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Cinema Signal: If you love Harry Potter don't miss this. Green light. MOBILE version |
. "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

One might consider this droll and mischievous magic thriller akin to "Men in Black" but, coming from the ever fertile mind and imagination of Ms JK Rowlings of Harry Potter fame and fortune, it's all too clear that she's the master of her own distinctive corner of hilarious anthropomorphism. The wizardry, wands, moving newspaper illustrations, a thieving animal and a worn leather suitcase open a portal to a world of high eccentricity.

Carrying that piece of luggage onto the New York docks in 1926 is englishman Newt Scamander ("Salamander" + "Scandal" + "Scoundrel," etc.), a Ministry of Magic employee. Making his way through the crowd toward customs it's clear he's upset with something inside the suitcase which is acting up, unlocking the clasp and wanting out. But when the customs agent asks to see the contents, probably because of the fine gentleman's tendency to look away when spoken to (as a symptom of his introverted nature or... his act of charming bashfulness), he pushes the agent's suspicion buttons. The moment of suspense is quelled when all to be found in the suitcase is calm. Just your ordinary personal items. Even a niffler knows when it's time to cool it.

Accepted into the country, Newt is again winding his way through the dock crowd when his eyes meet those of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton, "Minority Report") who, as the head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, treats him to a diatribe about witches and wizards as real and dangerous. She doesn't know the half of the activist's credentials but diverts him long enough for the niffler, a rabbit-sized critter with a platypus snout to finally makes its escape from the suitcase and go foraging for bright, shiny things.

As Newt goes after it, knowing the havoc the critter will set into motion with its thirst for jewelry, he runs into amiable wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, "Barely Lethal") who happens to have a suitcase identical to his own. The encounter results in an accidental exchange with Kowalski not knowing what he's about to unleash. As for Scamander, he's now the proud possessor of a load of delicious looking donuts Kowalski needs as collateral for a bank loan in order to start a bakery.

The two form a buddyship while the screen fills with characters dark and evil, powerful and beauteous, hostile and extremely friendly. Proving the last two points is mostly gentle security officer Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who arrests the unregistered wizard and takes him to the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) where she has been downgraded for an offense and is trying to regain her former status as an Auror.

In this she's answerable to President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and the very powerful Director of the Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who dismiss the case. She winds up with as much control over Newt as he'll abide, the relationship downgraded to something closer to a friendship. She helps her new buddy search for his luggage but it's the beasts that the unaware Jacob has inadvertently released that leads to the exchange. By now, Newt perceives the extent of "no-maj" sentiment astir in Manhattan, fueled by Picquery, by the (unseen until near the end) dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) (shades of Lord Voldemort!), Shaw (Jon Voight) and Graves.

Tina takes Newt and Jacob to the sanctuary of her home where she introduces them to her ravishing sister Queenie Goldstein (Allison Sudol), an Age-of-Aquarious beauty with an outgoing personality, an ability to read minds, and a shine for Jacob.

Jacob, now with his collateral returned to him, tries for the loan but it turns out that the deliciousness of the buns has no bearing on the loan officer's willingness to come forth with the money.

The effects called for in Rowling's script puts many of the CGI tricks into director David Yates' hands, being a spinoff of the Potter series. The artists have the advantage of previously designed effects and style for this new application. an opening salvo of a new series.

The level of craft artistry is equally elite with Director of Photography Philippe Rouselot perhaps in the best position this year to win his second Oscar for his cinematography. The consistency of his lighting style and composition, blended with the CGI effects, is a major conponent of the creative exuberance and visual excellence of his work, This goes, as well, to the casting, production design, art direction, costumes and makeup, with music by James Newton Howard: geniuses all.

There's no doubting that Redmayne has made his mark with his malleable boyishness and raffish shock of hair after "The Danish Girl" and "The Theory of Everything" wherein he simulated physicist Steven Hawking. He's in the zone of Hollywood endearment and will likely have as much work as he cares to do for some time to come. Which doesn't preclude those who might find him a bit much, with the submissive eyes and occasional bent over timidity of his character.

Rowlings continues to show what she's got in her, Post-Potter. After a standalone novel, several excellent crime novels in the Cormoran Strike series written under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and the book from which this movie is adapted, this is also screenwriting debut. Yes, folks, with her way of mixing humor with pathos, creative originality, mastery of plot construction, command of pacing and every other technicality of writing, she dreamed it up and wrote every bit.

Anyone who has enjoyed her inexhaustible capacity for invention should consider this must-see material, although it's a relatively minor work against the dramatic scale and dark complexity that was Hogwarts. One feels a lack of appreciation for the "less is more" credo although, in that, she's far from alone.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Eddie Redmayne as englishman Newt Scamander
and a suitcase full of hidden character.

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