FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. I suppose if I felt any sort of connection to, or even interest in, the universe of Harry Potter, I might have approached this with more enthusiasm. But even having neutral feelings about the whole affair, I was distracted and bored throughout, and left disappointed. I took a run at the Harry Potter series just as it was becoming the juggernaut everyone knows and seems to love so much. I found the first book pleasant enough, I guess, but not nearly as magical and enrapturing as I had been made to believe it would be. Still, I finished it and decided that was enough of that. In the name of transparency, I have to admit I watched the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) shortly after its release, hoping for an adaptation that might lend more depth or color to J.K. Rowling's world. Instead, director Chris Columbus delivered a vapid, to-the-letter version of the source material, a visual Cliff's Notes for a book that was hardly impenetrable to start with. Not that my opinion matters in the face of Potter's global domination, but there it is. I have been made aware that the series skews progressively darker, so maybe there is something in it for me after all; I will likely never find out.
That lengthy preamble brings us to the present day, when Fantastic Beasts, a distant prequel to the events of the Potter stories, carries on the grand tradition of utterly baffling commercial success.
The year is 1926. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a wizard, an author and a former student at Hogwarts Academy. He was expelled but apparently still remembered fondly by Professor Dumbledore. His current project involves cataloging, capturing and occasionally re-homing magical creatures (see title above). At the outset of the final leg of his expedition, Scamander stops over in New York. He gets entangled with a would-be baker named Kowlaski (Dan Fogler) and accidentally switches suitcases with him. This, of course, leads to some fantastic beasts running wild through the city. It also draws the attention of a demoted magical investigator, or auror, named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Goldstein arrests Scamander, remanding him to the Magical Congress of the United States (Macusa). Ominous agent Graves (Colin Farrell) suspects criminal collusion between the two, finding them guilty in the recent death of a senator, which was actually the work of an altogether more sinister, uncontrollable magical entity.
There's even more plot to it, for some reason, and it just keeps rattling along. Creatures run rampant through the city; Scamander and Kowalski have to catch them. There are rumors of a long-missing, evil warlock kicking around. There are too many characters, too much story, all too thinly drawn, and the end result is somehow dull and irritating at the same time.
Redmayne does fine work, although his Chaplin riffs and lovable-doofus affect almost wear thin by movie's end. Fogler more than holds his own as a foil with some moments of bright comic relief. The female characters, Waterston's in particular, feel underdeveloped and secondary: set dressing with a few lines of dialogue.
Director David Yates (of a number of the Potter movies) and his team create a vast, fascinating atmosphere in which to place the action. But the action within it — antic, rambling and insubstantial — undermines the depth and detail of the setting. PG13. 133m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
MOONLIGHT offers proof that specificity may be the most direct route to universality. It does not attempt to take on the Big Issues, per se, but in telling one young man's story, it manages to fold in a number of elements of the conversation everyone should be having about those issues. It is also gorgeously photographed, finely acted and delicately, patiently told; an unassuming little movie that is bigger even than its greatest attributes.
A quasi-biography in three parts, Moonlight follows the development of Chiron, a quiet, contemplative kid, world-weary even at an early age, trying to find his way in the rough neighborhoods of Miami. In the first part we meet Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer who runs corners but tries to maintain some kindness. He finds Chiron (Alex Hibbert), whom the other kids tauntingly refer to as Little, cowering in a boarded-up crack hole, hiding from his tormentors. Juan buys the boy a meal, trying gently to coax anything more than a grunt out of him. Eventually, after Juan brings Chiron back to their house, Juan's partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) gets him talking a little, and Juan is able to take Chiron home to his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris). As it turns out, Paula is a customer of Juan's and doesn't offer Chiron much in the way of mothering. Other than the safety of Juan and Teresa's house, his only relief comes in a tentative friendship with Kevin (Jaden Piner).
Part II, a decade later, follows Chiron's growing up, coping with his addled mother and the cruelty of his classmates. He's uncomfortable in his own skin and unsure of his sexuality. Another 10 years finds him a grown man who has assumed the identity of Black (Trevante Rhodes), a distilled, hardened version of Juan. He's walled-off and alone until his estranged childhood friend Kevin (Andre Holland) reaches out to apologize and re-connect.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is as focused and intentional a work of art as any I've recently experienced. Jenkins directs all of his actors to beautiful, painful, honest performances. His use of the moving camera, with fixed focal lengths requiring it to move in to intimate distance in order to engage its subject, adds a visual dimension to the narrative's themes of intimacy and absence. The movie doesn't attempt to moralize or get grandiose, but in its attention to the little things, the reduction of so many cultural and universal struggles to one young man's growing up, it makes a much wider and more hopeful picture of the world. PG13. 111m. BROADWAY, MINOR.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
BAD SANTA 2. Billy Bob Thornton reprises his role as the bitter, booze-fueled, criminal anti-hero in the sagging red suit. With Kathy Bates. R. 92m. FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
ALLIED. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as married World War II spies who need to work on trust issues. R. 124m. FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MOANA. A young navigator (actual Hawaiian Auli'I Cravalho) enlists the reluctant aid of a demigod (actual demigod Dwayne Johnson) on a sea voyage to save her home from destruction in this Disney animated feature. PG. 113m. FORTUNA, MINOR.
THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004). Animated Tom Hanks shuttles kids to the North Pole in this Christmas movie. PG13. 111m. BROADWAY.
ALMOST CHRISTMAS. It's not breaking any new ground, but comedy about a family gathering after the death of its matriarch is heartfelt, warm and funny, particularly as presided over by foul-mouthed, tippling, larger-than-life Aunt May (Mo'Nique). Starring Danny Glover. PG13. 112m. BROADWAY.
ARRIVAL. Denis Villeneuve's movie about scholars and soldiers trying to determine the threat level of visiting aliens is exquisitely crafted and acted, and suffused with sadness, hope and joy. Starring Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner. PG13. 116m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
BLEED FOR THIS. Miles Teller plays a boxer who struggles to get back in the ring after a traumatic car crash in this true-life story. With Aaron Eckhart and Katey Sagal. R. 116m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
DOCTOR STRANGE. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton star in a Marvel movie bogged down by pseudo-philosophy and lifted up by strange and wonderful special effects wizardry. PG13. 120m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN. Hailee Steinfeld stars as an awkward young girl who's even more lost when her brother starts dating her best friend. With Woody Harrelson. R. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
GIMME DANGER. Jim Jarmusch documentary about punk band The Stooges. R. 108m. MINIPLEX.
HACKSAW RIDGE. Mel Gibson's movie about conscientious objector, medic and Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is an impressive feat, but drowns the hero's complexities in the din and gore of battle. R. 131m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MISS HOKUSAI. Animated drama about the famed 19th century Japanese artist's daughter. PG13. 93m. MINIPLEX.
PETER AND THE FARM. Documentary about a hermit farmer in Vermont. NR. 91m. MINIPLEX.
SHUT IN. Naomi Watts stars as a child psychologist trapped in a New England snowstorm and trying to save a young boy. PG13. 91m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
TROLLS. The fluffy-haired toys of yesteryear return in retail-friendly colors and CG animation, singing and saving their village from troll-eating baddies. With Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake. R. 83m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill