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Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in movies by commorancy on December 23, 2016

I’m so glad J.K. Rowling decided to bring us to the U.S. with the next installment of the Harry Potter universe (I say with some sarcasm). Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts is also kind of a mess. Let’s explore.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. Stop reading now if you want to watch the film.

Timid Characters

One thing I’m never a fan of in storytelling is setting up your main character as both timid and intimidated by nearly everyone around them. However, if there had been just one timid character in Fantastic Beasts, I might have given this trope a pass. Unfortunately, the timid characters extend to practically every role in the film. The timid characters include Newt Scamander (the timid oddball hero from Britain who randomly shows up in New York), Porpetina Goldstein (the demoted Auror who’s as timid as the day is long), Credence (a timid teen with a surprise), Queenie Goldstein (outgoing yes, but timid) and Credence’s witch-hating adopted sister (didn’t even catch her character’s name, but still timid).

I’m fine with a story using a timid trope if the character eventually emerges from their timid cocoon to take on the world. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in Fantastic Beasts.

Unlike Hogwart’s, where you plainly expect the students to be timid and intimidated by the teachers (who are clearly years ahead in magical learning), this trope fails to work in Fantastic Beasts where these magical folk should all be pretty much on even footing. Because these are adults and not children (with the exception of Credence and his adoptive sister), this trope fails so badly as to drag down the entire first half of the film.

No. When I see a movie, I expect the leading characters to eventually emerge as take charge individuals. Not only do they need to express conviction in what they are doing, they need to stand up for it and take charge of their actions and of those around them. This is especially true of the hero. In Fantastic Beasts, that never really happens. Which leads to…

Character Development

Because this story is so light on character development, we are lost with character names, what most of them do and why they are even there. While the place has been established pretty much up front (i.e., New York City), the film can’t help but break one of the cardinal wizarding rules, made so abundantly clear in the Harry Potter films, within the first 10 minutes of Fantastic Beasts… exposing the wizarding world to muggles and letting them go without ‘fixing’ it.

Worse, they start off by discussing nomenclature (“muggle” versus “non-mag”) as though we should run into all sorts of these Americanisms. Yet, later in the film, Percival Graves (the on-again, off-again villain) clearly uses the word ‘squib’ without thought. One could argue it wasn’t Percival Graves during any part of the film. However, if the US folk are calling muggles “non-mag”, then clearly they should be calling “squibs” some other word.

Story

Let’s just say that the first half of the film was a mess. It was all over the place. First, it was about Grindelwald terrorizing London. Then it transitions to be about finding and catching Fantastic Beasts that Newt accidentally lets loose in New York… after he bumps into a non-mag named Jacob who he exposes to magic, first by wand, then by disapparating. And, that’s not even the half of it. Because one of his beasts bites Jacob, he befriends Jacob and takes him ‘home’ (to heal him) and then into his suitcase (which is one of those spaces that’s larger inside than out).

Again later, it transitions to be about an Obscurial (a witch or wizard who doesn’t know it, usually a child). The repressed magic becomes a dark force that can damage or kill.

We’re exposed to many different concepts all at once, but that keep being thrown at us without any full understanding of why any of it’s happening. On top of that, we have all of the timid characters who refuse to take charge of their own situation. They just sit back and watch from the sidelines only occasionally becoming a participant in the action around them when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they stand there with head hung low like they’re waiting for a scolding.

Halfway Point

At about the halfway point, the pace starts to pick up as some of the pieces finally start falling into place, not just for the characters, but also for the audience. Yet, even though we have a rousing pace that’s pretty much relentless until the end, you still feel more like you’re watching something from the Marvel universe than something in the Harry Potter universe. It just felt too disconnected and too distant from what we came to know of Hogwarts. Is the American wizarding world that much different?

Overall

I liked the second half of the film, but the neat and tidy ending combined with the timid characters left me flat on the characters, the character development and ultimately the hodge-podge story. If it was all just a setup to expose Grindelwald, then that could have been accomplished in so many better ways. For this franchise, I’ll reserve my judgement and hope that a second film might turn out better. For a franchise opener, I guess it’s alright. I was just hoping for a lot more. I certainly got a lot more out of the first Harry Potter film than I got out of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Dissection: Tron Legacy

Posted in entertainment, film, movies, reviews by commorancy on December 18, 2010

Updated: 1/7/2012 – Disney greenlights Tron Legacy sequel

To start off, I am a reasonably big fan of the original Tron film. Yes, the first Tron story was a bit of a letdown, but it worked for what it was. After all, it was the first film to use computer graphics to that level within a film.  Definitely a ground breaker.

Achievements

Tron Legacy is also a ground breaker once again, but much less so.  Its technological advancements in film are much more subtle.  A lot of people may not have thought about this, but Tron Legacy is the first film to use an actual actor’s likeness in a film to play the actor at a younger age using a CG head and real body. I had predicted that this would happen eventually, and here we are.  Tron Legacy now opens doors up to creation of new films by Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.  Granted, the animation on the face is a bit stilted and unnatural, but it works for the CLU character.  It doesn’t work so much for Kevin Flynn’s younger self. Nevertheless, the character works in most instances.  If they had spent just a bit more time on the face, they could have made it look and act even better.  Avatar is proof of that.

Story

While I really wanted this story to work well, it doesn’t come together as I had hoped.  Basically, the CG is so strong that the story has to be twice as strong to overcome the incredible visuals.  The trouble is, it doesn’t.  But then, the same can be said of the first Tron film.

However, the two main problems with this film are 1) lack of formidable villain and, by association, lack of a real payoff at the end and 2) Tron is not the main character and is visibly absent most of the film.  After all, this film is named ‘Tron’.  Tron is the character we expect to see.  We do see him in flashbacks and, without spoiling the film, in other places as well.  However, for 95% of the film, Tron is absent.  In the small parts he’s in, Tron really contributes little to the overall story.

I realize that this one is about the ‘Legacy’ aspect of Kevin Flynn (i.e., Sam Flynn).  So, Sam takes the front stage in this production. That’s okay were Sam Flynn a super likable character.  Unfortunately, he’s not.  I liked him well enough, but not nearly as much as I liked Kevin Flynn in Tron.  In the first Tron film, we the viewers felt just like Kevin who was plopped into this fantasy world unexpectedly.  So, we’re experiencing it all for the first time just like he is.  With Tron Legacy, the audience already understands much about the world having seen the first film. So, wasting time on the introductions of the world isn’t really necessary.  To their credit, the producers/writers did try to skip much of it.  But, the whole clothes cutting and redressing scene was a bit overkill and kind of showed us just how cheesy the costumes were.  Like the first film, it would have worked better and saved lots of time if Sam had awoken in the world fully costumed. That whole costuming scene could have been skipped (which was awkward anyway).  I understand the setup between him and one of the female dressers, but that meet-and-greet could have happened in a different way.

Tron original film rules ignored

I also keep thinking more and more about Tron Legacy vs Tron and I keep coming up with more and more holes. Holes that are big enough to drive a truck through.  It’s really very obvious that the writers (former writers from Lost, I might add) just didn’t consult the original film before writing this story.  Without consulting the original film, they just arrived at an idea that didn’t really take into account all of the previous rules that had been established in Tron. Worse, it seems like the writers and producers thumbed their noses at the fans by not following these rules.  Following the rules, however, would have made Tron Legacy much more complete and true to the original film.  It would have also made Tron Legacy far better than it is now.  And, it would have shown that the writers were committed to providing a full experience to not only the casual viewer, but also to the die-hard fans of Tron.  Instead, this film only appeals to the casual viewer and completely ignores and, worse, insults the die-hard fan.

First example, the whole reason the game grid exists in Tron is as a result of the arcade video games in real life. The game grid is a virtualized, but identical active game as what the gamer sees on the arcade CRT.  Just as the gamer plays the game in real life in an arcade, so the game progresses identically in the virtual world with 3D people.  As a result, the game grid exists because of real life gamers.  As the gamers play games, so too do the game grid games.  In 2010, with games like World of Warcraft, Halo 3 and Assassin’s Creed, the writers could have had a field day with such an updated game grid.  Yes, it might have ruined the aesthetic of the game world to see people dressed as Master Chief or Ezio, but it would have made Tron Legacy far more true to what’s going on today in gaming and, at the same time, make Tron Legacy a lot more fun to watch.

In Tron Legacy, this entire arcade to game grid aspect was either forgotten or intentionally dropped.  The trouble is, this rule has already been established.  So, the movie should have at least popped out to the real world to see gamers playing on mobile phones, computers and Xbox 360s to show that the virtual game grid is still tied to a real world game.

Second issue… although, I have to admit I didn’t initially think of this one and don’t necessarily agree with the thinking behind it. Some people have surmised that the Encom mainframe had been shut off the whole time between Tron and Tron Legacy and thus the virtual world wouldn’t have existed. The reality is, there was a computer in Flynn’s Arcade that appeared to contain the virtual world.  So, while Encom’s computers may have been shut off, it appears Flynn had moved the entire world into his own personal server.  So, while some people seem to find this part of the film a problem, I don’t. Flynn was the CEO of Encom and easily had enough money and power to build a hugely powerful computer system in the basement of Flynn’s arcade to manage this world.  Sure, it might have been shut down for a time, but it certainly appears that Flynn had successfully transferred both the world and the computer into the arcade’s basement.  He certainly had enough money to do this. It also appears that this computer is fully functional when Sam arrives at the arcade.  So, I don’t see an issue with this part of the movie.

Third issue (see Encom below for more of this).  When Flynn took control over Encom after Tron defeated the MCP and released the files incriminating Ed Dillinger, I full well expected Flynn to drive Encom to become a game development company.  In fact, had this premise been realized, this would strengthen the idea behind the game grid and the existence of the virtual world.  Instead, for whatever reasons, the writers decided to turn Encom into an operating system company like Microsoft.  Now, that doesn’t mean that Encom doesn’t make video games, but it does mean that it is not Encom’s core business.  If that whole board room meeting had been related to a new video game title, the whole Tron Legacy story would have been dramatically strengthened.  Also, in Tron, Encom was an R&D group think tank.  That is, they designed extremely cutting edge prototyping products, like the digitizing laser.  The very same laser technology that digitizes and transports both Sam and Kevin into the virtual world.  Again, the writers ignored this part of Encom’s business completely to the detriment of Tron Legacy.  Considering that that digitizing laser was designed in 1982, I would have expected to see that digitizing system being sold on the market and people entering into their own virtual worlds (separate from Flynn’s world) by 2010.  Yet another lost opportunity for the writers to create an interesting spin on what happened with Encom.

Fourth issue,  after Sam ends up back in the real world at the end of Tron Legacy, he’s fully dressed in street clothes. As far as I know, he didn’t pack an extra set of clothes.  So, the whole costuming process inside the virtual world (where his clothes were cut off and discarded) doesn’t make sense.  Worse, Quorra, who isn’t even human, also pops out into the real world fully clothed in street clothes.  Again, where did these clothes come from?  I’m quite sure that Sam didn’t expect to be leaving Flynn’s with a female companion.  So, I’m quite sure that an old dusty arcade wouldn’t have such clothes stashed away.  So, again, this is a problem.  Although, some people surmise that Quorra didn’t actually make it out.  Instead, Sam is somehow having a delusion or an hallucination of Quorra and she’s not actually there. I don’t know that I agree with this.  I have my suspicions as to what’s going on, but I’ll leave that for Tron 3 to fully explain.

[Updated 1/16/2011]

Fifth issue is that the original digitizing laser consumed the space of at least 2-3 building stories and at least one football field.  This is a huge laser equipment laboratory.  In Tron Legacy, this digitizing laser is now located in the basement of Flynn’s Arcade?  Unfortunately, I just don’t think that this sized laser equipment fit within Flynn’s arcade basement space.  So, the question is, where is the rest of the huge laser infrastructure?  Just not thought out well enough.  However, if one of Encom’s newest products had been a self-contained USB digitizing laser (for home use) and that had been what was being discussed in the board room, then having this laser in Flynn’s basement would have made a lot more sense.  And, it would have made sense from a time perspective (all technology gets smaller).  But no, this issue was not addressed at all.

Sixth issue.. this is not so much an issue, but an observation about how the laser works.  According to the first film, the molecules are digitized and then suspended in the laser beam.  When the molecule model is played back, the object reintegrates.  With Quorra, it actually does make sense that she could end up in the real world.  How?  Well, there were two users in that world: Kevin and Sam.  Two real world users with real world molecules.  Kevin’s molecules would still have been suspended in the laser beam.  When Kevin explodes after reintegrating with CLU, those molecules are still trapped in the laser beam.  There’s nothing that says that those molecules have to play back out as Kevin.  In fact, Quorra could use Kevin’s suspended molecules to play back into her form and become human.  Of course, that would leave no more suspended molecules for anyone else to exit the grid.  That also means that for someone to leave the grid with a real form, that a real person would have to enter the virtual world.  I’m assuming that as long as that person lives, those molecules are tied to that individual.  If the user dies in the grid, then an ISO or another program could exit into the real world using that dead user’s molecules.  Another issue is that Kevin’s molecules would be suspended in Kevin’s form when he went in.  It would take at least Yori to reconfigure the laser beam protocol to play out Kevin’s molecules into Quorra’s form.  Yori was the program designed by Lora to manage parts of the digitizing system.  Unfortunately, Yori isn’t in Tron Legacy.  So, Quorra should have exited the virtual world in Kevin’s form and clothing.

Encom 2010

Other than the bored room meetings (pun intended), we really get very little of what Encom does in the present.  With technologies like the digitizing system that are displayed in Tron, I would have expected Encom to be a lot farther along in technological breakthroughs than selling ‘the latest greatest operating system’ (ala Microsoft). Clearly, this part of the film is an afterthought.  It wastes screen time without really telling us much about Encom.  It is really used as a vehicle to set up Sam Flynn’s character.  However, even that vehicle falls flat.  Honestly, the film would have been served better by not knowing or seeing that specific Sam Flynn escapade.

Villainy

Unfortunately, CLU isn’t the appropriate ‘Program’ to be a villain.  First, CLU is supposed to be Kevin Flynn’s helper program.  So, it seems odd that he has gone rogue anyway.  Secondarily, he isn’t really designed to be a villain.  So, turning him into one just seems somehow wrong.  Worse, he really isn’t a worthy adversary in the games.  If he is as good as he is supposed to be (along with his black guard henchman), they both should be able to best Sam Flynn easily.  So, this whole part of the film just doesn’t really work.  But then, Quorra interrupts the games early.  Kind of convenient, but at the same time gives us no payoff.

Adversary

Unlike Tron, which has the MCP, we have no such villain in Tron Legacy.  CLU is it, but CLU just doesn’t come across as a proper villain.  He seems more like a henchman for something bigger.  Yet, that something bigger just never materializes.  I actually expected to see Kevin Flynn emerge as the villain in this film. That would have been something.  It would have really justified the ending of this film, showed us a completely different side to Kevin and, at the same time, have given us a huge payoff at the end.  Alas, that doesn’t happen.

Action

The movie definitely starts the pacing off on the right foot and continues at a pretty solid pace until just after Sam Flynn exits the game grid.  After that, the story comes to a crawl, as does the action.  So, unfortunately too, this leads to a lack of payoff.  It also doesn’t give Sam Flynn any screen time to kick butt and take names which this film so desperately needs.  The wins we see with Sam are more out of luck and accidents than out of skill.  Sam never does get enough screen time to show that he has any skills that are translated from the real world.  Even his lightcycle skills don’t show through no matter how much Ducati footage is included in the opening. We need to see Sam win at something where the stakes are substantial.  Something that at the end of it, we cheer for him and his win.

Visuals and Audio

What’s to say about the visuals other than, “stunning”.  The music by Daft Punk and the audio effects are superb at doing what movies do best: set the mood and tone.

Payoff

In the end, there really is no payoff.  In the first film, Tron’s first goal is to get a message to his user.  So, Tron fights his way through to a communication tower.  In Tron Legacy, Sam’s and Kevin’s only objective is to get to the exit portal (not unlike the communication tower in Tron).  So, when they finally get to the portal, it seems trivially easy.  There is really no opposition along the way.  Just a quick trip with a Solar Sailer and they’re basically there.  No grid bugs, no hidden Mickey Mouse heads, no Recognizer chases, etc.  Just a trip without any incidents.  In Tron, getting to the communication tower is only half the way through the story.  Tron still must battle the MCP.  At the end of Tron Legacy, there was no battle.  In fact, there was nothing to battle at all, other than Kevin’s own guilt.

Unfortunately, the ending was really explained by Quorra about 20 minutes before the end.  So, I won’t give it away, even though Quorra does.  But at the portal, there is no real payoff with CLU or Tron.  In fact, there is no real positive payoff at all.  The ending leaves more questions than answers.  So, unless Disney plans on Tron 3, we may never know what happens.  This really feels like half of a film.  It feels like we’re missing the other half of this film.

Overall

The story could have been far better.  However, the producers rely on the visuals and the music (which, granted, both were very impressive) to carry this film.  Again I say, the plot could have been far far better. We need at least one payoff and we don’t get it.  I was even hoping for a little payoff with Sam on the game grid, but even that doesn’t happen.  Sam, like Kevin in Tron, also needed to befriend someone in the virtual world besides Quorra.  He needed another companion to travel around the virtal world and show him the ropes.  And, for a split second, I thought it might actually happen when one of his lightcycle mates almost gets his bike wand back.  That is until CLU runs him over and Quorra steps in.

Also, there are lots of subtle things that just don’t work or are missing.  For example, as a user in Tron (first film), Kevin is able to absorb energy and use it in unusual ways.  Clearly, he is still able to do that to create CLU in Tron Legacy.  He also uses this power to steal a non-working Recognizer in Tron. However, the writers don’t explore this aspect with Sam at all.  It could have helped out in several instances and would have made for a more cohesive film. There was also no comic relief element like the ‘bit’ in the Recognizer in Tron.  Not that we need ‘bit’ in this film, but I think that humor could have helped in places.

Even though the story is a bit weak in the film, the story for Tron Evolution (video game) is much stronger than this film.  In fact, it has many of the elements and payoffs that the movie lacks, including a proper villain with Abraxas.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best game of 2010. Far from it. However, the story is definitely better than the Tron Legacy story. If you’re really into Tron lore, you should check out Tron Evolution to fill in the story gaps that the movie doesn’t fully explain (i.e., the ISOs).  I am disappointed that the film glosses over the ISO storyline and, instead, leaves it to the video game to fully explain these concepts.

I like the film, but the story really needed to be far stronger to match the visuals.  Overall, I rate this film 7.5 out of 10 stars.

Thoughts: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Posted in movies by commorancy on July 16, 2009

After getting back from seeing this film (twice), I felt it needed some discussion.  So, let’s go.  Note, this may contain Harry Potter spoilers.. so do not continue if you haven’t seen or read.  You have been warned.

Conversion

The book to movie conversion was done reasonably well.  This movie, like most that have preceded it, have missed the mark on certain aspects.  What makes a Harry Potter book good is all of the nuances that J.K. Rowling includes.  Most of these nuances and subtleties just can’t be placed into the films and Half-Blood Prince (HBP) is no exception.  You would think that by 6 films into this series that the die-hard critics would understand and be used to all of the missing things.  Unfortunately, they aren’t and they are still complaining about this same aspect.  Critics, get over it.  If you want an exact conversion, do it yourself or wait for a TV series version.

Yes, there were a lot of small subtleties that were left out of the movie.  Some of them can’t easily be filmed and others just don’t work for the story.  However, there were some things that were left out of the films that I felt were important to understand.  Like, for example, the apparation classes in Order of the Phoenix (OOTP) that were completely left out of that film.  By leaving it out of OOTP, it means that this can’t be easily taken advantage of in HBP.  So, when Harry apparates with Dumbledore, it’s a surprise to everyone.  Yet, we would have already seen this in OOTP if it had been in the film.

The one thing that is noticeably absent from HBP is the Dursley family.  Gone is Little Whinging.  Other than cursory mention of it and a background street scene, there is nothing in the film.  Granted, I haven’t read the HBP novel since it came out, so I don’t even really recall how much of the Dursley’s were in the novel.  Note that I haven’t re-read the novel because I wanted to go into the film without having recently read the book.  I find that I enjoy the films more this way.  I will now re-read the novel having seen the film.

Thoughts

While I generally liked HBP, I felt that the movie wasn’t as thrilling or as much a rollercoaster as OOTP.  The Order of the Phoenix was one of my least favorite books in the series, yet it turned out to be one of my top favorites in HP films.  Why?  Because they were able to turn the lackluster pacing of the book into a spectacularly paced film. Half-Blood Prince’s pacing is a bit too even and, frankly, slow.  There was not enough going on in most of the scenes, even when there was something going on. Instead, HBP relies more on cinematography to pull off the slow paced scenes.  In most cases, it does so quite well.  This film was beautifully filmed for the most part. For the same reason that many critics filmatically liked Prisoner of Azkaban, I’d say those cinematography critiques also fit with Half-Blood Prince.

Unfortunately, the pacing was far too lackluster throughout most of the film to give the necessary emotional power needed after Snape does his deed in the Astronomy tower.  So, you really don’t feel emotional at a time when you need to.  The whole thing feels very detached.  I think part of the problem is that Dumbledore wasn’t given enough character build-up throughout the films to provide the necessary emotional attachment in this film.  In other words, we really needed to see just how dear Dumbledore was to everyone to really get the sense of loss.  Even still, this film should have been able to set it up enough to give that emotional punch at the end even when the previous films failed in character building. I also believe that this is part of the reason so many people weren’t completely convinced of the death at the end of the HBP novel.

Because of the lack of the emotional ending and the lack of the necessary rollercoaster ride needed for this film, it leaves the experience a bit on the flat side. There was plenty of teen angst moments throughout much of the film and that is probably the thing that carries this film.  We definitely needed to see that part of the story to fully understand what is about to happen in films 7 and 8 (assuming book 7 is still planned as a two-part film), but we also needed the emotional impact to feel for the character we’ve just lost (and that didn’t happen).

Overall

I liked Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince, but not as much as the Order of the Phoenix.  OOTP is better primarily because the intensity level was much higher than HBP.  There were a few tense moments in HBP, but nowhere close to OOTP or even Goblet of Fire.  I also felt that for what’s about to happen in Deathly Hallows that this film needed to ratchet up the intensity and failed to do so. Whomever is directing Deathly Hallows will have to ratchet up the intensity in that film rather than relying on HBP to do it.

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