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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It took a couple hours, but I’ve started crying. Partly, it’s the staggering shift from my childhood in Cincinnati, when and where being gay was treated more or less the same as being a pedophile, to my adulthood in LA, when and where my gayness is at least protected by the state (and the State) and the vast, vast majority of people I deal with on a daily basis either celebrate who I am or don’t give a rat’s ass. Partly, it’s remembering my wedding, when I married Rob, back when it wasn’t even legal in New York, and it will always be one of the greatest days of my life. Partly, it’s because of remembering losing Prop 8 and the debilitating sorrow I felt. Partly, it’s because that sorrow was made powerfully profound knowing that my neighbors and some of my family members and millions of strangers had contributed to it. Partly, it’s that my marriage and my subsequent partnership didn’t survive to this day, that having the right to love doesn’t give you the ability to make it last. Partly, it’s knowing how this ruling will change the lives, in concrete ways, of friends I have in Michigan and Ohio and Texas (and everywhere else), and these changes, the assurances and protections, are so needed and so great. Partly, it’s that I haven’t had any coffee yet, since I haven’t been able to tear my eyes from the computer screen. Partly, it’s knowing that I am going to the wedding of my dear friend Curtis in a few months, and it will be the first time that I will be at the wedding of two gay people and it won’t be a subversive act, and that is such a relief.

Let’s put on a show! (Or, rather, let’s make an album!)


In the first scene of Begin Again, a blond Brit named Steve (James Corden) finishes his song at an open mic night in New York’s Lower East Side and coaxes his friend Greta (Keira Knightley) onto stage. She reluctantly, almost begrudgingly sings “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” which she claims is new, and the audience barely notices. There is some polite applause, which Greta rolls her eyes at. She’s already down because, as we quickly find out, she has just broken up with a boyfriend of five years, an up-and-coming rock star (Dave, played by Adam Levine). However, in the middle of the crowd is an enrapt, drunk, mussed man (Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo) in his 40s, who is in awe. Neither the audience in the club nor in the movie theater knows why; the latter audience finds out ten minutes later when we see the scene from Dan’s perspective. As he watches Greta’s perform, he imagines other instruments joining in, all played by invisible musicians. Suddenly, the song soars. And we get a lesson in music producing, which is what Dan does for a living. Or had. He was fired that morning.

With this set up, the rest of the plot shouldn’t be too hard to predict. Dan persuades Greta to work with him. Dan needs to be redeemed as a producer after a drunken, depressed crash brought on by his divorce from Miriam (Catherine Keener) – which means he needs to be redeemed as a husband and father to Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), too. Greta needs to prove herself as a songwriter and performer after being relegated to being “Dave’s girlfriend,” particularly after Dave cheated on her with a record company assistant. Without any money, Dan and Greta decide to record an album entirely outside, from alley ways to rooftops. They recruit a band, pay them on the cheap, and start recording one delightful song after another. Meanwhile, they start developing a powerful, possibly romantic, friendship and work to repair their other relationships.

The plot of Begin Again is slight, using a few of the clichés of the let’s-put-on-a-show! genre and focusing on a rather simple redemption narrative in order to string together a bunch of beautifully directed musical performances. Writer-director John Carney’s last major feature, the magical Oscar-winning Once, had an even thinner story to link an Irish love story. That story was emotionally much more powerful, possibly because it snuck up on you, acted as it was by utter unknowns. Ruffalo, Knightley, Keener, and Levine are the opposite: They are huge stars and are all a bit distracting at first. Can Knightley Sing? Can Levine, an actual rock star, act? Is Ruffalo going to do that disheveled loser thing for the whole movie?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Knightley is always good, utterly convincing in both period dramas like Atonement and contemporary comedies like Bend it like Beckham. And she’s stunningly beautiful, as delicate as blown glass, and she has a sturdy charisma that standard ingénues tend to lack. With Begin Again, we discover she can also sing, with a voice something like a cross between Suzanne Vega and Lucinda Williams. Combining her emotional expressiveness and her voice makes for powerful musical numbers, particularly when she sings to Dave’s voicemail with “Like a Fool” or when she gleefully finishes the album accompanied by Violet’s guitar with “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home.” Levine, who acts with smooth naturalism, gets the final song, however, singing the Greta-penned “Lost Stars” as a grand and gorgeous audition for the Oscars. (“Falling Slowly” from Once won Best Original Song in 2008.)

Ruffalo doesn’t sing in the movie; during the musical numbers that he is producing, he is mostly a conductor and infectious cheerleader. Dan is a stereotype of an aging music executive – his theme song is probably LCD Soundsystem’s “I’m Losing My Edge” – and Ruffalo’s performance is reminiscent of the early disheveled stoner roles that made him a star. As Dan and Greta grow closer, he becomes more believable. By the end, however, the film belongs to Knightley and Greta, who refuses to compromise, in music and in love.

Begin Again
Written and Directed by John Carney
Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, and Adam Levine
Inexplicably Rated R


Oh, Stritchy


I first discovered Elaine Stritch on the original Broadway soundtrack to Company, the classic 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical about then-modern love in New York. The plot revolves around perennially single Bobby and his married friends; Stritch played Joanne, the oldest of the group. At the end of the second act she sings “The Ladies Who Lunch,” an ode to the rich married women who do nothing but have lunch, try on the clothes, and drink vodka stingers. She realizes during the song that she is just like them. The song is one of Sondheim’s most famous (which is saying something) and has become a gay camp classic, likely because of Stritch’s delivery: drunken, screeching, vulnerable, epic. While Stritch has never been a lady who lunches – she has worked steadily on stage and screen since 1944 – her hurricane of a personality, from hilarious to enraging and from sympathetic to outrageous, has made her both a theater and a gay icon. This is readily understandable in her astonishing autobiographical one-woman show At Liberty (which won a Tony on Broadway and an Emmy on TV), but in the wonderful new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, she is revealed even more, and the result both melancholy and inspiring.

The film was shot mostly in 2012, while Stritch was rehearsing for cabaret shows in New York and Detroit. She is nearing her 87th birthday and working harder than most people do in the 40s, but age, as well as diabetes, is catching up to her. She has trouble remembering her lyrics and her blood sugar keeps spiking, making her more confused and demanding interventions from her musical director, the devoted Rob Bowman. But as nerve-wracking as some of these rehearsals and pre-show dramas are, she stands in front of an audience and turns herself on. She turns a forgotten lyric into a comic bit, and her stories and banter between songs are about the troubles and annoyances of aging.

Between shows and rehearsals, at home and in the back of town cars, Stritch retells some of the tales familiar to viewers of At Liberty, but these versions are neither carefully scripted nor staged, and they become much more intimate and powerful. We hear about her love for her one husband, who died of brain cancer in the 1970s, about being a naïve virgin in New York in the 1940s, about her struggles with alcoholism. We watch her tour the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, from where she graduated, looking for a room to be named after her, and she thinks the big ones are too grand for her, one of its most famous alums. Her humility is sometimes enveloped by what appears to be narcissism, which seems to be more of a defense mechanism than personality flaw. In interviews with her co-stars and co-workers, including Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, and the director George C. Wolfe, they are at times in awe, in love, and exasperated.

The film is directed by Chiemi Karasawa, who had only before produced documentaries, and her control of Stritch’s story is impressive. While putting together clips of old performances and news appearances takes no special skill, Karasawa’s unflinching camera during Stritch’s breakdowns, insults, triumphs, ugliness, and senior moments must have involved some intense negotiations and a strong will. I’m sure it helped that Alec Baldwin was an executive producer and Stritch herself is well aware of what emotions are powerful on screen: She describes at one point how her crying after her husband’s death was reminiscent of a great scene of tearful balling. This is Elaine Stritch, always on stage, always giving herself to her audience, and always doing it, perhaps, for herself.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Directed Chiemi Karasawa
Starring Elaine Stritch, Rob Bowman, Alex Baldwin
Not Rated
Starts at Arclight La Jolla Firday, March 14

Beautiful loser

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-featIn the early 1960s, many of the now-iconic folk singers earned their followings and made reputations in the smoky, cramped clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village. This is where you could hear Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Joni Mitchell, and be close enough to see the spittle on their lips. As history usually works, we only know the stories of the victors, and in this case, the Dylans and the Mitchells are who we imagine on those tiny stages as we sing along with their records. The failures, however, failed to become history and their voices, songs, and struggles have been swept into the sewers of memory. Some of them were just as deserving but for some reason didn’t connect with a massive audience or a smart record label. Or they just didn’t have the right personalities; narcissists, jerks, depressives drunks, all of the above. The Coen Brothers, among America’s great artists who have managed to embed themselves in history, have imagined one of those Greenwich Village figures who didn’t.

In the winter of 1961, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is sleeping on the couches of the friends who aren’t angry with him, reeling from the suicide of his former singing partner and a furtive affair with his married friend Jean (Carey Mulligan). His solo album, titled Inside Llewyn Davis, is not selling at all, and his gigs aren’t paying. And then Jean tells Oscar that she’s pregnant and doesn’t know if it’s his or her husband Jim’s (Justin Timberlake), so she has to get an abortion. Oscar sets off the find the money for the procedure while also trying to get his career going, and this leads him to session work, wandering through the cold streets of Manhattan, and in a car on the way to snowy Chicago with hobbled, caustic jazz musician Roland Tuner (John Goodman) and his greaser valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Throughout, Oscar carries, loses, and chases an orange tabby cat.

While this does sound like a lot of plot, the Coens don’t much believe in the traditional, tried-and-true structure of stories. Stuff happens, scenes move with drama and humor, but people don’t change in the movies they write.(Their adaptations, like No Country for Old Men and True Grit are different. About Inside Llewyn Davis’s lack of plot, Joel Coen said, “That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.” The cat doesn’t help, because it seems so symbolic that I kept trying to figure what it was symbolic of – and I never did.

llewyn-davis-cat-gifBut we are privy both to lines and images that get stuck in your head, and Inside Llewyn Davis has many: Oscar Isaacs holding the cat on the subway as it stares at the stations going by to Isaacs shuffling through the snow outside a Chicago bus station, from one of his hosts screaming at him about testicles to Cary Mulligan’s swearing tirades, from Adam Driver’s hilarious baritone noises on a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” to John Goodman’s monologues, which are among the best the Coens have ever written. And the songs, produced by T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Momford, are wonderful, gorgeous and moving when they’re supposed to be, dated and silly when they’re supposed to be.

As is usual with the Coens, each performance is strong and idiosyncratic. After a decade of working mostly under the radar, Oscar Isaacs will now be recognized as a leading man; his Llewyn is funny, crass, desperate, and musically moving, if not terribly likeable. Mulligan’s role is small but loud and snide, and she’s great fun. Timberlake has little to do, but his naïve sweetness is a great counterpoint to Isaacs. Goodman’s barely alive Falstaffian monster is the best part of the movie, and I hope he is not forgotten at Oscar time. The film itself will be nominated for many, but as good as it is, Inside Llewyn Davis may end up lost in the stack of their better films. Not forgotten, but not iconic either.

Inside Llewyn Davis
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman
Rated R
Opens in San Diego December 20