Enjoy new wonders reminiscent of Harry Potter’s world

Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When the final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was published, after the initial excitement of reading the final chapter, fans of the boy wizard and Rowling’s magical world created were also a bit distraught: It was the end. The cynic would have said, “Oh, please. There’s way too much money involved!” Between Warner Bros, which handles the films, and the slew of publishers across the world who made mints on the books and its translations, there were, literally, tens of billions of dollars to be made. But Rowling, at least publicly, isn’t much of a cynic. She seems to love, really love, the world and characters she created, and shortly after Deathly Hallows, she announced that she would start a whole new set of films based around Newt Scamander, the author of a text book Harry and his friends read while students at the wizarding academy Hogwarts. Rowling had released the short, whimsical Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2001 to raise money for Comic Relief. The film of the same name, written by Rowling and directed by David Yates, uses Scamander’s mini encyclopedia as a way to expand the wizarding universe to the United States, to the previous century, and to investigate, tentatively and slightly, themes a bit more adult than those of Harry’s adolescent concerns.

The film takes place in New York in 1926 and begins with Newt (Eddie Redmayne) arriving by steamship with a suitcase literally bursting with magical animals he has collected during his travels. His suitcase, like various rooms and tents in the Harry Potter series, is much, much larger than it appears. When one of them escapes – a platypus-like rascal who collects shiny things, like money – the resulting chaos gets Newt arrested by local magic cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). He exposed magic to the local No-Maj, or folks who can’t do magic, while physically harming one, a wannabe baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who just happened to be in the way.

Tina isn’t just being a good cop. It turns out she’s trying to get back into the good graces with the powers-that-be, including a detective named Graves (Colin Farrell) and the American wizard president (Carmen Ejogo), who demoted Tina after she got into a fight with a witch-hating No-Maj radical (Samantha Morton). Meanwhile, the city is being plagued by mysterious building collapses and explosions, which may or may not be the fault of mysterious international wizard terrorist Grindelwald. When many of Newt’s creatures escape and the attacks get worse, Newt is blamed, Tina is implicated, and fantastical adventure ensues.

The film is fun simply because it reminds us of the Harry Potter world, and in expanding that world, geographically and historically, we are treated to new wonders, some which are Rowlingesque quirky and some which are visually spectacular. The beginning of the film’s second act takes place in Newt’s suitcase, which is a sort of ramshackle wild-life sanctuary, and the creatures are as original and beautiful as anything out of Avatar or Star Wars. Our heroes are broadly drawn as characters but they are endearing: Newt is weird and brilliant and idealistic, while Tina is as ambitious as she is emotionally invested in her work. Harry, Hermione and Ron were only complex and magnetically interesting after repeated exposure. There will be five movies about Newt and Tina, so we have time to fall in love with them.

In Fantastic Beasts, I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they will become more interesting, but I found Kowalski and Tina’s squeaky flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) immediately entrancing. Oscar-winner Redmayne, whose jerky awkwardness is becoming his one-note wonder, is fine and is used well by Yates and Waterston, so brilliant in P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, is also well used, though I wanted her to be more badass, or at least edgier. Tina’s sweetness is a symptom of the film’s flaw. While Harry Potter grew up and Rowling became a much better and more interesting writer over the years, Potter properties are still marketed to children and teenagers. Fantastic Beasts, despite being about adults and careers and adult love, is still a kids movie. It could have been darker and more interesting, but that’s not where the billions of dollars are going to come from.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Directed by David Yates

Written by J.K. Rowling

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston and Colin Farrell

Rated PG-13

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I can see you

now-you-see-me-headerAfter I walked out of Now You See Me, a caper film about four magicians who become master thieves and the FBI agents trying to stop them, I began to overthink the twist at the end. I won’t reveal it, because that would be unfair, but it made me question some of the opinions I developed while I was watching the film. At one point, I had leaned over to my boyfriend and asked, “Why are the magicians so well written and the cops so badly written?” The question at first was rhetorical; I was really asking the world why bad screenwriters exist. Then the question was real: Was it deliberate? Did we need to see the movie all over again with the knowledge of the twist? The answer to the second question is no. I don’t need to see it again. The movie wants to be Oceans 11 crossed with The Prestige crossed with The Usual Suspects, and as fun as it is in places, Now You Seem Me is an illusion, a mediocre film pretending to be a good one.

The movie begins with four street magicians – slight-of-hand entertainers like David Copperfield, not Harry Potter wizards – getting recruited by a mysterious benefactor who gives them the plans for a bunch of elaborate tricks. A year later, now dubbed the Four Horsemen, Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher), and Jack (Dave Franco) are putting on a massive stage show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, produced by billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). As their final trick, they teleport one of their audience members to a bank vault in Paris and steal three million euros and then rain the cash onto the audience. This heist brings in the FBI, led by Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), as well as a beautiful Interpol agent named Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). The Four Horsemen also spark the interest of professional magician debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, sleepwalking again). For the next hour and half, the magicians put on shows, steal money, and give it away while the FBI fail to stop them and Bradley chuckles. There are deeper mysteries involved, as well as old rivalries and large egos. It all ends exactly as the mysterious benefactor planned, and you may or may not be surprised who that is.

The best part of the movie, as I allude to above, is when the magicians are at work. Eisenberg and Harrelson are both given delightful dialogue, and they are experts at portraying mischievous arrogance. The filming of the stage shows, as well as the more minor tricks, usually made at the expense of the FBI, is where director Louis Leterrier, who gave us the fun Transporter movies as well as dreadful Clash of the Titans remake, does his best work. These scenes are thrilling, funny, and even beautiful. He also, not surprisingly, gives good action, but the car chases are not nearly as a good as the fist fight between Franco and Ruffalo. However, when the focus turns to just Ruffalo, Laurent, and the rest of the fumbling FBI, the dialogue dumbs down dramatically, and the flirtation between Ruffalo and Laurent is simply terribly written and acted, a rather astonishing feat considering the prowess of those two actors. And unfortunately, the balance between FBI and magician tips towards the cops in the second half of the movie, and I found myself asking that question about why the cops are so badly written.

I had too many questions, not just about aesthetic quality, but also about plotting, logic, and coherence. When you’re trying to pull off an ending inspired by The Usual Suspects, you can’t leave the audience asking as many questions as I did. Okay, it is possible I just need to see Now You See Me again. And if it comes on cable some lazy afternoon in a year or so, I may watch it looking for the “A-ha!”

Now You See Me
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Written by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, and Morgan Freeman
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex