I may be in the minority with this opinion, but of the two major family oriented films in current release, I’d pick “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” over “Moana” every time. However, I’d also acknowledge certain conditions and limitations with respect to “Fantastic Beasts…” that may restrict its appeal. It’s a return to J. K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter and for fans of that series, either in book or film form, it’s a welcome one.
Jumping back in time, it’s a prequel that tells the story of fantastic beast wrangler and advocate Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), but it plays far more like a sequel in the manner in which it demands prior knowledge of Rowling’s creations. This isn’t the best starting point for a new viewer and it may fall a little flat for those whose recall of characters, concepts and history is murky as it doesn’t spend time explaining them. Redmayne is delightfully geeky as Scamander, all awkward legs and elbows, and the secondary cast is generally solid. But the film fails in a key (controversial) reveal by having an actor that’s more recognizable than the character, which takes you out of the moment.
All of which might make “Moana” seem like the winner – and, in fairness, it’s getting better reviews by more people than “Fantastic Beasts…” but it fell flat for me. Telling the story of a young girl who embarks on an adventure to save her island people, it felt formulaic. “Weird and pointless animal sidekick: Check!” On the upside, it’s a far better story of a central female character than the awfully named “Brave” (nothing the central character did in that film was motivated by bravery) – and that title would be more appropriate here. But even immediately after the film ended, I could barely remember any of the songs – and that’s disappointing in a film like this.
In comparison, the song that has managed to stay rattling around in my head for a couple of weeks is from a more unlikely source, Warren Beatty’s take on the weird and wonderful Howard Hughes in “Rules Don’t Apply” (and a similarly titled original song). Beatty wrote, directed and stars in this story of two young people who find themselves attracted to each other while working for the reclusive billionaire (Beatty). It’s a lovely period piece that starts a little off kilter in its mood and music as the young starlet (Lily Collins)and driver (Alden Ehrenreich) try to figure out their enigmatic employer, evening out as they, and we, come to know him.
There’s plenty more love in unconventional places in “Allied,” another period piece, set in World War II and starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as two spies who meet while teamed up to assassinate the German ambassador in Casablanca. Pitt parachutes into the desert and is met by a driver who has a suitcase containing a linen suit and machine guns. It’s an opening scene that feels like a Bond movie and perhaps the best act of spycraft in the movie is his ability to dress impeccably in the backseat of a bouncing car. The film feels a little disjointed in places, with passages of time and tonal changes that momentarily feel like you’ve sidestepped into a different story. It’s a visually appealing film that lacks cohesiveness and occasionally strains credulity in terms of the actions taken by the lead characters.
Amy Adams plays Susan, a woman whose ex-husband appears to be settling old scores through a novel he’s written in “Nocturnal Animals.” Alternating between Susan’s present life and troubled current marriage and the events of the book as she reads it, the film deftly reveals the truths of her relationships. Both her ex-husband and the main character of the novel, which plays as a film within the film, are played by Jake Gyllenhaal, which is interesting in itself as there’s no other immediate reason to equate the two characters other than her own tendency to associate them as she reads it with him in mind. It’s a stylish film directed by fashion designer Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) and may elicit different responses from people who identify more or less with different characters in the film. Is Susan the victim, reading about violence inflicted upon a similar character, or is she the villain who callously ruined a marriage her writer ex-husband is still recovering from?
The most powerful love story, and story in general, of the last week or so comes in “Loving,” the dramatization of the true story of the mixed-race couple who challenged Virginia’s marriage and miscegenation laws by marrying in 1958. A simple couple, they did what seemed like a simple thing only to be punished for it, including several years of exile from Virginia and both of their families. After writing to Robert Kennedy, Mildred Loving had her case referred to the ACLU, who pursued it on behalf of her and her husband Richard, all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s a remarkable story with wonderfully understated performances by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, as the Lovings, and told very well and with great restraint by director Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”). Loving v. Virginia changed the nation and continues to do so, having established the constitutional right to marriage more recently applied to same gender relationships.