“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

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“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

Following the success of the 2016 movie, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, Warner Brothers Studios and author J.K. Rowling continued the adventures of former Hogwarts student, Newt Scamander with the 2018 sequel called “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. Starring Eddie Redmayne, the movie was directed by David Yates. 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” began in 1927, less than a year after the events of the 2016 movie. In the film’s opening, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) is transferring the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald from their maximum security prison in New York City to London. The latter is be tried for his crimes in Europe. But with the aide of Grindelwald’s follower, MACUSA agent Abernathy, the wizard manages to escapes during the transfer. Three months after Grindelwald’s escape, magizoologist Newt Scamander appeals to the Ministry of Magic in London to restore his revoked international travel rights following his previous adventures in New York City. While at the Ministry, Newt learns that his former Hogwarts classmate, Leta Lestrange, is engaged to his brother Theseus, an auror in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The Ministry offers to restore Newt’s travel rights if he assists Theseus in locating Credence Barebone, the American obscurial believed to have been killed in Paris. He has been detected in Paris.

Grindelwald is also searching for Credence. He believes that only the latter is powerful enough to kill his “equal”, Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore. Newt declines the Ministry’s offer, but is is secretly summoned by Dumbledore, who also tries to persuade Newt to locate Credence. Dumbledore under constant Ministry surveillance for refusing to confront Grindelwald, who was a former close friend from the past. Upon his return home, he discovers that his American friends, the non-magical Jacob Kowalski and witch Queenie Goldstein had left New York. Jacob has retained memories of his past adventures with Newt and the Goldstein sisters, despite MACUSA’s citywide Obliviation order. Queenie and Jacob had followed Queenie’s sister Tina to Europe, where the latter is searching for Credence. Newt also discovers that Queenie has enchanted Jacob into eloping to Europe with her to circumvent MACUSA’s marriage ban between wizards and Muggles. After Newt lifts the charm, Jacob and Queenie quarrel about the marriage law, and the upset witch leaves to find Tina. Newt ignores the Ministry’s travel ban and with Jacob, head for Paris in search for the Goldstein sisters and Credence.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be an unpopular entry in the HARRY POTTER movie franchise. Even a year before the film’s release, many had criticized the film’s producers, including J.K. Rowling, for allowing actor Johnny Depp to take over the role of Gellert Grindelwald in the wake of his controversial divorce. Ironically, once “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” hit the movie theaters, both the critics and many moviegoers expressed other reasons for their displeasure. Either these criticisms were merely used as shields to hide their displeasure at Depp’s presence in the movie, or they genuinely did not like it. Although “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”actually managed to make a profit, it did not make as much as its 2016 predecessor. Nor did it make as much as Warner Brothers Studios had anticipated. So . . . how did I feel about the movie?

I will admit that I have some problems with “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. I never admitted this in my review of “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, but I had noticed Rowling’s habit of creating two or more disjointed story lines and allowing them to connect near the end of the film. As much as I admired her use of this narrative structure, I must admit that there were times when I found it frustrating. To be honest, I found it more frustrating in “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, especially Newt Scamander’s search for his missing animals. But in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, there were times when I found myself wondering why Rowling had focused so heavily on Leta Lestrange’s character arc/backstory and Queenie Goldstein’s problems with her non-magical love, Jacob Kowalski. I also had a problem with Colleen Atwood’s costumes. On one level, I found her costumes very attractive, as shown in the images below:

And yet . . . aside from the costumes and hairstyle worn by actress Katherine Waterston, I found the other costumes and hairstyles reminiscent of the early 1930s, instead of 1927, the film’s actual setting. Speaking of the timeline, could someone explain why Minerva McGonagall was a teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, when either the Harry Potter novels or the franchise’s official website made it clear that she was born in 1935, eight years after this movie’s setting. And since Dumbledore was the Transfiguration professor at Hogwarts in 1927, what was the young Professor McGonagall teaching?

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” had its flaws, like any other movie. But I enjoyed it very much. Actually . . . I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the 2016 movie. The reason why I enjoyed it more than the first film is probably the reason why many others liked it less. J.K. Rowling had written an emotionally complicated tale that reminded me that humans beings are a lot more ambiguous than many are STILL unwilling to admit. They might pay lip service to the ambiguity of humans, but I have encountered too much hostility directed at movies willing to explore the complex nature of humans and society in general . . . especially in pop culture films. Some might claim that such ambiguity has no place in pop culture films and franchises. My response to that claim is . . . why not? I see no reason why humanity’s ambiguity should only be tolerated in films being considered for the film industry’s award season.

I noticed in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” that the majority of Gellert Grindelwald’s followers were not “dark wizards” or superficially evil. I must admit that the Vinda Rosier, Grindelwald’s loyal right-hand follower, seemed to be the film’s closest example of the future Deatheaters that followed Lord Voldemort aka Tom Riddle Jr. Most of Grindelwald’s other followers seemed to be typical human being who has allowed his or her emotions to indulge in the usual prejudices or make bad choices. One example is the MACUSA agent Abernathy, who had earlier supported President Seraphina Picquery in the 2016 film. But the prime example in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be Queenie Goldstein, the New York-born Legilimens (telepath), who out of her desperation to be with the non-magical Jacob Kowalski, turned to Grindelwald to help her achieve her desire. Many fans had condemned the movie for this portrayal of Queenie. And I do not understand why.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” had already hinted Queenie’s desperation to be with Jacob, when she conveyed reluctance to follow MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery’s orders to ensure the erasure of his recent memories. She broke the rules even further by paying a visit to Jacob’s new bakery in one of the film’s final scenes.More importantly, Queenie had discovered that Jacob had retained some memories of his adventures with her, Tina and Newt. This is why I am not surprised that Queenie had resorted to desperate measures in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” to make Jacob her husband. Love might lead a person to do wonderful things. But it can also lead someone to make questionable or terrible decisions. J.K. Rowling understood this. I never understood why so many people were incapable of doing so.

The ironic thing about “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” is that the movie not only featured former protagonists like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, who had decided to follow Grindelwald, it also featured . . . Leta Lestrange. Any fan of Potterverse will remember another character with the Lestrange name – Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Although Bellatrix had married into the Lestrange family, fans learned that her husband was another one of Voldemort’s highly murderous and faithful followers. I do recall that the 2016 film may have hinted that Leta was briefly as someone from Newt’s past who may or may not have deliberately led him into trouble and expelled from Hogwarts. Thanks to “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, audiences learned that Leta was NOT someone who lived up to her pure-blood family’s name and who proved to be a different kettle of fish. She was not perfect. Her one crime . . . which led to years of guilt . . . stemmed from resentment toward her father’s sexist desire for a male heir. As a young girl aboard a sinking ocean liner headed for the United States, she made an ugly decision that affected both her family and Credence Barebone.

The characterizations of both Queenie Goldstein and Leta Lestrange, along with Gellert Grindelwald’s followers made J.K. Rowling’s intent to continue her ambiguous portrayal of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But instead of viewing this ambiguity from a growing child, audiences get to witness this ambiguity through the eyes of an adult. Instead of realizing that individuals we might perceive as “bad” can also possess decency within, Rowling seemed to be hinting that those whom we might originally perceive as “good or decent” can allow their emotions to make terrible choices or embrace evil. Granted, fans learned in the previous series that Albus Dumbledore had once skated on the edge of giving into some parts of his baser nature. But through characters like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, agents get to see how originally perceived “decent” characters can allow their emotions and desires to embrace evil . . . not for any moral good, but due to their own selfishness or prejudices. It is a pity that so many are unwilling to explore this journey with Rowling.

Although I had criticized the film’s costumes for resembling the fashions of the early 1930s, instead of the late 1920s, I must admit that I found Colleen Atwood’s designs very attractive and very original. I rarely comment on a film’s editing, but I found Film Editor Mark Day’s work in the movie first-rate. I was especially impressed by his work in two particular sequences – Grindelwald’s escape in the film’s first action sequence and another one featuring a wizarding freak show in Paris. I was also impressed by Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography . . . to a certain extent. Rousselot’s photography struck me as beautiful and memorable – especially in the Parisian scenes and one particular flashback scene in the Atlantic Ocean. But I really disliked the monochromatic tones (blue, yellow or green) that seemed to dominate the movie’s photography . . . as much as I disliked the brown tones that dominated “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”. Also, production designer Stuart Craig, set designer Anna Pinnock, the art direction team led by Martin Foley and the special effects team all did an exceptional job to re-create the wizarding worlds of New York, London, Scotland and Paris.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” featured some first-rate performances. Lead actor Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Carmen Ejogo, Claudia Kim and Ezra Miller all gave excellent performances. But there were performances that I found more than first-rate. Jude Law was superb as the enigmatic and younger Professor Albus Dumbore, who seemed warm and manipulative as ever. William Nadylam gave a very complex and passionate performance as Yusuf Kama: A French-Senegalese wizard who has spent many years obsessively searching for Credence, whom he believed was responsible for the death of a family member. Callum Turner’s portrayal of Theseus Scamander, Newt’s brother, first seemed pretty solid. But his performance became more complex and interesting, thanks to Turner’s skillful acting. Alison Sudol gave an outstanding performance as the increasingly desperate Queenie Goldstein, who allowed her love for Jacob and emotions to lead to a morally questionable decision. Zoë Kravitz was equally outstanding as Newt’s former love, Leta Lestrange, who became emotionally troubled and confused over a morally questionable decision from the past. But the best performance, in my opinion, came from Johnny Depp, who portrayed the film’s main villain, Gellert Grindelwald. Depp’s Grindelwald seemed like a completely different kettle of fish from the more obvious villains of the Harry Potter novel. More subtle, subversive and manipulative. Insidious. The franchise’s Palpatine perhaps? Honestly, Depp’s Grindelwald made Tom Riddle Jr. aka Lord Voldemort seem like a rank amateur as far as villains go.

This 2018 sequel to “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” proved to be a disappointment at the box office. Between the controversy over Depp’s casting and the hostile reaction to the Queenie Goldstein character, I guess I should not be surprised. But I am disappointed that the majority of moviegoers had failed to appreciate Rowling’s story, because I thought it was first-rate, thanks to her screenplay, David Yates’ direction and the excellent cast led by Eddie Redmayne. To be honest, I personally feel that it was slightly better than its 2016 predecessor. Perhaps one day, more filmgoers will be able to appreciate it.

 

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Consequences”

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Consequences”

Has anyone noticed something odd about the main characters in the 2007 movie, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END”? Most or all of them either ended up with a less than happy ending or with their fates up in the air. 

If one must be brutally honest, the franchise’s main characters had committed some kind of questionable act or one dangerous to others. Jack Sparrow was a pirate, who had no qualms about using others for his own personal gain. And that included bartering the former blacksmith apprentice Will Turner to Davy Jones in 2006’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST”in order to avoid paying his debt to Jones . . . and lying to Will’s fiancee, Elizabeth Swann, about it. Captain Hector Barbossa, as well all know, was a murderous pirate who led a mutiny against Jack, threatened the lives of many and also double-crossed sorceress Tia Dalma by tossing her into the Black Pearl’s brig in “AT WORLD’S END”. And then there is the straight arrow Will, who turned out to be not so straight in terms of morality. He had left Jack to the mercies of Barbossa and the latter’s crew in 2003’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL” and double-crossed the Pearl’s crew to pirate Captain Sao Feng and the East India Trading Company in order to get his hands on the ship in the 2007 movie. Will’s beloved and future Pirate King – Elizabeth committed one of the worst acts by leaving Jack shackled to the Black Pearl in order for the latter to be killed by Davy Jones’ pet, the Kracken, near the end of “DEAD MAN’S CHEST”. And in that same movie, former Royal Navy commodore James Norrington betrayed his new crew members from the Black Pearl, by stealing Davy Jones’ heart and handing it over to the villainous Lord Cutler Beckett of the East India Trading Company in order to regain his military position in society.

Not exactly a sweet bunch, are they? Many societies, religious and what-have-you, seemed to believe in the old adage of what goes around, comes around. Or paying the consequences of one’s actions. My favorite happens to be – “Payback’s a bitch”. And judging from the fates of the major characters in the franchise, all of them – in one form or the other – seemed to have paid the consequences of their actions.

For Norrington, payback came in the form of death at the hands of Will’s poor deluded pirate father “Bootstrap” Bill Turner, when he helped Elizabeth and Sao Feng’s crew escape from the Flying Dutchman’s brig. After marrying Will during a battle against Jones and his crew, Elizabeth found herself nearly a widow and facing twenty years of marriage . . . without her husband. And where was Will? During that battle, Jones stabbed him with the sword he had made for Norrington. And when Jack helped him stab Jones’ heart before he could die, Will became the new captain of the Flying Dutchman, ferrying souls lost at sea to “the other side” . . . and apart from Elizabeth for every ten years. Barbossa seemed to have had it made in the end. He managed to get back the Black Pearl from Jack. Unfortunately, he found himself facing a possible mutiny due to Jack’s theft of Sao Feng’s chart that could lead them all to a new treasure. Later, he lost both the Black Pearl and his leg to the even more notorious pirate, Blackbeard in the 2011 film, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES”, and went through a great deal of trouble to get revenge and a new ship. And yet . . . fate caught up with Barbossa again when he and Jack faced Captain Armando Salazar. And what about dear old Jack? Well . . . he found himself left behind at Tortuga, after Barbossa took the Black Pearl from him again. It took him quite a while to get the Black Pearl back, but not without being hunted by British justice and shanghaied by Blackbeard, who needed Jack to find the Fountain of Youth. It took Jack even longer to return the Black Pearl to its original size.

Mind you some of the characters like Norrington and Will suffered a more severe consequence than the other characters. But not one of them had the glowingly “happily ever after” that was seen in the conclusion of “AT WORLD’S END”. Will and Elizabeth’s “happily ever after” in the 2007 movie’s post-credits was only temporary. The couple had to wait at least two decades before they were finally reunited permanently in near the end of “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES”. A part of me found myself wondering they had encountered any problems in their reunion. After all, Will and Elizabeth had to adjust being together as husband and wife. And Will had to learn to be a father . . . something of which Elizabeth had at least twenty years of experience.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

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I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

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I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” (2017) Review

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“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” (2017) Review

I have a confession to make. When the Disney Studios had released the fourth movie in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise, I wished they had never done it. I wished that a fourth film had never been made. I also believed that the franchise was fine after three movies. Then I learned that a fifth film was scheduled to be released this summer and . . . yeah, I was not pleased by the news. But considering that I can be such a whore for summer blockbusters, I knew that I would be watching it. 

Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” seemed to be a story about the search for the trident of the sea god Poseidon. Two years after the post-credit scene from 2007’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END”, Henry Turner, the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann Turner boards the Flying Dutchman to inform his father of his discovery that the mythical Trident of Poseidon is able to break the Flying Dutchman’s curse and free him from his ship. Henry plans to seek Jack Sparrow’s help to find it. Will does not believe the Trident exists and orders Henry to leave his ship and stay away from Jack. Nine years later, Henry finds himself serving aboard a British Royal Navy warship as a seaman. He realizes the ship is sailing into the Devil’s Triangle. The captain dismisses his concerns and has Henry locked up for attempting a mutiny. Upon entering the Triangle, the ship’s crew discovers a shipwreck that belongs to a Spanish Navy officer named Captain Armando Salazar and his crew, who had become part of the undead after being lured into the Triangle. Salazar and his crew slaughter everyone on board the warship, except for Henry. Discovering that Henry is searching for Jack, Salazar instructs Henry to tell Jack that death is coming his way. Some twenty to thirty years earlier, Salazar was a notorious pirate hunter who had been lured into the Triangle and killed by Jack, who was the young captain of the Wicked Wench at the time. Due to the Triangle’s magic, Salazar and his crew became part of the undead.

Years later, a young woman named Carina Smyth is about to be executed for witchcraft on the British-held island of Saint Martin, due to her knowledge of astronomy and horology. She is also interested in finding the Trident, for she sees it as a clue to her parentage. During a prison break, she gets caught up in an attempt by Jack and his small crew, which includes Joshamee Gibbs and Scrum (from the fourth film), to steal a bank vault on the island of Saint Martin. Jack is abandoned by his crew when the vault turns up empty. Desolate, he gives up his magical compass for a drink at a tavern and unexpectedly frees Salazar and his crew from the Triangle. He is also captured by the British Army. Carina meets Henry, who is awaiting execution for what happened aboard his ship. Both realize that for different reasons, they are searching for Poseidon’s Trident. Henry escapes, but Carina finds herself a prisoner again. Henry arranges both hers and Jack’s escape from execution. Jack also becomes interested in finding the Trident, for he hopes to use it free himself from Salazar’s wrath.

I once came upon an article that complained about the lack of consistency in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN”franchise. When I first heard about this movie, I must admit that I was annoyed to learn that Will Turner would still be entrapped by the Flying Dutchman curse after the post-credit scene from “AT WORLD’S END”. I realize that the Disney suits had believed that Will was permanently trapped by the Flying Dutchman curse, but I thought that Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott’s claim – that Elizabeth’s ten year wait – had broken the curse. Apparently I was wrong . . . and annoyed at the same time. But Will’s situation was a mere annoyance for me. The situation regarding Jack’s compass – you know, the one that directs a person to one’s heart desire – really annoyed me. According to the 2006 movie, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST”, Jack had first acquired the compass from Vodou priestess Tia Dalma aka the goddess Calypso. Yet, according to a flashback in this movie, Jack was given the compass from his dying captain, during the Wicked Wench’s encounter with Captain Salazar. What else is there to say, but . . . blooper.

Another matter that annoyed me was the setting for the protagonists’ final battle against Captain Salazar and his crew. I wish I could explain it. I believe that the setting was located . . . underwater, thanks to the mysterious stone that Carina Smyth had inherited from her parents. I simply found it murky and unsatisfying. And I wish that final conflict had been set elsewhere. I have one last complaint. The movie’s post-credit scene featured a character’s dream of former antagonist Captain Davy Jones in shadow form. The character had awaken, but the scene’s last shot focused on puddles of water and a few bits of tentacles. Was this the franchise’s way of hinting the return of Davy Jones? I hope not. Captain Jones was a great villain, but two movies featuring his character were enough. The last thing I want to see in another film is the return of the Flying Dutchman curse or Jones.

Yes, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” has its flaws. But it also had plenty of virtues that made me enjoy the film. One of the aspects of the film that I enjoyed was the story written by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio. Old “ghosts” from the past have always played a role in the plots from the franchise’s past four films. But the past played a major, major role in this film for not only Jack Sparrow, but also four other characters – Henry Turner, Carina Smyth, Hector Barbossa and even Captain Armando Salazar. I found the story between Jack and Captain Salazar rather ironic, considering that the latter proved to be the franchise’s first villain to seek personal revenge against the former. For the other three, I found their stories rather poignant in the end. And because of this, I found “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” to be the most emotionally satisfying entry in the franchise. This proved to be the only PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film in which I broke into tears at least three times.

Poignant or not, the franchise’s trademark humor and action were on full display in this movie. In fact, I can think of at least three major scenes that I believe effectively displayed both traits. One of them involved Jack and the Dying Gull (appropriate name for Jack’s latest ship) crew’s attempt to rob the new bank on Saint Martin. Not only did it lead to Carina’s first escape from a hangman’s noose, but also a merry chase that involved the Dying Gull’s crew, the British Army, along with Jack and the banker’s wife inside of a stolen vault. The second scene that had me both laughing and on edge involved Henry and the Dying Gull’s successful rescue of Jack and Carina from being hanged. The third scene had me more on edge than laughing for it involved Jack, Henry and Carina’s attempt to survive Salazar’s attack upon their rowboat (ghost shark anyone?) as they headed for shore.

“DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” featured the fourth major location for the movie franchise – Australia. Although I found it a pity that the movie did not use any of the Caribbean islands for filming locations, I must admit that production designer Nigel Phelps made great use of the Australian locale, especially in his creation of the Saint Martin town and the Turners’ home. On the other hand, I found Paul Cameron’s photography rather beautiful, colorful and sharp. I thought Roger Barton and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s film editing was first-rate, especially in the action sequences that featured the bank vault chase, the rescue of Jack and Carina, and the shark attack. I wish I could say the same about the final action sequence, but I must admit that I was not that impressed.

I was impressed by the performances featured in “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES”. The movie possessed a first-rate supporting cast that featured the return of Kevin R. McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, Stephen Graham as Scrum, Martin Klebba as Marty, Angus Barnett as Mullroy and Giles New as Murtogg. Scrum, who was last seen as part of Hector Barbossa’s Queen Anne’s Revenge crew, had decided to join Jack Sparrow’s crew aboard the Dying Gull. And the presence of Marty, Mullroy and Murtogg revealed that Barbossa was not the only who had escaped Blackbeard’s capture of the Black Pearl. The movie also revealed the return of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as Will Turner and Elizabeth. Their final reunion near the end of the film proved to be one of the most emotionally satisfying and poignant moments in the entire franchise.

There were other great supporting performances that caught my eye. One came from David Wenham, who was in fine, villainous form as Lieutenant John Scarfield, a very bigoted Royal Navy officer who was after Jack, Henry Turner and Carina Smyth. Golshifteh Farahani gave a rather interesting and strange performance as a witch named Shansa, whom many seafarers sought for advice. Adam Brown (from “THE HOBBIT” Trilogy) and Delroy Atkinson proved to be entertaining additions to Jack’s crew and the franchise. Juan Carlos Vellido gave a rather intense performance as Captain Salazar’s first officer, Lieutenant Lesaro. Since Keith Richards was unable to return as Jack’s father, Captain Edward Teague, producer Jerry Brockheimer managed to cast former Beatles Paul McCartney as the former’s brother and Jack’s uncle, Jack Teague. And I did not know that McCartney was not only a first-rate actor, but one with great comic timing.

I had been familiar with Brenton Thwaites’ previous work in movies like “MALEFICENT” and “GODS OF EGYPT”. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his portrayal of Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry Turner. Thwaites did an excellent job in combining the traits of Henry’s parents, while making the character a complete individual on his own. Kaya Scodelario was equally effective as science enthusiast, Carina Smyth. Thanks to Scodelario’s skillful performance, Carina was an intelligent and charismatic woman. The actress also had a strong screen chemistry with her co-star, Thwaites.

But the three performances that stood above the others came from Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem and of course, Johnny Depp. It is hard to believe that Rush first portrayed Hector Barbossa as a slightly crude, yet cunning, cold-blooded and ambitious pirate. Thanks to Rush’s superb portrayal, Barbossa still possessed those traits, but the latter had developed into a successful man, who also possessed a heartbreaking secret that he managed to keep close to his chest. I must admit that I did not particular care for Javier Bardem’s portrayal as a Bond villain in 2012’s “SKYFALL”. I found it too hammy. Thankfully, Bardem’s portrayal of the villainous Captain Armando Salazar seemed a great deal more skillful to me. Bardem’s Armando Salazar was no mere over-the-top villain, but a vengeful wraith willing to use any method and form of manipulation to capture his prey. Someone once complained that Depp’s Jack Sparrow seemed different or a ghost of his former self. I could not agree. Depp’s Sparrow was just as selfish, manipulative, horny and humorous as ever. Yet, this Jack Sparrow was at least nineteen years older than he was in “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END”. Despite having a miniaturized Black Pearl in his possession for several years, Jack has been forced to settle for a creaking tub called the Dying Gull and a small crew. Worse, he and his men have experienced a series of failures in their attempt to make that great score. If Jack seemed a bit different in this film, it is because he is older and not as successful as he would like to be. And Depp, being the superb actor that he is, did an excellent job in conveying Jack’s current failures in his performance.

Would I regard “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” as my favorite film in the Disney franchise? Hmmm . . . no. The movie possessed one or two bloopers in regard to the franchise’s main narrative. I was not that impressed by the watery setting for Jack and Salazar’s final confrontation. And I did not care for the hint of a past villain’s return in the film’s post-credit scene. But I really enjoyed the excellent performances by a cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp and the first-rate direction of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. And I especially story created by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio. Not only did it feature the usual hallmarks of a first-rate PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, for me it made “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” the most poignant and emotionally satisfying movie in the entire franchise.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1700 and 1749

Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1700 and 1749: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1700 AND 1749

1. “Tom Jones” (1963) – Tony Richardson directed this Best Picture Oscar winner, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. The movie starred Albert Finney and Susannah York.

2. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006) – Gore Verbinski directed this second entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the search for the chest that contains Davy Jones’ heart. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

3. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) – Gore Verbinski directed this first entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about a dashing pirate who forms an alliance with an apprentice blacksmith in order to save the latter’s beloved from a crew of pirates – the very crew who had mutinied against the former. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

4. “Kidnapped” (1960) – Peter Finch and James MacArthur starred in Disney’s 1960 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel about family betrayal in 1740s Scotland. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007) – Gore Verbinski directed this third entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the Pirate Lords’ alliance and their stand against the East Indian Trading Company and Davy Jones. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush.

6. “Against All Flags” (1952) – Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara starred in this swashbuckler about a British sea officer who infiltrates a group of pirates on behalf of the government bring them to justice. George Sherman directed.

7. “Rob Roy” (1995) – Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange starred in this adventure film about Scottish chieftain Rob Roy McGregor and his conflict with an unscrupulous nobleman in the early 18th century Scottish Highlands. Michael Caton-Jones directed.

8. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1984) – Michael York, Richard Thomas, Fiona Hughes and Timothy Dalton starred in this second adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. Douglas Hickox directed.

9. “Swashbuckler” (1976) – Robert Shaw starred in this adaptation of Paul Wheeler’s story, “The Scarlet Buccaneer”, about a early 18th century pirate who forms an alliance with the daughter of a disgraced judge against an evil imperial politician. James Goldstone directed.

10. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1953) – Errol Flynn, Anthony Steel and Roger Livsey starred in an earlier adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. William Keighley directed.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

After the 2011 movie “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART II” hit the movie theaters, I had assumed that would be the last film set in J.K. Rowling’s “wizarding world of Harry Potter”. Her 2007 novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was her last one in a series of seven books. But . . . lo and behold, Warner Brothers Studios, who had released the films based upon her novel, found a way to continue the series. The end result was the release of the recent film, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” is based upon a 2001 book written by Rowling. Somewhat. First of all, the book is not a novel, but a “scholarly” book about the magical creatures found in the Harry Potter universe. Second of all, the book was published under the fictional pen name of one Newt Scamander. What Rowlings, who served as the film’s screenwriter, did was used the Newt Scamander pen name and transformed him into the movie’s main character. In the film, British wizard and “magizoologist” Newt Scamander arrives by boat to New York City in the fall of 1926. Newt has arrived in the United States to release a magical creature called the Thunderbird in the Arizona desert. While listening to a sidewalk speech given by a non-magical (No-Maj) fanatic named Mary Lou Barebone, one of his charges – a creature called Nifler escapes from his magically expanded suitcase, which contains other magical creatures. Even worse, he meets No-Maj cannery worker and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski, and they accidentally swap suitcases. As Newt struggles to regain possession of his suitcase, Nifler and other magical creatures that have managed to escape; he runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), thanks to a demoted auror named Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, eager to regain her position. Between his search for his missing magical creatures, regaining his suitcase from Jacob Kowalski and the MACUSA; Newt has to deal with a creature called the Obscurus, which uses children as host bodies and is causing destruction around Manhattan and not attract the attention of Ms. Barebone and her abused adopted children – including the adolescent Credence Barebone.

When I first saw “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was surprised to discover that J.K. Rowling was the movie’s sole screenwriter. I found this especially surprising, considering that one of the movie’s producers happened to be Steve Kloves, who had served as screenwriter for seven of the eight “HARRY POTTER” movies. And I must say that I thought she did a pretty damn good job. At first, I thought Rowling had created a disjointed tale. The movie seemed to possess at least three separate plot lines:

*Newt’s search for the missing creatures in his possession

*The Obscurus’ destruction

*Mary Lou Barebone’s anti-magic campaign

But Tina Goldstein finally exposed Newt’s magical suitcase to MACUSA, Newt’s plot line became connected to the story arc regarding the Obscurus. And both story arcs became connected to Mrs. Barebone’s anti-magic campaign when audiences learned that MACUSA Director of Magical Security Percival Graves had recruited Credence to help him locate the child who might be the Obscurus. Seeing how these individual story arcs formed to become part of one main narrative reminded me of the 2008 World War II Spike Lee drama, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. Speaking of World War II, I was happily surprised to learn that a major plot twist near the end of “FANTASTIC BEASTS” promises to lead to the featured a major plot twist that will serve as part of this new series’ main narrative about the upcoming Global wizarding war that will play out during the rise of fascism and the war. How clever of Rowling.

What else did I like about the movie? Frankly, the production designs. I was very impressed by Stuart Craig and James Hambidge’s re-creation of 1926 Manhattan. For me, among their best work proved to be their creation of a 1920s magical speakeasy operated by a goblin gangster named Gnarlack. Nor am I surprised that the pair managed to earn an Oscar nomination for their work. I was also impressed by Colleen Atwood’s costume designs for the film. One, she did an excellent job in re-creating the fashion of the mid-1920s. More importantly, Atwood put an interesting fantasy twist for the costumes worn by the magical characters. For some reason, the clothes worn by the American wizarding community of the 1920s seemed to be more tasteful and elegant than those worn by the British wizarding community of the late 20th/early 21st century. And guess what? Ms. Atwood also earned an Oscar nomination for her work. The only problem I had with the movie’s technical effects was Philippe Rousselot’s photography. Mind you, I had no problems with the film’s epic sweep. But I did not particularly care for the photography’s brown tint – a color that I personally found unnecessary and rather disappointing. I realize that the story is set during the middle of autumn. But was it really necessary to photograph the movie with an unflattering brown tint to indicate the time of the year?

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Eddie Redmayne did a marvelous job in portraying the introverted wizard Newt Scamander, who seemed to have an easier job of interacting with the creatures in his care instead of his fellow humans. I also noticed that in one hilarious scene, which involved Newt’s attempt to recapture an African Erumpent at the city zoo, Redmayne displayed a talent for physical comedy by engaging with a “mating dance” with the animal. Katherine Waterston, whom I last saw in the 2015 drama “STEVE JOBS”, gave a very intense, yet engaging performance as the demoted auror, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein. I was impressed by how Waterston combined two aspects of Tina’s personality – her driving ambition, which has come close to undermining her strong penchant for decency on a few occasions. Dan Fogler gave a very entertaining and funny performance as the No-Maj cannery worker and wannabe baker, Jacob Kowalski. Not only did I find his performance very funny, he also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with both Eddie Redmayne and Alison Sudol, who portrayed Tina’s sister Quennie Goldstein. Sudol was an absolute delight as the carefree witch, who is not only proficient in Legilimens, but who also falls in love with Jacob.

I never thought I would see Colin Farrell in a “HARRY POTTER” film. To be honest, he never struck me as the type. But he seemed to fit quite well in his excellent portrayal of the ruthless and intense Auror and Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, Percival Graves. I was especially impressed with his performance in scenes that featured Graves’ interactions with Credence Barebone – scenes that seemed to hint some mild form of erotic manipulation. Speaking of Mr. Barebone, Ezra Miller was in fine form as the emotionally repressed Credence. The ironic thing about Miller’s performance is that at first, his character seemed slightly creepy. In fact, one could label his Credence a “young American Severus Snape with a bad haircut and no wit”. Thanks to Rowling’s screenplay and Miller’s performance, I came away with a portrait of a sad and abused young man, who hand channeled his anger at those who exploit him via magic.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” marked the first time in which I can recall a magical person of color as a major supporting role – namely the MACUSA’s elegant president Seraphina Picquery, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo. Unlike characters such as Dean Thomas or Kingsley Shacklebolt, President Picquery was not simply allowed to speak a few lines before being swept to the sidelines or off screen. Audiences received more than a glimpse of the glamorous Seraphina. I was also happy to discover that President Picquery was not portrayed as some one-dimensional character without any depth. Thanks to Ejogo’s skillful performance, she portrayed the MACUSA as a pragmatic and ruthless woman who could be quite ambiguous in her efforts to maintain order within the American wizarding community. I found myself equally impressed by Samantha Morton’s portrayal of the religious fanatic, Mary Lou Barebone. What really impressed me about Morton’s performance is that she did not resort to excessive dramatics to convey Mrs. Barebone’s fanatical . . . and abusive personality. Morton gave a subtle and intense performance that conveyed a portrait of a rather frightening woman – especially one who was not magical. The movie also featured solid performances from Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Faith Wood-Blagrove and Ron Perlman’s voice. The movie also featured a surprise cameo appearance from Johnny Depp, whose character will play an important role in the sequel films that will follow this one.

I find it ironic that when I had first learned about the plans for “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was against it. I thought J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers Studio had taken the Harry Potter franchise as far as it could go after seven novels and eight films. And yet . . . after seeing this film, I immediately fell in love with it. The movie had a few flaws. But I ended up enjoying it, thanks to the complex plot written by Rowling, David Yates’ solid direction, the visual effects and the first-rate cast led by Eddie Redmayne. And now . . . I look forward to seeing more films about the different wizarding communities during the early 20th century.

 

“THE LONE RANGER” (2013) Review

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“THE LONE RANGER” (2013) Review

My memories of the 1950s television series, “THE LONE RANGER”, is a bit sketchy. Actually, it is downright vague. I can recall Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in their costumes – the latter wearing a mask. I can recall Moore bellowing “Hi ho Silver!” every once in a while. And I do recall that the series was shot in black-and-white. I have no memories of a particular episode or storyline. I never invested any genuine interest in the series during my childhood. 

When I learned that the Disney Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer planned to produce a movie about the Lone Ranger, I regarded the announcement with very little interest. Not even the news that Johnny Depp would portray Tonto could generate any excitement within me. Usually, I would have been excited by the news of another collaboration between Bruckheimer and Depp – especially since this collaboration marked the return of Gore Verbinski as director. But my lukewarm regard toward the old “THE LONE RANGER” made it impossible for me get excited. Instead, I merely adopted an attitude of “wait and see” and dismissed the news from my mind . . . until the release date for the movie finally approached.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, “THE LONE RANGER” was not only based upon the 1950s television show, but also the 1933 radio program. The movie is basically an origin tale of how a Commanche named Tonto met the man who became the Lone Ranger. It begins in San Francisco 1933, in which Will, a young boy and fan of the Lone Ranger myth, meets the elderly Tonto at a Wild West exhibition at a local fair. The story jumps back 64 years to 1869 in Colby, Texas; where a young attorney named John Reid is returning home by train to become an assistant district attorney. Also traveling on the train as prisoners is the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish and Tonto. Cavendish is heading back to Colby to be hanged, following his capture by John’s older brother Dan and the other Texas Rangers in the area. However, Cavendish’s gang manages to rescue their leader and escape, leaving John, Tonto and other passengers aboard a runaway train. The latter eventually derails at a rail construction site for the unfinished Transcontinental Railroad and Tonto is arrested by the Reid brothers. Dan, who is married to John’s childhood love Rebecca Reid, deputizes his younger brother as a Texas Ranger before the whole group sets out to recapture Cavendish and his gang. Unfortunately for the Reid brothers and their fellow Rangers, there is a traitor amongst them who sets them up to be ambushed and killed by the Cavendish gang. Only John survives, due to the assistance of Tonto, who managed to escape jail. Seeking revenge, John sets out to find and capture Cavendish with Tonto’s help; unaware that the Commanche has his own vengeful agenda regarding Cavendish.

The question remains . . . did I enjoy “THE LONE RANGER”? I can honestly say that I did not like it as much as I had liked the three “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” movies that Gore Verbinski had directed – “THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”“DEAD MAN’S CHEST” and “AT WORLD’S END”. I take some of that back. Perhaps I liked it as much as I did “AT WORLD’S END”. I certainly liked it more than the fourth “PIRATES” movie, “ON STRANGER TIDES”. However, “THE LONE RANGER” had its flaws. One, I found the 149 minutes running time a bit too long about the movie adaptation of an old radio/television character. This movie could have undergone a bit more trimming, leaving the movie slightly longer than 120 minutes. What could Verbinski, Bruckheimer and the three screenwriters have cut? I have no idea. Well . . . I would have cut the 1933 sequences. I really did not see the need of an aging Tonto recalling his first meeting with the Lone Ranger with some kid. Two, there were some minor aspects of the plot that could have been a bit more clear. For instance, who saved Rebecca and her son Danny Reid from Collins, the Texas Ranger who had betrayed her husband? The movie never explained. The movie also failed to explain how Tonto had escaped from the Colby jail in time to find a wounded John Reid and nurse him back to health. Three, I was not impressed by Hans Zimmer’s score. To be honest, I have no memories of it. And if there is one thing that can contribute to the quality of a movie, is a first-rate score. “THE LONE RANGER” simply did not have one. And finally, I could have done without the train wreck that Tonto and John survived near the movie’s beginning. I wish screenwriters Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe could have found a less over-the-top way for Cavendish to escape the hangman’s noose.

Despite these flaws, I still managed to enjoy “THE LONG RANGER” very much. The screenwriters still managed to construct an interesting and entertaining tale about frontier politics, justice and revenge. In fact, the movie not only featured its usual staple of humor and action found in an Depp/Verbinski/Bruckheimer film, it also featured some pretty dark moments in its plot. Aware of moviegoers’ current dislike of summer films with a dark undertone – unless its a movie about some comic book hero or simply a drama – I was rather glad that the screenwriters and Verbinski managed to inject some darkness into the plot. The tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of Dan Reid and his fellow Texas Rangers, along with the reasons behind Tonto’s desire for revenge against Cavendish, the deadly attack upon the Reids’ ranch, and the threat of railroad construction and the U.S. Army against Commanche lands made this story very interesting. Another fascinating aspect of the movie’s plot proved to be the relationship between Tonto and John aka the Lone Ranger. First of all, I liked how the screenwriters made Tonto responsible for the creation of the Lone Ranger myth. Two, the development of Tonto and John’s relationship proved to be an uphill and hard-won battle. The screenwriters did not make it easy for the pair. A fellow co-worker had complained of John’s reluctance to trust Tonto by following the latter’s advice. A part of me agreed with him. Another part of me understood John’s reluctance, considering that Tonto had failed to be completely honest with him. Although I was not impressed by Zimmer’s score, I must admit that I truly enjoyed how the composer used the old Lone Ranger theme – Gioachino Rossini’s“William Tell Overture” – to accompany the movie’s final action sequence. I found it so inspiring.

“THE LONE RANGER” also featured little moments that I found very interesting . . . and entertaining. One of those moments was a hilarious flash-forward that depicted the Lone Ranger and Tonto’s robbery of a local bank that contained an item used by the pair to defeat the villains. Another scene that I enjoyed centered on the pair’s efforts to escape from being trampled upon after being buried in the ground by Commanches. I also enjoyed Tonto’s rescue of John, who was nearly hanged by Cavendish and the U.S. Army. And I especially enjoyed the last action sequence in which the pair tried to prevent the transportation of silver stolen from the Commanche lands by Cavendish and his partner. But my favorite moment – and it is a small one – centered around the love triangle between the Reid brothers, the woman they both loved, Rebecca; and a blue silk handkerchief used in the most subtle and erotic manner.

As for the movie’s technical aspects, I must admit that I left the movie theater feeling very impressed by it. I found Bojan Bazelli’s photography of the locations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Colorado very beautiful. There was another aspect of Bazelli’s photography that I found interesting. The movie’s color scheme started out as chrome gray as soon as the plot shifted to 1869 Texas. Yet, even the 19th century “flashbacks” eventually grew in color as the story unfolded and the relationship between Tonto and John strengthen. I also have to commend the film’s editing done by James Haygood and Craig Wood, especially in many of the film’s action sequences. And Jess Gonchor did a beautiful job in re-creating mid-19th century Texas through his production designs – especially in the Colby and railroad construction sequences. Three time BAFTA nominee Penny Rose, who had designed the costumes for the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN”movies, collaborated with Bruckheimer and Verbinski again as costume designer for “THE LONE RANGER”. I could rave about Rose’s work and how she perfectly captured the style of frontier fashions at the end of the 1860s. By why bother, when all I have to do is point out her work in the image below:

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I found the performances featured in “THE LONE RANGER” outstanding . . . aside from two. One of those exceptions proved to be Helena Bonham-Carter’s portrayal of Red Harrington, an ivory-legged brothel madam who assists Tonto and John. Actually, Bonham-Carter gave a colorful and earthy performance as the one-legged madam who also sought revenge against Cavendish. Unfortunately, the movie’s screenplay failed to do anything with her character, other than allow her to provide some information to the pair in the movie’s first half and assist them for a brief moment in the final action sequence. Elliot, Rossio and Haythe pretty much wasted her character and Bonham-Carter’s time. Barry Pepper gave a colorful performance as the xenophobic U.S. Army Captain Jay Fuller, who allowed himself to be corrupted by Cavendish and his partner. But as much as I enjoyed Pepper’s performance, I found myself a bit unsatisfied with how the screenwriters handled his character. Captain Fuller’s transformation from a determined Army officer to a corrupt one struck me as a bit rushed and clumsy. James Badge Dale fared a lot better as John Reid’s older brother, Texas Ranger Dan Reid. He gave an excellent performance as the professional lawman torn between his love for his younger brother and jealousy toward his wife’s continuing feelings for the latter. Remember my recall of the scene featuring the blue silk handkerchief? Badge Dale’s performance in that scene really made it particularly memorable for me. It has been a while since I last saw William Fitchner in a movie – over three years, as a matter of fact. The man has portrayed a vast array of interesting characters over the years. And I would definitely count the outlaw Butch Cavendish as one of those characters. Fitchner skillfully portrayed the outlaw as a walking horror story with an impish sense of humor.

Tom Wilkinson, whom one could always count on portraying interesting and complex characters, skillfully portrayed another one in the form of railroad tycoon, Latham Cole. Wilkinson did an excellent job in portraying Cole as a subtle and wily man whose desire for Rebecca Reid, power and wealth; along with the construction of the railroad makes him a potential enemy of both Tonto and the Lone Ranger. I was surprised to discover that British actress Ruth Wilson had been cast as Rebecca Reid, John’s sister-in-law and the love of his life. I have always felt that she was a top-notch actress and her portrayal of the spirited Rebecca did not prove me wrong. But I was very surprised by how she easily handled a Texas accent during her performance. If someone ever decides to do a remake of the 1965 movie, “THE GREAT RACE”, I would cast Armie Hammer in the role of Leslie Gallant aka the Great Leslie. Hammer did a beautiful job in conveying a similar uptight and annoyingly noble personality in his portrayal of John Reid aka the Lone Ranger. In a way, I could see why a good number of fans found John’s stubborn refusal to improvise in dealing with Cavendish rather annoying. And if they did, Hammer succeeded in his performance on many levels . . . and still managed to be likeable. At least to me. Some critics had complained that Depp’s portrayal of Tonto failed to become another Jack Sparrow. Others complained that his Tonto seemed too much like Tonto. I will admit that Depp, the screenwriters and Verbinski utilized a similar sense of humor in the portrayal of Tonto. But thanks to Depp’s performance, the latter proved to be a different kettle of fish. Not only did I find Depp’s portrayal of the wily and vengeful Commanche rather funny, but also sad, considering the character’s back story. This allowed the actor to inject a tragicomedic layer in his portrayal of Tonto that reminded me why he is considered one of the best actors in the film industry.

As I had stated earlier, “THE LONE RANGER” did not strike me as perfect. I certainly do not regard it as one of the best movies from the summer of 2013; due to a running time I found too long, a few problems with the script and the presence of two characters I believe were mishandled. On the other hand, it turned out to be a first-rate action Western with a plot that featured some surprising plot twists and a dark streak that I believe made the story even more interesting. It did help that I not only enjoyed the post-Civil War setting, but also the performances of an excellent cast led by Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and a very entertaining direction by Gore Verbinski.