th “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the first of five planned spinoff films rooted in the author’s “Harry Potter” universe. Forgoing the traditional sequel or prequel route to satiate the legions of fans wanting more from Rowling’s blockbuster book-turned-film series, “Fantastic Beasts” ingeniously taps into Rowling’s witchcraft and wizardry mythology as it examines the adventures documented in one of Harry’s textbooks featured in “Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone.”
The end result is “Fantastic Beasts” feels like a Potter film with no mention of Potter (“Fantastic Beasts” takes place 70 years before the story of “The Boy Who Lived”), and instead concentrates on former Hogwart’s student Newt Scamander (the always great Eddie Redmayne) and his adventures to capture fantastical beasts all over the world.
Listen to Tim’s reviews of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Bleed for This” on “The KQ Mornings Show” with Tom Barnard.
But in an odd twist of fate, a bumbling factory worker (Dan Fogler) accidentally unleashes some of Newt’s creatures during a stopover in New York City – and the exposure creates a panic among a secret society of witches and wizards that fears the persecution of their human counterparts.
While the cast — including Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell — is terrific, “Fantastic Beasts” comes off a bit too heavy on the special effects. They’re great effects, no doubt, but unless you’re familiar with the source material (Rowling published the 128-page “Fantastic Beasts” in 2001), you may struggle to keep up with all the wizard-speak amid all of the crash-boom-bang. As for everybody else, they’re in for, well, a magical good time.
Lammometer: 7.5 (out of 10)
“Bleed for This” (R)
Fans of hard-hitting, true-life drama will want to climb into the ring with “Bleed for This,” the incredible true story of champion boxer Vinnie Pazienza and his struggles to get back into the ring after a head-on car collision nearly left him completely paralyzed.
Led by Miles Teller as Vinnie, the cast is stellar all around, including brilliant supporting turns by Aaron Eckhart and Ted Levine, who are barely recognizable as Vinnie’s trainer Kevin Rooney and promoter Lou Duva, respectively.
Even though the film falls into the trappings of the boxing genre (there are only so many ways you can replicate a boxer training for a comeback), “Bleed for This” is an amazing study of character and determination in the face of adversity. For the lack of better words, it delivers a solid knock-out punch.
Fortunately for director Otto Bell, not one, but two powerful forces came together for his thrilling new documentary “The Eagle Huntress”—a force of nature embodied by a teenage Mongolian girl and an actress who harnessed the power of “The Force” in the biggest film of 2015.
Now playing in select cities and expanding to more theaters Friday, “The Eagle Huntress” examines the time-honored tradition of eagle hunting in Mongolia and how 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv works to defy the conventions of a practice only reserved for fathers and sons. If she’s successful, Aisholpan will become the first female eagle hunter in 12 generations of her Kazakh family.
The film is narrated and executive produced by Daisy Ridley, the breakout star of the international blockbuster “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” The opportunity to get involved with “The Eagle Huntress” couldn’t have come at a crazier time for Ridley, but despite her commitments to that galaxy far, far away, she was compelled to make time for the project.
“I was in the throes of the production of ‘Episode VII’ when my agent sent me the film, saying, ‘It’s amazing and all about empowerment,’” said Ridley, accompanied by Bell, in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles. “I saw it and I was incredibly moved, and asked how I could become involved.”
Ridley came on board “The Eagle Huntress” in January, just in time for the documentary’s film festival run. Bell said the moment he learned of Ridley’s commitment to “The Eagle Huntress” is one he won’t soon forget.
“It was the night before the film’s debut at Sundance, and I had terrible butterflies in my stomach and I got this lovely phone call,” Bell said. “When I spoke to Daisy, it was clear to me that she was picking out corners of the film that only I had cared about. It was very clear to me that she had studied it and had been very moved by it.”
Bell first met with Aisholpan’s family about filming “The Eagle Huntress” on July 4, 2014. The meeting was a serendipitous one, since it was the day the girl and her father were about to find her the eaglet that would become her hunting companion in the film. Even though Bell and his crew weren’t expecting to start shooting that day, he knew that such a pivotal moment in an eagle hunter’s life was one that couldn’t be missed.
“We were having tea and her father stood up and said, ‘We’re going to steal an eagle from the mountainside this afternoon. Do you think it’s something you would want to film?'” Bell recalled. “Of course, we jumped at the chance. We weren’t exactly ready to start with the production, but we had to get that shot since there was such of a slim window to film it in, and we happened to be lucky enough to be on the ground for it.”
Bell especially feels fortunate that he was able to capture Aisholpan’s story as it was unfolding — a rare opportunity for any documentarian.
“So often with documentaries you’re filling in the blanks,” Bell said. “Something has already happened and you’re using archive footage, retrospective interviews and the like to fill those in. In this case, we were lucky enough to be there from the start of her journey. Her first step to becoming an eagle hunter always begins with the young apprentice stealing the baby from the nest and we were right there on the spot to film it.”
From there, Bell captured on film the rest of Aisholpan’s major milestones: the training of her eagle for a revered, annual festival where all eagle hunters compete, and the final step and going out and hunting in the frigid winter to graduate to full eagle huntress.
While Ridley’s path in life couldn’t be any more different from Aisholpan’s, there was a common bond that had resonated with the film star.
“There are similarities with my family because Aisholpan is part of an incredibly supportive family,” Ridley said. “In particular, in the film we see the relationship between her and her father, and the kids are so encouraging. In that respect I felt a resemblance to my own life with my parents and my sisters.”
Ridley’s participation in “The Eagle Huntress” says a lot about the character of the 24-year-old London native. Coming off a role in one of the biggest box office hits in movie history, Ridley could have easily opted for a big payday in any number of scripts that landed on her desk after “Star Wars” — yet she immediately committed to a smaller-scale production that she believed in.
“Going forward, the thing I’m most interested in is being a part of good stories,” Ridley said. “Aside from that, ‘The Eagle Huntress’ is a brilliant film. It’s just beautiful to look at even if you’re not concentrating on what the message is.”
Click audio player to hear Tim’s review of “Arrival” on “The KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard.
The space alien genre gets a seemingly new twist in “Arrival,” a thinking person’s sci-fi thriller that ultimately is more about questions of humanity than it is the otherworldly beings that initiate first contact. But while “Arrival” feels fresh in comparison to several alien thrillers recent years – it’s about aliens that invade, but don’t attack – it ultimately comes off like a smattering of similar films.
In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize the touchstones of “Arrival” seem to borrow from the plot points of “District 9” (which features hovering ships), “Gravity” (about a protagonist dealing with loss), “Contact” (about a scientist decoding alien messages), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (about aliens warnings to Earthlings) and “Interstellar” (about the transcendence of space and time).
That’s not to say that “Arrival” isn’t fascinating and thought-provoking. It just can’t seem to get over the hump to approach the greatness of any of its equally-smart predecessors.
Amy Adams is brilliant as Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguistics professor, who, along with and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is recruited by a military colonel (Forrest Whittaker) to attempt to communicate with the beings in an alien spaceship that lands in Montana. A saucer-shaped ship that appears to be levitating sideways, it’s one of 12 massive vessels hovering over different parts of the world that gives no clear indication of its intentions.
Louise’s task is to decode symbols that the aliens are seemingly communicating with, trying to figure out why they are here and what they want; and Ian wants to figure out where they came from and how they got here. The problem is the messages of the beings – dubbed “heptapods” (they resemble octopuses, but are one leg short) – are so complex that Louise and Ian may not have enough time to stave off a festering global war. It turns out that countries like China and Russia are perceiving the heptapods as a threat, and an attack on the ships is imminent.
“Arrival” not surprisingly arrives just in time for awards season, and thanks to the brooding tone and atmosphere set by gifted director Denis Villenueve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”), the film manages to be cerebral without being pretentious. From the very first frame, Villenueve masterfully constructs a plot of misdirection, which ultimately results in one of the most satisfying payoffs on the big screen this year.
The problem is, up until the big reveal in the film’s third act, “Arrival” plods along and may feel like a bait and switch to moviegoers expecting much more based on the film’s tantalizing trailers. In the end, “Arrival” comes off as a studio-backed sci-fi art-house movie that doesn’t deliver any of the sorts of scenes moviegoers associate with the genre. On one hand, the less is more approach is completely welcome for those pining for originality; but on the other, the film just feels too uneventful running up to the unexpected, hard-hitting climax. In the end, “Arrival” is satisfying, but ultimately underwhelming.
Lammometer: 6 (out of 10)
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers