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I was a little late to the Harry Potter party. I didn’t like the first movie (which was basically a bunch of kids who didn’t know how to act yet participating in a big costume pageant), but thought the second was really good, and loved the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The series got a little inconsistent after Azkaban, but the character of Harry Potter rose above the mediocre moments delivered by director David Yates, who helmed the final four movies.

Well, Yates is back to helm the next chapter in the Potter Universe, a prequel called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the title of a textbook Harry studied at Hogwarts. The film takes place well before Harry’s time, as the world of wizardry comes to New York City in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, Beasts struggles with some of the same problems the first Harry Potter film had: It looks good sometimes, but the screenplay never takes hold. It’s all over the place, with no real sense of purpose other than setting up future movies.

In place of Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry, we get Eddie Redmayne’s Newt, author of the infamous textbook and caretaker of a variety of “fantastic beasts.” The film opens with him coming into New York toting a suitcase with a variety of beasts dying to get out.

Some of them do indeed escape—and wreak havoc, most notably a little platypus-looking thing called a niffler. There’s a fun moment when Newt opens his case and drops into it like it contains a staircase. It reveals a vast home for the creatures inside, where he feeds them and plays with them.

And … that’s it. The movie is a big setup for the occasional special-effects sequence involving Redmayne. The creatures might be relatively cool-looking, but none of them register as great characters that move the plot along.

Dan Fogler delivers the film’s best performance as Kowalski, a wannabe baker who winds up crossing paths with Newt while trying to get a bank loan. He’s a “muggle” dabbling in a non-muggle universe, and some of the film’s better moments come from Fogler’s reactions to crazy sights. He also has a little love story that’s sort of sweet.

Ezra Miller, currently The Flash in other movies, plays Credence Barebone, a suspiciously worried-looking fellow who has a nasty secret. Colin Farrell is on hand as an agent for a secret society seeking witches and wizards—and he also has a big secret. Of course, Johnny Depp also has a role in this new universe extension, one that will surely get bigger than his two-line appearance in this film.

There’s definitely joy in simply seeing the extended Potter universe come to life again, even if Harry isn’t present, and the film itself is somewhat of a dud. There are many more films to come in the series, with Yates already announced as the director of four more chapters to be released every other year. So, yes, there will be more movie wizardry, more beasts and another big wizard showdown. This time, expect a younger Dumbledore facing off against Depp’s character, who is a precursor to Voldemort.

Wait a minute … talking about all that cool future stuff is distracting. The matter at hand would be the current film, which is a bore. See it knowing that things will probably get more exciting in future chapters, and nifflers aren’t half as interesting as hippogriffs.

Also, maybe Yates should take a break and give somebody else a shot. Bringing back Alfonso Cuaron (director of Azkaban) would be a nice move. Yates has done well, but Beasts has proven that his approach might be getting a little stale.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is playing in a variety of formats in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

As the Hollywood A-listers began arriving at Palm Springs Convention Center for the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival's Awards Gala on Saturday, Jan. 3, hopes ran high among the fans gathered along the sidewalks across from the red-carpeted entryway.

Whether the fans were locals or visitors to the Coachella Valley, they all had favorites they were hoping to see.

Palm Springs resident Diana Doyle has joined the crowd for three years running. “I’m one of those people now,” she said. “I’m hooked!”

Has she had luck meeting celebrities in the past?

“Last year, I had a great picture taken with Bradley Cooper, and it went into the Los Angeles Times, and now it’s my screensaver,” she laughed. This year, her good luck continued as she got a chance to grab “selfies” with Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.

For Connie Hale of Palm Desert, this was her eighth year of braving the crowd.

“We got her about 12 noon today,” she said. “I’ve met lots of celebrities over the years, and this is the spot to do it. I’ve met Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr. already, but this year, I’d like to meet any of the stars coming.”

At one point, Hale found herself face-to-face with Michael Keaton—but the moment passed without her getting the autograph she wanted.

KESQ/CBS Local 2 meteorologist Rob Bradley and fiancée Kristina Guckenberger were among the fortunate fans who obtained access to the grandstand seating area next to the red-carpet entrance.

“I’ve had to work in the studio the last two years doing weather updates during down time in our Awards Gala red-carpet live special coverage, so this is my first time being here at the event,” Bradley said.

Did they have any favorites they wanted to see up close this evening? “My mom said I should meet Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt. And for my dad, Reese Witherspoon,” Guckenberger said. Unfortunately, neither Downey nor Pitt appeared out front to greet fans.

Still, the crowd’s mood remained festive as the almost-full moon rose and the temperature dropped, before the fans dispersed as the awards dinner got under way inside.

Scroll down to see some pictures from the red carpet.

Published in Snapshot

The marriage of Stephen and Jane Hawking takes center stage in The Theory of Everything, director James Marsh’s sweet and powerful depiction of love in the face of adversity.

The film showcases the talents of Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables), who gives a remarkable performance as Hawking, renowned physicist and eventual Pink Floyd vocalist. Redmayne depicts a relatively healthy Hawking at first, a slightly awkward but brilliant Cambridge student smitten with classmate Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones of Like Crazy). Redmayne transforms as the film progresses, slowly but surely depicting the physical deterioration of Hawking as he suffers from ALS.

Jones is equally powerful as Hawking’s first wife, a woman who refused to let him waste away after his diagnosis. The two marry knowing that the road ahead will be a rough one. Hawking’s initial prognosis had him living no more than two years. That happened about 50 years ago.

The movie is first and foremost a love story first, with Hawking’s musings about black holes taking a back seat. Redmayne and Jones are utterly convincing as a couple; Marsh treats their courtship in a magical, glimmering sort of way, involving awkward school dances, followed by a memorable wedding sequence. The film unabashedly celebrates their romance.

The film does feel a bit false in its portrayal of Stephen and Jane’s separation after 25 years of marriage. Jane eventually winds up with Hawking caregiver and music-teacher Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), while Stephen goes off with his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), and it’s depicted in a very neat and tidy way. There are no jealous fits, and there’s no pain in the loss of the relationship. Stephen and Jane just sort of nod at each other, with Stephen acknowledging that “Jane needs help,” and they part ways as a couple.

By many accounts, it was Hawking who left Jane, although the film depicts it the other way around. For entertainment purposes, I’m OK with Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (who based his script on a Jane Hawking book) focusing on the fairytale element of Stephen and Jane’s coupling. They managed to stay together for quite awhile, longer than many couples. If the filmmakers had chosen to make this a movie about their true relationship struggles, it would’ve been a different movie altogether. There’s a palpable beauty and sweetness in the time they spent together, and that’s what the film stresses. It cops out a bit, but that doesn’t wind up being a deal-killer. The movie stops when the two separate in 1990. For the true story of where they stand now, and what happened in their new relationships, you must consult the Internet.

Seminal moments in the life of Hawking are covered, including the introduction of his computer-aided voice and electrical wheelchair. It’s uncanny how accurately Redmayne captures that radiant Hawking smile. It’s a performance so good that you forget you are watching an actor portray somebody, and not spying on the real guy.

While Redmayne surely has the showier role, Jones provides the emotional core of the film as Jane. Her work here is her best since her breakthrough performance in Like Crazy, although she did shine earlier the year in The Invisible Woman. Both Redmayne and Jones will probably find themselves in the running for an Oscar.

As biopics go, The Theory of Everything isn’t terribly introspective or revealing. It’s an idealistic love story involving an iconic figure, and it winds up being very romantic. Since it stops nearly 25 years ago, a sequel involving Hawking’s second marriage and his cameo on Big Bang Theory would afford Redmayne a chance to revisit the role, right?

Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.

The Theory of Everything is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

This review comes to you from a man who loves a good musical—and is a diehard fan of Les Misérables. Haters of movie musicals everywhere, I beseech you: Give this one a chance! Lovers of this musical ... unite! The movie is a blast!

Les Misérables, based on the Victor Hugo novel set in 19th-century France, has always been the epitome of a big musical done right. When I saw it on Broadway, I remember thinking something along the lines of, "There's no way in hell anybody could ever put this on the big screen in a respectable fashion." To mount a worthy production, one would need a big budget, and one would need big stars with box-office allure who can sing like no other. I'm happy to report that director Tom Hooper didn't just find stars who can sing; those stars make you freaking cry when they are singing. They are that good.

Hooper (The King's Speech) gathered his glorious cast, and then he went and made things even more complicated: The actors and actresses in this muscular musical sing live on set. There are no comfy sound booths with fancy mineral water. What you see and hear in this movie is the product of live takes.

It's absolutely remarkable. The performance by Hugh Jackman, in the central role of notorious bread-stealer Jean Valjean, is more than Oscar-worthy; his work here requires an Oscar. His physical presence is appropriately commanding, and his voice is miraculous. This is a role that could turn to schmaltz in the wrong hands, but rest assured that what you're seeing is one of musical cinema history's greatest, most-uncompromising performances.

Shockingly, his is not the best performance in the movie. That honor goes to Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the betrayed factory worker turned prostitute who's desperately trying to care for daughter Cosette (played by the sweetly voiced Isabelle Allen as a child). Hathaway delivers "I Dreamed a Dream" in one devastatingly beautiful take that will drop many a jaw into many a lap.

Some will point to Russell Crowe's Javert as the film's weak link, and in some ways, it is. Crowe's voice doesn't compare to the likes of Jackman and Hathaway, but his diminished vocals help make his Javert more pathetic.

Javert, the dogged lawman who destroys his life by unrelentingly pursuing the fugitive Valjean, has long been a literary loser, and Crowe brings a marked sadness to him. The fact that his voice isn't so grand just makes his Javert lonelier and bleaker. I was expecting something more booming, but this interpretation is growing on me.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are appropriately disgusting as innkeepers Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Amanda Seyfried, after the failure of Mamma Mia!, gets to put her capable voice to a better test as the grown Cosette, while Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) gives a breakthrough performance as her suitor, Marius.

The coveted role of Éponine (for which Taylor Swift was once rumored) has gone to Samantha Barks, who was featured in the acclaimed Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary. Hooper made the right choice; her rendition of "A Little Fall of Rain" qualifies as the best I've heard.

Hooper does more than put a bunch of great actors and voices in play. His staging of the musical is superbly accomplished. When Daniel Huttlestone emerges from a huge elephant statue and delivers "Paris/Look Down" from the back of a moving horse carriage, it's pure movie magic. The costuming, art direction and sets are all impeccable.

Those familiar with the show know that a good chunk of it takes place on a pile of furniture. Hooper does great things with the infamous last stand in the street.

By the time Cosette and Valjean have their last meeting, you have seen so many moments of grandeur that it's hard to keep track. The decision to have the actors sing live was a risky one, but it pays off in a big way.

Am I fawning? You bet I am. It's such a wonderful thing to see something that delivers more than what you were expecting. Nothing hurts a film critic more than a long-awaited movie that falls short. (I'm looking at you, Hobbit!) If either Hathaway or Jackman go home Oscar-less, that would be a shame.

Les Misérables is so much more than a worthy adaptation of a long cherished musical. It's a masterful game-changer when it comes to movie musicals. I could go on and on about how great it is, but words of praise can't possibly do it justice. See it.

Les Misérables is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews