Moonlight shines with soul-stirring performances

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Barry Jenkins is a 37-year-old African-American filmmaker from Florida. His debut film Medicine for Melancholy was produced on a budget of USD 15,000 and did the rounds of a few North American film festivals. Not many people had heard of the movie or the director. Now with his second film Moonlight, Jenkins has rocketed to stratospheric levels of fame. With a Metacritic score of 99, the Golden Globe for best drama film and 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted screenplay and Supporting Actor/ Actress, Moonlight has moved to the head of the pack along with La La Land in the final lap of the 2017 awards season.

Moonlight is a ‘coming-of-age’ story set in a seemingly normal middle-class urban community, but one in which drugs and violence are always around the corner. More importantly, it’s a film that portrays the challenges of growing up ‘different’, not just in the US but in any modern society around the world.

The main character Chiron, is played by 3 different actors who cover three stages of his life – as a shy young boy, a conflicted high schooler and finally as a self-confident adult. Perhaps because each is on screen for only a third of the movie, none have received any acting nominations (all the accolades have gone deservedly to the two supporting actors, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris). But in fact, the 3 Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are the ones who make this movie work, with former track athlete Rhodes as the tough young drug dealer ironically delivering the most heart-breaking performance of all.

I want to talk a bit about the ‘dinner table scene’ at the end of the first act. Young Chiron is at the home of kind-hearted crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) who has become a father figure to him over the previous few months. The normally uncommunicative Chiron suddenly asks Juan: “What’s a faggot?”. Juan takes a few seconds to think (I was wondering what he would say) and answers: “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad”. Touché! The boy then asks: “Am I a faggot?” and Juan immediately replies “No”; at this split second, I thought to myself that Juan had no right to make that judgement, but then immediately afterwards, he adds: “You may be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot”. It’s this sort of nuanced dialogue that shines through in Jenkins’ script (adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney). As if that wasn’t enough intensity for one scene, the boy then asks Juan if he deals in drugs and now realizes that the man who has been like a father to him is also responsible for his mother’s crack addiction; at that moment Chiron gets up and walks away without a word and you can feel the crushing weight of his disappointment, while Juan realizes the far-reaching impact of his chosen profession and we see him sinking into the depths of remorse.

The film is a meditation on love, trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I was fascinated by the arc of Chiron’s relationship with his emotionally abusive mother (Naomie Harris – the new Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies), going from dependence to hatred to resentment to reconciliation over a span of about 15 years.

At the end of the final act, Chiron drives to another town to meet his childhood friend Kevin, with whom he had a brief moment of sexual intimacy as a teenager. They have not seen each other in 10 years, their last encounter in high school having ended in betrayal and violence. This touching reunion which starts out at Kevin’s diner and ends at his home, challenges our stereotypes of African-American men (much in the same way that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain challenged the macho image of cowboys). Kevin plays a song (Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis) on the jukebox which reminds him of their friendship and the two men tentatively start to express their old feelings for each other, with Chiron finally dissolving the hard shell he has built around himself over the years.

This fan-film made of clips from the movie synced with the Hello Stranger song is the perfect audio-visual synopsis for this amazing movie.

Moonlight is co-produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment and financed by fast-rising indie film distributor A24. I have become a big fan of A24; they take chances on edgy material, which the larger studios typically are not interested in. Virtually every critically acclaimed indie movie since 2013 has been distributed by A24 – Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, Locke, The Rover, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, The End of the Tour, Room, The Witch, The Lobster

I hope that Moonlight will launch successful and fulfilling careers for its talented and passionate cast and crew. Definitely an important movie to watch in the run up to Oscars 2017.

The Hollywood Western blazes new trails

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When Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven won multiple Oscars in the space of two years in the early 90’s it looked the Western was making a comeback after many years in the cinematic wilderness. Indeed, Costner returned to the screen soon after in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp in 1994, while Kurt Russell played the same character in Tombstone (1993).

Unfortunately, the resurgence was short-lived. There were no major Western projects subsequently from either studios or big name film makers. Movie goers in the next 25 years have preferred to watch dinosaurs, aliens, wizards, elves, robots, pirates, vampires, spies and superheroes – both real and computer-generated for their big screen entertainment; anything other than cowboys, it seems. One of the reasons is the globalization of Hollywood; big studio productions today earn as much as 70-80% of their box office revenue from outside North America. Movies are a product and the product needs to appeal to international tastes; therefore making a period film rooted in a very specific geographical and cultural setting is not smart business sense.

So it has been a dry spell for those who are spellbound by the amber colors, wide vistas and gritty characters that define the essence of a Western. Sure, there have been a few here and there, most of which have been really good, such as Ang Lee’s Civil War epic Ride with the Devil (1999), Costner’s own return to the genre with Open Range (2003), Ed Harris’ entertaining Appaloosa (2008), Andrew Dominik’s little seen but much acclaimed The Assissanation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the Coen Bros.’ remake of True Grit (2010), Jared Moshe’s Dead Man’s Burden (2012) and Quentin Tarention’s Django Unchained (2012) – although that last should probably be called a ‘South-western’…

And when big studios have entered the genre, they have ended up with big budget disasters like Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013).

But interestingly, in the past two years, there has been a spike in the number of Westerns produced. They are almost all small scale, independent productions but all have strong scripts and notable performances from well known actors. Some of these films are interesting hybrids, integrating other genres like horror, whodunnit or thriller or moving it into a modern day setting:

The Homesman (2014): This wonderful understated film directed by Tommy Lee Jones has him playing a dour ornery drifter (as only he can) who is employed by a devout settler (Hilary Swank) to transport 3 mentally ill women from their isolated farming community back to civilization. Swank’s acting received several awards but somehow got missed out by the Oscars. Look out for some other big names in small roles!

The Hateful Eight (2015): Tarentino stayed with the Western genre in this follow-up to Django Unchained. With more than half the movie set inside a log cabin in the midst of a winter storm, this one plays more like a locked-room mystery or whodunnit rather than a regular Western. Fantastic performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Walton Goggins.

Bone Tomahawk (2015): Directed by first-time director S. Craig Zahler, this film features Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson on the trail of cannibalistic natives living in a cave in the hills, who have kidnapped several people from their town. It’s a wonderful character piece (much like The Searchers), with a truly scary 3rd act and one of the most horrifying screen deaths you will see anywhere!

Slow West (2015): This one is also directed by debutant film maker, John Maclean. This buddy movie has Kodi Smit-McPhee playing a young man on a cross-country journey in search of the woman he loves with Michael Fassbender as the mysterious stranger who befriends the naive young boy and decides to help him on his quest.

In a Valley of Violence (2016): This film is produced by horror experts Blumhouse Productions and director Ti West. This is a typical revenge story of the mysterious stranger who gets into a fight with some bullies while passing through an isolated town, then goes back to take revenge on the men when they attack him and leave him for dead. The director throws in a few ‘horror’ beats for good measure (because he can!) and there are some fun comedic elements in the 3rd act dialogue. Ethan Hawke and good old John Travolta make this one worth watching.

Hell or High Water (2016): Coming fresh off 3 Golden Globe nominations, indie film maker David Mackenzie puts together a modern-day Western, with two bank-robber brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on the run from experienced lawman Jeff Bridges. Like Travolta, Mr. Bridges has been doing this acting thing for so long that he can probably dial in a performance in his sleep. The first two-thirds of the film is genuinely engaging although I did feel that the film stumbled a bit as it reached a predictable shootout finale.

I don’t know if this is another blip on the radar and if we will go back to another barren stretch in the next few years. Hopefully all these new films have been profitable and studios discover that it makes good business sense to make good Westerns!

Rogue One – not just ‘A Star Wars Story’ but a bona fide prequel to the original

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Ridley Scott made headlines a few years ago by jumping back into the Alien franchise with Prometheus, giving franchise fans much hope after several misadventures by Fox studios in previous years. However in the months leading up to the release, Mr. Scott was reluctant to refer to the new film as a sequel or prequel. Instead, he stated that “while Alien was indeed the jumping-off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place.” This created an expectation that the movie would be unconnected with the titular aliens and would just take place “in the same universe”. Eventually, Prometheus was nothing more than a prequel and I wondered if all that dissembling was just a marketing gimmick, or if it was to manage the expectations of fanboys because the film did not feature any of the actual alien creatures which were a staple of all the previous films.

Likewise, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they announced a new trilogy of Star Wars films to be released every 2 years and in the intervening years there would be “anthology films set in the same universe, but not part of the storyline of the existing series”. The first of these ‘standalone films’ is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and my thoughts after watching it this evening mirrors my reaction to Prometheus. This is a straight up prequel to the 1977 movie, with the last scene of the film literally leading to the first scene of Star Wars. So I’m guessing the reason the film makers were so coy about referring to this film as a prequel was to manage expectations that there would be no Skywalkers nor our two favourite droids nor any lightsaber duels in this film.

This says a lot about the pressures of making sequels/ prequels in this era of intense social media scrutiny by fickle fanboys (and film critics!) and the need to manage expectations of what they will or will not get to see in the film. Giving the audience ‘comfort food’ and getting that early positive buzz without any whines of disappointment from the first few screenings is so critical to launch these expensive movies onto a positive box office trajectory.

Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebellion came to be in possession of the detailed schematics of the Empire’s Death Star and indeed how such a formidable superweapon the size of a small moon ended up being vulnerable to Luke Skywalker’s tiny X-Wing fighter in Star Wars.

The movie essentially plays out like a World War II ensemble action film – think The Guns of Navarone or The Sea Wolves. And as with those 60’s and 70’s war movies, the ensemble is filled out by a wealth of acting talent. But what’s even more notable is ethnic diversity in this film – more than in any Star Wars film or perhaps any major blockbuster so far!

The lead character Jyn Erso is played by British Oscar nominee Felicity Jones; her partners in this caper include Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (played by popular Mexican actor Diego Luna), defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Pakistani-origin British actor Riz Ahmed), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen), his mercenary friend Baze Malbus (award winning Chinese actor/ director/ screewriter Jian Weng) and a re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO with a wry sense of humour (voiced by beloved American character actor Alan Tudyk). Also featured in prominent roles are veteran African-American actor and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (yes, the same character from the Star Wars Rebels animated series) and acclaimed Danish thesp Mads Mikkelsen as Jyn’s father Galen. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn graduates from a lifetime of supporting roles in indie films and generates massive screen presence as Director Orson Krennic, the ambitious and ruthless head of the Empire’s Death Star project.

Yup, there’s a lot of new names, but as we have been assured, this is a standalone film and no need to worry about remembering them for future sequels!

Standalone or prequel, Rogue One is filled with familiar beats and echoes from the original trilogy – words and phrases, human, alien and droid characters, spaceships, weaponry and other easter eggs – they’re all there for the hardcore Star Wars fan to recognize and enjoy. While this is welcome, what I found disappointing was the use of so many standard storytelling tropes and cliches throughout the movie. Jettisoning some of these would have brought an element of unpredictability to the movie in the same way that Game of Thrones has done over the years. This could have taken Rogue One from good to great. 

Among the parts that worked for me is the third act featuring the raid on the high security Imperial databank on planet Scarif. It is intense and beautifully choreographed; the action plays out like a three-ringed circus – in orbit above the planet, within the databank building and out on the seafront outside the building.

Michael Giacchino, who is one of Disney’s favourite composers (he won an Oscar for Up and was nominated for Ratatouille) seems to now have moved to the world of big budget action films, having recently composed for Jurassic World, Star Trek Beyond and Doctor Strange. I really liked his work for this film, very sparingly adapting parts of John Williams’ iconic original soundtrack and instead creating a predominantly martial score befitting a war film, but also keying in the emotional moments at the beginning and end of the film.

What a great commercial triumph for 41-year-old British director Gareth Edwards. His first effort in 2010 was the critically acclaimed indie scifi film Monsters, with all the visual effects created by Edwards in his bedroom using off-the-shelf software! He then graduated to the big league, directing the reboot of Godzilla in 2014 which successfully launched a new franchise for production company Legendary Pictures. And now here he is with a USD 200 million budget, successfully delivering a new entry to one of the most beloved film series of all time.

I don’t agree with the initial gushing reaction of some critics that this is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. But replicating the same ‘comfort food’ approach of last year’s The Force Awakens, it certainly looks like Disney and producer Kathleen Kennedy have made sure that their goose will keep laying golden eggs for some time to come.

Iconic film and TV soundtracks – an endangered species

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I grew up during a time when I took for granted that popular TV shows and movies would have memorable intro music or theme songs.

My particular favourite was the intro for The Six Million Dollar Man, composed by Oliver Nelson. Combined with clips of astronaut Steve Austin’s crash and transformation into a bionic man, along with the grim voiceover by his mentor Oscar Goldman, the entire package was thrilling and I never tired of sitting through it each week. At school, 8- and 9-year olds (myself included) would run around the playground in slow motion humming the tune as their personal background soundtrack. Another tune that gives me goosebumps to this day is the Hawaii Five-O opening theme, composed by Morton Stevens and performed by the famous instrumental rock band The Ventures. I can still recall the montage of surf waves, buildings and faces that was perfectly synced with the track, made so dynamic through zoom, jump cuts and shaky cam shots. And the theme music of the original Star Trek, composed by Alexander George and bonded with that opening monologue by William Shatner, is surely one of the most recognized around the world.

I discovered a few years ago while researching old TV tunes that Lalo Schifrin was the genius behind two other iconic intros – the Mission: Impossible theme which has been kept alive by the feature films over the years (loved the version that U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton concocted for the first movie in 1996) and the minimalist intro for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Schifrin also composed the original theme for Starsky and Hutch, but it was replaced from the 2nd season onwards by Tom Scott’s groovy synthesizer-based piece which is the version that pretty much everyone remembers.

Another favourite was M*A*S*H*, the tune became even more poignant for me when I discovered later that the accompanying theme song was titled Suicide is Painless. Of course, when it came to songs, it’s the happy ones that I would sing along with; and the two that lift my heart to this day are the intro songs of Happy Days and The Greatest American Hero.

There weren’t that many British shows that I watched, but of course the opening theme for Doctor Who remains well known to this day, with the show having been revived in 2005 and introduced to a whole new generation.

Later on in the 70’s as I got to around the age of 10, I started watching movies. This was mostly on grainy VHS and occasionally on TV – we didn’t have dedicated movie channels back then. And so it was that I came across the amazing Superman and Star Wars themes by John Williams, the quirky intro for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone, the playful Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini and of course, the theme for James Bond which has remained popular over the years even though it is built around the very dated surf rock sound of the 60’s. Many years later, as I watched other films from the 60’s and 70’s, I came across many more memorable themes such as Nino Rota’s evocative (and so Italian) soundtrack for The Godfather or Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score for The Magnificent Seven and John Williams’ scary score for Jaws. I think the last iconic theme from this era was John Williams’ signature tune for Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.

In comparison, the only contemporary TV show themes that I consider memorable or iconic are Mark Snow’s theme for The X-Files and Ramin Djawadi’s complex and multi-layered theme for Game of Thrones. Sure, I watch very little TV these days, but even when it comes to movies, I can’t think of anything memorable or instantly recognizable that has been written in the past decade. I would have to go back to 1993’s surprisingly mellow and evocative Jurassic Park theme by John Williams and James Horner’s work for Titanic; I think these are the last of the ‘classic film tunes’. Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings is also very good, but frankly I had to go online and search for the tune on YouTube because I couldn’t remember what it sounded like, just that I liked it a lot. I do have some personal favourites from recent years like Ramin Djawadi’s entire OST for Pacific Rim, or John Powell’s work for The Italian Job and The Bourne Identity both of which I have written about previously; but I doubt very much that you could classify these tunes as widely popular or iconic.

One of the reasons that the quality and distinctiveness of soundtracks has reduced over the years (especially in movies) is that film makers increasingly rely on existing pop and rock songs to fill out the film soundtrack. I call this lazy composing and have a real problem with it. It was innovative when the Bee Gees composed an entire album of hit songs for Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and nostalgic when Cameron Crowe injected a bunch of rock classics into Almost Famous in 2000 and of course, we all love director James Gunn’s mixtape selection for Guardians of the Galaxy. But now I feel that every movie (starting with the trailer) is using popular songs rather than coming up with catchy original compositions. How nice it would be to once again fall in love with a piece of music and have it stay with you for the rest of your life as a part of the memory of a beloved movie or TV show…

Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is a thrilling trip through time

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I’ve just finished reading my 26th Stephen King book, 11.22.63; I read my first – It – in 1988. I’ve read more of his stories than I have of any other author, with Isaac Asimov next at 18.

Stephen King doesn’t give the reader any easy rides. His protagonists go through pain. Lots of it. There are lots of lead characters in popular culture who get hurt, like Indiana Jones and John McClane; but those guys mainly experience physical pain and they are still strong enough to bounce back in the next action scene a few minutes later. King’s characters on the other hand, keep hurting for a long time because the pain is physical, emotional and psychological. Like in real life. I think this is the real reason he is classified as a horror author, because we know that life’s realities can be more horrifying than any ghost, monster or supernatural phenomenon.

11.22.63 falls into the scifi spectrum of Stephen King stories, like Under the Dome. In 2011, a small town high school teacher Jake Epping is invited by long-time acquaintance Al Templeton to his house, where he learns that Templeton has been using a secret time portal to travel back in time; the portal opens into a specific day in 1958. Templeton extracts from Epping a promise that he will go back and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a pivotal moment in American history which Templeton believes led to America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War and many other ills the world has suffered since. Epping agrees, goes through the portal and then travels down south to Texas where he has to get through the next 5 years, find Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent the foul deed. In the hands of any other author, this would have become a typical suspense thriller, but King is interested as much in the journey as the destination and takes us on a tour of America in the late 50s and early 60s, a nation that has gone past the post-war baby boom and is now dealing with urban decay and social cynicism. Along the way, Epping meets some memorable characters, falls in love, gets into some heart-stopping dangerous situations and eventually faces his destiny as the man who has the power to change the course of history.

One key plot mechanic used – kind of like the opposite of a deus ex machina (apparently the term is ‘diabolus ex machina’) – is that the past does everything possible to prevent its course from being changed. And so, Epping has to battle all sorts of people and incidents that pop up, like Murphy’s Law, to stop him from getting to Oswald before he fires that gun. And afterwards, Epping finds out that even if you do manage to change the course of events, Time has a way of taking revenge.

This is a fascinating story that stays in the memory well after the last page has been turned. I would love to watch the mini-series featuring James Franco as Jake Epping, which premiered on Hulu earlier this year and see if it does justice to King’s writing. If it weren’t for the fact that King writes horror/ fantasy/ scifi, he would certainly have been celebrated as one of America’s great modern writers of fiction.

Disney’s Moana marks another solid entry from Musker & Clements

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About two-and-a-half decades ago, Ron Clements and John Musker directed two of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s biggest hits, The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). These movies sandwiched Beauty and the Beast (1991) and signalled the start of a terrific run of success for the Mouse House which ran for nearly 10 years. Pixar then took over as global kings of animation with their CGI creations, while Disney Animation’s films started under-performing.

Eventually Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006 and its Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter was given oversight of both Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation divisions. By 2010, the older sibling was showing signs of resurgence and has since had a good run of hits including Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia.

During Disney Animation’s fallow years, there are two films which I very much enjoyed although both under-performed at the box office – Treasure Planet (2002) and The Princess and the Frog (2009). Both were directed by the same duo of Clements & Musker. Somehow, I have loved their work, even though they have used different styles of animation across their films. One aspect has stayed consistent with this duo which is that their films have all been produced using traditional hand-drawn 2D animation. Now for the first time, the veterans (both are 63 years old) have directed their first fully CGI-animated film, Moana. Unlike many of Disney’s previous films which have been loosely based on fairy tales or literary characters, this is an original story.

The opening half hour of the film is really enjoyable, as it introduces the lead character of Moana, first as a child and then growing up surrounded by her parents, grandmother and villagers and the standard Disney animal sidekicks (Heihei the rooster and Pua the pig). Moana’s grandmother is a wonderful character; wise and far-seeing, she plants the seeds of adventure into the young Moana’s mind and eventually triggers her flight from the safety of her island home on a quest which will help save her people. At this point, she meets up with the demi-god Maui, played by Dwayne Johnson. Moana has to persuade Maui to join her on a journey to Te Fiti island to reverse a curse that is killing all the life in the ocean and on the islands. The two develop a semi-antagonistic relationship somewhat reminiscent of the one in Mulan between the heroine and Eddie Murphy’s magical dragon Mushu.

The film is a bit over-long, running for nearly two hours. There is a segment during Moana and Maui’s journey to Te Fiti island in which they are attacked by some pygmy pirates; it’s an entertaining sequence but doesn’t add anything to the story. In fact, other than the hilarious scenes featuring Moana’s pet rooster Heihei, the journey was a bit boring; by the time they reached the island and began the climactic battle with the lava monster Te Ka, I actually fell asleep for a short while.

Many of the songs in the film didn’t work for me, but there are three which stand out. One is the introspective How Far I’ll Go, sung by 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho who voices Moana. Another is the rousing We Know the Way, sung by Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda (who have also written all the songs in the film). And You’re Welcome, sung by Dwayne Johnson himself, the story of all his past exploits inventively picturised using the tattoos on his body.

So overall, not likely to be one of Disney’s classics, but a solid entry from one of my favourite animation directing teams.

Special mention for the wonderful short film Inner Workings, attached to the start of the feature. Real fun but also thought-provoking.

Of Erumpents and Nifflers – JK Rowling starts us off on the new Fantastic Beasts series

J.K. Rowling makes her debut as scriptwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film set in her beloved Harry Potter universe. Arriving 5 years after the final film in the original series, this one is set in the 1920’s in New York City, thereby giving Potter fans a fresh setting and new characters, while still staying in familiar thematic territory.

The film is inspired by the book of the same name which Ms. Rowling published in 2001, which purported to be one of the first year text books in the Hogwarts curriculum written by a ‘magizoologist’ named Newt Scamander. There is no story in this book; it’s just a reference compendium of all the magical creatures which exist in the world of Harry Potter. Like all good world-builders, Ms. Rowling had made extensive notes and backstories on each of the creatures and then decided to publish it as a reference guide for fans of the series. This is similar to what J.R.R. Tolkien’s son had done in the 1970’s by publishing The Silmarillion, which was a compilation of all the detailed background notes which Tolkien had created for his The Lord of the Rings books.

So, for this new movie series, Ms. Rowling decided to tell the story of Newt Scamander and his love of magical beasts which led him to publish his book.

I enjoyed the movie. Needless to say it is a top-of-the-line Hollywood production, both technically speaking – production design, visual effects, cinematography and music – and in terms of people and performances – the casting, acting and chemistry between the actors.

The real standouts in the movie are the new American actors. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj (the American term for muggles) who inadvertently gets swept up into Newt Scamander’s adventures in NYC. He is the ‘everyman’ foil to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the nerdy Scamander, giving the audience the right cues to gape in wonder at the magical world, just as a pre-teen Daniel Radcliffe did in the first Harry Potter movie. Then there’s American singer-songwriter Alison Sudol in her first major big-screen role playing the very likable and charismatic Queenie Goldstein, one half of the Goldstein witch sisters who work at MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic). These two along with Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston (who plays Queenie’s sister Tina) are going to be at the centre of this five-film series just as Harry, Ron and Hermione were in the original series.

So let’s make sure we remember these four characters, shall we? Newt Scamander, Tina Goldstein, Queenie Goldstein and Jacob Kowalksi.

In terms of the various ‘fantastic beasts’ in the movie, I loved the scenes featuring the Niffler and the Erumpent. The Niffler is a platypus-like creature which has a propensity to steal anything shiny and put it away into its apparently bottomless magical pouch. The Erumpent is a rhinoceros-like creature and there is a hilarious scene in Central Park in which Scamander and Kowlaski try to capture an escaped Erumpent which happens to be in mating season.

In spite of all these great ingredients, what’s missing is a strong story. This is such an irony considering that the scriptwriter is none other than the creator of Harry Potter. I have read every book written by J.K. Rowling, including the deliciously dark The Casual Vacancy and the three crime novels published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. All her books have likable characters (except The Casual Vacancy, of course) and she captures their emotions and motivations so realistically. Most of all, the stories themselves are compelling; we are eager as readers to turn the page and find out what happens next, and we have a clear idea of what the hero’s ultimate quest is. In this case, I discovered that I didn’t really care why Scamander was in New York. The individual character interactions and scenes are entertaining, but there is (not yet) a sense of an overall journey.

Perhaps it might have been a good idea for Ms. Rowling to actually publish a novel to base this film on, one that subjects itself to the rigor of her tried and tested storywriting process.

In any case, the movie is bound to be a big success and the next film in the series will surely feature a young Albus Dumbledore and his nemesis Gellert Grindelwald (who appears briefly in this film). The films are currently scheduled to be released every two years, all of them directed by David Yates who also directed the last 4 Harry Potter films. Given that his cinematic retelling of the Tarzan story was a flop this summer, it’s just as well that Mr.Yates has secured a steady job until well into the 2020’s!