on the island and the plentiful fish in the reef-protected lagoon, there is no need for Moana’s people to travel past the reef into the dangerous open ocean. But soon the coconuts and crops are turning black and there are no more fish in the lagoon. With her dying breath, Tala gives Moana the Heart of Creation that she has carried in a seashell locket around her neck and tells her to find Maui and replace the Heart of Creation to save their people.

“Moana” is an uplifting tale of facing your fear, going from being a child to an adult and learning to live with others shortcomings as they have to live with yours. In short, it’s your basic Disney animated film. It also looks spectacular and has some very nice songs as well. It’s also another Disney animated film with a strong lead character that’s a female. It won’t go unnoticed by some that the male characters are largely stubborn, unyielding and far too proud to admit they are wrong until it is shoved in their faces and they are unable to deny it any longer. While films of this nature often deal in absolutes (and in life there are none save death) “Moana” manages to dish out its message in a pleasant way without sounding too preachy.

Visually, the film is beyond spectacular. From the island vistas to the vast ocean views, “Moana” is a feast for the eyes. The ocean, which is a character in itself, sparkles and shimmers in the sun in a hypnotic way. It will remind anyone that’s been to the beach of that one perfect day on vacation. I almost felt the need for sunscreen after seeing the film. There are undersea creatures and monsters that seem to jump off the screen even in the 2D version I saw. A giant lava monster may actually be too intense a visual for some younger members of the audience as it exudes an anger and dread that is transmitted directly into the nightmare region of your brain.

While your mind is dealing with what you are seeing, there are the songs that soar with anthems of hope and a dream for a brighter future. One song, sung by Dwayne Johnson’s Maui character, is a comic showstopper. There isn’t a super catchy tune like “Frozen’s” “Let it Go” (which I’m sure will come as a welcome bit of news for parents burned out on that ear worm) the songs are fun, uplifting and pleasant in a way that might not cause hours long repeats in the car.

The voice cast is amazing with a special kudos going to Rachel House who voice Moana’s grandmother Tala. I could listen to Tala tell stories and offer advice from now until the end of time. While I doubt it will happen, I wouldn’t mind seeing a spin-off film of the adventures of young Tala narrated by old Tala. House is able to wring every bit of joy, sadness and every emotion in between from each of her lines. It’s a great performance that needs to be experienced by anyone that’s a fan of good voice acting.

“Moana” is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. The grief over the loss of a loved one is shown. Violent storms are shown throwing around Moana’s canoe. There are fights between Maui and a couple of mythical creatures, including the lava monster. That lava monster is shown crawling on all fours in an effort to attack one character. There are small coconut-looking creatures that are described as pirates and killers shown attacking Moana and Maui.

“Moana” is a nearly perfect animated film with plenty for both the kids and their parents. It’s the kind of movie adults won’t mind sitting through until it is released on DVD or on streaming platforms when your children will demand to watch it over and over again. Even then for the first several viewings you’ll find little nuances in Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Maui that may keep you entertained for a few seconds. There are certainly worse films you could be forced to watch again and again.

“Moana” also gets five stars.

There’s only one new film in theatres this week. Unless something very interesting shows up at me arthouse cinema, I suppose I’ll be seeing the new horror flick “Incarnate.”

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Review of “Jupiter Ascending”

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) works in the family house cleaning business. She wakes up before dawn and spends her day scrubbing the toilets in the homes of the rich. At night, she goes home to her extended family that shares a home. Jupiter, named after the largest planet by her father who died years earlier in a robbery, hates her life and yearns for something more. Her cousin Vladie (Kick Gurry) also wants a better life and concocts a scheme to sell Jupiter’s eggs to a fertility clinic for $15,000 with a third of that going to Jupiter. With the money, she plans on buying a brass telescope that was just like her father’s. At the clinic, the doctors and nurses ignore Jupiter’s pleas to stop the procedure and slap bracelets on her ankles and wrists that cause her to float above the bed. Freaked out, Jupiter struggles but can’t get away. The doctors, who are actually genetically modified creatures called messengers, check Jupiter’s DNA and then try to kill her. Bursting into the procedure room is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a former military officer in an otherworldly army, flying around the room with boots that defy gravity. Caine saves Jupiter and takes her to the top of a skyscraper in Chicago. Caine explains he has been sent to retrieve Jupiter and bring her to Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth), a member of a powerful family that controls most of the galaxy. Jupiter is confused and doesn’t understand what’s going on but has an innate trust of Caine who explains his DNA has been spliced with a wolf-like creature, giving him enhanced senses and amplified bravery. As the pair is being lifted up to a ship floating above the skyscraper, smaller fighter ships attack and destroy the larger ship, causing Caine and Jupiter to fall. Caine’s gravity boots save them but they are chased through the skies over Chicago by the ships flown by messengers. Caine is able to take over one of the ships and manages to destroy the others but his ship is damaged beyond repair as well. Stealing a car, they head out to a run-down farmhouse that is the home of Stinger Apini (Sean Bean), a former soldier Caine knows. After a bit of a disagreement between the two men, bees begin to fly around Jupiter but they don’t sting her. She seems to be able to control them with hand gestures. Caine and Stinger begin to refer to Jupiter as “your Majesty” as it appears she is royalty of the interstellar variety. The farmhouse is attacked by bounty hunters and messengers looking for Jupiter. She is captured and taken to a planet to meet Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), sister to Titus, who informs Jupiter she has the identical genetic code as her mother who died many years earlier. This code entitles her to claim the throne and take over the galaxy-wide corporation currently run by the Titus, Kalique and their brother Balem (Eddie Redmayne), the oldest of the three. Balem has designs on being the sole leader of the family corporation and will stop at nothing to make sure Jupiter is killed.

A synopsis of the first 30 minutes of the movie would, if complete, probably be three or four times longer than above. The Wachowski siblings have stuffed “Jupiter Ascending” to the absolute gills with political intrigue, familial shenanigans and genetic manipulation. It also is a film that is absolutely gorgeous to look at and seems to have a fully realized history that leads to the events in the film. There are stunning landscapes of alien worlds, ornate spaceships that more closely resemble palaces and unique creatures of the CGI variety that are seamlessly integrated with the live action. All the ingredients are here for a spectacular space opera so I wonder where that movie is? “Jupiter Ascending” is far more style than it is substance.

Let’s start with the positives: “Jupiter Ascending” is a visual feast that is actually worth the added price of 3D. Battle sequences in space and above Chicago insert the audience in the center of the action so thoroughly you may have to look away for a moment to avoid vertigo or nausea. The added depth of field gives the more frenetic sequences enough visual cues, allowing the audience to keep up. The one exception to this is a flying fight between two characters late in the film; otherwise, following the action is usually pretty easy aided in part by the tendency to slow the action way down so we can enjoy all the acrobatics. The designs of both the larger space cruisers and the smaller fighter craft are unique and eye catching. Parts of the ships are unconnected to the main body but act as if they are physically attached. They often look like shiny insects as they make quick maneuvers in battle. There are beautiful worlds we visit for far too short a time. Majestic castles soar into the alien skies with architecture both familiar and foreign. Technologies that are impossible now (and probably forever) dazzle the audience with wonders like floors that can become transparent at the wave of a hand, personal protective shields to fend off attack and the previously mentioned gravity boots. The Wachowski’s and their collaborators have given a huge amount of thought to how these different worlds work and it shows. As the characters discuss the issues brought up in the film, it feels like there is a significant amount of history in the background that has led everyone to this point. Some of that history is mentioned in the film but there must be a great deal more we know nothing about. The whole idea of humanity being seeded on Earth a million years ago by an advanced humanoid race has been suggested before in part by those who believe we are not alone and were too backward in the distant past to build the Egyptian pyramids or draw the Nazca Lines in Peru. While it makes for an interesting plot device for a movie, it seems unlikely to have any basis in reality. It is the story which seems to have a heavy dose of realistic motives for the antagonists where “Jupiter Ascending” begins to fall apart.

The plot can be boiled down to a power struggle within a family-owned company and the lengths the siblings will go to in order to secure control over the operation. There is nothing about this story that engenders any real interest. For me, it was just the thing I had to sit through to get to the next action/special effects scene. While the outcome of the fight would decide the fates of billions of intelligent beings, it wasn’t presented with enough emotion or passion to make me care. It reminded me of the plot of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” which used a trade war and the imposition of tariffs to set the ball rolling toward what we get in Episodes IV-VI. At least in the Star Wars prequels, the trade war was actually a smoke screen for what was really happening under the surface. There is nothing under the surface of “Jupiter Ascending” other than the fight for control of the family business. It all seems very petty and trivial as the basis for a massive space opera. Another part of the story that didn’t work was the growing affection between Jupiter and Caine. While they are both very attractive people, their characters have no chemistry. The way her part is written, Jupiter acts more like a school girl with a crush on the quarterback than a woman truly falling in love. While Channing Tatum is very good in the action scenes and when he’s interacting with Jupiter and other characters to move the plot forward, he seems to not know what to do when Kunis is playing all lovey dovey. Their romantic interactions are more embarrassing than emotional.

Another problem with the film is the performance of Eddie Redmayne as Balem. While the characters of his brother and sister behave in a fairly normal way, Balem uses a husky, bored-sounding speaking style. I guess he’s supposed to be acting as if he’s above everyone else and making sure all know who the boss is. It comes off a bit creepy and silly. I’m sure Redmayne was doing what he was told to do by the Wachowski’s and probably agreed with the affected style of Balem’s speech and attitude; but it was taken way too far. Balem likes to punctuate his intentions by yelling at times to express his anger or impatience while the rest of the time he sounds like he’s about to run out of breath. It is an off-putting performance that sticks out like a sore thumb.

“Jupiter Ascending” is rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity. We see several people shot with ray guns. There is the occasional blood splatter when the aliens get hit. There is a long battle scene between Caine and a flying lizard creature that gets a tiny bit gory. There are a couple of fights between spaceships that are often incredibly fast moving. There is a scene where a woman is shown walking around in her bra and panties. We also get a brief glimpse of a naked backside. Foul language is widely scattered.

“Jupiter Ascending” is a feast for the eyes but a famine for the mind. It relies far too much on spectacular visuals and lets the story languish in a meaningless business struggle. Truly spectacular space dramas have to be rooted in some kind of easily understandable and emotionally charged story that could be told as a western, a war movie or any other genre. While MBA’s may enjoy the story, the rest of us will be stuck with what might have been.

“Jupiter Ascending” gets three stars out of five.

Three new movies offer a wide range of options for Valentine’s Day dates. I’ll see and review one and let you know if you should spend your cash to buy a ticket.

Fifty Shades of Grey—

Kingsman: The Secret Service—

Old Fashioned—

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