Rogue Element #134: A ‘Strange’ New ‘Arrival’ of ‘Fantastic’ Films, aka Avril Goes to the Movies
By Avril Kulla
November has heralded a bizarre mixture of weather (70 degrees in Chicago? The Chinese have certainly created a believable climate change hoax), indescribable elation (Cubbies win!) and utter horror (at least for those of us who do not support nominating a racist, sexist, xenophobe who just settled a multi-million dollar fraud suit, and his homophobic, anti-choice running mate who is uncomfortably way more qualified for the top seat). So, what’s a gal to do when she just can’t even? Go to the movies, of course! (Spoiler free reviews below)
I am not as intimately familiar with the origins and adventures of Doctor Stephen Strange as I am of other notable Marvel characters. He has made cameos in the books I read, particularly when he started tutoring X-Men character Illyana Rasputin aka Magik in the intricate details of the sorcerous arts, but I went into ‘Strange’ about as blind as I could be. While the trailer appeared rather shiny I was not convinced based on the minimal compilation of clips and dialogue that ‘Strange’ was going to deliver a solid story, and that is ultimately how I felt about the film.
Telling an origin story alongside a good versus evil tale is a challenging undertaking. While I adore ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ most people feel it is the weakest of the Captain America films (even I can admit nothing beats ‘Winter Soldier’ for sheer awesomeness) partly due to the necessary storytelling aspect of having to introduce the character in a well-paced, believable manner, before setting him on his path of superhero greatness. ‘Strange’ did an excellent job of introducing the protagonist, but it missed several key details when transforming him.
Dr. Strange was a supremely gifted neurosurgeon until a horrible car accident robbed him of his fine motor control (but really, what did you expect to happen when you’re speeding down a narrow cliff side road while distracted by your phone?). Unable to find assistance in the realm of science he turns to sorcery. He insults The Ancient One until he gets bitch slapped into the astral plane and kicked out of the temple, but somehow proves his commitment to learning by waiting outside for five hours (big whoop; I’ve managed to not leave the couch for two days straight, saving sloth-like trips to the bathroom and kitchen).
His magical training was supposed to be a montage of his evolution from arrogant dickbag to humble sorcerer supreme, intent on using his gifts for good. Instead we just see a few snippets of his struggles but no real ‘Aha, there’s his good, self-sacrificing side!’ moments, find out that he’s a fast learner (but we already knew that) and he breaks the rules to better serve his own goals. Yes, he steps up and battles the bad guys, but only when forced to by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when someone else dies leaving him no choice.
The special effects are utterly outstanding and may be worth the ticket price alone, if that’s your thing. When the building and dimensions fold and expand like an accordion I swear I squealed a little, and their travel mode looks way cooler than first class. While the story wasn’t necessarily bad nor boring (the cloak was adorably comedic…yes, you read that right) it also did not feel complete. There are scenes needed to make the transition from smug surgeon to superhero sorcerer more believable, and while the movie was still entertaining I tend to desire a bit more quality and effort from my heroes.
Twelve alien ships have landed at random points across the globe, and Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has been recruited in an attempt to communicate with the creatures. The trailer looked amazingly intense, and once again my initial gut reaction to a sneak peek was spot on, only this time it wasn’t exactly what I expected.
Reviewing this movie without divulging its secrets is incredibly difficult as one cannot talk about the elements of what makes this movie such a fascinating surprise without revealing core aspects of the film. However, there is one piece of praise I can freely give: it is absolutely gorgeous. The cinematography of the scenery is quite well done, but it’s the alien language that really captures the imagination. When the communication first appeared on screen I gasped in shock, awe and delight at the beautiful and brilliant alien writing.
I went into this movie thinking it was a science fiction tale of first contact and in some ways that is entirely accurate, but the true essence of the film is…love. Most first contact concepts are typically centered around humanity banding together, whether it be to repel the alien invasion ala ‘Independence Day,’ or to learn from one another and/or deescalate aggression, in the case of the movie ‘First Contact’ and the Watchmen comics. ‘Arrival’ manages to merge several popular alien landing themes while also taking the plot in a slightly skewed direction and ending up in thought provoking territory. You can agree or disagree with the protagonist’s choices but you will also have to stop and really think about them.
When the movie ended my husband and I both had tears in our eyes (yes, real men do cry) but not necessarily for the same exact reasons. While we typically discuss a movie the whole car ride home, this time we were equal parts chatty and contemplative. I honestly could not say whether or not I truly liked the movie until I had more time to process it, and that unusual delay in turn made me enjoy the movie even more.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I am a Potterhead. I have read the Harry Potter series dozens of times (with the exception of the last 100 pages of ‘Deathly Hallows;’ still not over Fred and you can’t make me), I attend every Harry Potter trivia night in Chicago (My team Pet My Niffler won FIRST PLACE at the most recent event!) and ever since I stowed away on the Draco/Hermione ‘ship I’ve read almost nothing but Dramione fanfiction for nigh three years. I may be slightly obsessed.
So when my fellow teammates and other Potter fans proposed a group date to see ‘Fantastic Beasts’ on the big screen I was all in. Given how expensive movies are regardless I am all about the added comforts of assigned seating, better screens and the alcoholic option for hydration. Surrounded by fellow nerdlings, being thanked by a ten-year-old for holding a door, having two different people compliment me on my Clinton/Kane button and engage me in pleasant conversation regarding what we can do to keep our heads up and how adorable toddlers are in pantsuits; well, this was the best I’ve felt in over a week. And that was before I saw the movie.
I was actually neutral regarding the trailer; I thought it looked pretty interesting but there wasn’t anything I was totally fangirling over or harshly judging as of yet, and I made a concentrated effort to avoid further exposure to extended clips or spoilers. I haven’t even read the book (though in my defense it is a Wikipedia of sorts regarding different magical creatures; no actual plot or storyline). Essentially I was relatively uninformed heading in, the way I like it, and I was blown away heading out, the way I love it.
‘Fantastic Beasts’ was utterly delightful and fantastical, in every possible sense. The multi-purpose plot included not only adorably awkward explorer Newt Scamander and his suitcase filled with wondrous creatures, but also the complexities of relationships (romantic and otherwise), foreign communications, as well as heavy themes of abuse, neglect and oppression. This film is loaded with story and yet does not feel convoluted or bogged down at any point, and the ‘slow’ bits are studded with amazing CGI magical animals doing their incredibly imaginative thing in JK Rowlings’ unique universe.
Action, adventure, romance, humor and darkness, all wrapped up in a delightful new Harry Potter series. I refuse to pigeonhole ‘Fantastic Beasts’ as another “chapter” in the Potter universe, because love him though I do, Harry Potter had nothing to do with this story. This was all Newt and Tina and Kowalski and Queenie and the cute as shit creatures and the gigglewater and dozens of other magical moments that make this movie one of a kind. ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is magic at its essence: simultaneously light-hearted and terrible to behold, and utterly irresistible.
If you are like pretty much everyone else regarding your tangible distain for the majority of the shitstorms 2016 has unleashed upon us, then by all means grab some candy from your local CVS, overpay even for a matinee and go hit the theaters, because if you’re into escaping reality then there’s nothing like catching a movie this November.