By Marc S. Sanders

That’s it.  I’ve had it.  Enough already.  After three unnecessarily long movies, if you can’t get it right then what’s the point anymore?

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore, the third film in the Harry Potter prequel series, is an absolute failure beyond any magical or Muggle measure of comprehension. It operates with the same handicaps that crippled the prior installment, The Crimes Of Grindelwald, and maybe picked up an additional dozen or more problems along the way.

I don’t understand it Warner Bros.  Following the abysmal reviews of the prior film and the tepid overall assessment of the first, why, with all the monies at your disposal, would you settle for a boring piece of production work like this, all over again? This new film’s main attraction is simply men in dull grey wool suits and overcoats speaking to one another in quiet English whispers.  Every so often they do something quirky like pull a wand out of their pocket.  Fleetingly, they use them.  How novel. 

It boggles my mind that this world from Rowling’s colorful imagination was at one time intended for pre-teens and young adults.  I’ve seen political debates or Sunday morning commentary programs with more flair.

The fault in these films holds primarily with the creator, J.K. Rowling, and David Yates, the director that’s helmed the last four Potter films and all of the Beasts films up to date.  I’m so exhausted in saying it.  ROWLING NEEDS AN EDITOR!!!!!  There is so much fat on this meat that is impossible to swallow.  Someone needs to speak up and advise her to save this scene and that scene for the DVD extras.  One curse that this film suffers from is the exact same thing that the second film dealt with.  A background story is told, with a majestic fade up and fade down and fade up again flashback.  It takes a good five minutes to tell this tale, and then someone else chimes in and says hold on, that’s not how it happened at all.  Then a new character starts from the beginning and apparently tells us the real story as it truly occurred.  Why in the hell should I trust this new character if you’re now telling me not to believe the lies of the former?  Fodder like this stretches this fantasy towards a distant two- and half-hour mark, though it feels like four.

David Yates has always been a problem.  Look, I know nothing about a camera or the most up to date technology in filmmaking or digital making, but I’ve seen enough special effects laden films in my time.  The prologue to this film commits the same visual atrocity as the prologue to the prior film.  Here, our main hero, Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander – a magic zoologist – is observing a magical deer like creature deliver her offspring.  Suddenly, some other magic figures come upon the sight and attempt to zap the creature and Newt with their wands.  It’s the middle of the night amid a dense forest/jungle of thick plant life and trees.  We see flashes and blurs.  We hear ear piercing sound effect swishes, and the music from James Newton Howard (which is quite good) carries to a high volume.  Just like the last film, though, action scenes like this are murky.  It’s like the lens is covered with the bottom of a soda bottle filled with vinegar.  I can’t tell who is chasing who or who is zapping who, who dies or who lives.  Yates is not doing any favors for what bills itself as fantastical adventure.  When he isn’t shooting action scenes like this, his direction seems to perform on cruise control at a top speed of 15 mph.  There’s little drama or interest in any of the speaking scenes that drag on and on.

The movie’s story picks up with whatever cliffhangers were left from the last time.  It’s really not necessary for me to recap.  They hold little relevance here. 

Basically, Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelson, now taking over from a controversial Johnny Depp) is getting his bearings together with the troubled young man Credence (Ezra Miller) who we were told earlier is the brother to the Albus Dumbledore (a well-cast Jude Law).  Once again, Dumbledore recruits his former prized pupil Newt Scamander to locate the criminal Grindelwald and defeat him.  Newt assembles his brother, his assistant (neither of which we hardly get to know; so why should I disclose their names) and his Muggle baker friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Two more new characters round out this fellowship.  However, if you are looking for a real, solid fellowship, go back to those movies where the characters go after a plain gold ring.  That is fantasy at its finest.  This is the back story of a National Geographic issue found in your grandmother’s attic.

A whole lot of nothing happens for long stretches of time.  Grindelwald has managed to get the criminal charges against him dropped, and arranged to become a viable candidate to be elected the head of the magical world.  That spells trouble though, as he believes in complete genocide of the entire Muggle/No Maj population.  Dumbledore, his former lover, stands on the other side of that debate.  What does this have to do a with a magic deer that was delivered many moons ago when this movie started?  Well, you find out……….eventually, but your patience will be shot to hell.

Only one good scene in the film works on a sort of mischievous Spielberg direction (like the Cairo sequence in Raiders) where a “shell game” with various suitcases is passed around through a small village.  This turns up in the third act and finally we see some fun magic arrive.  Wands are lit up that trap one wizard in a transparent brick wall.  Props are turned into glass globes to trip over, and the characters smirk at one another through the hijinks.  This one scene provides some welcome reminiscence of Quidditch and other prop pieces from earlier Potter films. Until this moment, no one is enjoying themselves in this movie.  There’s next to no humor or cuteness from Newt’s assortment of magic wildlife. There’s no discovery from any magic spells.  Dumbledore doesn’t even have any secrets to disclose, save one. 

Yates and company fail as well with the details.  When we get to visit Hogwarts, it’s terribly boring and dull.  There’s no interesting Easter eggs or wonderment to savor.  No new rooms or tunnels to uncover.  No silly spells or magic props or ghosts to engage with. 

A glaring part of this new series is also conspicuously missing.  Tina (Katherine Waterston), puppy love interest of Newt, is hardly seen nor acknowledged.  Her role was a large part of the first film, minimized in the second film and only welcomed this time as a close up with no more than four words of dialogue.  Maybe not even that much.  Why establish this romance angle for the hero, if she’s hardly to be used?

The one error that really stands above all else is Grindelwald played by Mikkelson.  This is such an underrated character actor destined to be in every popular film franchise.  He’s done Marvel, James Bond, Star Wars, now Potter, and he’ll be in the new Indiana Jones film.  I welcome him to have this role in the Beasts series.  Yet, he looks nothing at all like Depp’s appearance.  Mikkelson just wears a grey wool suit and tie with an overcoat.  Depp had bleach blond hair and pale white skin for a foreboding albino characterization.  I’m not suggesting a complete duplication of what was formerly seen, but there’s a huge difference in looks between the two actors who have now occupied this part.  Reader, when there’s an absence of story, mundane dialogue and distorted visuals to settle for in a big budget movie, this is where my mind is going to run off to.  Mikkelson looks like he’s showing up for a read through rehearsal before the full-dress performance.  At the very least, couldn’t you dress the guy in the same unusual silk vests and fabrics that the other guy wore?  Put the different colored lenses in his eyes?  It truly makes me wonder if there was a stipulation in Mikkelson’s contract – he’ll do the role, but he refuses to look like a clown.  You just can’t not see how far apart this is from what’s been traditionally shown already.

Two more films are promised to be released in this prequel series.  Really? Another two more near three hours pieces of tripe?  Well, according to my Potter versed daughter, it has to be that way.  These films take place near the end of the 1920s.  There’s the climactic showdown that must be depicted between Dumbledore and Grindelwald though, and according to Rowling’s timeline, that occurred in the late 1940s. 

So, we got another twenty or so years of this.  Friends, watching these three films, I feel as if I’ve gone about sixty.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A young woman’s world unravels when an anti-depressant prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.

Side Effects is a rare creature indeed: a movie released during the first two months of the calendar year that is not only good, it’s stunningly good.  It’s too bad almost no one even remembers this movie exists.

Steven Soderbergh’s film tells the story of a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), who suffers from depression after her husband returns home from serving a prison term for insider trading.  After a series of events where she apparently tries to harm herself, she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) who prescribes a brand new anti-depressant called Ablixa.  While it is effective, it also comes with some side effects, including sleepwalking.

One day, Dr. Banks gets a call: Emily has stabbed someone to death, and she did it while sleepwalking, which was caused by the Ablixa.  Banks interviews her; she remembers nothing of the incident.  But now the doctor’s professional and personal life is in turmoil as well.

What we have here is a classic Hitchcockian story…actually, two stories for the price of one.  You’ve got Emily, the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She didn’t ask for any of this.  She just wanted to feel better, be a better wife, be a better person.  And the drugs were working: she was feeling better, doing better at work, doing better with her husband…but now, thanks to this drug and its unintended side effects, people think she’s crazy.

And you’ve got Dr. Banks, the wrong man also in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He was doing his job, prescribing medication that he felt would help…and it WAS helping.  But thanks to this unforeseeable tragedy, his practice dries up.  Who wants to see a psychiatrist whose patient killed someone due to medicine he prescribed?  This creates problems in his personal life: he just bought a new apartment, but now his income is severely diminished.  He and his wife fight more than they used to.  And so on.

…and that’s where I’ll leave it because, like all the best films, it’s better if you watch Side Effects cold, not knowing what to expect.  No doubt there are people out there who saw the various twists and turns coming, but I am not one of them.  I was utterly hoodwinked, and I loved it.

We are a culture of pills and quick fixes, the quicker the better.  Side Effects is remarkably even-handed in presenting us with both sides of the worst-case scenario involving this culture.  (Or I guess one of the worst-case scenarios, but I don’t want to get sidetracked.)  Not only is this strategy effective in providing mental fodder while watching, but it’s also a great storytelling device.  Whose side should we be on?  Historically, “Big Pharma” has been one of the handiest movie villains since the Nazis.  The public perception of mega-corporations with billions of dollars at their disposal, dollars that are used to cover up embarrassing media stories and pay off corporate whistle-blowers, is just too perfect not to use in movies.  But Side Effects gives us the other side of that coin, the dedicated physicians and psychiatrists who are committed to helping people using the best available methods.  If a pill can help people, who would blame a doctor for wanting to prescribe it?  …unless the side effects turned out to be a little extreme?

That conundrum is at the heart of the movie.  But on the surface, it’s just a fantastic mystery/thriller.  Soderbergh directs with restraint, using very few camera moves.  Everything we see is presented with a minimum of flash and maximum impact, so when you’re watching the third act of the movie, you can remember everything you saw in the first two acts with great clarity.

It’s a little bit like a Gene Kelly dance routine.  You know he must have worked for hours to get those moves down, but when you see him in action, he barely looks like he’s working at all.  That’s what Side Effects feels like.  The film is telling a complicated story, but it doesn’t feel like it’s working hard.  It’s just gliding along, showing you this scene, showing you that scene, ho-hum, pay attention now, all leading to the fantastic payoff at the end.

I don’t know if Side Effects is available to stream or not, but I heartily recommend it regardless.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 40%

PLOT: Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne) searches Europe for a young man harboring a powerful talent, but must contend with dark forces led by the notorious dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Depp).


In a nutshell, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is more exposition than spectacle, delivering chunk after chunk of background information on new and existing characters, culminating in a filial revelation that, frankly, I found more than a bit unbelievable.  (But then, I originally thought Vader was lying to Luke Skywalker, so there you go.)  The movie also has a weird habit of introducing characters and then forgetting about them, either altogether or for long stretches of time.  (Wasn’t Bunty interesting?  Two scenes, then nothing.)

But, I have to say, I loved the creatures again, just as I did in the first installment.  The obscurial, for example, is a deceptively hard creature to bring to life, and it’s just as imposing and fearsome this time around.  I loved seeing the niffler again, and who wouldn’t?  The Chinese dragon creature, the Zouwu, was the highlight of all the creatures for me, if for no other reason than the charming method used to calm it down.

I did have a problem following the action during the film’s opening sequence, Grindelwald’s escape.  In all the worst ways, it resembled one of the main fight scenes from Ang Lee’s “Hulk.”  It takes place at night, in driving rain, and a lot of the action happens too fast for the eye to follow.  I might as well have been watching an abstract screen saver.

Being a middle chapter, there were also a lot of threads left hanging, no doubt to whet our appetites for the third chapter, but frustrating nevertheless.  I felt some key information was left out in Yusuf Kama’s story.  The French witch in charge of the archives in the French Ministry of Magic seemed to know more than she was letting on…did she know immediately that she was being hoodwinked?  It was nice to see Nicolas Flamel…but who was he talking to in that big book of his?  A prophecy is mentioned repeatedly…but no one is ever able to finish it without being interrupted.  The woman who fatally pulls a wand on an auror at the big gathering in the finale was glimpsed earlier in the film.  Why?  Was she meant to be important?

I haven’t read the negative reviews of the film, but I would imagine these questions and the density of the screenplay are key points in their arguments.  I have no counterargument.  The screenplay is indeed very dense.  But the visuals are a treat, however rare they were.  It was extremely cool, on a Potterhead level, to see Hogwarts again.  (An audience member applauded when it appeared on screen.)  The creatures are, naturally, fantastic.

I can only hope that these great gobs of backstory pay off in future installments of the franchise.


By Marc S. Sanders

Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck directed the Captain Marvel installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film has some successes, but some failures as well. Fortunately, where it lacks happens early on and then the film continues to get better.

Boden & Fleck must have directed a film that was never released because this Captain Marvel begins in the middle of a story with exposition that’s terribly hard to follow. I’ve seen it three times now, and it’s still hard to piece the first 40 minutes together. The title character is known as “Vers” (pronounced “veers”) played by Brie Larson. She dons a green uniform space suit and is part of a civilization called Kree. Her mentor is Yon-Rogg played by Jude Law. They head a team on a mission to rescue a spy of their own held captive by the shape shifting Skrulls. The mission goes awry and Vers is captured. Small snippets of a life lived on Earth flash in her subconsciousness as the Skrulls study her mind. When Vers manages to escape, she ends up on Earth in 1995. Gradually, with the assistance of a young Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson with hair, a clean CGI complexion and no eye patch), Vers learns of her true history that she seems to have forgotten. Reader, I just summed up the first third of this film better than the movie ever did.

Boden & Fleck have some nice touches to this film but only in the second and third acts. Captain Marvel salutes the grunge music of the 90s while also taking inspired narratives from films like The Terminator. There’s some nice twists in the film too.

However, the whole first act should be thrown away and redone. It’s terribly confusing with dark cinematography on what is to be an alien planet at night and a dimly lit unfamiliar space ship. Hardly any characters are fleshed out yet but they talk in conversations that lose me. The Skrulls are shape shifters that can adapt the image of another person or creature but because it’s all so dark, it’s difficult to decipher who is who. Not much payoff comes when you are finally able to piece some material from this whole sequence later on, based on what Vers uncovers about herself, the Kree and the Skrulls.

Brie Larson is fine in the role while primarily playing it straight. Nothing special, but nothing terrible either.

Samuel L Jackson plays this Nick Fury with more naivety than seen before. He’s a younger version of himself after all. So that’s somewhat humorous, especially his chemistry with an odd cat called Goose.

Ben Mendelsohn continues to break into these mainstream film franchises as an antagonist of some sort but sadly no one remembers him, I would think. He needs to be regarded in the same league with guys like Gary Oldman and Christopher Walken. What’s next for him? How about a James Bond villain?

Annette Bening is a welcome presence as the “supreme intelligence” for Vers. Accompany her sashaying to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” and I’m entertained.

There was a better film here. Due to a weak beginning, I can only mildly recommend Captain Marvel. Pop culture references and a redeeming two thirds of the film rescue it from utter confusion. Still, if I have to pause the film on occasion to explain to my wife and daughter what is going on, I think that is more an issue with the film than with the viewer.